It was agreed that the patrol officer who had the case would ride along as spotter during the mission. At 1809, the chief pilot called the state police Major responsible for the western region of New Mexico and asked him to authorize two missions — one for the hiker search (“a quick in-and-out”) and a second mission that had been scheduled by another pilot later that evening. The Major authorized both missions.
A short time later, the spotter and chief pilot met at Santa Fe Airport (SAF) where the spotter shed his vest and other bulky gear and the pair walked out to the aircraft. The chief pilot performed a preflight and gave the spotter a safety briefing. He warned the spotter that it could be windy in the mountains and provided him a sack to use if he experienced airsickness. The chief pilot did not bother to include the department's night-vision goggles in the mission equipment. The weather was hot and sunny and not very windy at SAF when they took off but cold and windy in the mountains. At this point, the ground SAR effort was beginning.
The chief pilot radioed the dispatcher at 1851 that he was en route to the search area. The weather was good with few clouds and little turbulence. The chief pilot asked the dispatcher to provide more information about the search area and was reminded by the dispatcher that the spotter was carrying a map of the search area. The chief pilot said, “I'm sorry, I didn't even know that,” and added, “I didn't even bother to ask him.”
Between 1902 and 1927, the dispatcher had several cell phone conversations with the hiker attempting to pin down her position and relay information to the helicopter. The chief pilot began his search pattern and told dispatch he would have to burn off some fuel before he could “even think about setting down.”
During this period, the hiker reported hearing the helicopter. Informed of that, the pilot told dispatch, “OK . . . We'll poke around up here. We'll find her if she can already hear me.” He added, “I'm just getting bounced around right now.”
At 1920, the chief pilot told the dispatcher that he was circling at high altitude because he was “not going to be able to get close down in there until we burn off some gas.” Five minutes later he added, “We're dealing with a lot of wind up here . . . and not to worry because we're going to hang out until we get eyes on [the hiker] and go from there.” The dispatcher continued to relay messages between the chief pilot and the hiker.
At 1944, the hiker told the dispatcher that the helicopter was flying directly over her. The dispatcher informed the chief pilot who, in turn, radioed the lat/long coordinates to the dispatcher. The hiker told the dispatcher she was in a 10-meter wide clearing surrounded by trees. At 2010, the chief pilot reported he had visual contact with the hiker.
Two minutes later, the chief pilot asked the dispatcher if the hiker was ambulatory and the dispatcher said that she was. The chief pilot said, “OK . . . The closest place I can set down is on the top [of a hill], and that's . . . a good half mile [from the hiker's location].” The hiker reported (on the cell phone) that she did not think she could walk to the landing site because she was very cold.
The dispatcher asked the chief pilot if he could land on top of the hill and send the spotter down on foot to retrieve the hiker. The chief pilot responded, “That's about the only thing we're going to be able to do.” The spotter did not recall having any discussions with the chief pilot about whether they should land on the mountain. The chief pilot had simply said, “All right. We'll try to land and pick her up.” The chief pilot made at least three passes over a large clearing on top of a ridge above the hiker. The ride was very bumpy below 200 ft. AGL.
At 2015, the chief pilot told the dispatcher, “[I'm] trying to find out if I got out of ground effect up here, so give me a second. It'll take me a minute to figure it out . . . and also ask [the hiker] if she can see where we're hovering.” (The dual-engine service ceiling for N606SP was 19,600 ft. and the hovering ceiling was 11,800 ft. The one engine inoperative service ceiling was 13,100 ft.) The hiker said she could not see the helicopter and the dispatcher relayed this informaion back to the chief pilot who commented: “OK, I'll probably need to get the basket up here.”