Firefighters scurried into action Tuesday night after a crew member aboard a Life Flight Network helicopter said they were having mechanical problems and might have to crash land in Butte.
Volunteer departments in the county also were on standby after the crew member called emergency dispatch at 10:53 p.m., said Bill Fisher, a battalion commander with the Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department.
The helicopter circled for at least 30 minutes before landing safely at Bert Mooney Airport and a patient on board was transported by ambulance to St. James Healthcare, where the aircraft had initially intended to land, according to the fire department.
There were four people on board the helicopter - the pilot, patient, a nurse and a paramedic. Nobody was hurt during the incident.
Butte-Silver Bow fire officials, citing Life Flight personnel on the scene, said the helicopter had a malfunctioning gauge that was preventing it from throttling down its engine. It started circling in the air to burn off fuel.
According to Life Flight, based in Aurora, Oregon, the helicopter based in Butte responded to a nearby request for help at about 9:30 p.m. After picking up the patient and departing for St. James, the pilot “noticed an engine gauge indicated a possible issue.”
After troubleshooting, the pilot decided to fly to the airport instead. He circled for about 30 minutes while talking with aviation resources to “further troubleshoot the issue and to ensure a safe landing.” It landed at 11:13 p.m. The precise problem was under investigation.
Butte-Silver Bow sent two fire engines to the airport after getting the call and several volunteer departments — Race Track, Boulevard, Floral Park, Home Atherton and Terre Verde — were put on standby in case the helicopter crashed in their areas, Fisher said.
An airport firetruck was prepared to take the lead in a crash because it had 1,500 gallons of water and also foam. A1 Ambulance also had vehicles at the scene.
Some incident details were posted on the Butte-Silver Bow Fire department’s website with a headline that said: “Were you wondering why a helicopter was circling the airport last night?”
Details on the status of the patient were unavailable because of privacy rules.
Life Flight remains in service in Butte with a fixed-wing aircraft and in Missoula with a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft. A backup helicopter was being re-positioned to Butte to help cover the area.
Life Flight Network has medical transport operations in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Its helicopters typically operate within a 175-mile radius of its base but they can fly longer distances.
Each helicopter has medical equipment necessary to act as a mobile intensive care unit. Procedures and equipment in flight includes video laryngoscopes, CareFusion ventilators, and in some cases, blood products and portable blood analyzers for point-of-care testing.