FW Safety office equipment saves one of its own

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Alaska’s vast beauty and unmatched hunting opportunities are huge draws for thousands of tourists each year. Most military members stationed here take advantage of their proximity to pristine national parks and myriad forests and hills by camping, hunting, or hiking in the wilderness of the Last Frontier, and many take for granted the dangers inherent to wandering too far from civilization. Without proper planning and equipment, a fun day trip can become a fight for one’s life.

Master Sgt. Ryan Smith, 354th FW Safety office noncommissioned officer in charge of Aviation Safety, and two friends were rescued by SAR specialists assigned to Fort Wainwright and an Alaska State Trooper in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at approximately 11 p.m. on Jan. 23 after nearly 15 hours in the remote trails near Twelvemile Summit, 105 miles northeast of Eielson. The rescue team was alerted to the stranded hunting party by an emergency satellite communication device similar to the Personal Locator Beacons that can be checked out for free from the 354th FW Safety office.

“Once we arrived at the Twelvemile Summit area at approximately 8:15 a.m., we unloaded one mountain-style snowmachine, one utility two-person snowmachine, plus survival equipment and headed southwest into the White Mountains in order to gain elevation to scout,” explained Smith, recounting how his party became stuck. “After a quick powered climb in favorable snow conditions, we stopped and glassed for any signs of caribou. We eventually spotted a small herd to the east of us and decided to head in that direction to intercept them.”

To reach their destination, the group of seasoned outdoorsmen took a well-established trail toward a hill that lay between them and the herd of caribou. Unusually warm weather and direct sunlight on the hill made the normally stable trail’s terrain impossible to traverse via snowmachines, and the group resorted to digging their machines out with their hands after they fell through the snow’s icy top layer and became buried partway down the other side of the hill.

“After two hours of digging both machines out, we agreed we would have to either turn around or continue on down into the valley,” recalled Smith. “After a brief discussion it was decided to continue north into the valley due to the inability of the machines to climb back up the hill, and look for a safe exit point in between the hills that would hopefully lead us back to the highway.  Once down in the valley though, it quickly became apparent that not only were the trail conditions bad and the snow 8-12 feet deep, but there were also large amounts of tree tops and other debris that slowed and eventually stopped the machines in their tracks.”

At this point, the group decided to head back through their tracks to the base of the hill where they had gotten stuck initially. Once there, they decided to ferry themselves two at a time up the hill on the mountain-style snowmachine, which was faring better in the increasingly poor trail conditions even though it was only designed for one passenger. When this plan failed partway up the hill, two members of the party were stuck on the hill and one was left alone in the valley below. The group, now physically separated, with no cell phone service, and one member of their party drenched from melting snow, decided it was time to activate the emergency satellite communication device.

“As those that have been here awhile already know, Alaska is not the lower 48 and once civilization is in your rearview your phone becomes an expensive paperweight,” said Smith. “If you are depending on your phone for help you will quickly find yourself in a sticky situation without any dependable means of communication with the outside world.”

Luckily, Smith had an emergency satellite communication device on hand, similar in function to the PLBs that can be checked out for free from the 354th FW Safety office. These rugged, waterproof devices don’t rely on cell phone towers, instead using satellites to alert emergency services to your exact location when activated. Although some may be hesitant to utilize such devices for fear of incurring a hefty emergency transport bill, Smith advised that rescue services in Alaska are free of charge when used appropriately. He also emphasized that it’s better to push the SOS button sooner rather than later, as rescue teams can take several hours to reach stranded or injured individuals.

“With sunlight dwindling and temperatures at minus eight degrees and rapidly dropping, the SOS feature was activated on the device,” explained Smith. “Once the message was received, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center immediately started the planning and execution of a helicopter recovery mission for all three of us. At approximately 9:30 p.m., four hours after hitting the SOS button, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter out of Fort Wainwright arrived and performed a deep snow landing in the same valley where we had earlier made our final turn around. An Army SAR specialist and Alaska State Trooper were dispatched and eventually made their way to the first individual via snowshoes. Once the lone, separated member of our party was helped to the waiting helicopter by the State Trooper, the SAR specialist continued on to our elevated location where he assisted us in our walk and crawl off the hill and into the waiting helicopter.”  

The helicopter took the group to Bassett Army Community Hospital on Fort Wainwright, where they were treated for potential cold-related injuries and released early the next morning. Smith, who said he has spent his whole life outdoors, has experience being isolated in remote locations. Even so, he admits the group could have made better clothing and equipment choices that would have made their trip run more smoothly. One choice he doesn’t regret, however, is bringing an emergency satellite communication device.

“Regardless of the mistakes we may have made, the real moral of the story is to make sure you carry a satellite communication device or PLB on your person at all times while enjoying Alaska’s vast majesty,” reflected Smith. “It sure was a great feeling to know that when that SOS button was hit, a Trooper and SAR personnel were on their way to save us from a potentially deadly situation. Working in Safety, I’ve checked out our PLBs countless times to wing members and RED FLAG-Alaska participants over the years, but now after my experience I can really appreciate the importance of such a small and seemingly insignificant device. Having that satellite communication device on us not only enabled our timely rescue before one of my good friends became severely hypothermic, but in the end potentially saved all of our lives.”

PLBs can be checked out free of charge from the 354th FW Safety office. For more information, call 377-SAFE.