The Last Frontier: First Rescue Flight
Posted by PA2 Grant DeVuyst, Thursday, August 13, 2015
Story by Cadet Andrea Saldana
Coast Guard Air Station Sitka is Southeast Alaska’s premier aerial search and rescue responder; a title in which the whole unit holds immense pride. Although a small station—with only three MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and roughly 120 crewmembers—Air Station Sitka conducts Search and Rescue missions, including medical evacuations, throughout the entire Alaska Panhandle. Air Station Sitka’s crewmembers maintain a vigilant watch, springing to action whenever the call comes in.
Sitka itself has a reputation of fickle weather, rough terrain, and tough people. The clouds are low and the trees are taller than one would like to think. Cliffs hang, temperatures drop. It seems as if everything is conspiring against the planes and helicopters that take to the sky. Aircrews and passengers are completely at the mercy of nature and the wild.
On July 17, 2015, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeremy Reed, an avionics electrical technician at Air Station Sitka, embarked on his first search and rescue case since joining the Coast Guard in September of 2008. At around 2 pm, Air Station Sitka was notified of a plane crash in the vicinity of Point Couverden, north of Sitka—Flight 202.
Reed, one of the air station’s newest flight mechanics, would soon experience the thrill that accompanies the SAR alarm and the challenge that only the Alaskan environment can provide. He would soon face his greatest lesson in the art of saving lives at the hands of its greatest teacher—the Last Frontier.
The Coast Guard helicopter sped through the fog and rain, the crew aboard relying solely on their training and on the Coast Guardsman beside them. There are no more solid hands to put one’s life in than a Coast Guardsman’s. This proved to be Reed’s chance to test his own.
Upon arriving on scene, the crew aboard Coast Guard Helicopter 6032 found themselves straining to hold a hover in the low visibility and started searching for a small blue plane on the forest floor.
“It was a challenge just locating the wreckage due to the low clouds and heavy rain,” Reed said of the unforgiving Alaskan environment. “But we relied on our training to locate the crash site and extract the survivors.”
Air Station Sitka operates in a distinctly unique area in terms of terrain and climate. The weather is constantly fluctuating and there are mountains all around. Because of this, the training given to the pilots and aircrew alike is highly customized to the harsh elements and is very intensive. Hoist training is conducted to ensure that the flight mechanic is always cognizant of the terrain and is practiced in the art of situational awareness. The pilot cannot see where the flight mechanic is conducting the hoists to and rely heavily on the flight mechanic’s expert ability to “drive” the helicopter into place.
“A-school was more technical—how to work on aircraft and honestly, it didn’t really affect the SAR mission much. Sitka’s flight mechanic syllabus did,” Reed stated. “It’s a lot of hoisting and talking with the crew and communicating. It’s getting into a routine.”
This case, however, was anything but routine. The downed Cessna had fallen completely down to the forest floor, barely visible through the thick brush. Persistence, professionalism, and ingrained training compelled the Coast Guard crew to keep searching. An extensive search of the entire area ensued—the helicopter began zigzagging around the trees looking for any signs of a crash. Finally the crew found a trail of destruction in its wake with splintered trees and broken branches. Through the tiniest gap at the end of the trail, the blue fuselage was spotted.
Navigating rapidly to an area safe for hoisting—away from the tall trees that are perfect for wrapping hoist cables—the helicopter came to a hover fifty feet above the surface. Suddenly, Reed was on the hook. Through the harsh elements, he lowered down members of Juneau Mountain Rescue and the helicopter’s rescue swimmer and corpsman. When asked if he was nervous, Reed just laughed.
“Oh yeah! Until I got out there. That’s just how I am. I’ll be nervous until I get out there and then do my thing,” he said. “I was good to go once we got on scene and just did what I had to do.”
Time passed until finally the rescue personnel returned with four of the five crew members. Reed quickly readied the hoist, expertly managed two of the survivors in backboards and then recovered the rescue personnel.
Due in large part to Reed’s proficiency in hoisting, gained through the hours of finding the perfect routine, and the combined efforts of the entire crew aboard the Coast Guard Helicopter 6032, four out the five people aboard the downed Cessna survived.
Acting as the pilot-in-charge of this particular case, Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Stoeckler also commented on the immense professionalism and effectiveness of his crew.
“Petty Officer Reed was able to safely steer the aircraft up the hillside through the low visibility and low ceilings to the crash site. He then efficiently completed hoists of four survivors and the rescue personnel from an altitude of fifty feet. That’s a very difficult and complex evolution that could only be performed by a proficient, well-trained, and well-practiced air crew.”
In an email to the entire air station, Cmdr. Peter Melnick, the unit’s operations officer, said it best: “Heroic efforts were warranted—four people are alive due to their actions. The Alaska State Troopers stated that the Coast Guard was the only hope for a rescue. Well done. Four lives saved.”
Petty Officer Reed’s “thing” just happens to be saving lives.