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How CBP trains for helicopter hoist rescues

Aug 28, 2023

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Intense heat in very remote areas of the desert can leave people in dire situations.

But Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations is able to airlift many of them to safety.

CBP’s Tucson Air Branch trains for Black Hawk helicopter hoist rescues weekly in different Southern Arizona locations, including the rocky, rugged terrain of Redington Pass.

KGUN saw a team conduct a training demonstration there on Wednesday. Agents dropped from an HH-60 Black Hawk before lifting a dummy “patient” into a basket and hoisting it back up to the helicopter.

The hoist cable is about 300 feet long and can carry close to 600 pounds.

“It’s exhilarating, it’s stressful,” said Aviation Enforcement Agent Scott Bowles. “You see it on the news, you see it on TV and it looks easy. It’s definitely not. It’s hundreds of hours of training that we’ve put in.”

Bowles is also a trained EMT. He says even with all that training, real life rescues are unpredictable.

“We’ve had hoists into fires before… We’ve had hoists into blizzard conditions up in the mountains,” he explained. “You have winds. You have terrain like you’re seeing out there right now, you have medical conditions of possible patients.”

Those patients are often migrants struggling through the Southern Arizona desert.

“There’s a lot of science behind it,” said Jose Muriente, Deputy Director of CBP’s Tucson Air Branch. “How fast the cable goes down. How close [they get] to the terrain.”

CBP says rescues of all kinds have risen dramatically this fiscal year, from roughly 3,000 to 21,000. The agency clarifies, however, that figure includes all kinds of rescues—not only helicopter rescues—and accounts for increasingly large groups of migrants being picked up in various situations.

However, Muriente says helicopter hoist rescues are also happening more often this year.

“You know, there’s better detection technology out there,” he said. “So we’re seeing a lot more. And also we have record heat this year. So there’s a lot of 911 calls that we respond to.”

That’s why these agents do this training weekly — to stay as sharp as possible.

“That’s where we grow, from our basic foundation to mastering our skills, is training days like this,” said Bowles.

——-Ryan Fish is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9 and comes to the Sonoran Desert from California’s Central Coast after working as a reporter, sports anchor and weather forecaster in Santa Barbara. Ryan grew up in the Chicago suburbs, frequently visiting family in Tucson. Share your story ideas and important issues with Ryan by emailing [email protected] or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.

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