National Park Service and United States Forest Service (USFS) helicopter rappel operations were halted on July 21, 2009, following the death of a USFS rappeller during a training operation. While USFS helicopter rappel operations were allowed to resume in June 2010, the NPS remained on a program stand-down to allow critical review of the historic program. NPS managers also wanted to determine if the timing was right to develop a new generation of helicopter rappelling procedures and equipment. Due to the terrain and topography in Yosemite, park personnel felt strongly that helicopter rappel should remain available, but there was overwhelming affirmation from the park, the region, and the Washington office for the NPS to pursue new procedures and equipment unique to fire/rescue operations.
Helicopter rappel is one of several tools used at Yosemite to insert personnel on initial attack during wildfires and life-safety search and rescue (SAR) incidents. Discussions with regional and national aviation managers began in early 2010; in April of that year, the Yosemite Helicopter Rappel Working Group was established. Over the next two years, the group performed exhaustive testing of equipment and procedures, followed by demonstrations, which ultimately lead to the interim NPS Helicopter Operations Plan, a policy signed by Steve Shackelton, NPS associate director for visitor and resource protection.
The first live rappels from Yosemite Helicopter 551 took place in May 2012. Sixteen graduates completed the first helicopter rappel program. Participants included fire and emergency services personnel. The new NPS helicopter rappel program utilizes commercially available climbing equipment--the Petzl RIG and nylon Kernmantle static rope--as opposed to the legacy program that employed the Sky Genie system manufactured by Descent Control, Inc. By using climbing equipment, the Yosemite Helicopter Rappel Working Group believes that a safer system is in place, one that allows SAR personnel to use the same rappel equipment during a rescue mission.
Yosemite National Park extends its deep and grateful appreciation for support of this extremely important program, which utilizes the principles of operational leadership. This new program represents an important milestone for the national park system.