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Rescue Airmen brave blizzard to reach, save Alaskan villager

  • Published
  • By By Capt. Cathleen Snow
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
Snowflakes stung like needles when Pararescue Airmen skydived into a blizzard at night to rescue a Native American in a remote Alaskan village who was suffering from a life-threatening infection.

Ryan Morgan, 20, was deteriorating as fast as the weather blocking Alaskan rescue personnel from getting near him in Red Devil, the dying mining town in Southwest Alaska.  To survive, he needed immediate medical treatment, according to doctors 200 miles away in Bethel.

There would be only way to him: air rescue. The 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center alerted the Alaskan Air National Guard's 176th Air Wing.

Joining the ANG search and rescue crews were two Air Force Reserve Guardian Angle Airmen: combat rescue officer Capt. Jim Sluder, and pararescueman Staff Sgt. Dan Warren, from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., who were on a three-week TDY to Alaska to revive their cold-weather rescue skills and augment the team.

Air Force pararescue Airmen are special operators skilled in trauma medicine and conditioned athletes trained in extreme sports, such as mountain climbing and skydiving, to quickly get to wounded combatants and administer life-saving medical treatment. They are trained to operate in any type of terrain.

The call came Feb. 1 at 8:30 p.m., their last night on alert before returning to the sunshine state. Sluder paired up with Alaskan ANG pararescueman Senior Master Sgt. Doug Widner, the helicopter pickup team leader

"There was a mad rush to get everything into a couple of bags," said Sluder. "These guys (Alaskan ANG GA Airmen) live out of bags." Scrambling through their trauma medicine kits and survival gear, they stuffed what they needed inside the belly of an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, about the same size as the inside of a hollowed out car.

The Pave Hawk, which is regularly flown in combat through dusty brownouts and Afghanistan's mountainous terrain, chopped off through marginal weather 180 miles northwest toward Red Devil -- a three-hour trek to Alaska's interior.

"It's so remote that they have limited resources," said Warren, who paired up with Alaskan ANG pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Maddamma, the C-130 team leader.

Red Devil's official population is 19 and falling, according to Alaska Dispatch reporter Craig Medred. "Local healthcare is nonexistent and food needs are brought in by aircraft," Warren said.

Warren and Maddamma bundled medicine and survival gear on board an HC-130P/N King, which not only has the cargo bay about the size of a of a Mac truck, but its equipped with fuel pods on its wings to provide gas to Pave Hawks mid air.

Set to be the back-up plan and tail the chopper for fuel servicing, "I was initially told to bring a good book and a hammock," said Warren, but 45 minutes later his role would take twist.

The Pave Hawk aircrew was flying blind through the mountain pass using only their directional instruments to get them through a force field of white. "We kept looking for holes for a place to come out of this, but the ceiling was only a couple hundred feet," said Sluder of the bumpy chopper ride.

"We hit a wall of weather," said Sluder. There were comparisons to "The Perfect Storm" - a nonfiction book by Sebastian Yunger, which tells the 1991 story of what powerful weather fronts can do to boats and aircraft. In one chapter, an ANG rescue helicopter was dispatched on a rescue mission but had to ditch into the ocean during a mid-air refuel or the aircraft would have collided.

"The (refueling) probe was stabbing all over the place," said Sluder. "Everything was black and white. All the NVGs (night vision goggles) do is amplify more white and more black."

The Pave Hawk burned through fuel as it struggled through the Aleutian mountain range looking for a hole to bust through the weather, which became impossible for the medium lift chopper. Finally, the King's four propellers cut through the icy wind and snow and fed the Pave Hawk enough fuel for its return trip to Anchorage.

It was then up to the King aircrew and PJs onboard. Meanwhile, during their flight back to Anchorage, Sluder could hear the King pressing for a jump mission over the Pave Hawk's radio.

Warren and Maddamma amassed their gear and strapped on parachutes. The aircrew piloted the King to Alaska's interior and orbited overhead Red Devil while they looked for breaks in the cloud cover. "There was a 3,000-foot huge wall of white out," Warren said. "Below that we could see pockets."

Finally, "Within 10 minutes we are at BINGO (low) fuel; a call had to be made," said Warren. "We rigged up our static line parachutes." Warren then pulled down his full-face mask as he followed Maddamma out the back of the aircraft. When they first jumped they were going 125 mph in winds that were estimated to be 30-40 mph. "It was snowing sideways." They decelerated quickly after the static line deployed their canopies about six seconds later. At altitude it was about -30 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. It was so cold; Warren's goggles and eyelashes froze together. "I was taking turns closing one eye at a time to thaw the ice just enough to see."

Three-thousand feet later on the ground winds blew at 20 mph and the temperature was -25 degrees. "It was a soft landing into 10-feet of snow," said Warren who was wearing a 60-pound ruck filled to the brim. Maddamma also wore a resupply bag, but an additional bag that was dropped separately out the back of the aircraft containing antibiotics, tumbled into the snow somewhere.

At 2 a.m., they stood in chest-deep snow feeling around for the missing bag, but the snow mounds had masked any sign of it. They detached their parachutes, snapped on their snowshoes and climbed inside a van and followed a group of "tough" elderly men on snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to the patient.

Immediately they were on a first-name basis with their hosts, who were happy to see them and drove them to Morgan's house, "which was heated," said Warren.

Morgan had a significant abdominal illness. "We managed his pain and gave him fluids," said Warren. Due to the patient's condition, he was in need of critical antibiotics buried somewhere beneath the snow.

The PJs kept him on a pain management regiment for the next nine hours. While taking turns watching over him, they consulted with physicians in Bethel, who decided surgery might be necessary to save the young man's life. They recommended taking him to the hospital in Anchorage as soon as possible.

While they kept Morgan stable through the night, the Alaskans treated the PJs like family, feeding them pancakes when they were able to trade off caring for Morgan. "When they found out I was from Florida, they were amused," said Warren.

With giant skis fastened to the Pave Hawk, it landed in Red Devil at 11 a.m. the next day to pick up the patient. "I didn't hear the 60 come in. The wind was kicking up," said Warren. From there they airlifted Morgan to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage. During the flight, Warren couldn't help but notice the natural beauty below, "It was a gnarly flight," he said. "I saw a pack of wolves."

According to reports, the patient was taken from there to the Alaska Native Medical Center and has since recovered.

"This (scenario) validates our training," said Sluder. The Florida Reserve Airmen are continuing to join the Alaskan Guardsmen on three-week rotations through August to support the Alaskan ANG and continue to build upon their cold-weather skills.

"Tech. Sgt. Warren did a great job as the medic, and it took all three squadrons to execute this mission," Maddamma said. The 176th is comprised of the 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons.

"They are heroes!" said Brig. Gen. William Binger, 10th Air Force commander, in an email to Col. Jeffrey Macrander, 920th RQW commander.  

Tasked with the recovery and medical treatment of personnel in humanitarian and combat environments, Air Force pararescue is the only DoD organization specifically organized, trained and equipped to conduct personnel recovery operations in hostile or denied areas as a primary mission.

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Editor's note: Some data in this article was compiled from a Feb. 9 Air National Guard news release by Maj. Guy Hayes and a Feb. 10 Alaska Dispatch article by Craig Medred.