Rescuers from above
By Lt. Col. William Kupchin, 210th Rescue Squadron, Det. 1
/ Published June 23, 2009
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
It is a glorious summer in Alaska's interior, but for some reason I am thinking back to winter.
Winter with its darkness, frigid temperatures, snowmachining and dogsledding. It was after the New Year in 2006. We were at the detachment, kicking back, and watching the temperature to see if it would be too cold to come in to work or to fly. It wasn't, so we shifted to see what the high temp would be that day.
The Rescue Coordination Center called with a mission. The Yukon Quest sled dog race had just started the day prior. A winter storm had arisen and there were 13 sled teams missing between the checkpoints of Chena Hot Springs and Eagle Summit. While the weather was OK here at the field, toward Eagle Summit it was less than one-fourth mile visibility, blowing snow with 40 plus knot winds. We alerted the crew and while we were spinning up the report came in that three teams had made it to the next checkpoint, 10 still remained missing.
Just like anything in life, the information when we departed was in stark contrast with what we found on scene. The blowing snow and turbulence made it impossible to identify and follow the prepared trail. We landed at the checkpoint and brought aboard the man who designed and marked the trail to give us some first hand knowledge. With our guest aboard we literally inched our way from trail marker to trail marker up the pass straining to see any outline of a sled, dog, or body in our confined bubble of visibility.
The HC-130 was also sent from the 176th Wing, Kulis Air National Guard Base, Alaska to aid in the search and provide fuel for us as needed. They were up at altitude providing a bigger perspective and acted as a critical communication link. They soon announced that there was a clearing on the back side of the pass.
We had just reached the top of the pass and could not continue due to near zero visibility and 45 knots of wind off our tail. We turned and made the trek around the mountain to the back side and threaded our way through the clouds to follow the trail up to the point where we left off. A shape was sighted and as we drew closer we recognized it as a dogsled. The musher was not in sight but the dogs were all curled up in a tight ball at the nose of the sled.
We landed alongside the sled and our pararescuemen went to check out the sled. Upon unzipping the bag they startled the musher curled up inside shivering uncontrollably. The wind was so strong she did not even hear the 20,000 pound helicopter land beside her.
We loaded her onboard. We also loaded the dogs after chipping them free from the ice and snow. We flew them back to the checkpoint as the dogs looked up over the center console with their big blue eyes which seemed full of gratitude. The HC-130 had located two other sleds and directed us to them.
The next few hours were spent evacuating mushers and their dogs back to the checkpoint along with a couple of sporty air refuelings. Some sled teams made it back to the previous checkpoint and as night fell that early evening all dogs and mushers were accounted for.
In all we rescued six mushers and 88 dogs. We have an awesome decorative hanging in the office commemorating mile 101 of the Yukon Quest 2006 rescue. I look at it often and remember the great teamwork required to pull this mission off.
As I get ready for my retirement, the Iceman team and all the teams I've been a part of in my 22 year career will always bring great memories. I am proud of the detachment, of the Alaska Air National Guard, of the Air Force and especially of my Nation.
Every member of each team has left an indelible mark on me. The privilege of commanding the detachment is that I have the opportunity to work with and live with most all of the people here at Eielson, Fort Wainwright and North Pole. It takes many members to make up a great team and many teams to make great things happen. I am proud of my team here and especially proud of the great things we have done. There is no doubt I am leaving on top.
Thank you Iceman Team and Godspeed.