The Last Frontier: Team Sitka

A Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew lowers an Aids to Navigation Team Sitka crewmember to perform maintenance on a day board.

A Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew lowers an Aids to Navigation Team Sitka crewmember to perform maintenance on a day board.

The very first step in understanding the Coast Guard’s role in Sitka, Alaska, is a simple lesson in geography.

The little city of 8,881, Alaska’s seventh most populated community, sits on the 1,607-square-mile Baranof Island, the United States’ 10th largest island. The island is one of more than a thousand islands in the Alexander Archipelago with the town of Sitka facing the notoriously treacherous Gulf of Alaska.

A Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew lowers a basket to Petty Officers 3rd Class Dylan Smith and Kevin Walters, both machinery technicians with Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, aboard ANT Sitka’s 38-foot aids to navigation boat while underway in Sitka Sound, Alaska, March 3, 2015.

A Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew lowers a basket to Petty Officers 3rd Class Dylan Smith and Kevin Walters, both machinery technicians with Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, aboard ANT Sitka’s 38-foot aids to navigation boat while underway in Sitka Sound, Alaska, March 3, 2015.

Back toward the mainland, the Tongass National Forest extends in nearly every direction. Beautiful though it may be, the sprawling, maritime wilderness is gravely inhospitable, even for the most seasoned fisherman or hunter.

It is there, in the least forgiving but most necessary of places, that Coast Guard Air Station and Aids to Navigation Team Sitka are located. Other than a mission to safeguard the people of Alaska, the two units have little in common.

The air station is home to more than 100 active duty members, including: pilots, mechanics, medical and support staff. With a complement of three MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, the crew conducts search and rescue, medical evacuation and law enforcement missions throughout Southeast Alaska.

Just a stone’s throw from the hangar is a small building, home to ANT Sitka. Experts on all things navigation, the 13-person crew maintains buoys, day boards, lighthouses and other aids to navigation throughout the same area the air station covers.

“Our primary job is aids to navigation, and our area of responsibility covers from just north of Juneau to just below Ketchikan,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Kris Demetros, officer-in-charge, ANT Sitka. “We have 108 primary aids and 117 secondary aids.”

It’s an enormous task for such a small crew, and while their work might not be as action-oriented as the air station’s, the goal is similar.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Walters, a machinery technician with Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, watches as a Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter approaches the ANT’s 38-foot aids to navigation boat while underway in Sitka Sound, Alaska, March 3, 2015.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Walters, a machinery technician with Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, watches as a Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter approaches the ANT’s 38-foot aids to navigation boat while underway in Sitka Sound, Alaska, March 3, 2015.

“As much as people rely on GPS these days, having those visual markers is good to have as a backup,” said Lt. Ray Jamros, a pilot at Air Station Sitka. “I’d imagine if these lights were out or boards were missing, people would overlook them and it would cause more search and rescue cases for us.”

With lives depending on the quality of their work, it’s no surprise that the air station and ANT team are motivated to accomplish their missions. For the helicopter crews, contribution comes in the form of transporting ANT Sitka’s personnel to the 44 aids to navigation that would be otherwise nearly impossible to reach.

“We can only go, with the 26-foot boat, about 10 miles offshore,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Dylan Smith, a machinery technician at ANT Sitka. “We have our aids we can get to on our boats, and then the ones we can get to aboard aircraft.”

The skilled aircrews not only fly ANT personnel to remote locations, but also hoist them down to the less accessible aids. Whether a malfunctioning light, damaged day board, or simple maintenance check, the upkeep of aids to navigation is constant.

Pulling into a rocky Southeast Alaska port or traversing one of the myriad narrow straits of the Alexander Archipelago demands an appreciation for the ANT’s maintenance operations; it couldn’t happen without teamwork.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Walters, a machinery technician with Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, tends a cable as a Coast Guard Air Station Sitka aviation survival technician descends from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter in Sitka Sound, Alaska, March 3, 2015.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Walters, a machinery technician with Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Sitka, tends a cable as a Coast Guard Air Station Sitka aviation survival technician descends from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter in Sitka Sound, Alaska, March 3, 2015.

So, the advantages of being co-located with an air station are clear, but what could the ANT crew and their two boats offer the aviators? The answer is proficiency.

The inherent danger of flying in Southeast Alaska’s harsh environment is hazardous enough as it stands. Add in the technical complexity of hoisting an injured mariner from a bobbing vessel, or conducting a nighttime search of a windswept bay, the need for an expert crew becomes obvious.

Without a Coast Guard boat station in Sitka to lend a hand in training, that role falls to the ANT crew. Using their 38-foot boat as a simulated vessel in distress, ANT Sitka personnel head out into Sitka Sound to help out the air station crews.

“We’re simulating picking people up from a boat that’s moving, or we’re simulating picking people up from a boat that’s dead-in-the-water,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Bedford, an aviation maintenance technician at Air Station Sitka. “You’re basically steering the aircraft, telling the pilot where to go, and simultaneously operating the hoist. It’s kind of a juggling act.”

Before the juggling act starts, the pilots radio the boat crew.

“We get out to where the boat is and we give them a hoist brief,” said Jamros. “We’re telling them our plan on how we’re going to get the hoist accomplished.”

For hours at a time, as often as twice a week, the little boat can be seen patrolling back and forth, helicopter hovering overhead.

Often cold and wet, the ANT boatcrew maintains their simulation as multiple aircrews cycle through the air stations helicopters to get in their required training.

Coming from two completely different worlds, in terms of training and daily operations, it’s the ability to help each other accomplish their missions that make the two units a perfect match. As long as they’re able to safeguard mariners in Southeast Alaska, everyone is happy.

“We have a great relationship,” said Smith. “It’s a good tradeoff.”

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