The workhorse of US Coast Guard aviation in Alaska, the MH-60T Jayhawk is an all-weather, medium-range recovery helicopter. US Coast Guard photo.
KODIAK, Alaska — They knew the elderly man along the Saltery Coast was struggling to breathe, but they found out the hard way his waders also were filled with uncontrollable diarrhea.
It was more than an hour after the sun rose Wednesday, July 13, on US Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak when Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Chevalier got an urgent dispatch to scramble his MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter aircrew.
Their mission was to rescue a 78-year-old man. He was only about 30 nautical miles south of the tarmac, but he was holed up in a very remote part of the island.
“People very often will leave Kodiak to take their cars and side-by-sides here and do a little 12-mile trail,” Chevalier, a 32-year-old pilot, told Coffee or Die Magazine, pointing at a map. ”Saltery, Kodiak, is world-class fishing. You’ll camp out there and catch this unbelievable amount of sockeye salmon.”
Alaska’s brown bears also appreciate the sockeye salmon fishing on Kodiak Island’s Saltery Coast. This one was chowing down on Friday, July 15, 2022. Photo by Noelle Wiehe/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Chevalier and his co-pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Jon Ardan, mulled how they’d run the mission. They didn’t like that the “cloud deck was super low,” Chevalier said. They decided to take the helicopter all the way around a mountain pass and touch down on the Saltery Cove beach.
After they landed, the crew’s elite rescue swimmer, Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Robert “Bobby” Burke, realized they got lucky, even if the man’s waders were brimming with poop.
He could walk the fellow down to the Jayhawk and help him into the chopper. Flanked by the crew’s flight mechanic, Aviation Electronic Technician 2nd Class Dan Belt, Burke began giving the patient oxygen for the trip back to the air station.
When they landed, an ambulance was waiting to rush the man to Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center.
US Coast Guard pilot Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Chevalier points to the location of a Wednesday, July 13, 2022, search and rescue mission on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Photo by Noelle Wiehe/Coffee or Die Magazine.
It had been a busy day for US Coast Guard crews in Alaska.
A dozen hours earlier, US Coast Guard watchstander Lt. Cmdr. Rachel Post had fielded a call from the tug Arctic Bear. A crewmember on board the vessel was showing symptoms of appendicitis, and a medical adviser told him he needed help quickly.
“One of the difficult things is you have this flight surgeon who may or may not even be in Alaska,” said US Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak’s Assistant Operations Officer Lt. Cmdr. Carl Luxhoj, 33. “So, I don’t know where this guy was taking his calls. But it’s a phone-up, so he could be in Oregon or Washington listening in to medical conditions that can be thousands of miles away, trying to make the best medical determination of what’s going on based on just symptoms.”
The sick crewman was roughly 30 nautical miles offshore. His condition was so bad he couldn’t hop into a helicopter or help hoist himself up. He needed someone to put him in a litter or basket.
So Post had to make a few decisions.
US Coast Guard pilot Lt. Zachary Farrell guides his MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter to the medical evacuation of a mariner near Cold Bay, Alaska, on June 14, 2022. US Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. Scott Filipowicz.
She spoke to the pilots of the the two ready MH-60T Jayhawk rescue helicopters. One was on the tarmac at Air Station Kodiak. The other was at Cold Bay, about 100 nautical miles closer to Arctic Bear.
But the Cold Bay aircrew didn’t have a rescue swimmer, the person who usually loads a patient onto a basket or litter to be hoisted aboard the helicopter.
And they couldn’t fall back on a cutter for help. Usually, a cutter is on patrol in that part of the Bering Sea this time of year, but the scheduled vessel was delayed due to mechanical problems.
“Now, we’re basically asking them to do something that they haven’t actually trained to do,” Luxhoj said. “They had to think outside of the box. But they’re all trained for it. They’re prepared for it. It’s just making sure they have the confidence.”
So the decision was made. The Cold Bay team would medevac the tug’s crewman without a rescue swimmer.
And they did, using a basket.
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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