Amazing Wingmen form up to help the community

  • Published
  • By Maj. Kurt Ponsor
  • 341st Missile Wing flight safety officer
Airmen from Malmstrom Air Force Base, Ellsworth AFB, S.D; F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo.; Dyess AFB, Texas; and Mountain Home AFB, Idaho joined up with local Montana agencies to save a man's life and reunite him with his family during a Search and Rescue mission Sept. 7.

A rancher located near Colstrip, Mont., went missing on Sept. 6 after taking his motorcycle out on his land to scout for hunting season. When Tom Roepelle didn't return as expected, his family knew something was wrong and asked for help from the Rosebud County Sheriff's Department.

The search began the same day on a grid covering more than 33,000 acres over the rugged Montana wilderness. Friends, local volunteers and support agencies rallied a large search team of more than 30 people. The hot and humid day exposed Reopelle and the search party to temperatures of 96 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity above 70 percent. Despite their best efforts, Reopelle was still lost and his family increasingly concerned.

The next day, still unable to locate him, the local Sheriff requested helicopter support from the Joint Force Rescue Coordination Center. Lt. Col. John Beurer, 40th Helicopter Squadron director of operations at Malmstrom, received their requested and connected players from five different bases to prepare "Rescue 11" to aid in the search. Malmstrom leadership wasted no time and approved the interagency team to start their search for Reopelle, who was now approaching 48 hours of wilderness exposure.

The crew of "Rescue 11" consisted of Maj. Kurt Ponsor, 40th HS aircraft commander; 1st Lt. R.J. Bergman, 40th HS co-pilot; Staff Sgt. Robert Sinyard, flight engineer with 37th Helicopter Squadron out of F.E. Warren; Dr. (Maj.) Andrew Allen, flight medic from Dyess; and James Robbins, 40th HS aircraft mechanic. They awoke at 5 a.m. Sept. 7 and were briefed, established common search and rescue standards and rallied required base resources. They relied heavily on the support from Ellsworth AFB as they battled fatigue, coordination issues and thunderstorms to traverse 200 miles and search for Reopelle located a 51-square-mile grid.

Once on-scene, coordination was paramount. Montana Emergency Agencies established certain radio frequencies to aid responders, and Sheriff Randy Allies vectored the aircraft to his location, briefed the aircrew and dispatched Game Warden, Bill Dawson, to climb aboard Rescue 11. Rescue 11 quickly flew over the entire grid to give Reopelle hope and let him know teams were still searching; and to encourage him to signal if possible. The helicopter then began an in-depth search of the furthest areas of the search grid. Rescue 11 eliminated a considerable amount of the search area; allowing the Sheriff to refocus his ground teams closer. Thanks to this refocus, the ground search team finally got close enough to Reopelle to hear his cries for help. The team then carried him more than a mile uphill to the HELP Flight helicopter for transport to Billings for treatment.

The medical technicians and Allen discovered Reopelle fractured his femur when he fell off his motorcycle at the top of a ridge. Unable to walk, he crawled downhill 80 yards over a period of two days, attempting to get to a path miles away where rescuers would be more likely to find him. Reopelle showed an incredible will to survive by using his shirt to help drink rainwater during the nights' thunderstorms.

In addition to the aircrew of Rescue 11, teams helping with the rescue included: the support staff at Ellsworth AFB, the HELP flight, Billings Flying Service, Civil Air Rescue; Custer and Rosebud Sheriff's Office and Search and Rescue Teams; numerous local volunteers, and the leaders throughout AFGSC and ACC. Together they acted as Wingmen and demonstrated amazing coordination. Their mutual support reunited Reopelle with his wife and daughter and gave them all a second chance.