Lessons from an Alaskan search party

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Earlier this month, a local school teacher went missing while out for a hike in an Alaska state park. She spent three nights and four days in the woods before being rescued on a gravel bar eight miles from the trail. Local media covered the amazing rescue but I think the left out an important part of the story; the overwhelming display of support for an honorary member of the Air Force family. 

I received a phone call on Saturday morning from a fellow lieutenant in my squadron. He told me that a friend of a civilian co-worker had gone missing while out for a hike. The missing hiker's family had grown worried and were in need of more volunteers for the search effort. As members of my squadron gathered, we activated our recall roster and sent out calls to friends in other squadrons. In less than an hour, numerous members of the Iceman team mobilized to help search the wilderness for a complete stranger. 

Summer weekends in Alaska are a special time. Icemen relax outdoors in the endless sunlight after bearing the long months of bone-chilling winter. This weekend of the search was a especially important to the wing, the logistics and maintenance Airmen had just successfully completed an inspection that required long hours of preparation. 

Ultimately, the missing hiker was found by a commercial helicopter crew and not the Airmen who volunteered part of their hard-earned weekend. Nonetheless, I could not have been more impressed with the selflessness of the Icemen members who showed up to support a fellow teammate. This taught me that I can count on my fellow Airmen; one lesson that became apparent to me was that part of being a good Airman is our responsibility to respect risk and properly prepare before starting a potentially hazardous activity. 

The missing hiker had assessed some of the risks but was overwhelmed by problems she faced. She went out alone, increasing her chances of becoming lost or being incapacitated by an injury. She was also unfamiliar with the trail and lacked any navigational aids such as a GPS plotter or map. Luckily, she did pack a water purifier, matches and a blanket. Her minimal amount of planning would prove to be invaluable as spent more time lost in the woods. 

It's important to let friends or family know your plans, where you will be and when you will return. The hiker's friends knew to expect her to return on Wednesday and when she didn't, they knew something was wrong. 

Lastly, know your limitations. I have had hiked numerous times before, but I've never encountered such rough terrain. In some areas we were walking on wood boards, uneven rocks, mud and streams. Many of the search parties had to return because of allergies, asthma or being physically unfit for the Alaskan wilderness. 

We have all heard the messages from commander and chiefs on the significance of risk management and the wingman concept. The recent events were a testament to the validity of what we are told. Fortunately, this story did not end in tragedy; but serves as a reminder to all on the importance of risk management and when possible, being accompanied by a wingman prior to engaging in hazardous activity.