By Maj. Guy Hayes, Alaska National Guard
/ Published August 12, 2010
CAMP DENALI, Alaska (AFNS) -- Members of the Alaska Air National Guard fought the ever-changing weather conditions in their state to complete two complicated rescue missions this week.
Officials from the Alaska ANG and U.S. Coast Guard rescued four people from a crash of a single-engine float plane that occurred 17-miles north of Dillingham, Alaska, on Aug. 9, and Alaska Guard members rescued another five individuals involved in an aircraft crash on Knik Glacier, Alaska, Aug. 8.
The Dillingham crash involved a de Havilland Otter, which was carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens and eight others, when it crashed into a mountainside while travelling to the Nushagak River for a fishing trip. Senator Stevens and four other passengers were killed in the crash.
The 11th Rescue Coordination Center, manned by Alaska National Guardsmen, was contacted by Dillingham Flight Service after a Good Samaritan spotted the downed aircraft around 7 p.m.
The ANG's 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons were contacted and deployed to the scene, but were unable to make it to the crash site because of inclement weather, including low cloud cover in the area.
The survivors spent the night Aug. 9 at the wreckage, but fortunately were assisted by four medical officials who were flown to the site by local helicopter pilots before the weather made it impossible for ANG assets to get on scene.
On the morning of Aug. 10, the weather cleared enough for an Alaska ANG HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter carrying pararescuemen Senior Master Sgt. Jonathan Davis and Tech. Sgt. Kristofer Abel to get to the crash site to administer medical assistance.
A Coast Guard C-130 Hercules was also in the air providing communication support overhead and was available to take victims in need of further medical treatment to Anchorage, Alaska, once victims were transported to Dillingham.
Poor weather remained a factor, with less than .25-mile visibility at the crash site and less than a 100-foot ceiling in the area, but ANG and Coast Guard officials were able to transport the four survivors: Sean O'Keefe, Kevin O'Keefe, Jim Morhard and William "Willy" Phillips Jr. to Dillingham.
The ANG arrived in Dillingham first, with two critical patients onboard, and was met by medical officials from the Dillingham Hospital. Coast Guard officials in an HH-60 Jay Hawk brought the two other patients to Dillingham, while the fourth survivor was taken to Anchorage on a civilian air ambulance flight.
"I have tremendous respect for our service men and women, the emergency first responders and their ability to perform heroically in the most trying of times," said Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Katkus, the Alaska National Guard adjutant general. "The Alaska National Guard (members), in a joint effort with (members of) the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Public Safety, were extremely resilient and professional in their efforts to rescue the remaining survivors of the plane crash and getting them to medical attention as quickly as possible."
The Alaska National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard were awarded four saves for this mission.
The Alaska Guardsmen also rescued five individuals involved in an aircraft crash on Knik Glacier Aug. 8.
The rescue coordination center contacted the 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons Aug. 8 after a personal locater beacon notified them of a potential mishap at about 1 p.m.
"The pilot had taken his father's plane on a sightseeing trip from Palmer, (Alaska), over the Knik Glacier," said Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Bellamy, an RCC controller with the Alaska ANG. "They were scheduled to return to Palmer, but the ... beacon gave us coordinates that the plane was on Knik Glacier."
ANG weekend alert crews were contacted, and immediately reported to base and launched an HH-60 and HC-130 with pararescuemen onboard to the coordinates, located at about the 8,500 foot level of Knik Glacier.
"Weather at those high altitudes, and the cloud deck prevented us from getting to the aircraft," Sergeant Bellamy said. "With it getting late and the weather not improving, we started to look at alternative means of getting help to the people up there."
To add to the urgency of the situation, the people involved in the aircraft mishap didn't have any survival gear, and according to the family were only wearing light clothing when they departed.
At about 10 p.m., a pararescue team, consisting of combat rescue officer Maj. Jesse Peterson, and pararescuemen Master Sgt. Al Lankford and Tech. Sgts. Chris Uriarte and Angel Santana, were inserted at a lower elevation to hike to the coordinates of the locater beacon.
"The (pararescue) team was inserted about four miles away from the aircraft site with shelter, food and gear," said 1st. Lt John Romspert, a combat rescue officer for the 212th RS.
Unfortunately, weather conditions including blizzard-like conditions, cloud cover from the ground to 13,000 feet, and 70 mile per hour winds, delayed the ground crew from reaching the crash victims, and attempts from the air to get to the distressed crew were blocked due to inclement weather.
Using mountaineering skis and towing sleds full of gear that weighed 100 to 150 pounds each, two of the four members of the pararescue team reached the downed aircraft the night of Aug. 9 and was able to provide much-needed food and resources to the five people on scene.
"We were split up into to two teams of two, and with the white-out conditions on the glacier, we were separated from each other," Sergeant Lankford said. "There were some pretty hairy crevasses to cross, and we ended up travelling about 2,000 feet up the glacier, but we eventually made it to the crash site too."
After weather conditions prevented rescue attempts by state troopers and Army National Guardsmen, RCC officials immediately dispatched an ANG HH-60 and HC-130 to the scene with additional supplies and hopes of rescuing the 12 people stranded on the glacier.
With a break in the weather, guard members were able to rescue three of the original plane crash victims. They dropped another week's worth of supplies, and took three survivors to the Palmer airport to be re-united with family.
Weather conditions closed the window on making a second rescue attempt Aug. 10, and the final two plane crash victims from Aug. 8 were still on the glacier with the seven Alaska National Guardsmen.
Aug. 11, ANG members were finally able to land on the glacier and ferry the remaining people to a lower elevation in the Knik River valley.
"The fact the HH-60 reached us is a true testament to the (helicopter) crew, because it was very challenging weather conditions they were flying in," Sergeant Lankford said. "Everything was white, so we set-up our skis as a lane so they could use them as a reference and even popped smoke to help them with wind on the glacier."
With everyone safely off the glacier, the final two crash victims were taken to Mat-Su Regional Hospital, Alaska, where they were reunited with family and friends.
"Alaska (weather conditions provide) exceptional challenges, which allow the great men and women of the Alaska National Guard the opportunity to excel at what they do and to come through every time," General Katkus said. "Each of these events provides unparallel training and prepares them to save lives while deployed around the world or working right here at home."
The Alaska Air National Guard was credited with eight saves for this mission.