BETHEL, Alaska -- In a remote area northeast of Bethel, the Alaska National Guard conducted a major search-and-rescue exercise Feb. 6-10 to test the recovery operations for a simulated 737 plane crash. "The purpose of the mission was to test the arctic sustainment package by deploying it out of an aircraft with a team who can handle a mass-casualty situation in an arctic environment," said Staff Sgt. Patrick Gault, a pararescueman with the 212th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard. In the frigid early-morning hours of Feb. 7, approximately 25 volunteers from the Alaska National Guard, assigned to role play as crash survivors, were transported by a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the Army Aviation Operations Facility #2 in Bethel to a remote frozen region northeast of their location. There at the site of the exercise, an element of Alaska National Guard members were positioned to support the operation. Tucked in a patch of trees to protect them from the wind and snow, two 10-person tents were set up to house the support element, or "white cell." As for the role-play survivors, their sustainment package (to include food and shelter) was to be dropped in with the participants of the mission: Guardian Angels from the 212th Rescue Squadron and Soldiers from C Company, 1-297th Reconnaissance and Surveillance Squadron.
The mission began when the 11th Rescue Coordination Center received word that a 737 went down, with an unknown amount of survivors, in a remote area that first responders couldn't reach by roads. According to the plan, rescue personnel were to be inserted by a C-130 Hercules airplane into the area, locate the survivors of the crash, assess the situation, and coordinate for the delivery of additional support personnel and equipment to sustain the survivors. The weather; however, does not always work in the favor of the mission. As the day wore on, the sky and the ground began to blend in a windy haze of snow and fog. With the clouds getting lower and the snow getting thicker, the window of opportunity to drop the pararescue jumpers and equipment was vanishing as quickly as the horizon. On the drop zone, tensions began to rise. Capt. Jay Casello, a combat rescue officer with the 212th Rescue Squadron, using both a radio and satellite phone, communicated with a C-130 Hercules from the 144th Airlift Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard about the situation on the ground.
The C-130 Hercules airframes are capable of dropping personnel and equipment at low altitudes, but by the time the plane arrived over the drop zone, the weather had become so inclement that they were forced to turn back to Bethel. Poor weather at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was also playing a role in slowing down the mission, as heavy snow and freezing rain delayed the departure of the U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, flown by crews from the Alaska Air National Guard's 249th Airlift Squadron. The C-17 was slated to drop additional rescue personnel, as well as the arctic sustainment package. When the C-17 showed up, night had fallen on the drop zone. Casello communicated with the crew of the plane, who were loitering above the site at 24,000 ft. in elevation. He radioed up that the ceiling was within limits to drop the personnel and equipment. The crew of the C-17 then began its descent through the clouds to get a visual confirmation of the drop zone, marked by fluorescent panels and a strobe light, but by the time the plane completed its descent, the snow had picked up and the cloud ceiling had dropped. The plane, flying in low light and heavy snow at low altitudes, began making multiple passes over the drop zone, the wailing of its engines screaming through the clouds like banshees, with the occasional flash of its lights passing through the grey, desolate void. Then, with great elation, the voice over Casello's radio called out, "We're coming in hot." The drop was on; the mission was good to go. Over a number of passes, the bundles were pushed down the ramp out of the massive C-17 at low altitudes, the chutes having just enough time to deploy, slow the load down and come falling to the ground with a great thunderous explosion into deep, powdery snow. Following the drop of the equipment, the pararescuemen and R&S Soldiers jumped into the snowy night, landing on the drop zone, ready to tackle the mission. The men, now on the ground, packed their chutes and deployed the gear. This gear included tents, heaters, fuel, all-terrain vehicles and rescue equipment. From the drop zone, pararescuemen simultaneously went to work locating the survivors. "It's very critical to get this equipment set up quickly," said Pvt. 1st Class Dillon Gilroy, a scout with C Company, 1-297th Reconnaissance and Surveillance Squadron, Alaska Army National Guard. "We have patients who are hypothermic or have broken limbs." The survivors were given casualty cards that described the nature of their wounds earlier in the day. When the pararescuemen arrived at the mock crash site, the survivors played out the roles of the injured and afflicted. Screams and moans shrieked into the night as the pararescuemen moved to the location of their calls. One survivor howled over and over again for her lost baby.
With steadfast resolve, moving through snow at times waist deep, the pararescuemen took charge of the situation and began treating the wounded, relocating them in a central spot and transporting them back to the tents to begin the process of sustaining them until they could extract the survivors from the scene. Throughout the next day and a half, the Alaska National Guardsmen kept the survivors fed and warm. The Soldiers from the 1-297th Reconnaissance and Surveillance Squadron then began to prepare the equipment for sling load operations by bundling up the gear, securing it in cargo nets, and attaching the loads to HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters of the 210th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard and a UH-60 Black Hawk from B Company, 1-207th Aviation, Alaska Army National Guard.
The survivors were extracted from the scene in groups based on the severity of their wounds and flown back to Bethel. With the mission complete, the participants in the exercise were able to assess the mission and learn from it to better prepare for a real-world situation, should it ever arise. Doing exercises like this prepares the units to respond to this kind of situation, Gault said. "Usually when we do rescues here in Alaska, we have two- to four-man teams, and we're able to help just a few people," Gault said. "When you have more than 10 patients, you need to involve a lot more people and equipment. This exercise helps us bring all of that together and employ them to see what works and what doesn't work." Involved in the exercise were members of the Alaska Air National Guard, the Alaska Army National Guard, the Coast Guard and participants from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "The biggest challenge is a lot of different agencies working together, and that creates a lot of gaps in communication sometimes," Gault said. "So closing those gaps and making everything fairly fluid to get everybody to work together, when we don't work together all the time, is the most important part."