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NEWS | Sept. 29, 2021

176th Wing recognized for heroic rescue mission

By Maj. Chelsea Aspelund, 176th Wing Public Affairs

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - The 176th Wing’s operations and maintenance groups were recognized with the 2021 Jolly Green Rescue Mission of the Year accolade.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Guardsmen of the 176th Wing generated and flew 30 sorties culminating in more than 120 flight hours in two high-altitude rescue missions that saved 13 people in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

“The complexity of the weekend was unprecedented as inclement weather in the park tested our equipment, required a joint force response, and demonstrated our air rescue team’s ability to navigate challenging weather and terrain,” said Alaska Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Evan Budd, Alaska Rescue Coordination Center superintendent. 

On May 29, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Service requested assistance from the AKRCC after local assets were unable to safely fly through thick cloud cover and whiteout conditions to reach a mountaineering party with two members experiencing high-altitude sickness near 14,000 feet on Klutlan Glacier near Mount Bona.

The AKRCC dispatched a 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat King II and a 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk with a 212th Rescue Squadron Guardian Angel team of two pararescuemen and one 210th RQS special mission operator.

St. Elias guides with the mountaineering party safely moved the expedition to 10,000 feet, where they set up shelter, surrounded by snow berms, to protect them from the wind. For three nights, the team continuously rebuilt berms, shoveled a clearing for the helicopter, provided field medical care for the injured, and relayed information via satellite phone to rescue crews.

A few hours into the Mount Bona mission, NPS requested additional assets for a second rescue after a Cessna 182 airplane crashed in inclement weather at 6,500 feet on Mount Hawkins.

Rescue assets overhead at Mount Bona confirmed that winds were too high and clouds too thick to safely land the HH-60, so the AKRCC redirected the aircraft to Mount Hawkins and dispatched a second Pave Hawk and Guardian Angel team to Mount Bona.

“Generating these sorties required all hands on deck as weekend-alert maintenance personnel were called in to repair and inspect nearly our entire fleet for continuous, extended-range rescue operations,” said Chief Master Sgt. Eric Chester, 176th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent. “Our maintenance teams generated more than 250 percent of our normal aircraft capacity.”

During training and routine alert operations, the 176th AMXS has two or three crew chiefs ready to generate one HC-130 and one HH-60, with preflight taking approximately three hours and postflight four or more hours. 

To support simultaneous rescue missions, the 176th AMXS generated two HC-130s and four HH-60G with only 10 crew chiefs and two maintenance leads available. One of the helicopters generated was in the final stages of a major maintenance event, which entailed aircraft reassembly and maintenance of more than 30 no-fly discrepancies.

“It took all weekend to piece the helicopter together, but it was back to fully mission capable status on Monday morning and ready to assume alert for the final sortie of the mission,” Chester said. “This is key because we exhausted every other resource we had, and it was the last tail we had to fall back on.”

In addition to aircraft generation, aircrew flight equipment personnel of 176th Operations Support Squadron worked diligently to pack parachutes, lifesaving equipment and medical supplies as patient conditions on Mount Hawkins were not known at the time of dispatch.   

Early May 31, a break in the weather on Mount Hawkins enabled the HH-60 to navigate to the crash site, hoist a Guardian Angel team 150 feet down, and safely transport both people from the mountain.  

Meanwhile, Mount Bona weather continued to worsen, so the St. Elias guides requested evacuation of their entire 11-person party.

The AKRCC coordinated with the Army National Guard to dispatch a heavy-airlift capable CH-47F Chinook from the 38th Alaska Army National Guard Troop Command, 207th Aviation Regiment.

The HH-60 returned to JBER while the HC-130J remained over Mount Bona so the crew could provide safe passage and weather updates to the Chinook. On June 1, the CH-47 safely navigated through the weather to airlift 11 people and more than 1,000 pounds of equipment from Klutlan Glacier.

“This was the first high-altitude heavy airlift for our Alaskan-based Chinooks,” said Lt. Col. Michele Edwards, Alaska Army National Guard Aviation officer of the newest aircraft to the Army National Guard fleet.

More than 75 personnel from 10 different 176th Wing shops were involved in enabling these rescue missions.