SUU Aviation Helps Prevent Wildfire Damage

Published: October 26, 2016 | Author: Lexi Carter | Read Time: 3 minutes

Aviation in southern UtahFrom 30 to 170 students in just three years, the Southern Utah University Aviation program has grown into a well-established entity in southern Utah. While the 80+ employees staffed in the program work to teach, maintain aircraft and execute day-to-day operations, there are further-reaching benefits to the SUU Aviation in addition to the instruction of future pilots.

During the summer of 2016, SUU’s eyes in the air identified upward of five different potential wildfires burning in the early stages at various locations around Utah. The fires, which were roughly an acre wide, were quickly reported and crises averted.

“From the air, smoke in unexpected places are noticeable red flags,” said Mike Mower, SUU Aviation chief flight instructor and pilot of 10+ years. “We fly over to check it out, confirm the fire and then report to the Forest Service before anything major happens.”

In addition to early identification of wildfires is the assistance SUU Aviation offers to the Iron County Sherriff’s Department. Most of the top-level management in the Aviation program are deputies in the Iron County Sheriff’s department Air Operations Division.

“We’ve done everything from searching for murder suspects to high speed chases to helping obtain aerial shots of a murder victim,” said Mower. “It’s surreal that I’m here in southern Utah, flying for the university aviation program and I have the sheriff’s photographer hanging out of my helicopter door 25 feet above a crime scene.”

When a call comes in from the sheriff’s department, the training stops for the student and the instructor takes control of the aircraft. In some cases, students get to experience exactly what they hope to do for their career, like transporting life-saving personnel to difficult locations or participating in a search and rescue operation.

One of the first rescues SUU aviators assisted in occurred shortly after the program began in 2013. A woman got stuck between Virgin and Cedar City on the back roads in February and had wandered from her car in search of cell phone service. She ended up spending the night unprepared in waist-deep snow while the Iron County Sheriff Search and Rescue (ICSSAR) looked for her. The next day, she was injured and cold, trudging through the icy terrain when she got cell coverage long enough to tell someone her location. Out of range for the ICSSAR team and with night fast approaching, SUU Aviation was contacted to help save her life.

“What we do is a community service,” said Mower. “We don’t replace; we assist the ICSSAR. If any praise is given for the rescues, it’s those guys – they search all night and literally hike up and down canyons to find lost people. We come in and make a lot of noise, so the person being rescued hears us and comes out of hiding. The ICSSAR are the guys doing the hard work.”

Along with rescuing stranded individuals is the placement of life-saving personnel in difficult-to-reach locations. While the transportation of patients is left to Life Flight, the pilots at SUU Aviation have helped numerous times to get EMTs and medics on top of mountains and out on treacherous terrains.

An added benefit of having SUU Aviation help with transporting EMTs and medics is their fast response time. Often in a tragedy, Life Flight is more than an hour away, which could mean life or death to the patient. SUU aviators are most likely already flying around and can be on scene within minutes. Once Life Flight is close enough, they can collaborate with SUU’s helicopters about where to land, what the situation is and other details to help make the patient transport quick and efficient.

With aircraft launched every 2.5 hours throughout the day, there is always someone flying over the deserted Utah landscape. In this student-instructor environment, all are benefited from SUU’s helpful responses to the police department, ambulance service and wildfire fighters.

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