An HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska in 2021. Flying an HH-60G and an HC-130 tanker, rescue crews from the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing flew 400 miles across the state on Christmas Eve to rescue a pregnant woman suffering from internal bleeding. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong.
When a call for help arrived on Christmas Eve, Alaska Air National Guard helicopter, tanker, and pararescue crews launched an all-hands mission to reach a pregnant woman who was bleeding internally in Shaktoolik, a remote village being battered by howling ocean winds 400 miles from a hospital.
“This mission was truly one of those ‘only in Alaska’ moments,” said Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Bowerfind, the lead pararescueman, or PJ, on the mission.
At Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska, home of the 176th Wing, Christmas Eve comes heavy on the “Eve,” as the sun manages to climb above the horizon for just over seven hours. So, as the Guard crews prepared to launch an HH-60 and HC-130, they knew they’d be racing across the Alaska wilderness in darkness.
Shaktoolik, Alaska, is a remote Native village located on Norton Sound in western Alaska. Alaska Air National Guard crews rescued a pregnant woman with internal bleeding from Shaktoolik on Christmas Eve of 2022. Photo by Walter Holt Rose via Wikimedia Commons.
But in the minutes before takeoff, Bowerfind and the team's PJs decided the patient's condition in Shaktoolik was so dire that they would need to take unprecedented steps to treat her. If the woman was bleeding internally, their priority would have to be replacing the blood she was losing.
And while field blood transfusions are relatively routine in combat zones, the 176th’s PJs had never done it on a civilian rescue in their home state.
“We immediately contacted our mission support team to coordinate a blood pickup from the 673rd Medical Group,” Bowerfind said. “This is the first time that the 212th RQS has administered a blood transfusion in support of Alaska civil search and rescue missions.”
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Senior Master Sgt. Christopher G. Bowerfind, an Alaska Air National Guard pararescueman assigned to the 212th Rescue Squadron, in 2017. Bowerfind was the team leader on a Christmas Eve 2022 mission to transport a pregnant woman with internal bleeding to a hospital in Anchorage. US Air Force photo by Justin Connaher.
Still, the team first had to reach Shaktoolik. With a population of about 200, Shaktoolik is so remote that it serves as a waypoint on the annual Iditarod sled dog race across the state.
Hard against the Norton Sound, the village was being battered by a brutal storm blowing off the Bering Sea.
“Crosswinds at the unattended, gravel airstrip in Shaktoolik and surrounding airfields were gusting in excess of 35 knots,” said Maj. Paul Rouenhorse, the search and rescue duty officer for the mission. “While this exceeds weather limitations for civil air ambulance, the HH-60 is capable of hovering into and safely landing in extremely high winds.”
An Alaska Air National Guard HC-130J Combat King II refuels an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in 2018. Alaska National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Balinda O’Neal Dresel.
Like most Air Force rescue units, the 176th crews are split into three squadrons: the 210th Rescue Squadron flies the HH-60G Pave Hawk, while the 211th RQS flies HC-130J Combat King II tankers that refuel the helicopters throughout long missions. Pararescuemen of the 212th RQS fly on both airframes, acting as a ground team on the helicopters and, on particularly far-flung missions, are capable of parachuting from the HC-130s.
The three squadrons routinely train and deploy together, and all operate with a pair of "green feet" as an unofficial logo. Often seen on planes, patches, and other unit gear across the Air Force's rescue community, the "green feet" are a reference to the colloquial mascot of rescuers in Vietnam, the Jolly Green Giant.
As the two aircraft and their PJ teams flew across the state, the HC-130 refueled the helicopter in flight then dashed ahead to provide weather reconnaissance.
Once in Shaktoolik, the pararescue team met the woman and medical officials at the village clinic and began a blood transfusion while stabilizing her for the long flight to Anchorage.
An HH-60G from the 212th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard, retrieves pararescuemen from the 212th RQS in April 2022. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Edward Eagerton.
The next step would be to get the woman aboard the HC-130, which could fly much quicker to Anchorage, avoiding bad weather.
But for that, the big cargo plane had to land. The crew buzzed the airfield at nearby Unalakleet, but it was being buffeted by the same heavy winds as Shaktoolik. Instead, they flew to McGrath, a larger town about 200 miles inland where the weather was better.
Though McGrath was about halfway back to Anchorage, it sits safely on the western side of the Alaska Range, which splits the state in half. To traverse the mountains, the pilots of the 210th’s HH-60 would need to carefully pick their way through mountain passes, where weather and steep terrain can close in without warning. If the mountains became impassable, the helicopter would have to fly even farther around the range, delaying the return to Anchorage by hours.
And even if the passes were open, the helicopters would be slowed by a vicious headwind the whole way.
“The aircrew verified the winds and reported a 70-knot headwind back to JBER,” Rouenhorse said. “This affirmed our decision to conduct a patient transload at an airfield west of the mountain range.”
After transferring the patient in McGrath, the HC-130 flew to JBER, where an Anchorage Fire Department ambulance took the woman to a local hospital.
“The patient was surrounded by family as the entire village showed up to offer help,” said Bowerfind. “It truly takes a village.”
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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