Confessions of a Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot - Part III

By Jack McCormack

Edited by Don Gardner


The Coast Guard in Alaska ...... A New Beginning

The day we arrived in Alaska it was raining. That's what it does most of the time in Southeast Alaska, 180 inches or so a year. Southeast Alaska, or Southeast as the Alaskans call it, is a northern rain forest of Sitka spruce.

After a few days off to get the family settled into government quarters, I reported for work. Bingo, I was immediately demoted to copilot. After all this time and effort to become an aircraft commander of HH3F's, I'm now a copilot in the same aircraft. Well, there is a real good reason for this. Due to Alaska’s mountainous terrain and the hostile and changing weather, I had to become Alaskan-qualified. This took only about a month, flying various missions, including logistics and SAR. But mainly, learning the various low level routes up the channels and through the passes and valleys to the various villages and outlying areas where we may be needed, day or night, in the often dismal weather conditions.

Even though fully instrumented, you couldn't depart Instrument Flying Rules in the H3, climb to altitude into the clouds and shoot an approach at your destination. First, there was, in all probability, no approach at your destination—a light bulb on the ground if you were lucky. Second, the H3, and no other helicopter up to now, has full de-icing capabilities. Even though you may have a 500 foot ceiling with good visibility and above freezing temperatures below, there is ice up in them there clouds.

Southeast is an archipelago, with high mountains. To go direct, from Annette to Petersburg, you would have to climb to 6000 feet. With engine and windshield de-ice, the engines would run fine and you would see the nose of the helicopter as you fell out of the sky with full power and a load of ice. That is if you didn't come unglued from slinging ice unevenly from the rotor system. Thus the low level navigation and knowing the terrain, and knowing it well. The weather radar helped keep us over the water and the radar altimeter kept us from hitting it. They kept us just between the rock and a hard place, just. After paying my dues again as copilot, I was designated an Alaskan Qualified Aircraft Commander, then along came a real challenge.

A Lost Cause

Just before midnight, on a nasty weather night, we received a call that a tug had lost her tow south of the entrance to Lisianski Straight, which leads to Juneau. They were requesting that we hoist one of their crewmen aboard then lower him to the drifting tug; completing that, we would then pass a messenger line between the tug and the barge on which a new tow line would be passed. Because of the heavy seas, they were unable to place the man aboard the barge for fear of collision and/or losing the man overboard. This, I repeat, was a nasty night on the water, with winds from the northwest at 50 to 60 knots and seas running 50 feet or better. But the visibility below the 1000 foot overcast was good, at least five miles or better. Not a walk in the park, but doable.

Off we charged out of Annette, around Cape Chacon and Cape Muzon and flew the 230 miles up the west coast to just off of Chichagof Island. Upon arrival on scene, things looked grim. We were getting bumped about a bit. With two 1500 SHP engines to work with, however, we were doing fine; but the 125-foot tug was getting trashed. Trashed to the point the captain couldn't even get a man on deck to retrieve our hoist cable, never mind being transferred to the tug. After discussing the situation with the captain, with various suggestions being passed back and forth, it was decided nothing could be done this night. He would stay on scene and monitor the barge on radar. We would proceed to Juneau to refuel and await sunrise and hopefully moderating wind and seas. On leaving the scene, I felt sorry for the captain and crew of that tug. Pitching and rolling badly, with it's gunwales and decks awash most of the time, this was one hell of a seaworthy tug. Not a very pleasant place to spend the rest of the night.

During the early morning hours, the tug lost radar contact as the barge drifted closer to shore. It was presumed aground. We arrived on scene at first light to search for the barge. There was nothing left. It had been completely destroyed in the surf during the early morning hours. The cargo, which turned into a foam type substance when activated by sea water, was floating downwind for a hundred miles or more. It would dissipate in a day or so causing no damage. We had tried, but lost. The Alaskan environment won this one.

Medical Evacuation

Then there was a medical evacuation for a two-year-old child from a logging camp in Peril Strait, 55 miles north of Sitka. That is, 55 miles as boats and aircraft go in Alaska, 35 miles direct.

The child was suffering from acute asthma. The doctor in Sitka, advised a medevac. I don't want to sound critical, but more often than not a doctor will advise a medevac just to cover his butt—he doesn't have to make the flight. I once talked a doctor out of this attitude in a child birth situation. I pointed out that the woman had refused his advice to come to town two weeks earlier, and the weather was such, snowing and dark, that a crew of four, plus a corpsman would be at hazard. After being invited to come along on the flight, he finally acknowledged the fact that, yes, child birth is a natural phenomena and the woman was having only normal labor pains. Plus, she had a mid-wife in attendance.

This didn't seem to be the case here. It was about midnight with a 1000 foot ceiling, excellent visibility (but very dark) and no wind. It would be a long haul up from Annette. We would have to fly 60 miles south then west out around Cape Chacon and Cape Muzon, then 110 miles to the entrance to Chatham Strait. Then up Chatham Strait, another 85 miles, to the entrance to Peril Strait, then five miles to the camp. A total of 260 nautical miles. It would take us a little over two hours to get there at 120 knots. On the other hand, if it had been possible to climb to altitude and go direct, the distance would have only been 170 miles. However, we would have to clear a 5100 foot peak en route. As I have said, there is ice in them there clouds.

Off we went into the night. All went well in the beginning, but it got a little touchy at the entrance to Peril Strait. There are three lighted buoys at the entrance and the three of us didn't agree on which was which. When I say all three of us, I'm speaking of the copilot, radio operator acting as back up navigator, and myself. I suggested 360 degree turns were in order until we worked things out. They agreed wholeheartedly, knowing full well that going aground at 80 knots (we had slowed to best endurance speed) would be a hazard to our health.

Upon completing the first 360 degree turn, I agreed that they were right and proceeded into Peril Strait. Now the problem here was, the entrance closes to about two miles very quickly after the buoys, and the weather radar will not distinguish anything closer than a mile. Now, we get lower and slower, go five miles and take a left.

We saw the light bulb to our port and made a left turn. All was well at 100 feet, and I started the descent to the lights when they went out. It seemed there was a small island between us and the camp with tall trees. Whoops, almost had it there. Up collective and the lights were back, we cleared the trees and back down to the camp.

The corpsman jumped out and we shut down while he made his evaluation. He returned in short order and informed me that the child was stabilized and would be fine until daybreak, about 0930. Great. We then settled in at the camp for a few hours sleep.

About two hours later, the corpsman woke me and reported the child was becoming unstable again and recommended we depart immediately. Remember, the corpsman is flying with us and must be serious, not just a CYA job.

We went through the startup check list and were ready for lift off when Brian, the copilot, and I looked out the wind screen and saw it was snowing like hell. We couldn’t see the building 25 feet away, fully lit. We looked at each other, and without a word, shut down. So much for that, at least until it stopped snowing, or daylight.

At daybreak, we departed while it was snowing like hell, then proceeded west through the rest of Peril Strait, to Sitka. At night, in snow, with the landing lights on, you are in a big whiteout. In daylight you can see the water and navigate like a boat, even when the strait closes to less than 200 yards at it’s narrowest.

After five miles or so, the snow stopped. We must have been under the same snow squall all night. The weather was back to a 1000 foot ceiling and unlimited visibility. The 55 mile trip to Sitka was uneventful, going north of Baranof Island, then flying through the cut east of Kruzof Island to Sitka on Baranof Island.

Our patient was doing quite well when he was transferred to an ambulance. All in all, another very rewarding and challenging flight for the Coast Guard.

* * * *



Return to the Coast Guard Stories Page