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Lifesaving lift: Montana Army National Guard in Billings reflects on November rescue

Black Hawk helicopter
Posted at 4:38 PM, Dec 08, 2023

BILLINGS — The Montana Army National Guard’s Limited Army Aviation Support Facility (LAASF) in Billings recently set out on its first real-world rescue. In late November, the unit was called into action to rescue a hunter stranded on the Yellowstone River.

"The first thing that goes through my mind is, ‘What do we got going on tonight?’” said Maj. Dustin Horswill, the commander of the LAASF, on Friday. “When it comes at 7 o’clock at night, it means we’re probably going to be flying a helicopter somewhere. So it’s kind of, 'Okay, let’s answer this and see what we’ve got going on.’”

Flying in a Montana Army National Guard helicopter
Flying in a Montana Army National Guard helicopter

Ready to risk it all to save a stranger's life.

"We're happy to do it. It’s exciting to get those calls. To go out and help the community, do the thing that we’re here to do,” Horswill said. "We’re developing those relationships (with law enforcement) and providing assistance to all of the citizens on this side of the state."

Maj. Horswill
Maj. Horswill

On Nov. 21 around 7 p.m., Horswill received an urgent call from Sheriff Mike Linder of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office.

"They had a hunter that was going down on a boat on the Yellowstone River. There’s an island at the confluence of the Bighorn River and the Yellowstone River. He was stranded on the island,” Horswill said. "We developed a checklist so that when we go out it can be replicated every single time. To be safe, to be proficient, to be efficient with our time. So we get the call from Sheriff Linder and started making our own phone calls. We were able to recall back here, get our briefing approval process through the Director of Aviation Safety here in the state, Colonel Oleson. Talked with the Airforce Rescue Coordination Center down in Tampa, Florida. Got all of our approvals, coordinated with Yellowstone County, and got the exact location of the hunter. Got through our checklist, got the aircraft ready, tugged out, and launched all within about two hours."

Fishing boat on the Yellowstone River
Fishing boat on the Yellowstone River

In comes Zach Lundgren, the pilot of the mission.

"I got a phone call at about 7 o’clock from Major Horswill. Just finished dinner with my wife and kids. Answered the call, told my wife, ‘Hey we have to go out. We just got called for a rescue.’" Lundgren, a chief warrant officer 3 for the Montana Army National Guard, on Friday. “We launched about two hours later from the time of the phone call, which was really good for our first mission. We took off, we headed up the Yellowstone River, and we knew that the stranded hunter was on an island. Circled in, came down, saw the hunter, and landed. We sent our crew chief, Sgt. Blank, out of the aircraft. He went and secured the hunter."

Zach Lundgren
Zach Lundgren

Temperatures were expected to drop below freezing, jeopardizing the safety of the hunter.

In conjunction with the sheriff's office and the Worden Volunteer Fire Department, the hunter was saved—and was in good spirits after being rescued.

"He had beached his boat. He asked if we could help him get his boat unstuck. But obviously, unfortunately, that’s not what we were there to do,” Lundgren said while laughing. "I am not sure the end result of his boat and how that all went, but I’d imagine he got some buddies and got it figured out the next day.”

But they are in the community to make a difference.

"That was a big part of the decision to come out here, was to be in an organization and a team that we are actively involved in helping the local community. So definitely a good feeling, rewarding,” Lundgren said. "I’m a little bit newer here, but the Montana team seems to be really great. Very professional and good at what they do."

Inside of a Black Hawk helicopter
Inside of a Black Hawk helicopter

Lundgren moved from Pennsylvania to Montana in August with his wife and children. He has been in the National Guard for nearly 12 years.

He's a new addition to the team that's only been together for around a year.

“Starting a new program and being a member of that team and helping to build it and grow the program is very rewarding in itself,” Lundgren said. “I think it’s good for my kids and wife to see a tangible reason for doing the job. Going out and putting all of the things I’ve learned over the years to good work and good use."

A hunter himself, Lundgren knows the risks of Montana's treacherous terrains.

"It could happen to anybody," Lundgren said. "We’re here to help them on potentially the worst day of their lives."

Black Hawk helicopter
Black Hawk helicopter

It's a job they're happy to do.

"One of the main reasons that we’re here in Billings and this side of the state is to work with those law enforcement agencies," Horswill said. "I think that we will start to get a lot more calls because now they realize that we’re here in the area and able to help."

To learn more about the Montana Army National Guard's LAASF in Billings, click here.