News>Feature - Rescue Airmen brave blizzard to reach, save Alaskan villager
Story at a Glance
Snowflakes stung like needles when Guardian Angel Airmen skydived into a blizzard at night to rescue a Native American in a remote Alaskan village. Ryan Morgan, 20, was deteriorating as fast as the weather blocking Alaskan rescue personnel from getting near him. Two Air Force Reserve Airmen from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., were on a three-week TDY to Alaska to revive their cold-weather rescue skills and augment the Alaska Air National Guard.
Air National Guard pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Maddamma, 212th Rescue Squadron, Joint Base Elmendor-Richardson, Alaska; Air Force Reserve pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Dan Warren, 308th Rescue Squadron, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.; and ANG pararescueman Master Sgt. Brendon Steumke, 212th RQS, JBER, pose for a photo Feb. 2 after Warren and Maddamma were part of a rescue team that spent the night fighting a blizzard to rescue an Alaskan Native in dire need of emergency medical treatment in the remote village of Red Devil, Alaska. (Courtesy photo)
Air Force Reserve pararescueman, Tech. Sgt. Dan Warren, 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., prepares to parachute into a remote Alaskan village from and Air National Guard HC-130P/N King propellor-driven aircraft as Guardsmen pilot it to Alaska's interior to rescue a young Native American suffering from a life-threatening infection Feb. 1. (Courtesy photo)
by By Capt. Cathleen Snow
920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
2/28/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Snowflakes stung like needles when Guardian Angel Airmen skydived blind at night into a blizzard from 30,000 feet. A young Native American in a remote Alaskan village was suffering from a life-threatening infection, and these men were sent to save his life.
Ryan Morgan, 20, was deteriorating as fast as the weather blocking Alaskan state rescue personnel from nearing him in the mining town of Red Devil, population: less than 20. To survive, he needed immediate life-saving medical treatment according to doctors 200 miles away in Bethel.
Due to the complete lack of roads, there would be only way to him: air rescue; and the only people on the Last Frontier able to pull the job off, the Alaskan Air National Guard's 176th Air Wing, Air Force pararescue -- equipped and trained to face the enormity of the task.
Joining the ANG search and rescue crews were two Florida Air Force Reserve Guardian Angel Airmen: combat rescue officer Capt. Jim Sluder and pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Dan Warren. The two came from Cocoa Beach, Florida's 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, to revive their cold-weather rescue skills and augment the team.
After a week of ice climbing and wilderness medicine skills revival, the reservists joined the guardsmen on alert for two more weeks expecting to check off their cold-weather competencies, which they did. On their final night posting alert before returning to the sunshine state, a call came in Feb. 1 at 8:30 p.m. that would validate everything.
As Air Force special operators skilled in trauma medicine, pararescue Airmen are conditioned athletes trained in extreme sports - including mountain climbing and skydiving -- to get them to wounded combatants on the battlefield. In this case, it was a battle against the clock, against certain death.
The two Florida Airmen split up. Sluder teamed up with Senior Master Sgt. Doug Widner, Alaskan ANG pararescueman and the helicopter pickup team leader.
"There was a mad rush to get everything into a couple of bags," said Sluder. "These guys (Alaskan 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 a Volkswagon Beetle.
The Pave Hawk, which is regularly flown in combat through dusty brownouts and Afghanistan's craggy mountains, chopped off through marginal weather 180 miles northwest toward Red Devil -- a three-hour flight to Alaska's interior.
"It's so remote that they have limited resources," said Warren, who paired up with Alaskan pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Maddamma, the C-130 fixed-wing aircraft team leader.
Red Devil's official population is 19 and falling, according to Alaska Dispatch reporter Craig Medred.
"Local healthcare is nonexistent and food is brought in by aircraft," Warren said.
Warren and Maddamma bundled medicine, tents, coats and layers of survival gear on board the big gray propeller-driven aircraft. With a cargo bay about the size of a of a Mack truck and fuel pods that hung from the wings like bombs, the HC-130P/N King serves as an air ambulance and flying gas station.
Set to be the back-up plane 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 twist.
The Pave Hawk crew 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 recalling how the chopper banged through the storm like a jackhammer.
A sudden jolt catapulted the contents of aircraft's modest interior.
"We hit a wall of weather," said Sluder.
There were comparisons to "The Perfect Storm," a nonfiction book by Sebastian Yunger that tells the 1991 story of what powerful weather fronts can do to boats and aircraft, crushing them like King Kong. 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 both aircraft would have been lost due to a collision. Luckily, that's not how it went, but they ran into problems as they continued to push on.
"The (refueling) probe was stabbing all over the place," said Sluder. "Everything was black and white. All the NVGs (night vision goggles) did was amplify more white, and more black!"
The Pave Hawk crew burned through fuel as they struggled through the Aleutian mountain range looking for a break in the weather, which became impossible for the medium-lift chopper. Finally, the King aircraft crew navigated on scene. Its four steel blades cut through the icy wind and snow and fed the Pave Hawks fuel, just enough for its return trip to Anchorage. Then the King crew took over the mission.
Disappointed in having to turn back, the helicopter crew could hear the King Team pressing for a jump mission over the radio.
Warren and Maddamma went into action amassing their gear and strapping on their parachutes as the King plowed through the storm wall. With little time to spare, they orbited over Red Devil.
"There was a 3,000-foot huge wall of whiteout," 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 into the furious night. They hit 125 mph in winds that were estimated to be 30-40 mph. Warren recalled it was "snowing sideways." They decelerated quickly after the static line ripped open their canopies 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 soft landing into 10-feet of snow," said Warren who was wading in chest-deep snow with a 60-pound ruck filled to the brim anchoring him down.
Maddamma was wearing a matching 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 searched for the missing bag, but the snow mounds had masked any sign of it. They detached their parachutes, snapped on their snowshoes and followed a group of elderly men they described as "tough," 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 the Morgans' house, "which was heated," said Warren. Morgan had a significant abdominal illness.
"We managed his pain and gave him fluids," said Warren, but Warren said 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 getting Morgan 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," Warren said of his hosts.
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. According to reports, the patient was taken from there to the Alaska Native Medical Center and has since recovered. The young man himself is said to have reported via a Facebook email that he was, "Okay, and thankful to his caregivers."
"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 as a team," Maddamma said.
Tasked with the recovery and medical treatment of personnel in humanitarian and combat environments, Air Force pararescue is the only Department of Defense 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 an Air National Guard news release dated Feb. 9 by Maj. Guy Hayes and a Feb. 10 Alaska Dispatch article by Craig Medred.