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By David Bedard
176th Wing Public Affairs
Alaska Air National Guardsmen of the 176th Wing navigated stormy weather to rescue three stranded boaters Oct. 29 on the Kuskokwim River about 6 miles east of Bethel.
According to Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Duane Griffith, Alaska Rescue Coordination Center deputy director, the boaters called family who then called the Alaska State Troopers.
The Troopers then asked for assistance from the AKRCC who then requested assistance from the 176th Wing.
The wing’s search and rescue duty officer, Lt. Col. Richard Welch, ordered the launch of a 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter and a 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, both with 212th Rescue Squadron pararescuemen (PJs or Js) onboard.
The HC-130 is based on the cargo-carrying C-130J Super Hercules, but it includes special optics to aid search operations as well as wing-mounted tanks designed to refuel the Pave Hawk in Flight.
The quicker HC-130 was the first over the search area, and the crew pinpointed the location of the boaters by a strobe light used by a member of the party.
Maj. Tyrel Lyon flew the HH-60 as co-pilot with aircraft commander Lt. Col. Anthony D’Amico. The HH-60, though slower than the high-flying HC-130, can land in just about any clearing or use the hoist to get PJs on the ground in rough or uneven terrain.
Lyon said the helicopter arrived on scene, homing in on the location provided by the Combat King crew.
“We got eyes on the same individual with a strobe light by a cabin in the general area, so we decided to land and check it out,” Lyon said. “It turned out to be the people we were looking for, so we airlanded on a riverbank in the snow.”
The pararescue team, comprising highly skilled rescue specialists who are trained paramedics, made contact with the three boaters. One boater was found to suffer from cold weather injuries.
“The PJs went in to check it out, and they got good tabs on everybody,” Lyon said. “[Staff Sgt.] Curtis Loewen was one of the Js, and he helped the boater who was semi-responsive and hypothermic to get onboard.”
The helicopter made the quick trip to the nearby town of Bethel and transferred the boaters to Troopers waiting at the airport.
In an effort to return to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, most of the flight was uneventful until the helicopter reached Merrill Pass about 100 miles west of Anchorage. Though the HC-130 can fly over the mountains, the HH-60 crew flies at lower elevation while cutting through the mountain passes.
Lyon said they received an ominous picture of atmospheric conditions from the 3rd Operations Support Squadron Weather Flight back at JBER.
“Weather did tell us there was a pretty good snowstorm that might happen, which turned out to be true,” he said. “I would say we made it about three-quarters through the pass before we ran into the storm over Lake Chakachamna.”
Located about 90 miles due west of Anchorage, Lake Chakachamna would serve as a landing zone after a few attempts to break through the weather proved fruitless.
“We turned around, came back and found a place to land, and had a white-out landing,” Lyon said. “It was a little sporty. We got down on the ground, and at that point decided to sit and wait out the weather.
“As soon as we set down, it was snowing pretty bad; it was coming down in sheets,” he continued. “We shut down the engines after a while to save gas, so we would have enough fuel to get to the other side of the pass and meet the tanker.”
Though the engines provide electricity and heat during flight, the auxiliary power unit can provide necessary service while parked with the rotors shut down.
“Once we got bingo gas, we shut down the engines, and kept the heat on with the APU,” Lyon said, using the term “bingo” describing a situation when there is only enough fuel to return to base or get to a suitable air-to-air refueling site. “It was pretty nice having that heat with the APU. It only burns about 80 pounds an hour, so we had plenty of gas to keep the heat on.”
Another concern was possible icing of the rotors. If the rotors get weighed down with wet snow and ice, the helicopter can become unflyable. Fortunately, much colder than freezing temperatures kept ice from forming.
“We were pretty lucky it was pretty dry snow,” Lyon said. “We shut down and gave it a pretty good look. It was pretty cold, about 10 below Celsius [14 degrees Fahrenheit].”
Crew rest is a critical concern, and the Guardsmen took advantage of the down time.
“Most of the crew in the backend took a nap,” Lyon said. “Lieutenant Colonel D’Amico and I took turns staying on the radio up front and catnapping in the seats.”
AKRCC kept the crew up to date with knowledge that the weather would clear up by about 10 a.m.
“About sunrise around 9:30, we got some light, and we could see where the clouds were, and it was looking significantly better at that point,” Lyon said.
Lyon said, before takeoff, the Pave Hawk’s special mission aviators took another look at the helicopter, dusting snow off the air intakes and other air inlets that could be jammed or frozen up. He said the moment of truth came when he fired up the “60.”
“It started up no problem,” Lyon said “It’s a little unnerving shutting down the engines, but the helo did great. We had zero issues.”
Lyon said a second HC-130 came to refuel the helicopter to see it safely home.
“It was pretty cool that they got that second crew up,” he said. “Once the alert crew timed out on duty day, they had to reach out and get another crew.”
After an all-night ordeal hunkering down under a winter snowstorm, Lyon said the remaining trip home was routine and without hiccups. Between the helicopter crew’s actions, the HC-130 crew and volunteer backup crew assistance, the AKRCC keeping the helicopter crew up to date, and 3rd OSS’s weather data, the Pave Hawk made it home after a successful rescue.
“It was pretty cool to see it all come together in less than an ideal situation,” Lyon said.
For the mission, 210th RQS, 211th RQS, 212th RQS and the AKRCC received credit for three saves.