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NEWS | Nov. 16, 2023

Alaska National Guard's Operation Santa Claus makes a lifesaving detour

By Balinda O'Neal Alaska National Guard

The Alaska National Guard's annual community outreach program, Operation Santa Claus, took an unexpected turn this year as its mission to bring holiday joy to the village of Tuluksak became a vital lifeline for a resident of the nearby village of Napaskiak.

On Nov. 15, the Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter supporting Operation Santa Claus was en route to deliver gifts and holiday cheer to the children of Tuluksak when an urgent call for assistance came into to the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. 

A critically ill patient in Napaskiak required immediate medical evacuation, but adverse weather and icy runway conditions prevented civilian air ambulances from landing there.

Napaskiak is five miles south of Bethel on the other side of the Kuskokwim River. With river ice restricting travel by boat and insufficient snow and ice for travel by snowmachine or ice road, evacuation by helicopter was the only option.

As soon as the AKARNG accepted the mission from the AKRCC, the pilots, Chief Warrant Officers 2 Colton Bell and David Berg, assigned to Golf Company, 2-211th (General Support Aviation Battalion), altered their mission plan to prioritize the medevac.

Having just completed one of two scheduled Operation Santa Claus flights to Tuluksak, the aircrew added two LifeMed paramedics and equipment onto the helicopter with the remaining gifts and volunteers that were already on board and immediately headed to Napaskiak.

Bell said that Chief Warrant Officer 3 Nick Lime, an aviation maintenance technician and crew chief assigned to Delta Co., 2-211th (GSAB), played a crucial role in the team accomplishing both missions within seven hours despite rainy and icy weather conditions.

“He assisted greatly in the configuration of the aircraft and loading and unloading of patients, medics, and passengers even with the mission changes and difficult weather conditions,” said Bell. “Our UH-60L is able to transport up to 13 passengers with a full assortment of seats.  In this case we didn’t need all of them so we took out the extra seats to make room for the presents, medical equipment and paramedics.”

Less than five minutes after departing Bethel, the helicopter touched down in Napaskiak, delivering the paramedics and medical equipment to stabilize the patient for travel at the local clinic, a process expected to take 30-40 minutes.

The aircrew then flew 15 minutes to Tuluksak, to deliver the remaining volunteers and gifts.
They immediately flew back to Napaskiak to pick up the paramedics and patient and flew them to the Army Aviation Operating Facility in Bethel where the patient was transferred to a LifeMed ambulance. As of Thursday, Nov. 16, the patient was in stable condition and awaiting transport via civilian air ambulance to an Anchorage hospital.

“The integration of the LifeMed folks went seamlessly due to previous detailed cold-load trainings and lessons learned in past joint medevac missions,” said Bell. “The coordination with LifeMed was extremely smooth since Chief Warrant Officer 3 Bryan Kruse was in the hangar during the mission and coordinated with LifeMed, RCC, and state Army aviation officer, while the crew continued executing the Op Santa mission simultaneously.”

While the Black Hawk and crew completed the medevac mission, Santa, Mrs. Claus and 10 other Alaska National Guard and Salvation Army volunteers delivered an early Christmas to the children of Tuluksak as planned. After celebrating with gifts, ice cream and photos with Santa, the team loaded back onto the Black Hawk for the trip back to the AKARNG aviation facility, where they transferred to an awaiting Alaska Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster III for the final leg back to JBER.

“This mission was a great example of how the Alaska National Guard is able to work jointly between Army, Air Force, and multiple civilian agencies to support the local population through state missions like Operation Santa and through federal missions such as this RCC request for assistance,” said Bell. “This mission specifically showcases our abilities to adapt to multiple, rapidly changing missions while operating in adverse weather while still completing them efficiently and safely.”