Inside the Gates: 'Rescue Triad' crews solve all Alaska throws at them
Although search-and-rescue agencies across the state help save lives when people need assistance, many of the state's most challenging calls are answered by three Alaska Air National Guard rescue squadrons.
"No one should be punished for an accident just while living, having fun or exploring," said Lt. Col. Keenan Zerkel, director of the Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. "Being injured in Alaska means you have a short time to live. That's why we are on call 24/7."
The units, within the Guard's 176th Wing, form a close-knit team which members call the "Rescue Triad." Airmen flying the 210th Rescue Squadron's HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, along with comrades in the 211th flying HC-130J Combat King II search planes, deliver "Guardian Angel" pararescuemen with the 212th who save Alaskans in peace and service members in war.
At home, the Triad's missions are often a race against the elements.
"It all comes down to problem-solving everything Alaska throws at us," Zerkel said. "We need to get to the site before Alaska does."
The three squadrons work in unison when any call for a search-and-rescue mission comes in.
"We train everyday during the week, Monday through Friday," said Lt. Col. Pat McBride, the 211th's director of operations. "We're always training for civil search and rescue missions and combat mission. We are always on alert."
When RCC gets a call, the 211th is often launched first to start and sustain search efforts.
"We can get out and cover long distances," McBride said. "We can stay in the air longer than the Pave Hawks. We have electronic search-and-cameras and we are outfitted with two refueling pods so we can extend the range of the helicopters."
The Combat King II can fly nearly 1,400 miles without refueling. One of the planes generally leads the way in a search and conducts midair refueling for any accompanying Pave Hawks, which have a range of just 230 miles.
"Alaska is so big," McBride said. "There just isn't places for the helicopters to land to get fuel. We help them extend the range in order for them to help pick people up."
The Combat King IIs also carry different types of cargo ranging from hand-held radios to Humvees. Pararescuemen with the 212th may accompany the planes of the Pave Hawks, depending on the destination.
"In a rescue scenario we have the ability, the equipment for the Guardian Angels and then they can jump to it," said HC-130J pilot Capt. Ben Van Alstine. "We practice with the Guardian Angels with a variety of jumps. Sometime they will need equipment, sometimes they won't; it all depends."
The Guard routinely practices dropping supplies like food or a radio, often deployed prior to a rescue effort, and can put them down with surprising precision.
"We can deliver these small packages to a survivor flying at low altitudes and get it 25 to 30 yards from the person," Van Alstine said.
The Guard is just one agency in an array of groups which work together when people are in danger. Many lives are saved by LifeMed air ambulances, Alaska State Troopers and state park personnel, among others.
"There are so many unsung heroes that help us," Zerkel said. "Troopers do so much as does the Civil Air Patrol. They do an incredible amount of work and some are just volunteers. They can get to the scene first, fly for pennies on the dollar and help us eliminate non-distress calls."
"The park called us right away and said, 'We need your help,'" Zerkel said.
"In the state of Alaska with the [RCC] and the Triad, we have the highest capability," Van Alstine said. "It's also at the highest manpower and cost but in Alaska, often no one else could do it. The call goes to us when no one else can do it."
RCC staff ask all aviators to register 406 MHz beacon emergency locator transmitters, and adds that they shouldn't always rely on satellite phones.
"Sometimes those satellite calls will drop because of where we are located on the planet," Zerkel said. "It's hard to keep a satellite in place where we are located. Never be afraid to ask for help."
People rescued by the Alaska Air National Guard won't be charged, sent a bill in the mail or be asked to reimburse the rescue efforts.
"This is Alaska," Zerkel said. "This is the big-boy program with a lot of extreme missions: 10,000-foot peaks, weather, vertical terrain, signal bounces depending on where you impact. There is always a puzzle to solve."
Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.