BUTTE FALLS — Emergency helicopter landings in this mountain community just got safer with the opening of a new landing area at the edge of town.
Previous landings were made on the high school football field, next to the city park, a situation that made Mayor Ron Ormond nervous.
"I didn't like the idea of them landing in the middle of downtown," Ormond said. "Usually they were landing at inopportune moments, like when they were in the middle of a ballgame, and you have the players on the field and the people in the stands. It was always a big hassle and sometimes dangerous. If something went wrong that helicopter wasn't going anywhere except into a tree or a house."
Ormond contacted Mercy Flights General Manager Ken Parsons and asked if he had the same concerns. He did.
"When Ron proposed the idea of developing another area where we could safely land, that was rather attractive to us," said Parsons. "We were more than happy to work with him to accomplish that."
Parsons sent chief helicopter pilot Dashper "Woody" Wood to consult with Ormond and see what he had in mind.
"They talked about approaches, what equipment we needed, and what trees needed to be cleared away from the surrounding area," Parsons said.
"We really do appreciate all the effort that Ron's put into it," he said, "and really think it will be a good thing for the community of Butte Falls."
For the landing area, Ormond had chosen Mac Field, a seldom used Little League baseball field in the southwest corner of the city.
"The kids basically only play ball out there in April," Ormond said.
Mac Field sits along the old Medco truck road that the company once used to haul logs from the surrounding area to its mill in Medford. It was peppered with potholes and, in places, an uneven grade. Because ambulances and fire crews would be bringing patients to the helicopter, the access road had to be improved.
"The road was the most expensive part of the project," Ormond said, adding the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Oregon Department of Transporation each provided about $15,000 to do the work. "We did it fairly reasonably with a strong chip seal, a lot less expensive than paving."
Dozens of volunteer residents cut brush and cleared trees in the flight path and, overall, Ormond said, the landing field hadn't cost the city very much.
"Mercy Flights gave us the windsock and we put it up," he said, "and that's worth at least $300."
He said the orange warning balls on nearby power lines cost about $900 and that Pacific Power had put them up free of charge.
The inaugural flight to the field came just before 9 a.m., Wednesday, with Wood sailing in from the southwest. He circled, then landed gently in the grassy outfield. With him were his flight crew, nurse Josh Henke and medic Jenifer Graham.
"This is so much better," Wood said as he stepped from the copter. "Just a shallower approach, in and out, plus you don't have to fly over houses. "… On a hot summer day there's no wind and it's still a vertical takeoff to clear houses and trees. This is infinitely safer in a lot of different ways."
He said in an emergency situation, his helicopter could be at a Medford hospital in about 10 minutes, compared with an ambulance ride from Butte Falls of 45 minutes or more.
Ormond said the BLM was interested in the field as a potential staging area.
"From a fire response perspective," he said, "it's the sort of thing they may need — to fly in with helicopters and bring fire crews in."
Ormond asked Wood what improvements were still needed, and Wood said he would like to see the field lighted. He said he often flies at night and a lighted field would be much safer than relying on the infrared equipment he now uses.
Ormond said he has even more plans for the area. He's attempting to get an ODOT grant that would allow him to further improve the road out to the Butte Falls Highway so that land-based emergency vehicles would have access to the landing field without driving through town.
"I'm also hoping in the future that maybe a private company might want to run something out of here," he said. "Maybe an aerial tour service or something like that. It would be nice in the summer if someone were running scenic helicopter trips out around Mount McLoughlin and over the whole area."
"We're really glad about what Ron has already been able to do," Wood said. "We like going to Butte Falls and it's really nice to have a safe place to land that's still convenient for the town."
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.