Inside the Gates: Behind the scenes with Search and Rescue
When a call for search and rescue is needed, it usually comes through the Alaska Air National Guard. That's exactly what happened on Monday when a Cessna 172 crashed shortly after take off on the southwest corner of Montague Island.
The two men on board survived the crash and suffered minor injuries. They were able to call family members with a satellite phone. The call for help eventually reached the Alaska Air National Guard.
"It had been like four weeks since our last alert," Tech. Sgt. Robin O'Brien said. "We always have to be prepared because you never know when that call will come in."
The call came in during the middle of a shoot KTVA was doing in the Weapons Maintenance Facility.
"What happened here was we were going to do some maintenance for a training flight tonight," Staff Sgt. George Offenhauser said. "These guys actually got called on a real-world mission so, as fast as we can, we push that helicopter out and get it in the air so that these guys can go save a life."
The experience is what these air guardsmen experience on a daily basis.
"In a moment's notice, anything like that can happen," Tech Sgt. Jason Trexler said. "We have to be there in order to take care of it as soon as possible so they can get off the ground."
Trexler and Offenhauser work in the weapons department and were busy checking the machine guns on the Pave Hawk helicopters from a training flight that very night when the call came in.
"When an alert like that happens, it's now, get those guns off and get the bird out as fast as we can," Offenhauser said. "Anything else takes second fiddle."
In any search and rescue mission, Pave Hawk helicopters are joined by HC-130Js.
"We usually take off before the HC-13," O'Brien said. "They are faster than us. They have four engines compared to our two. So they are going to go out a take a look at the weather, figure out how we are going to get there, how the helicopter will get there. Usually, they will come back and refuel us so we have enough fuel on scene to do whatever needs to be done."
The Pave Hawks are refueled by the HC-130s while still in the air. The HC-130s also act as a watchdog, heading into the area first to check on weather conditions and to locate the downed aircraft or people. Once located, the HC-130 will circle the area to mark the area for the Pave Hawks. If the weather is too nasty for Pave Hawk landings or to use the hoist, the HC-130 can deploy paratroopers and gear near the area to make the rescue.
"Yeah, it's a lot of coordination between the different units," O'Brien said. "The 210th is the helicopter unit, the 211th is the HC-130 unit and the 212th is the pararescue unit and we all work together to make it happen."
O'Brien works as a special missions aviator. He works the hoist mounted on the helicopter to repel air guardsmen down to the injured or stranded people and then brings them back up.
"For us, it's: get the guns off," Trexler said. "They weigh about 60 pounds each and weight is critical. Drop everything and focus. You have to get it off, there is no room for error. You have to make sure that aircraft is safe for flight. Get your forms done, your tasks done, so that it's good to go."
The Alaska Air National Guard sent two Pave Hawks to Montague Island to bring back the injured men. The second helicopter was brought back shortly after take off as the first helicopter was able to work its way through the weather and land on the island.
The two men were transported to Providence Hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
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