A small boat brings crewmen from the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory to Low Cape, Alaska, where an Air Station Kodiak MH-60 helicopter was stranded after a mechanical failure. (U.S. Coast Guard via the Kodiak Daily Mirror via t)
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KODIAK, Alaska — On most days, Coast Guard helicopter crews are the ones called in when something goes wrong.
During an unusual mission earlier this month, it was a crew from Air Station Kodiak who needed the rescuing.
On Oct. 11, an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter took off from Kodiak to search for a man lost overboard from the fishing vessel Flying Ocean.
The helicopter searched the ocean southwest of Kodiak Island, refueled at Sitkinak Island then took off for another search when a warning light lit on the helicopter's control panel, indicating high temperatures in the aircraft's tail rotor gearbox.
"Probably the likely culprit would be low oil," Lt. Scott Wilkerson, pilot of the helicopter, said during the Coast Guard's "Deck Watch" radio show on Oct. 19. "We knew at that point we needed to land as soon as possible."
At the time, the helicopter was over the Pacific Ocean and began to race toward land. If the tail rotor were to fail, the helicopter would be uncontrollable and face no other option but a watery landing.
"That's a helicopter pilot's worst nightmare," Wilkerson said. "You lose your tail rotor, the aircraft will want to spin, which was a very real possibility."
Despite having no way to know if the rotor would last long enough to land, Wilkerson and his crew managed to get the helicopter safely to Low Cape, an uninhabited portion of Kodiak Island about 13 miles northwest of Akhiok, the nearest town.
Though safe on land, the crew — and an onboard cameraman from "Coast Guard Alaska" — wasn't quite out of the woods. "As we were landing, we noticed a huge brown bear about a quarter mile off at our three o'clock," Wilkerson said.
An inspection of the tail rotor revealed its gear box had run entirely out of oil, leaving the helicopter unfit to fly.
Though stranded, the helicopter crew wasn't without help. An orbiting HC-130 kept the crew in contact with Coast Guard officials, who directed the nearby Coast Guard Cutter Hickory to help after it concluded its search for the Flying Ocean crewman.
Using a small boat, the Hickory's crew navigated the same rough waves that pushed another fishing vessel aground earlier that day.
"That was a very intense experience," said Wilkerson, who added that the pickup resembled a nighttime surf rescue.
Even with the crew safe, the Coast Guard had a lot on its hands. The force that patrols Alaska's coasts doesn't like to leave a helicopter unattended on a beach, and Air Station Kodiak's MH-60s had a particularly busy month.
While five are stationed in Kodiak, at the time of the accident, one was in Barrow, another in Cold Bay and two others were down for maintenance.
That left the station's smaller MH-65 Dolphin helicopters — normally deployed aboard cutters — to pick up the load and rescue their larger cousin.
For six days, the Dolphins ferried crews and spare parts the 85 miles from Kodiak to Low Cape.
Replacing a gear box isn't an easy job, even in a hangar with all tools on hand, said Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard. Under good conditions, the job can take two days.
On Low Cape, it took most of a week to do a job akin to replacing the transmission on a car — but most cars don't take to the skies.
Cmdr. John Hollingsworth, the Air Station Kodiak engineering officer, said in a Coast Guard blog posting that field repairs are one of the toughest things to accomplish, especially in Alaska, and especially with bears in the area.
As temperatures dropped below the freezing mark, the elements became as much of an opponent as distance. One maintenance crew, working overnight, periodically fired up the helicopter's engines simply to stay warm.
"To say this is a professional group of people who went down there to do the job would be an understatement," Hollingsworth said. "We hand-picked these guys, we knew that their talents and abilities were far beyond anyone else on the hangar deck, and their level of professionalism is boundless."