JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
Few would know from looking at retired Alaska Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Michael Wayt that he served 21 years on active duty between the regular Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard before putting in 18 years and counting with the Anchorage Fire Department.
Now a firefighter with the AFD’s Station 9C on the southern outskirts of the city, Wayt looks more like a world class marathoner or an American Ninja contestant than he does a retiree following a second career.
Service members looking to retire often joke about becoming a door greeter at a department store, but Wayt said he wanted to put his skills — honed through decades of rescue operations under challenging weather conditions in rough terrain — to good use.
Even though he was off shift at the time, his experience would be needed Aug. 15 following the successful AFD rescue of four out-of-state hikers near Beluga Point, a hiking locale south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway.
His know-how wasn’t called upon to rescue the hikers but to come to the aid of a member of the AFD Front Country Rope Rescue Team who was injured during the rescue operation. The effort would see his two careers, past and present, collide during a pitched collaboration of AFD and Air National Guard professionals dedicated to the rescue mission.
The son of a retired chief master sergeant, Wayt was an Air Force family member who moved around a lot, finding himself at Travis Air Force Base, California, during his senior year in high school. With two older brothers who were already in the Air Force, the firefighter said his path was obvious.
“It was my turn to decide what I wanted to do,” Wayt recalled. “So the Air Force was sort of our thing in my family. I didn’t really know any other way.”
Signing a Delayed-Entry Program enlistment for what he described as a “guaranteed desk job” as a dental laboratory technician, Wayt had nine months to consider his options while he waited to ship out to Basic Military Training and technical school.
“Somewhere in there, I really took to the outdoors,” he said. “I was working in the Young Adult Conservation Corps in California, and I really liked working outside, being adventurous.”
Suddenly, a job that didn’t involve lots of time in the wilderness didn’t seem as appealing. Fortunately for the budding Airman, he would get a shot at a career field that was more to his liking.
“When I got to basic training, I was doing my thing, and someone shows up in jungle fatigues and asks, ‘Who wants to try out for Survival?’ and I raised my hand,” he said.
Today, Survival has transformed into the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape career field, and is an integral part of the Guardian Angel system that also includes combat rescue officers and pararescuemen (PJs).
While he was a pararescue survival instructor, he was asked to go through pararescue medical training, and he agreed. After he completed the medical portion, he was asked to complete the “pipeline,” the many months of training in order to become a PJ.
Despite having all of the necessary qualifications after successfully completing the rigorous pipeline, Wayt said he didn’t cross over to pararescue because the career field was overmanned at the time.
As it turned out, Wayt would later get an opportunity to change career fields as well as scenery.
The Last Frontier
Alaska can be as unforgiving as it is breathtaking. A map the size of a dinner table hanging in the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center — the nerve center for statewide rescue operations involving the 176th Wing and other agencies — is riddled with pins across the state denoting hundreds of rescues throughout the years involving everything from stranded hunters to crashed aircraft.
Despite being less than 10 miles from Alaska’s largest city and hundreds of yards away from the highway, a father and his three grown sons found themselves in a precarious situation while hiking near Beluga Point Aug. 15.
Wayt said the ascent was easy enough as they followed the marked trail. On the way back, they decided to use a different route down a gulley. That decision would turn a pleasant hike into a phone call to the authorities.
“It got more and more technical for them, and they got to the point where at least one of them felt really shaky,” he said. “They sat down where they were at and called 911 to get out of there.”
With an increasing slope angle coupled with sections of loose rocks, the descent would require equipment the group didn’t have.
“Anyone experienced with rope rescues knows most aren’t five-minute rescues,” Wayt said. “There’s a lot of setting up, and there are lot of things you have to keep in mind with hazards.
When members of AFD Front Country Rope Rescue Team — specially selected and trained for high-angle mountain and trail rescues — showed up, they knew they would have to manually lower the family by rope. What they needed was an anchor.
An anchor is what Wayt said he found when his father was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, nestled in the frigid, golden heart of Alaska’s interior. From that time on, Wayt said the allure of Alaska was hardwired to his brain.
“I always compared everything to Alaska,” he said. “Nothing was ever quite the same.”
As it happened, his eventual move to Alaska later in life would bring him fully into his career as a PJ as well as into the sourdough fold of the state’s residents.
He would be part of a vanguard of regular Air Force Airmen transitioning to full-time Guardsmen as the active duty 71st Rescue Squadron transformed into the Alaska Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron — an organization that would later split into the 210th, 211th, and 212th Rescue Squadrons.
Very quickly, Wayt said he developed an appreciation for the group of professionals composing the rescue triad of Guardian Angels, HH-60G Pave Hawk crews and HC-130 King crews, as well as all of the maintainers and support personnel who keep the units ready to reach remote parts of the state when someone needs rescue.
“By deploying to other places, you start realizing how good our Guard pilots are up here,” he explained. “There was no sense of hotdogging it and taking risks you didn’t need to take. But if there was something where there was a lot of gain by taking the risk to save somebody if they were really hanging it out, you took that risk.”
Rescuing the rescuer
Finding an anchor that would provide the literal lifeline to the four stranded hikers proved elusive at first. Ideally, Wayt said, they would want a well-planted stone anchor along the fall line — the route leading directly down the gully. Unfortunately, no such anchor existed.
What the firefighters found was a stand of aspen trees off to the side. Though not ideal, the team determined it would do, and they installed the two-rope system that would serve as a makeshift mountain elevator.
The 300-foot rope was long enough to get the hikers low enough to where they could descend the remainder of the 450-foot gully.
During the rescue, a member of the team noticed a large rock was unstable, threatening the rescue team and the hikers. Trying his best to prevent its fall and realizing dislodgment was impossible to stop, the firefighter gave a shout of warning, and the rock gave way crushing his foot and leg in the process.
Though the team had ably and successfully extracted the four hikers, the hazards of the job and the willingness to sacrifice self to protect others meant the rescuers needed an expedited extraction of their injured colleague.
Wayt was called in to plus up the team and offer his experience. By the time he showed up, the 210th RQS helicopter was on its way, and the team paramedic had assessed and treated the injured firefighter.
Wayt coordinated with the RCC to ensure they would have radio communications with the HH-60. As it turned out, visual cues were all that were necessary once the whirlybird glided overhead.
“There was a real comfortable feeling when I saw that 210th Pave Hawk orbiting, doing their thing,” he recalled. “It was like I was back there with an excited but controlled, familiar, comforting type of feeling.”
Wayt said he decided to separate from the military after 21 years despite the opportunity to continue because he wanted to have enough time to start another career, joining the AFD in 2002.
Though he would require additional training to become a full-fledged firefighter, Wayt said his PJ background has served him well, granting him many of the skills necessary to become an integral part of the Front Country Rope Rescue Team.
Because the injured firefighter was on a steep portion of the slope, the operation would require use of the helicopter’s hoist to insert the pararescue team and to extract the hurt firefighter.
On the team was Alaska Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Daniel Stikeleather, 212th RQS PJ, and another PJ from out of state.
Stikeleather said the mission was pretty straightforward as rescues go. Wayt passed along to him information concerning treatment the firefighter had received so far, and the PJs packaged him up for hoist before the team moved him to a city hospital where he was released to civilian medical personnel for further treatment.
The helicopter operation went off without a hitch, Wayt said, owing to the abiding partnership that exists between first responders and the statewide rescue community.
“For the most part, we don’t see the egos, since most of these are government-type agencies, whether it’s the city government or the federal government with the folks at the 176th,” he said. “It’s good to know people representing all of these agencies like doing rescue work, and they always step up.”