Something about helicopter pilots chasing bank robbers, busting spies and saving castaways impressed six-year-old Doug Sheffer. The Whirlybirds television episodes, over 50 years ago, were heroic and exciting and everything he seemed born to do. While his father tried to waylay those childish ambitions, it wasn’t too many decades before Sheffer had owned his own fleet of choppers, a crew of pilots and a backlog of dangerous jobs throughout western Colorado.
A few weeks ago, Sheffer, now owner and sole pilot of DBS Helicopters based out of Grand Junction, Colo., received a call from a Gunnison County sheriff about a hiker that had been found below Snowmass Peak in the West Elk Mountains of Western Colorado. Jeff Lodico, separated from his party, took a bad fall and spent the night out in the cold. When wilderness responders from West Elk Mountain Rescue and Western State Colorado mountain rescue team found him, he had broken all the fingers on one hand, his wrist, his arm, all of his ribs and a lower leg. He had a punctured lung and his skull was fractured. I couldn’t help but watch video of the rescue with awe:
Sheffer honed his helicopter skills after facing ridiculous environmental conditions generated by the West’s extreme geological formations. He took Helicopter Aircrew Training System courses in British Columbia from flight instructors who train Chinook and Blackhawk pilots for the most sophisticated military missions, including navigating unique wind currents along sheer mountainsides. He’d need all that training to rescue Lodico.
I spoke with Sheffer about the rescue and about his work last week. He doesn’t drink. He’s not crazy, and he speaks with a level of calculation and continuity I’ve only heard in aviators.
Sheffer: It’s like reading a river, really, water is a fluid just like air is a fluid. Rafters can read the eddies, the boulders, the rapids cause they can see it. I have to just imagine it. All the same things work the same way a rafting guide comes down a river. And you have to respond or else you’re going to tip over.
The Goat: How do you assess whether you can make the rescue or not?
Sheffer: It starts with geography of the land. You do a reconnaissance. Light knots usually aren’t too big of a factor especially if you don’t have too many people on board. But the helicopter becomes the data collector. It bends toward the wind like a weather vane. You’ll see drift if you’re holding a straight course down a ridgeline. Then you can compare that to going into the wind, like paddling up or down a stream.
The Goat: So the first principle of first responders is to do no harm. How did you accept this mission in light of the risk to the other rescuers?”
Sheffer: We do risk assessment all the time, because crashing is not an option. You don’t want to crash because you were stupid or fearless. But ‘do no harm’ also comes into looking at the condition of patient. He was sitting there overnight and in a world of hurt. He was not going to be wanting to spend another night out there, so you have to decide on expediency. This is it. We got to do something now. I don’t think what we did was a risk to anybody down there.”
The Goat: How did you actually make that landing? Were you on just one skid?
Sheffer: I just set down and nudged into the boulders, and it was tilted 20 degrees. The back skid was on a slight slope and holding. I had full spin on the blades and 25% of the helicopter weight let down. So I was almost hovering. I would never let down 100 percent pressure.”
The Goat: And then what’s it like when you lift off into the air with that patient? What’s that feel like?
Sheffer: I was ready for it. You just have to be ready. You feel it. The moment you take off, that’s a wonderful feeling. I know how far I am from Aspen – very close. You always want it to be easier and safer than people thought it was going to be and get the job done.
Lodico is recovering at home. He’s an experienced 14,000-foot mountain climber, and his compatriots have rallied around him.
Sheffer wants to give a nod to all commercial helicopter pilots - 90 percent of their work goes to public benefit, he said.
“Helicopters above all save lives. They are the most amazing vehicle that man’s ever invented,” Sheffer said.
Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @VictorAntonin.
Video provided by Ira Houseweart. Photo provided by Doug Sheffer.