NELSON COUNTY, Va. –
Above a forest aglow with fall’s foliage, the blades of Virginia National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters sliced through the air. Below, first responders from Chesterfield County and Wintergreen looked skyward as rescuers, simulated victims and an emergency litter were hoisted to and from the aircraft as part of a training event focused on cliff and mountain rescue. The training, which took place Oct. 25, 2023, at Crabtree Falls in Nelson County, Virginia, was the most recent training opportunity for Virginia’s Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, or HART, a team comprised of Virginia National Guard flight crews and personnel from the Chesterfield County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Scuba Rescue Team.
“The training at Crabtree Falls was the most technically demanding training that the HART has performed in more than 10 years since the team’s inception,” explained Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shane C. Leipertz, the Virginia National Guard’s state standardization pilot and a long-time pilot with the HART. ““With no suitable helicopter landing areas in or around Crabtree Falls, the training allowed the HART to demonstrate that, if activated, the team is more than capable of mountain hoist rescue and ready to respond throughout the state.”
Chesterfield first responders have trained with Virginia National Guard flight crews for years, but the training at Crabtree Falls was a new opportunity to bring in additional partners, including the team from Wintergreen. Justin Bennett, HART training officer for Chesterfield, said the training at Crabtree Falls was in the works for almost exactly a year. A member of the HART had a working relationship with Wintergreen Fire & Rescue personnel and, after months of communication back and forth, the first joint training took place in August.
“We flew to Wintergreen and did a brief orientation about the program and aircraft, followed by live hoist iterations with their team operating on the ground,” Bennett explained. After that, planning for the Crabtree Falls mission kicked into high gear and included a site visit and many more meetings until finally, it was time for execution. “This planning involved many people from different organizations which, ultimately, thanks to everyone’s hard work, led to one of the most challenging training evolutions we have completed.”
Curtis Sheets, chief of Wintergreen Fire & Rescue, said the relationship between Nelson County and the Virginia National Guard actually goes back decades.
“The most deadly weather-related disaster in the history of Virginia occurred in Nelson Country,” Sheets said. “During Hurricane Camille in 1969, the Army was absolutely essential in saving lives and restoring a sense of normalcy.”
Sheets called the training at Crabtree Falls, “fast-paced, methodical and very professional,” and said it “brings a significant resource to the table which we previously did not have.” He also explained why Crabtree Falls was such a strategic and relevant location for their training.
“Roughly 40 people have died at Crabtree Falls,” Sheets said. “It takes our team hours to reach, package and remove patients and all of the work is high-risk. If we’re able to utilize the HART, the risk is significantly reduced and, obviously, everyone is safer on-scene if we have practiced together in advance of an incident.”
Advanced training is key to success when performing these types of missions, Bennett explained. A real-world scenario will be stressful, and the more opportunities the team has to train together, the better.
“Working with other jurisdictions allows us to experience different environments and locations. You can never plan the perfect ‘real-world’ scenario. The environment will always be dynamic,” Bennett said. “Having Wintergreen involved in these training events shows them not only what to expect when a helicopter is overhead, but also what rescue devices we use, [which] helps if we are presented with a situation where help is needed from ground personnel.”
For Bennett, who has been with the HART since its inception, watching all the hard work culminate in a successful mission was a high point.
“My favorite part was seeing all the planning come together and watching two separate organizations successfully execute very technical hoist training on the falls,” Bennett said, explaining that the goal of the trining was to challenge the team with technical decision-making. He said one of the helicopter crew chiefs told him the training at Crabtree Falls was “the most challenging hoist I had ever done in my career.” Hearing that, Bennett knew they’d met their goal of challenging, technical training for both the air and ground crews.
In addition to the Virginia National Guard, and the first responders from Chesterfield and Wintergreen, Leipertz said the mission could not have been successful without the help of all agencies involved, including the Glenwood-Pedlar Ranger District of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, Montebello Volunteer Fire Department, Nelson County, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Virginia State Emergency Operations Center.
“We appreciate all the hard work and support,” Leipertz said.