Coast Guard rescuers rush to lone plane crash in Alaska

When Yakutat cops arrived at the crash site in Alaska, they saw where the plane had cut through treetops before crashing between pine trees near the Dry Bay airstrip, 44 miles away southeast of their police station.

It was Tuesday, May 24, and there were four casualties inside the de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter, the kind of bush plane the Alaskans use for short takeoffs and landings in very remote areas.

And Dry Bay is remote. Fed by the Alsek River, rimmed by mudflats, filled with abandoned canneries, and wedged in by a long gravel quagmire, the Coastal Plain stretches 16 miles of the mostly roadless northeast coast of the Gulf of Alaska.

The wounded needed medical attention and a quick evacuation to a hospital, and that could only happen with more planes. Other Cessnas first responders were flying to the airstrip, but they needed U.S. Coast Guard assistance.

A U.S. Coast Guard crew evacuated two people from Dry Bay Airstrip in Alaska on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. U.S. Coast Guard Photo.

They were lucky – help was already on the way. The downed aircraft’s emergency locator transmitter automatically triggered a Mayday on impact. The U.S. Coast Guard Juneau 17th District received the alert at approximately 3:15 p.m., shortly before the Juneau Sector Operations Center received a phone call from an eyewitness describing the crash.

More than 200 miles from the crash was a Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter crew on a training mission. They were low on fuel and time, so they returned to Sitka Air Station and “hot refueled” with the engines still running and the rotor head spinning.

The pilots and their crew jumped out, and an alert Coast Guard team responded, bringing litters, backboards and other emergency equipment.

The Jayhawk approached Dry Bay before 5 p.m. As the co-pilot, Lt. Erik Oredson, looked down, he observed the wreckage. The fuselage was “still mostly intact”, he said. Coffee or Die Magazine, but the wings and tail were “obviously enough hit quite hard”.

A U.S. Coast Guard crew evacuates two patients from Dry Bay Airstrip in Alaska on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. U.S. Coast Guard Photo.

They landed and Oredson said the passengers on the plane were “pretty badly injured” but also conscious. Civilian first responders already had three patients out of the plane, two of them on spinal boards, but one of the passengers was still trapped in the plane.

And that’s where Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Luke Singer comes in.

It’s transfer season at Air Station Sitka. This means new personnel are arriving, many Alaska Air Rescue veterans are leaving, and there is an influx of Coasties on temporary duty to bolster crew sizes and replace injured personnel as the months of busy summers loom.

Singer had arrived in the Last Frontier State three weeks prior from New Jersey, just nine months after training at A-school as an elite lifeguard. The Dry Bay mission took place on the first day of its permanent alert duty in Sitka.

“I had never flown with him before; none of us had,” Oredson said. “He did a great job.”

A U.S. Coast Guard crew evacuated two people from Dry Bay Airstrip in Alaska on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. U.S. Coast Guard Photo.

Singer rushed to collect the last passenger from the plane. Avionics Electrical Technician 3rd Class Chris Johnson – the crew’s flight mechanic and winch operator, who moonlights as a volunteer emergency medical technician with the local fire department – ​​has him helped secure the patient to a spine board.

The Jayhawk pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Seavey, began removing as much equipment from the helicopter as he could to accommodate as many patients as possible. They would come back for the equipment later.

“We didn’t want to pull over just because it was adding time to the takeoff, so I sat inside and held the controls while the captain came out and reconfigured the cabin,” Oredson said.

Twenty minutes after landing, the Jayhawk crew had the two most seriously injured patients in the helicopter, and they were flying towards Yakutat. They were followed by a Yakutat Police Department Cessna carrying a passenger. A civilian volunteer picked up the least injured patient, all bound for Yakutat.

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A U.S. Coast Guard Kodiak HC-130 Hercules Air Station crew takes off from an airstrip in Sitka, Alaska, Nov. 16, 2020. Photo courtesy Don Kluting.

Located about 200 miles northwest of Juneau, Yakutat has fewer than 700 residents and lacks a major trauma center.

So a US Coast Guard HC-130H Hercules crew from Kodiak Air Station carried additional nurses and paramedics and transported injured passengers to Anchorage.

Not only were watchmen in Sitka and Kodiak coordinating these complex aerial medical evacuations, but a second Hercules crew out of Kodiak was searching for a missing sailor in Cook Inlet.

“Plane crash calls definitely get your heart rate up,” Oredson said. “We never know what we’re going to encounter – whether it’s a plane that went straight into the side of the cliff or something that people had survived – then you have to be ready for anything.”

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