The day after Christmas, a pregnant woman crashed on a snowmobile outside an Alaskan village so remote that it is closer to mainland Russia than to the nearest hospital.
The woman was riding a snowmachine in Kipnuk, a tiny village on the Bering Sea, just over 400 miles from Russian soil but closer to 500 miles from Anchorage, home to the closest hospitals with obstetric emergency care.
Word of the accident reached state rescue officials in Anchorage late Sunday night. Within minutes, over two dozen members of the Alaska Air National Guard got phone calls and text messages to report to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson for an emergency mission.
In a rescue that began just after midnight and lasted into a gloomy, storm-filled day, the 176th Wing launched two aircraft to aid the woman, traversing the length of the state.
Flying conditions were unforgiving. Virtually the whole mission was in darkness as the Alaska sun set just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 26 and would not rise until almost noon the next day. But the crews would be flying over and through mountain passes socked in with terrible flying weather.
“We’ve been having freezing rain in south-central Alaska,” said Alaska Guard public affairs specialist David Bedard. “We’ve essentially had a storm up through Gulf of Alaska and made for some pretty nasty weather. I haven’t seen anything like this in nine or 10 years. It’s raining even though it’s 27 degrees, so the rain hits and coats everything in ice.”
A weekend storm in Interior Alaska wreaked havoc as highways temporarily closed, thousands remain without power and the roof of Delta Junction's only grocery store collapsed: https://t.co/Ei6OAfCyQb
— Anchorage Daily News (@adndotcom) December 28, 2021
The Guard’s HH-60 helicopter flew directly to where first responders were treating the woman, lifting her to Bethel, the nearest town with a runway, still over 400 miles from Anchorage. An HC-130J tanker flew double duty, keeping the helicopter gassed up during the long flight across the state, while sprinting ahead between top-offs to drop medical gear to the first responders already with the woman.
Once the helicopter brought the woman to Bethel, the HC-130J landed there, picked her up, and rushed the 400 miles back to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
“The transload was key because the weather was so poor in the passes,” said Senior Master Sgt. Evan Budd, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center superintendent. “There were a lot of tough obstacles to overcome, but everyone came together and knocked this one out of the park.”
The HH-60 remained in Bethel Monday night, waiting for a break in the weather for the return trip.
Both aircraft carried teams of pararescue airmen, or PJs, the Air Force’s specially trained medics and combat rescue specialists. The PJs on the helicopter spent about an hour stabilizing the woman when they first reached the crash and joined the other pair in the HC-130J for the flight back.
The Alaska Air National Guard’s three rescue squadrons frequently respond to civilian search and rescue calls around Alaska. The 210th Rescue Squadron, or RQS, operates the Guard’s HH-60s while the HC-130Js are flown by the 211th RQS, with both airframes kept flying by the Guard’s 176th Maintenance Group. The 212th RQS is the Guard’s pararescue team.
Editor’s note, Dec. 29, 7:45 p.m.: After publication of this story, officials with the Alaska Air National Guard clarified that the pararescue team that initially reached the patient on the HH-60 did not hand over care of the patient to the pararescue team on the HC-130J but rather joined the HC-130J crew for the flight back to Anchorage. This story has been updated to reflect that sequence. Additionally, the story has been updated to reflect that the 176th Maintenance Group is the unit responsible for maintenance of the Guard’s rescue aircraft.