Achieving new heights: Alaska-qualified aircraft commander

An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew returns to Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, to transfer a patient to emergency medical personnel after hoisting him from a cruise ship July 22, 2015. The 83-year-old man was suffering from symptoms of a heart attack aboard a Holland America cruise ship requiring a medevac for immediate medical attention. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson.

An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew returns to Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, to transfer a patient to emergency medical personnel after hoisting him from a cruise ship July 22, 2015. The 83-year-old man was suffering from symptoms of a heart attack aboard a Holland America cruise ship requiring a medevac for immediate medical attention. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson.

With an extensive 44,000 miles of shoreline, Alaska has the largest area of responsibility of all the Coast Guard districts, it also has incredibly diverse landscape and weather patterns, making it uniquely challenging for mariners and aviators.

These challenges require Coast Guard pilots to certify as Alaska-qualified aircraft commanders when they get stationed in the 17th District, a process that takes approximately one year from when the pilots report to Alaska. Along with the certification, all pilots who report to Kodiak or Sitka are previous aircraft commanders since Alaska cannot be a pilot’s first duty station out of flight school.

A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew arrives near Spruce Cape for vertical surface training in Kodiak, Alaska, Feb. 5, 2014. Crews always work in pairs to assure maximum coverage and safety during these dangerous cliff rescue training scenarios. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Auxiliarist Tracey Mertens)

A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew arrives near Spruce Cape for vertical surface training in Kodiak, Alaska, Feb. 5, 2014. Crews always work in pairs to assure maximum coverage and safety during these dangerous cliff rescue training scenarios. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Auxiliarist Tracey Mertens)

“Everybody is an aircraft commander from their last unit,” said Lt. Dan Schrader, an Air Station Kodiak MH-65 Dolphin helicopter pilot. “The qualification packet here is specific to emergency procedures, geography and weather patterns you my not come across in the lower 48.”

Schrader said after the two-year initial flight school, pilots attend a transition course for a specific airframe to become a copilot. From there, they become a 1st pilot and work toward aircraft commander.

“Alaska’s giant area is tenfold different from flying in other AORs,” said Schrader. “It’s comparable to launching on a case when you are based in St. Louis, Missouri, and you respond to a search and rescue call in Los Angeles.”

In addition to the size, the weather could present its own set of problems with the limited resources and options available to mitigate potential danger.

It’s just another day at the office…but you can’t beat the view.


Lt. Russell Merrick, an MH-65 Dolphin Helicopter pilot, manages all aspects of flight planning and mission implementation as aircraft commander on a training flight out of Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, Oct. 23, 2014. The Dolphin has a standard aircrew that consists of a pilot, copilot, flight mechanic and rescue swimmer when launching for search and rescue missions, and here in Alaska they face some of the most challenging terrain and weather anywhere on the planet. (U.S. Coast Guard photos by Auxiliarist Tracey Mertens)

“[In Alaska] we don’t always have the option to change course toward better weather,” said Schrader. “The Alaska commander syllabus is a way for the pilots to become acquainted with the area over a period of a year. We call it ‘wintering over’ so we can get a feel for how the winter is up here and experience how the weather can change drastically in the matter of a day.”

The MH-65 Dolphin aircrew’s main mission is to deploy on Coast Guard cutters to support their law enforcement operations and respond to search and rescue cases. He said being attached to a cutter often brings them to extremely remote locations without modern airport facilities.

Remote locations don’t always mean that the crew is near land either. Being deployed on a cutter could bring the crew hundreds of miles from the nearest point of land to enforce fishery laws on the high seas.

“We might be out near the Maritime Boundary Line where we don’t have the option of another helicopter or airplane to come get us, so we rely on the ship for our rescue if something should happen,” said Schrader.

The draw for Schrader to be a pilot on the MH-65 in Alaska is “the excitement of accepting a new challenge and flying in the hardest spot [pilots] can.”

The weather in Alaska takes the job to a whole new level. Pilots are often faced with upwards of 45 mph winds, erratic wind patterns against the mountainous terrain, and strong turbulence. With not-so-uncommon 20 to 30-foot seas below in addition to high winds and limited visibility, the environment demands vigilance while flying.

Lt. Drew Sonetirot, an Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules airplane pilot has been stationed in Kodiak since June 2015 and has also been working toward gaining his Alaska-qualified aircraft commander competency.

Lt. Drew Sonetirot stands in front of an HC-130 Hercules airplane on a snowy day in Alaska.

Lt. Drew Sonetirot stands in front of an HC-130 Hercules airplane on a snowy day in Alaska.

Sonetirot said this extra qualification is important to build the pilots’ confidence in the airplane and new area.

“Ultimately, safety is our number one goal,” said Sonetirot. “You want a confident pilot who knows what they are doing in this extremely demanding AOR. In one day, you could be up north in the Arctic where it’s completely iced over, down to Kodiak with rain and heavy winds, or fly over to Shemya where there might be volcanic ash.“

For many pilots, flying in Alaska is a goal to work toward.

“I put Alaska as number one on my list to experience something different and to be a better pilot,” said Sonetirot. “I feel like the experience has definitely helped out.”

Lt. Jane Peña, an MH-60 pilot has been looking forward to the opportunity to fly in Alaska since flight school. She reported to Air Station Kodiak from Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, member directs the HC-130 pilots after they land in Barrow, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson.

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, member directs the HC-130 pilots after they land in Barrow, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson.

“My husband [a past Marine and Coast Guardsmen who is currently in the Army National Guard] and I have been talking about making it to Alaska since I got into flight school,” said Peña. “We were very very excited to get here.”

She said the year of working toward being an Alaska-qualified aircraft commander has helped her gain familiarization with the region’s snow, ice and mountainous terrain that require knowledge about wind patterns and safe routes. There is also a lot of studying to be done to know alternate, low visibility routes, fuel planning and locations for remote areas and peninsula crossing.

“If the weather is really bad, we have these pre-determined routes we can fly that will keep us clear of hazards to get in and out of Kodiak,” said Peña. “Knowing those routes is immensely important as Alaska’s weather can change for the worse in an instant.”

One of the obstacles for having the majority of the AOR in remote areas is radio communications. A key element to any mission or operation is good communication between all personnel involved to mitigate any potential misunderstandings that can lead to disaster.

“Sometimes you have to think outside of the box and find a creative way to make sure you can always be in contact with somebody,” said Peña. “The best way to learn about different ways to communicate, and local weather and geography is to recognize the challenges exist and be willing to learn from [the aircraft commander] who is already experienced with the area.”

Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from Air Station Kodiak fly in formation over the City of Kodiak December 17, 2007.(Official U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA1 Kurt Fredrickson)

KODIAK, Alaska, Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from Air Station Kodiak fly in formation over the City of Kodiak December 17, 2007.(Official U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA1 Kurt Fredrickson)

After completing their competencies and requirements, the pilots who arrived summer of 2015 are slated to be the Coast Guard’s new Alaska-qualified aircraft commanders April 1, 2016.

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