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By Maj. Chelsea Aspelund
176th Wing Public Affairs
Alaska Air National Guardsmen overcame a range of severe weather conditions to successfully accomplish a life-saving medical evacuation for a pediatric trauma patient Feb. 22-23.
Midafternoon Feb. 22, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center received a call for assistance from the Nome emergency services after severe winter weather prevented civilian air ambulances from providing medevac for a pediatric patient at Yukuniaraq Yungcarvik Clinic in Elim, Alaska, approximately 100 miles east of Nome.
The nurse practitioner on site at the clinic reported that the patient was suffering from severe trauma to the right arm, hand and fingers.
The 176th Operations Group commander, the AKRCC and the search and rescue duty officer immediately reviewed the weather reports with aircrew and confirmed low ceilings, high winds and moderate-to-severe turbulence enroute to Elim.
“This is one of the worst storm systems we’ve faced this winter,” said Alaska Air National Guard Capt. Daniel Warren, the SARDO responsible for coordinating the response from the 176th Operations Group. “It was high stakes. However, when a kid is in trouble, it changes the calculus.”
With baseline information in hand, two 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters on rescue alert at Eielson Air Force Base and one 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat King II aircraft on alert at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson launched toward Elim. Both aircraft carried a Guardian Angel team of pararescuemen and combat rescue officers from the 212th Rescue Squadron.
For nearly 12 hours, aircrews on board the HC-130J and HH-60G calculated and attempted multiple approach routes to Elim while navigating through the tumultuous weather at night. Unfortunately, they were unable to safely fly any further than Unalakleet before diverting to McGrath with help from the AKRCC controllers, the SARDO and volunteer pilots from the Iditarod Air Force aircrew grounded in McGrath due to the storm.
With no de-icing available to overnight at McGrath, the two HH-60G aircrews had to turn back and fly to Eielson, while the HC-130J aircrew returned to JBER.
While the aircrew rested, and the maintainers refueled and prepared the aircraft to fly again, the AKRCC, SARDO and rescue squadron commanders remained awake through the night looking for a weather window to respond.
“We worked through all available options, waiver authorities and creative solutions,” Warren said. “We were not leaving anything to chance. We had support from any asset that could fly or respond.”
The HH-60G aircrews at Eielson and an Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk aircrew in Bethel were placed on standby as soon as they met crew rest minimums and maintenance clearance.
“We even reached out to the Iron Dog ambassador snowmachine team holding in Elim (due to weather) and developed a plan where our Guardian Angel team would parachute in from the HC-130J and use snowmachines to transport the patient to a location where the HC-130J could safely land,” Warren said.
At first light on Feb. 23, the HH-60G and HC-130J departed JBER for Elim. Severe weather persisted but broke long enough for the HH-60G to land successfully at Elim.
A combat rescue officer and pararescueman stabilized the patient for transport and safely departed Elim for Galena where the patient was transloaded to the HC-130J for rapid transport to Anchorage where surgeons were waiting. While the HH-60G was on the ground at Galena, a second HC-130J was re-routed from a training mission near JBER to provide weather escort for the helicopter’s safe flight back to JBER.
“This mission truly captures the complexities and decisions involved in Alaska civil search and rescue,” Warren said. “Keeping with the spirit of the first Iditarod, this mission shows how much our Alaskan community comes together and flourishes when lives are at stake. Elim first responders, Nome doctors, Iditarod Air Force members, Iron Dog sled teams, Anchorage surgeons, 176th Wing and Group leadership, AKRCC, SARDO, aircrew and Guardian Angels all acted decisively, factoring in multiple dimensions of weather, patient status and the human element against the tyranny of distance to save a life otherwise lost.”
The patient was safely transported to Alaska Native Medical Center, and the limb was saved nearly 48 hours after injury. For this medevac, the AKRCC, 210th RQS, 211th RQS and 212th RQS received credit for one save.