What started as a hot summer afternoon quickly became a pivotal search and rescue mission for Associated Aircraft Group (AAG) crewmembers, Captain Mike Wright and mechanics Nick Pacifico and Tom Lewis. AAG, subsidiary of Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, was performing maintenance on a Sikorsky S-76® helicopter at 2:30 p.m. on July 19 when the crew heard a declared in-flight emergency over the radio.
A four-passenger Piper fixed wing aircraft had crash-landed less than two miles short of the Hudson Valley Regional Airport in Wappingers Falls, NY, where AAG is based. Instinctively, and relying on their vast experience, the team immediately sprang into action, upon receiving aircraft control tower approval, to leverage their Sikorsky helicopter’s capabilities and start searching for the downed aircraft in a heavily-wooded area. There was no hesitation for Lewis, Pacifico and Wright, whose work day had almost ended before they learned of the unfolding mishap. Mike Wright recalls, “as soon as we got approval, we knew we were going looking for that plane.”
Jumping in to help the local community isn’t something new for this air and ground crew team, comprised of two retired and military service veterans and a former volunteer firefighter. AAG has been a proud member of the Hudson Valley and Dutchess County community for more than 20 years, contributing in many ways, from assisting the Sheriff’s Department to donating helicopter flights to hosting charity events for local organizations. AAG exclusively operates and maintains an S-76 helicopter fleet and, in this case, seized the opportunity to deploy the aircraft for a mission beyond its main VIP transportation role.
Wright flew both Lewis and Pacifico, who were preparing the AAG S-76 for a functional check flight, over to the general area where the Piper had crashed. It only took them a short time to spot the aircraft and land as closely as possible to the crash site. Lewis and Pacifico immediately jumped out and went searching for the victims. A family of four, traveling from Ohio to Rhode Island, were on board and stuck inside the aircraft. Twenty minutes passed as the AAG mechanics did everything they could to help recover the family from the wreck before paramedics arrived at the scene. The family is now in stable condition in area hospitals.
Wright, a 21-year Army veteran, has amassed more than 13,000 flight hours (11,827 Sikorsky hours), including 4,000 hours in combat operations. He was well trained and equipped, knowing how to best respond in the dynamic crisis. He recalls, “If it were me or my family I would want someone to look for us.”
Pacifico has been a maintenance technician with AAG for a little over a year and is a six-year Air Force veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan as a MQ-9 Reaper crew chief. He comforted the injured 50-year old Piper pilot and his daughter, who were both still trapped inside the plane. According to Pacifico, what made him jump into action Friday was instinct. ”I knew people needed help, and I am not one to stand by and do nothing,” he said.
Lewis, a 10-year employee of AAG and former volunteer firefighter, assisted other members of the family until they were able to fully extract themselves from the wreckage, while awaiting local EMT responders. He chalks it up to “being in the right place at the right time”.
Those injured that day certainly could have realized an entirely different fate, had the AAG crew not responded as swiftly and effectively as they did.
AAG was acquired by Sikorsky in 1989 and has since been a leading executive helicopter service in the business aviation industry. AAG manages, operates and maintains a fleet of 12 privately-owned aircraft, which have safely flown more than 60,000 hours since the company’s founding in 1989. Its pilots fly up to 300 chartered flights in any given week, primarily using the VIP-configured Sikorsky S-76 helicopter to safely and efficiently transport passengers in the tri-state area.