A Day in the Life of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka

By LT Adam Merrill, USCG

Since the United States Coast Guard established Air Station Sitka, Alaska in 1977, its aircrews have saved over 2,000 lives, assisted thousands of others, and saved hundreds of millions of dollars in vessel property from the perils of the sea. In this two-part series, Lt. Adam Merrill describes a typical day in the life of a Coast Guard pilot at Air Station Sitka.

"OS1 (Operations Specialist First Class), if we get a launch request before 2200, hit the SAR alarm first thing, and then pipe as much info as you've got about the case so maintenance control can get a head start configuring the aircraft with extra fuel tanks or de-watering pumps as necessary. If the request is after 2200, find me or Lt. Merrill first, and we'll talk to the command center before we wake everybody up."

Air Station Sitka MH-60J lands on a southeast Alaska beach.
Photo by AET1 Bill Greer, USCG

It's just after 1445 at Air Station Sitka and the start of another duty day, which will run from 1500 hours until our relief at 1500 the following day. On this day, like most duty days, I pulled into base around 1430, giving me just enough time to jump into my flight suit and take a look at the weather before the brief. The standard search and rescue (SAR) crew for a U.S. Coast Guard HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter is two pilots, a flight mechanic, and a rescue swimmer, and at 1445 we all made our way into the Operations Center for the oncoming duty brief.

First, the operations watchstander (OWS) briefed us on standard items including the current airfield weather, the status of the three helicopters assigned to our unit, and the location of the command cadre (in case something should come up during our duty day requiring command notification). Now the senior duty officer (SDO) is running through specific items for our crew.

As a rule, the Coast Guard doesn't send nuggets (newly designated pilots) to Alaska, so - unlike Air Stations in the lower 48 - the wardrooms of Air Stations Sitka and Kodiak are filled with multi-tour aircraft commanders (ACs), experienced in our respective airframes. Though we're both ACs in the mighty Jayhawk, the other pilot I'm on duty with today is senior to me in rank, so he's the SDO, and will be the pilot-in-command (PIC) for any flights during the next 24 hours.

He continues his briefing: "Weather around the AOR (area of responsibility)…well, what you see out the window is what you get. Some low clouds, marginal VFR everywhere, but the visibility isn't too bad; the field's calling scattered at 400, overcast at 1,000 and four miles vis right now. As usual, the east side of the AOR is forecasting the worst weather. Petersburg is calling for conditions down to about 200 and a half tonight, and Wrangell is about the same. If we get sent that direction, we'll take a hard look at the weather before we punch in.

"We're not scheduled to fly tonight, but we do have a 0800 ramp time tomorrow morning for a five-hour patrol north. We'll ROL in Juneau and get back to home plate in time for the relief. Questions anybody? Alright, that's it." OK, the brief's complete; we're now the ready crew for southeast Alaska. I grab my helmet bag and head down to the hangar deck. I swing by the swimmer shop, where the aviation survival technicians (rescue swimmers) are busy completing scheduled maintenance on all the survival gear we carry in the helo. They're responsible for the aircraft life rafts, the de-watering pumps that we hoist down to sinking ships, and our own aircrew survival vests. The vests have an integral harness that can be used to hoist us out of the water, and they contain survival gear including emergency flares, an EPIRB, and my personal favorite, the HEEDs bottle - or Helicopter Emergency Egress Device, a mini-SCUBA setup with about 5 minutes of air (depending on how rabbit-fast your breaths are). We carry one in our vest on every flight for the same reason that we wear dry suits and carry life rafts and "Gumby" cold-weather exposure suits in the helicopter: "just in case." Unlike its predecessor, the H-3 Pelican, the HH-60J is not an amphibious aircraft, and it is notoriously top-heavy. If we were to put one in the water for whatever reason, the engines and massive transmission system perched on top of the fuselage would cause the helicopter to roll inverted and then sink. (To further prepare ourselves for that unlikely possibility, Coast Guard helo crews undergo annual training in the infamous SWET chair, or Shallow Water Egress Trainer.)

Two Air Station Sitka MH-60Js form up to overfly the annual Alaska Day parade in Sitka.
Photo by AET1 Bill Greer, USCG

After pre-flighting my survival vest and adjusting the myriad straps to fit me, I grab a pair of ANANVIS-9 NVGs out of the locker and mount them to my helmet. I focus them on the Hoffman 20/20 set in the darkroom and then stow all my gear in the ready-crew cabinet by the door to maintenance control.

A few minutes in maintenance control going over the records for the 6002 with the watch captain familiarizes me with the recent gripes on our steed. With the aircraft's maintenance history in mind, I head back out to the hangar deck to pre-flight the plane. Starting at the nose of the helo, I work my way down the right side, around the tail and back up the left side, methodically reviewing each item on my personal pre-flight checklist. This ritual, completed the same way every time, breeds confidence that my aircraft will be ready should we need to launch out on the proverbial "dark and stormy" tonight. My primary duty in the Coast Guard is to stand duty as a helo pilot. However, like all Coast Guard pilots, I've got several "collateral duties" to keep me busy when I'm not flying. When I get back up to my office, I spend the next couple of hours wading through e-mails and working on projects related to my current collaterals. Having just finished dinner up in the galley, I'm sitting in the wardroom psyching myself up for another couple of hours in the office, when the SAR phone line rings at about 1745. The OWS picks up on the second ring, and I pick as well, to eavesdrop on a possible launch.

"Air Station Sitka operations, Petty Officer Smith on an un-secure line, how can I help you?" the OWS rattles off.

"Good evening. This is Lt. Jones calling from the District 17 Command Center in Juneau. We've got a medevac launch request for your H-60."

The OWS pulls out a blank SAR check-off sheet and starts running through the required information for a SAR launch. I listen with half my brain as I throw on my jacket, hang up the phone and head out the door.

The SDO was eavesdropping from his office as well, and we meet up in the passageway heading for the Opcen. The OWS puts the SAR controller from District on the speakerphone, as the SDO heads to the chart table and I start pulling up the weather.

"The patient is a 63-year-old female at the Petersburg clinic suffering from appendicitis," the controller says. "The highest level of care currently on-scene is a physician's assistant. The duty flight surgeon has already spoken to the PA, and they've concurred that the patient needs to have surgery within the next 6 hours."

The SAR controller keeps doling out the bad news: "We've already contacted civilian medevac services, but they reported that the weather's too bad for them to get in there." I report from the weather terminal: "I think the LDA/DME into Petersburg only gets you down to about 1,500 feet, and their last METAR was calling… overcast at 100 feet and 2 ½ miles vis. Weather gets lousier the farther east you go. Home plate is calling overcast at 2,800 with eight miles vis, but Port Alexander is 300 and two, Kake is 100 and 1 ¾, and Petersburg is 100 and 2 ½." The hits just keep on coming.

The SDO and I kick around various routes to Petersburg, and we decide that we'll head that direction, and if the weather gets undoable as we approach the airfield, we'll abort. We call Ops to brief him on the case, the weather, and our plan, and he's on board as well.

Even though I know it's coming, the SAR alarm makes me jump every time. The operations watchstander's voice on the 1MC booms through the hangar.

"Now, put the ready H-60 on the line, put the ready H-60 on the line. Medevac of a 63 year-old female with appendicitis from Petersburg."

I hear the pipe as I pull on my drysuit in the locker room. Two minutes later, we form up as a crew in maintenance control, and while the senior duty officer signs for the plane, I brief the crew on the details of the case.

The line crew has already towed our helo to spot 2 on the ramp, so we load our gear on board and strap in.

"Battery: on. Passenger and crew brief: complete. Seats, harnesses, pedals and mirrors: adjusted, pilot; adjusted, copilot."

An Air Station Sitka MH-60J prepares for a medevac launch on a typical winter night.
Photo by AET1 Bill Greer, USCG

The familiar cadence of the challenge-and-response checklists leads to the General Electric roar of our faithful T700 engines. Twenty-seven minutes after the initial phone call, Coast Guard Rescue 6002 lifts from the ramp en route to Petersburg for one of about 60 medevacs Air Station Sitka will perform this year. Our unit handles more medevacs than any other unit in the Coast Guard, providing a lifeline for the residents of the isolated villages scattered throughout Southeast Alaska, as well as our traditional maritime customers, including the commercial fishing fleet and the many cruise ships that ply Alaska's waters each summer.

To ensure a superior level of care, the medical clinic at Air Station Sitka maintains a pool of aviation mission specialists: military corpsmen trained as airborne medics. If the ready crew is launched on a medevac, we recall the duty corpsman as a matter of course, and take him with us to augment the EMT II-level care that the rescue swimmer can provide. As soon as we break ground, the duty corpsman and rescue swimmer switch to conference 2 on the intercom system to discuss the patient's condition and to plan a course of treatment while we're en route to Petersburg.

Whale Bay looks clear, so we take the overland shortcut, and pop out into Chatham Strait on the east side of Baranof Island. That jump will save us 70 miles of transit time, but as expected, the weather is crummy on the east side of the island. Before long, we're creeping along at 150 feet above ground level and 100 knots, radar nav-ing on night vision goggles. We've loaded our locally produced GPS low-visibility flight plan into the tactical navigation computer, and I'm fighting the 25-knot crosswind, concentrating on keeping the CDI (course deviation indicator) centered. Even through the goggles, there's nothing to see out front, but through the chin bubble I can still make out the white-capped surface of the 46-degree-Fahrenheit water flashing by. At least it's not snowing…

We make the right turn into Frederick Sound and follow the clear radar picture past Turnabout Island. We know we're getting close to Petersburg as the pass starts to narrow down to about three miles wide just past Thomas Bay. The airport is only three miles out now as we make the last 90-degree right turn and head for the beach. There's only one towered field in Southeast Alaska, and Petersburg is not it. We take a spin through AWOS and hear what we already know: "Wind 050 at three, visibility one, sky condition overcast at 100, light rain and mist, temperature nine, dewpoint nine, altimeter 3011."

We click on the pilot-controlled lighting, but at 100 feet and two miles out, our NVGs still aren't picking anything up. We've already briefed and set up the cockpit for a Precision Approach to a Coupled Hover (PATCH), an autopilot maneuver that flies the helo down to an automatic hover at 50 feet. We decide that if we still can't see the beach from 1.4 miles out, we'll hit the approach button, and then hover taxi to the shore.

The radar is showing us a mile and a half out, when suddenly we see the reflection of the runway strobes in the fog ahead. With that light source as a reference, we slow to 50 knots and creep up to the beach and the treeline. I know the runway is just over that line of 120-foot trees, and as we clear it in a hover taxi, the runway comes into view.

As we ground taxi to the ramp, the ambulance pulls up to deliver our patient. The swimmer and corpsman exit the aircraft to assess and package the patient for transport. Twenty-five minutes later, everyone's loaded back up and we're ready to go.

The command center tells us that the only hospital in Southeast Alaska that can handle the patient tonight is Bartlett Regional in Juneau, so off we go. The transit to Juneau is more of the same. It would be quicker to go straight up Stephen's Passage into Gastineau Channel, but as we slide by Cape Fanshaw, we can't even see Five Finger Lighthouse, so we decide to take the longer but safer route up Chatham Strait. The weather improves as we head north and west, and by the time we get to the confluence of Icy Strait and Chatham Strait, visibility is up to about four miles and the ceilings are high enough to sneak through Funter Bay and into Juneau.

Juneau EMS is waiting for us on the ramp as we touch down, and we effect a quick transfer of the patient to their care for subsequent transport to the hospital.

Prior to shutting down, we call the command center on VHF to let them know that the patient transfer is complete, and that we're shutting down to refuel.

"Coast Guard Rescue 6002: Request you contact us via landline upon shutdown. We have a medevac from Skagway of a 67-year-old male with pulmonary edema."

"Command center, Rescue 02. Roger."

It's going to be a long night !

An MH-60J hovers over Air Station Sitka's ramp with Mt. Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano, in the background.
Photo by AET1 Bill Greer, USCG

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