(ROSEDALE, MD) – Seven members of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command were recognized last week for their heroism and efforts to promote safety by the State Employees Risk Management Administration (SERMA).
The three troopers and four civilian pilots were honored during SERMA’s conference on May 27th, which recognized more than a dozen employees from State agencies.
Sergeant Brooke Tognocchi and Corporal Kristie Peterson, along with Sergeant Timothy Siebold and Pilot-in-Command Bradford Ritzel, received the Award of Heroism for their rescue of three hunters and two firefighters near Havre de Grace, MD. On November 26, 202, the Maryland State Police Aviation Command (MSPAC) received a call in reference to lost individuals in the area of the “Susquehanna Flats.” The shallow and expansive body of water called “The Flats,” is where the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. It was reported the rescue crew became disoriented and lost after rescuing three teenage waterfowl hunters.
The Maryland State Police launched Trooper 1, a helicopter based at Martin State Airport at about 8:45 p.m. to assist with the extrication of five subjects stuck on the rescue boat. The 15-foot Zodiac-style fire company boat, located in an area of the silt and mud-laden flats, was inaccessible by other rescue boats. Trooper 1’s crew noted hypothermia was a real concern, as temperatures were near-freezing with winds gusting to almost 30 miles per hour. Trooper 1’s two pilots _ Pilot in Command Ritzel and Second in Command/Sergeant Siebold _ flew to the location of the stranded rescue boat and maneuvered the AW-139 helicopter into position 100 feet above the hunters and rescuers. Trooper 1’s Crew Chief, Corporal Peterson, lowered a rescue basket to the side of the rescue boat, where the hunters and firefighters were able to climb in and then hoisted into the aircraft.
Upon reaching the helicopter’s cabin, the hunters and firefighters were evaluated by Trooper 1’s Rescue Technician, Sergeant Tognocchi. The hunters and firefighters were flown to the National Guard Armory in Havre de Grace, where they were evaluated for hypothermia. None of those rescued by Trooper 1 required additional medical treatment.
Chief Pilot Timothy McMahon, Command Instructor Pilot (CIP) Jude Gallagher, and Safety Pilot Joseph Ireton received the Best Practice Award for developing a Rapid Helicopter Refueling program. Safety and time are two elements crucial to every MSPAC response in helping people in peril. MSPAC embraces safety at every turn; with the development of the refueling practice, the dedicated professionals staffing the State’s medevac helicopters are better prepared to complete critical missions when every second counts.
In early 2021, the three pilots championed a practice never before pursued by the Aviation Command in its 51 years of providing medevac services to the State and surrounding regions. The application, mainly used by the military and entities charged with fighting raging forest fires in the western United States, is commonly called Hot Refueling.
Chief Pilot McMahon, a retired US Navy aviator, along with CIP Gallagher, a retired US Army aviator, and Safety Pilot Ireton, who is also a retired US Navy flight instructor, had experience with Hot Refueling from their past military experience.
Prior to implementing Hot Refueling for the MSPAC, adding fuel to the Command’s 10 AW-139 twin-turbine engine helicopters could take upwards of 20 minutes due to engine shutdown and restart protocols. Any misstep, such as prematurely starting a hot engine, could potentially cause costly damage to the aircraft and render it inoperative for flight. This was of particular concern on hot summer days. Refueling, a must between every mission, was constantly at the forefront of MSPAC crews, primarily when they were summoned to handle back-to-back missions anywhere in the State.
Since its inception, the MSPAC hot refueling program has been used by Agency helicopter crews nearly a dozen times to facilitate quick turnarounds for lifesaving missions. CIP Gallagher called the practice a “Mission Multiplier” for the MSPAC. “It will allow us to react and conduct impending missions in a timelier manner, allowing us to provide critical mission aircraft faster to the citizens of the State of Maryland while incurring no additional cost. It is a proven, safe, and effective method of refueling mission-critical aircraft,” he explained.
In addition to recognizing members of the Maryland State Police, SERMA presented four Health & Safety Awards of Excellence, one Best Practice Award, four Unsung Hero Awards, one Award for Individual Achievement, and one Award of Heroism to employees from seven State agencies during the 32nd annual conference.
The MSPAC has served Maryland citizens since 1970 and operates a fleet of 10 helicopters from seven bases throughout the State on a 24/7/365 basis. Missions include medevac, law enforcement, search & rescue, homeland security, and disaster assessment. The success of rescues performed by the Aviation Command depends a great deal on the cooperative effort of local fire, rescue, EMS, and law enforcement agencies.