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Flying Wild Alaska – Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak

Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak

Air Station Kodiak, Alaska is a place that many may have seen on television and in movies. Air Station Kodiak has featured regularly in the Weather Channel show Coast Guard Alaska over the last several years, and was also a central focus for the movie “The Guardian” starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. But to those assigned Air Station Kodiak, it is much more.

The true beauty of Alaska, or Kodiak island specifically, is hard to explain. Yet to some, the Coast Guard Air Station, it’s aircraft, rescue swimmers and pilots, are often the last bastion of hope for many that call the Kodiak area, the Aleusian islands that head southwest in a chain that stretches towards Russia or many of the other isolated Alaskan wilderness inside the massive service area covered by Coast Guard Air Station Alaska home.

History

Air Station Kodiak has a rich history dating back to the early 1940’s when after U.S entry into World War II, the U.S Navy selected Kodiak Island as the location to build a Naval Air Station. Built just outside of the  fishing town of Kodiak in Alaska. Naval Air Station (NAS) Kodiak opened in 1943 with the Navy originally operating PBY Catalina patrol squadrons out of the base to support the Aleutian Islands Campaign that began in the same year.

On April 17, 1947 the Coast Guard commissioned an Air Detachment to be stationed at NAS Kodiak. The unit at the time consisted of only seven pilots, thirty crewman and one PBY Catalina donated to the Coast Guard by the Navy. The PBY Catalina becoming the first Coast Guard aircraft to be permanently stationed in Alaska. In 1972, the Navy departed Kodiak island for good, handing control of former NAS Kodiak to the Coast Guard indefinitely. Today, Air Station Kodiak is the major tenant of the U.S Coast Guard Integrated Support Command (ISC) based there, the unit now occupying a majority of the base as it has slowly grown in mission, aircraft and support personnel.

Presently, Station Kodiak is one of the largest units in the Coast Guard and is home to one of the largest contingents of Coast Guard aircraft in the Pacific Area, also employing the largest number of support personnel in the nation.

Modern day Coast Guard Station Kodiak Island now supports Search and Rescue Operations daily that cover a roughly four million square mile (10,000,000 km) area of responsibility covering the Gulf of Alaska, Bristol Bay, Bering Sea and the Alaska’s Pacific coast The unit’s extended mission also involves the Enforcement of Laws and Treaties (ELT) and shares a great deal of environmental enforcement duties primarily focused around the nation’s most active fisheries area.

In addition, Air Station Kodiak also provides logistical support to isolated Coast Guard District 17 units(D17); Marine Environmental Protection (MEP); Aids to Navigation (ATON); Military Defense; disaster control services and relief; and assistance to numerous local, state, and federal agencies as required.

The Air Station at Kodiak is just one of the many units that make up Base Kodiak.   Although it accounts for the largest contingent of personnel with 65 pilots and around 350 enlisted members to support flight operations, there are also two USCG Cutters, the Munro and the Alex Haley, as well as a Cutter Spar, a buoy tender and an Aids to navigation (ANT) team that maintains much of the maritime buoys in very remote location that are needed to maintain safe waterways for private and commercial traffic in the area.

Fleet

The United States Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska operates multiple MH-60T Jayhawks and MH-65D Dolphin Helicopters
The United States Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska operates multiple MH-60T Jayhawks and MH-65D Dolphin Helicopters. Photo by Ryan Mason

From their modest start in a single donated aircraft, Coast Guard Station Kodiak has come a long way in the years since. The Coast Guard originally fielded MH-65 Dolphin helicopters during the early 1980’s that replaced the HH-52A Sea Guard fleet. Having undergone several generational upgrades over their tenure, Air Station Kodiak now flies the MH-65D model to cover missions in the enormous response area flying many complex missions. In addition to the MH-65D, the unit utilizes six MH-60T Jayhawks to provide mission support in areas that require extra distance to be traveled to reach a patient. The MH-60T Jayhawk, featuring more standard fuel capacity as well as an external tank that can increase its flight duration substantially when required. The Kodiak fleet is rounded out with five HC-130H Hercules. The HC-130H is often used for longer flights into areas that have a runway capable of accommodating the large aircraft. The HC-130H is mainly tasked with long-range medical evacuations, but the plane will also provide support in the Gulf, Bering Sea, and all the way into the Arctic Circle if required.

All of the Coast Guard airframes currently in use are now starting to show their age as the Coast Guard focuses its current budget on overhauling its even older surface fleet of cutters. The Coast Guard’s fleet of MH-65D’s are in the process of undergoing a major upgrade that will see the MH-65D upgraded to the updated MH-65E.

The Coast Guard MH-65D fleet will eventually be replaced with updated MH-65E helicopters. Photo by Ryan Mason
The Coast Guard MH-65D fleet will eventually be replaced with updated MH-65E helicopters. Photo by Ryan Mason

The MH-65E will incorporate upgrades including a modernized glass cockpit that will replace the older steam gauge cockpits currently seen in the MH-65D. The new digital cockpit, referred to as the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) by the Coast Guard was designed and will be installed at the Coast Guard’s Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, NC. The new MH-65E cockpits will also bear similarity to those installed in the Coast Guard’s MH-60T Jayhawk fleet, facilitating a degree of cross-functional understanding that will lower training times between the two airframes used by the Coast Guard. While not an exact replica for obvious reasons, the advantages to having similar equipment onboard both aircraft will assist the Coast Guard with ease in parts procurement if the similar equipment can be ordered for both aircraft, not to mention the pilot familiarity also taking a step in a positive direction whereby pilots will be seeing similar equipment with no need to reinvent the wheel with pilots who fly both airframes.

The approach can be a huge bonus for safety by eliminating the need to train extensively on each airframe just to memorize the functions of each individual aircraft. The new system is hoped to effect that issue. The Echo upgrade will also replace the legacy analog automatic flight control with a digital system and feature a digital weather radar system, a welcome upgrade in a location such as Kodiak that relies heavily on weather predictions to stay safe. The MH-65E model is expected to be fielded to the fleet, beginning in 2017.

The Coast Guard fleet of HC-130H’s will also be upgraded to the HC-130J model over the next several years, with the fixed wing modernization planned to feature upgraded engines, head up displays in the cockpit and offer an avionics suite that features an integrated flight management computer system.  These improvements providing greater situational awareness for pilots and improving safety for the entire crew.

Maintenance

The maintenance of all Coast Guard aircraft is completed on site at each air station by highly regarded mechanics that Lt. Hermuller refers to as “the very heart and soul of Coast Guard Aviation” who often  work long hours to ensure there are always flyable aircraft available when the Search and Rescue alarm rings at Air Station Kodiak.  Typically in Kodiak, there around one hundred and fifty maintainers that provide maintenance services across all three airframes represented in Alaska. The only maintenance task not completed on site by maintenance crews metal, oil or fuel sample analysis where there is a need to conduct further testing, in which case, they are sent for further analysis to the Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in North Carolina

MH-65D’s stationed at Air Station Kodiak are also the only unit aircraft in the Coast Guard that operate consistently with ski’s fitted to the helicopters to assist with landing in many of the inhospitable areas the air station services, spreading the weight of the helicopter across the boots or “ski’s,” enabling crews to not sink the helicopter responding to an emergency into fresh snowfall than can often be several feet deep in some locations.

Crews stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak Alaska, spend large amounts of time training for their missions in the icy conditions of Alaska. Photo by Ryan Mason
Crews stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak Alaska, spend large amounts of time training for their missions in the icy conditions of Alaska. Photo by Ryan Mason

Operations and Training

Air Station Kodiak air crews perform search and rescue cases in some of the most extremely challenging environments in the world. Training, therefore, is vital to maintaining proficiency and experience when search and rescue calls are received.  Risk management accordingly is a topic that is well engrained into the culture of Coast Guard Aviation.  Training limits are put in place to help protect crews and risk vs. gain discussions are a feature of every preflight briefing, including several that we both witnessed and were an active part of during our time in Kodiak. Flight crews we spoke to on-site mention this flight discussion that is an everyday part of life as an aviator in the Coast Guard, and another vital procedure that needs to be performed each flight to mitigate risks that each aircrew may face based on the many factors that need to be considered on the ground prior to launching for a flight.

While mission flights may differ drastically from day to day, training limits are put in place for all aircrews that prevent the  launch of an aircraft If the minimum visibility sits at  500ft or below, and two statute miles of visibility horizontally.  Below that threshold, the risk becomes too great for a training mission and will often be scrapped to mitigate unnecessary risk to air crews and aircraft.

Being assigned to Air Station Kodiak is not something a first-time pilot will be assigned right out of flight school, due to the severity of the conditions that can be faced in Kodiak and several other bases around Alaska. Instead, Air Station Kodiak is considered a “second tour billet” for pilots who have previously served at another Air Station and gained flight experience in less challenging flight conditions.

The Coast Guard recognizes that the conditions in Alaska provide more chances to get yourself both in and out risky situations than those encountered in the lower 48 states.  In Kodiak, because it is a second tour billet, all pilots reporting are aircraft commanders.  Air Station Kodiak policy requires that even accomplished and experienced aircraft commanders reporting in June-August “winter-over” before they can sign for an aircraft themselves in spring of the following year to ensure that a thorough familiarization of the area and risks that it possesses are understood. Flight mechanics, however, are permitted to begin their career in Kodiak, as are rescue swimmers as the Service deems necessary.

Coast Guard pilots must fly a minimum of forty-eight hours in a six-month period to remain proficient to flyin NVG based  flying a minimum of six night hours and four hours under night vision goggles, although this serves as a bare minimum, typically aircrews at Air Station Kodiak will fly between 100-250 hours during a semi-annual period.

The same annual training requirements exist for all Coast Guard aviation units, however, the frequency at which Kodiak aircrews are called upon to fly in extremely poor weather conditions is significantly higher than other units located in warmer climates.  The constant exposure to IFR conditions requires aircrews to be at the top of their game in flight, which, if you have ever ridden along with any Coast Guard aircraft, you can verify this as the case with each and every flight, with painstaking attention paid to confirm each checklist twice between the pilot and copilot to provide a secondary  form of verification.

Rescue Operations

Averaging almost ten thousand hours flying between fixed and rotary aircraft in support of rescue operations and training in 2016, Air Station Kodiak is a base that is constantly in motion. Aircraft depart and return constantly from missions throughout the day, and some depart and do not return the same day, as they may be dispatched to retrieve a medical evacuation from one of the many small outlying island settlements, often requiring that the location the aircraft fly to, have the ability to refuel any Coast Guard aircraft in the field. This is also sometimes done with support units that will fly out ahead of a mission to deliver fuel to the destination, or crews may also rely on previously staged fuel that has been dropped at outlying locations to ensure that each aircraft can make it back to a location that provides fuel at an airport within the flight plan. This careful planning, put in place to ensure that due to the remote locations that some of the flight crews respond to, that there is a plan in place to accommodate rapid transit to a medical facility.

With search and rescue missions being the “bread and butter” of an operation such as Air Station Kodiak, crews often launch in some of the most inhospitable conditions you can find. There are hardly any conditions that these hardened professionals call “unflyable.” One of the most notable rescue operations conducted by crews from Air Station Kodiak, was a rescue that occurred on the 23rd of March 2008. Coast Guard Station Kodiak received a mayday call alerting of a stricken fishing vessel on that day, the F/V Alaska Ranger, that should have been able to maintain staying afloat, sank approximately 130 miles west of Dutch Harbor. The vessel began taking on water around 0230 in the morning, forcing all crew members to abandon ship into 32-degree water. An HH-60 Jayhawk that was forward stationed at Saint Paul Island and an HH-65 that was deployed on the Kodiak-based USCG Cutter Munro were dispatched to the scene, followed by the Munro and assisted by the F/V Alaska Warrior a sister ship and Good Samaritan vessel that also responded to the ship’s distress calls as it began to take on water. Between all of the assets that arrived on scene, crews were able to rescue 42 of the 47 people on board, the helicopters recovering twenty of the victims in the water. This rescue now regarded as the greatest cold water rescue in Coast Guard history. Sadly, five crewmembers perished in the sinking, with one body never recovered.

Working and living at Coast Guard Air Station, Kodiak, Alaska is not for everyone, but for those that love the outdoors, it is a dream come true. Photo by Ryan Mason
Working and living at Coast Guard Air Station, Kodiak, Alaska is not for everyone, but for those that love the outdoors, it is a dream come true. Photo by Ryan Mason

Living and working in Kodiak

To find out what it is like to be stationed in one of the most inhospitable locations the Coast Guard serves, we spoke to several of the staff on base, many who requested to be billeted for a tour in Alaska. Some for the fishing, others for the unique hunting offered in a place like Alaska, where if you are fortunate enough to obtain a hunting tag for a specific animal (which are carefully controlled and only a few are issued each year to manage populations depending on the animal) you can hunt everything from elk to mountain goats in the Alaskan wilderness. For a description of coming to Alaska as a pilot, we asked Lieutenant Craig Hermuller, an HH-65 pilot to give some insight into what it is like being assigned to Air Station Kodiak.

“Kodiak does mean something special, especially in a search and rescue helicopter.  This is the most extreme area to fly. Conducting the type of operations we do, there is little margin for error.  The weather is very challenging to navigate; the seas are higher than anywhere in the lower 48” Said Hermuller. The nights are darker and longer due to Kodiak’s latitude and I have a healthy respect for any wind advisories we get, as gusts can get as high as 70-100MPH in some locations Air Station Kodiak responds to in their service area during the winter.”

“The vast distances traveled to do our job here is extreme.  A majority of the SAR cases where people are in dire need, occur in very remote locations of this state and you quickly realize that you are very small in comparison to the larger world around you.  Hoisting a survivor off a listing fishing vessel or having to conduct a medevac, using the rescue for a heart attack victim off a container ship located one hundred miles out in the ocean really is a challenge. Alaska covers an enormous geographical area that I think few people fully realize unless they are residents or have spent more than a week in Alaska.” Said Mulller.

Click below to see a short video on our shoot in Kodiak, Alaska.

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