Coast Guard pilot, crew reach pinnacle of rescues with highest-altitude feat

PORT ANGELES — The Coast Guard’s rescue Sunday evening of a 64-year old climber from The Brothers peak in the Olympic Mountains was not only a record-setting flight, but it also was among the last for a pilot whose flights have captured headlines.

Lt. Dan Leary, who flew the H-65 Dolphin helicopter from Group/Air Station Port Angeles, is due to transfer to Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., within two months.

“I am going to be flying a desk,” Leary said.

Leary was the pilot during the difficult rescue of an injured Ukrainian sailor — Vyacheslav Kornya — during a storm at sea in November.

He also piloted the same H-65 Dolphin to The Brothers for another record-setting rescue on Aug. 22.

The record then was 6,300 feet.

Sunday, he and his crew — Lt. j.g. Christian Polyak as copilot, Petty Officer First Class Mike Cook as flight mechanic and Petty Officer First Class John Linnborn as rescue swimmer — plucked John Williams of Belfair off the mountain at 7,000 feet, just above the mountain’s 6,866-foot peak.

That elevation is the highest that a Coast Guard H-65 Dolphin helicopter has performed a rescue.

A year ago, before the helicopter’s engine was upgraded, any rescue above 4,000 feet would have been unheard of, Polyak said.

“With the old aircraft, this time last year, we would not even have taken off,” he said.

At higher elevations the air is thinner and the helicopter engine has to work harder to spin the rotors fast enough lift the aircraft.

Harold Summers, director of flight operations for the Virginia-based Helicopter Association International, said there are many helicopters that perform well at high elevations, but few belong to the Coast Guard.

“The Coast Guard aircraft’s performance is chosen based on its normal missions, and its normal mission is at sea level,” he said.

“Elevation is not normally part of their mission.”

Other factors were on the crew’s mind Sunday night.

“The major concern was that sunset was starting,” said Cook.

Williams’ climbing team was reporting snow showers, wind and dense clouds.

When the helicopter reached The Brothers, east winds were pushing clouds up and over the peak.

“I wanted to spend as little amount of that time on the peak as I could,” Leary said.

The rescue was quick.

Linnborn was lowered and spent exactly one minute on the mountain, based on the footage the Coast Guard has posted on the Internet.

“He snagged and grabbed him,” Polyak said.

“I’ve never seen it happen that fast.”

Williams had ripped the tendon connecting his plantaris muscle.

He heard it rip, he said.

It was “like bungee cord, like it snapped back,” he said Tuesday.

“According to the lady at the hospital, it’s some kind of deep muscle in your leg that we don’t have any use for,” Williams said.

Williams has climbed The Brothers between 25 and 30 times, and has climbed various Olympic peaks about 160 times since he turned 40, he said.

But the helicopter ride was the first time he was able to see the mountains from above.

“I told him, ‘Enjoy the scenery and enjoy the ride down,’ and . . . it was a beautiful sunset on the way back,” Linnborn said.

Williams said that when he arrived in Port Angeles, he could sense there was something unique about his rescue.

“They seemed like they were just elated when they touched down,” Williams said.

“They almost seemed like kids in a candy shop. They were so happy they pulled it off.”

And they were, Leary said.

“Firemen love fires. Police love to catch the bad guy. And we love to go out and use the training to help people,” he said.

Video footage of the rescue can be seen at www.youtube.com/profile?user=USCGD13.

________

Reporter Randy Trick can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at randy.trick@peninsuladailynews.com.

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