[By Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson]
It’s a story that sounds as if it were pulled right from the movies. High winds, rough seas, a rescue helicopter low on fuel and a crew determined to save a life. But the danger was real for the Kodiak, Alaska-based Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew on a mission to save the life of a cargo vessel crewman.
The crewman was on board the Tianjin Pioneer, a 600-foot cargo vessel 92 miles north of Adak, Alaska, and had sustained life-threatening injuries while working in heavy seas. The duty flight surgeon recommended a medevac to bring the man to a higher level of care as soon as possible.
“Just answering my phone is the reason I was involved in that rescue,” said Lt. Paul Johansen, the helicopter’s pilot. “It was the day after Thanksgiving. I was at the movie theater with my family and got word from work saying there was a case brewing out near Adak and asked if I could come in. I said sure. That’s what anybody does who gets that call.”
Johansen and his crew, co-pilot Lt. Matt Keiper, flight mechanic Petty Officer 2nd Class James Rizer, rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class John Kreske, and flight medic Petty Officer 3rd Class Christine Parham, flew to Cold Bay, Alaska in an Air Station Kodiak C-130 to take control of the Jayhawk they would be flying on the long mission. He said every decision and action was a team effort.
“The decision-making process was very discussion oriented. It wasn’t me, as the aircraft commander, making the decisions. It was us feeding information to each other and then collectively making decisions, which is how we typically operate,” said Johansen. “I had a very experienced aircrew. So making those decisions was very easy. They have a lot of good input and they were comfortable with the decisions we were making, with the fuel situation, with options to land. I ultimately own the decisions as the aircraft commander, but all the decisions were made as a team after a lot of good discussions. When you’re flying for six hours, you’ve got nothing to do but talk to keep each other awake.”
The crew departed Cold Bay and headed to Dutch Harbor around 10:30 p.m. The winds were whipping at 75-mph and visibility was next to nothing. They loaded as much fuel as they could put in the aircraft to fight the winds and make it to Adak, an island positioned nearly at the end of the Aleutian Chain.
“Typically, we would have enough fuel to do this mission out of Dutch Harbor, be able to spend an hour or two on scene with the boat, and get back to Adak,” said Johansen. “With the winds off our nose the whole transit between Dutch and Adak, we were critical for fuel, which typically isn’t a problem in a Jayhawk since we can carry a lot of fuel.”
Once the MH-60 fuel load dips below 600 lbs., Johansen said there is a possibility of the engines flaming out and other complications.
“It was uncomfortable. We were trying to figure out at what point do we say we can’t make it? Do we have enough fuel to make it back to Dutch Harbor? We were constantly recalculating our fuel and realized we would make it to Adak right at 600 pounds,” said Johansen. “We flew over the boat to assess the situation, and then landed in Adak around five in the morning. At this point, it’s been about 11 hours since we started the mission, and we had 6.1 hours of flight time on us.”
Aircrews have a rule that if they land with over six hours of flight time, they cannot fly again until after a certain amount of rest to prevent crew fatigue. Johansen requested a flight waiver from the commanding officer in order to continue the mission.
“Since the mission was urgent and this guy was in bad shape and needed to get off the boat, the only other option was for us to rest for 12 hours to reset,” said Johansen. “That would not bode well for him, so the captain gave us the green light to go back out.”
By approximately 6 a.m., it was pitch black with 25 to 30-foot seas- a typical setting in November for Alaska’s open ocean. They reached the Tianjin Pioneer. Still battling strong winds, Keiper, in the pilot seat on the right side, steadied the helicopter above the swaying ship while Rizer lowered Kreske down the cable to the deck.
Kreske quickly secured the patient onto a litter and was ready to hoist him up to the helicopter. Just as they were about to conduct the hoist, the winds shifted making their position an unviable option for recovery. Johansen took the controls, repositioned the helicopter and gave control back to Keiper.
“During the litter recovery in 63-mile-per-hour winds and 30-foot seas, we were moving around a lot. As Rizer picked the litter off the deck with the hoist, Kreske was holding it, but we drifted aft,” said Johansen. “It dragged the litter into the handrail on the side of the ship. Kreske used every bit of strength he could to keep that thing from getting caught in the rigging and then let it go once it cleared- to much risk of his own, because he’s getting dragged toward the side of the ship. If he goes overboard, it would be very, very challenging to get him back in the aircraft.”
Once the patient was safely aboard, they recovered Kreske and landed back in Adak with approximately 7.2 hours of total overnight flight time for the mission.
“That’s what they call the red zone flying when you take off after one a.m. when your body is normally in REM sleep,” said Johansen. “It’s challenging to keep yourself focused and to be in your peak performance after flying for that long to go actually do the case.”
The distance from Kodiak to Adak is nearly half the distance across the continental United States. Johansen said that shows the gravity of how big the area of responsibility is for Air Station Kodiak.
Medevac crews get called on a handful of Adak cases each year, and each one is conducted a little bit differently based on the details of the case and lessons learned from past cases.
According to Johansen, two MH-60 crews are sometimes sent on one mission for self-rescue. If something happens to one crew, the other crew is there to back them up.
Due to crew availability, the Tianjin Pioneer case sent the C-130 crew for support.
“The C-130 crew did a great job flying into Adak through challenging weather. Adak is no joke,” said Johansen. “While we were there, a man had a heart attack. The C-130 crew ended up taking on a second patient. Both Parham and Kreske stayed with the patients on the C-130 to Anchorage. They landed there around one in the afternoon; so that was a long, long mission for those two.”
For his role in the dangerous rescue, Johansen received the Order of Daedalians U.S. Coast Guard Exceptional Pilot Award in Washington D.C., April 8, 2017.
The award is presented annually to a pilot selected by the Coast Guard based on exceptional deeds performed to assure mission success, acts of valor as an aviator or an extraordinary display of courage or leadership in the air in support of air operations.
Johansen humbly accepted his award as a testament of the hard work put in everyday by each member of Air Station Kodiak and went back to work flying missions in the Last Frontier.
“I had no idea I was put in for this award until about a month ago. It’s very humbling to be chosen for it. I feel like every petty officer in the hangar deserves this kind of recognition. They are the ones maintaining and fueling the aircraft, making sure it’s safe. I just fly it,” said Johansen. “Nothing we do here in Kodiak happens without the grind of those young men and women working everyday to keep the planes operational and keep us responding to everything across the state.”
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.