Arctic rescue: Closing the distance

(Left to right) Lt. Grant Langston, Petty Officer 2nd Class William Smith, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Warner and Lt. Francis Wolfe pose for a photo in front of a Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter March 19, 2015. The crew was awarded the Naval Helicopter Association Aircrew of the Year (Deployed) for the rescue of a crew member aboard the South Korean research vessel Araon in August 2014.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Honings.

(Left to right) Lt. Grant Langston, Petty Officer 2nd Class William Smith, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Warner and Lt. Francis Wolfe pose for a photo in front of a Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter March 19, 2015. The crew was awarded the Naval Helicopter Association Aircrew of the Year (Deployed) for the rescue of a crew member aboard the South Korean research vessel Araon in August 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Honings.

Three hundred twenty miles north of the Arctic Circle is Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost U.S. city and a strategically positioned forward operating location for the Coast Guard. As vessel traffic and fisheries increase in the ever changing Arctic an FOL can ensure a quick response by placing Coast Guard assets closer to mariners in distress.

It was Aug. 19, 2014, when crewmembers at FOL Barrow were notified of a 42 year-old male who had sustained a severe head injury aboard the South Korean research vessel Araon; a vessel that was located in thick ice-covered waters 310 miles north of Barrow. It was determined that two Jayhawk crews would make the lengthy trip north and rescue the mariner.

“It was so far north we only had about 15 minutes on scene before we were going to have to turn around and go back,” said Lt. Grant Langston, an Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, pilot, and co-pilot during the rescue. “We didn’t have a long time on scene and when we shot the approach down, we were in heavy fog.”

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew approaches the South Korean research icebreaker Araon 310 miles north of Barrow, Aug. 20, 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew approaches the South Korean research icebreaker Araon 310 miles north of Barrow, Aug. 20, 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Broken ice-covered waters shrouded by fog, rain, and clouds made visually locating the vessel virtually impossible. Crewmembers aboard the Araon had to make continuous over the radio communications so the aircrew could hone in on them.

With only an updated GPS position given by the vessel, and near zero visibility, the crew made their approach, cautiously navigating through the dense fog towards the 359-foot vessel. After approximately 15 minutes of navigating through harrowing conditions, the crew successfully located the vessel.

Critically close to a bingo fuel state, the Jayhawk crew hoisted the injured mariner and an accompanying attendant before enduring the long journey back where the survivor was transferred to awaiting emergency medical services in Barrow.

“Maritime activity in the Arctic has steadily increased during the past several years, and this emergency situation highlights the importance of having a Coast Guard forward operating location in the region,” said Capt. Joseph Deer, chief of incident management, Coast Guard 17th District. “Our ability to respond and effectively carry out rescue missions rely heavily on minimizing distances, honing communications capability and strengthening our maritime domain awareness in our northernmost area of responsibility.”

The crew, Lt. Francis Wolfe, aircraft commander, Lt. Grant Langston, co-pilot, Petty Officer 2nd Class William Smith, flight mechanic and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Warner, rescue swimmer, had just conducted the northernmost operational hoist ever completed by a Coast Guard MH-60 helicopter deployed above the Arctic Circle and were recognized for this achievement with the 2014 Naval Helicopter Association Aircrew of the Year (Deployed).

“Receiving this award is a humbling experience,” said Smith. “We train all the time to be able to respond to mariners in distress and to play a part in assisting someone in need sheds a greater light on the reality of our profession.”

While the Arctic Ocean may be the smallest of Earth’s oceans, it currently poses some of the biggest challenges in the modern age of exploration and vessel traffic. Challenges that are a focal point for the Coast Guard and local partner search and rescue agencies along Alaska’s northern coast, in an effort to continue to save lives in the every growing and evolving environment of the Arctic.

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