JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
The 176th Wing’s operations and maintenance groups earned recognition for the 2021 Jolly Green Rescue Mission of the Year – an Air Force-level accolade.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Guardsmen of the 176th Wing generated and flew 30 sorties culminating in more than 120 flight hours in support of two high-altitude, combined effort rescue missions that saved 13 people in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
“The complexity of the weekend was unprecedented as inclement weather in the park tested our equipment, required a joint force response, and demonstrated our air rescue team’s ability to navigate challenging weather and terrain,” said Alaska Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Evan Budd, Alaska Rescue Coordination Center superintendent.
On May 29, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Service requested assistance from the AKRCC after local assets were unable to safely fly through thick cloud cover and whiteout conditions to reach a mountaineering party with two members experiencing high-altitude sickness near 14,000 feet on Klutlan Glacier near Mount Bona.
The AKRCC dispatched a 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat King II and a 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk with a 212th Rescue Squadron Guardian Angel team of two pararescuemen and one 210th RQS special mission operator on board.
St. Elias guides with the mountaineering party safely moved the expedition to 10,000 feet where they set up shelter, surrounded by snow berms, to protect them from the wind. For three nights, the team continuously rebuilt berms, shoveled a clearing for the helicopter, provided field medical care for the injured, and relayed information via satellite phone to rescue crews.
A few hours into the Mount Bona mission, NPS requested additional assets for a second rescue after a Cessna 182 airplane crashed in inclement weather at an altitude of 6,500 feet on Mount Hawkins.
Rescue assets overhead at Mount Bona confirmed that winds were too high and clouds too thick to safely land the HH-60, so the AKRCC redirected the aircraft to Mount Hawkins and dispatched a second Pave Hawk and Guardian Angel team to Mount Bona.
“Generating these sorties required all hands on deck as weekend-alert maintenance personnel were called in to repair and inspect nearly our entire fleet for continuous, extended-range rescue operations,” said Chief Master Sgt. Eric Chester, 176th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent. “Our maintenance teams generated more than 250 percent of our normal aircraft capacity.”
During training and routine alert operations, the 176th AMXS has two or three crew chiefs ready to generate one HC-130 and one HH-60 with pre-flight taking approximately three hours and post-flight upwards of four or more hours.
In order to support the demand of simultaneous rescue missions, the 176th AMXS generated two HC-130s, and four HH-60G with only 10 crew chiefs and two maintenance leads available. One of the helicopters generated was in the final stages of a major maintenance event, which entailed aircraft reassembly and maintenance of more than 30 no-fly discrepancies.
“It took all weekend to piece the helicopter together, but it was back to fully mission capable status on Monday morning and ready to assume alert for the final sortie of the mission,” Chester said. “This is key because we exhausted every other resource we had, and it was the last tail we had to fall back on.”
In addition to aircraft generation, aircrew flight equipment personnel of 176th Operations Support Squadron worked diligently to ensure parachutes, life-saving equipment and medical supplies were packed and ready for the unknown as patient conditions on Mount Hawkins were not ascertained at the time of dispatch.
Early on May 31, a break in the weather on Mount Hawkins enabled the HH-60 to navigate to the crash site, hoist a Guardian Angel team 150 feet down onto technical terrain, and safely transport both persons from the mountain.
Meanwhile, Mount Bona weather continued to worsen, so the St. Elias guides requested evacuation of their entire 11-person party. While resourced to continue their expedition, they were depleting resources and energy while maintaining camp and providing medical care for the injured persons.
The AKRCC processed this update and coordinated with the Army National Guard to dispatch a heavy-airlift capable CH-47F Chinook from the 38th Alaska Army National Guard Troop Command, 207th Aviation Regiment.
The HH-60 returned to JBER while the HC-130J remained overhead Mount Bona, so the crew could provide safe passage and weather updates to the Chinook. On June 1 the CH-47 safely navigated through the weather to airlift 11 people and more than 1,000 pounds of equipment from Klutlan Glacier.
“This was the first high-altitude heavy airlift for our Alaskan based Chinooks,” said Lt. Col. Michele Edwards, Alaska Army National Guard Aviation officer of the newest aircraft to the Army National Guard fleet.
More than 75 personnel from 10 different 176th Wing shops were in one way or another involved in enabling these rescue missions.
Complex rescue missions such as these demonstrate how cross-domain integration and how a strong support team is required to successfully and safely execute rescue missions.