Monday, October 9, 2017

Naval Air Station Whidbey Rescue crew: Your worst hour is their best hour

In the blink of an eye, it's easy to risk your life. From snowmobiling on Mount Baker's Easton Glacier to dropping without warning 100 feet into a crevasse.

From a tubing on the Nooksack River to clinging to a log for dear life.

From a Cascade mountain high to a bone crushing misstep.

All real stories, and all of them survivors.

They were saved by the elite search and rescue team at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Their mantra? Your worst hour, is our best hour.

"They're awesome, they are the best, I think in the U.S. Department of Defense at doing mountain rescues," said Captain Geoff Moore, NAS Whidbey Island Commanding Officer.

'We are here for anyone in legitimate danger'

Our state's varied terrain means the Navy's SAR Unit must be ready for anything: mountain, city, desert, or water rescues.

"That high altitude, all weather, day or night is kind of what sets us apart over water, over land, high level, low level we will do it," said Mission Commander and pilot, Lt. Mark Hlousek.

The Navy SAR unit, also known by their call sign Firewood, is on standby day and night, 365 days a year.

"This is very difficult mountainous terrain -- you have to be cognizant of mountain winds, weather... professional flying is required," said Captain Moore.

If an aircraft from Whidbey goes down, the team can be wheels up in as little as 15 minutes.

"We are going to be the best and we are going to train to be the best at all times," said Flight Medic HM2 John Siedler.

What most people don't know is that they also here for us. This year, the team has completed 33 civilian rescues involving 61 people.

"The opportunities to help the community is, bar none, the best experience I’ve ever had in Naval aviation," said pilot Lt. Kellen Odom.

They get the call when local law and SAR units, or the Coast Guard, are busy or need additional help or expertise.

"We are here for anyone in legitimate danger," said Siedler.

Non-stop training

It turns out helping the community helps them.

"OK, this is amazing!" said Odom. "I am here pushing the limits of the aircraft getting real world experience. I'm helping the community out all the while reinforcing the mission I’m here to do to make sure I bring home one of ours in case something bad happens."

Each civilian rescue is a learning experience as it's followed by a de-briefing, covering every element of the event in detail.

"That's what allows us to get better and better after each mission," added Odom.

The team trains 3 to 5 days a week. Every week.

In August, we joined them for a day of training and a fly-along. They practiced tricky landings in postage stamp clearings.

But sometimes there is no landing zone, so they practiced a no-room-for-error one-wheel landing on the side of a mountain and held that position while a flight medic jumped out just as he would if there was an injured patient.

To cap it off, the five-man team found me lost in the North Cascades.

Aircrew member Siedler, free-rappelled 250 feet from the Nighthawk to the ground to prepare me for a tandem hoist and rescue. The rotor wash knocked me off my feet. I didn't move, Siedler came to me, and used a locking carabiner to connect me to the safety rope.

He was all business as we dangled thousands of feet above the tree tops for a short haul.

Like his crew mates, he was direct, precise and supremely confident.

"The aircrew men in the back are the best I've ever seen in my career," said Lt. Hlousek. "The things we do up here in flying-wise are things I never thought I would be able to do in a helicopter."

It's the same drills every week.

They practice technique and being precise, and the unit works as a team that's constantly adjusting their plan.

Their approach can vary depending on the type of emergency call, the time of year, weather and time of day.

The unsung heroes

They insist every bit of it: from hovering 70 feet above the ocean and dropping rescue swimmers to conducting a bad weather medical evacuation from a care home to a hospital, wouldn't be possible without the maintenance crew.

That's another 24-7 unit.

Each day the aircraft are combed for the tiniest problems.

Standing in the team's hangar with a maintenance crew working on one of the team's three birds, Aviation Machinist AD1 John Eagleton admits while the work can sometimes feel monotonous, he says it's critical because there is no room for mistakes when lives are at stake.

"A lot of times we're kind of overlooked cause we are not on the forefront; we're not on the scene, but our hearts are," said Eagleton.

It’s a team effort.

The team hopes they never get the call that a Navy aircraft is down, but if they do, they know they're battle-tested.

"At the end of the day when someone is lost or hurt on the side of a mountain and they're looking for a miracle, this is where that miracle is coming from," said Rescue Aircrew Member AWS1 Justin Wallman. "We are here for you."

The Navy SAR team also answers calls from the U.S. Air Force's Coordination Center in Florida. Earlier this month they got the call to help assist rescue efforts in Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

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