The call came in two days ago: an aircraft with 40 passengers aboard had gone down in a remote area somewhere along the Alaskan-Canadian border. The Federal Aviation Administration, which had been monitoring the flight, received the distress call before losing contact with the aircraft.
Just as if it had been a real-life situation, the FAA contacted the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson.
The notional scenario set the stage for more than 100 U.S. and Canadian forces to exercise their arctic search-and-rescue capabilities, Paul VanderWeide, Joint Task Force Alaska’s search and rescue program manager, told American Forces Press Service.
Joint Task Force Alaska, the Alaska National Guard, U.S. Army Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian Joint Operations Command sprang into action to provide a fast, coordinated response.
The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center and the Canadian Rescue Coordination Center in Victoria, British Colombia, moved into high gear to reach the site and get help to the survivors. “We both are working together and sending our search-and-rescue responders,” VanderWeide reported.
The Alaska Air National Guard and 11th Air Force, which have operated the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center 24/7 since 1994, dispatched search-and-rescue assets, including HH-60 Pave Paw helicopters and HC-130 Hercules aircraft configured for search-and-rescue missions. Aboard each aircraft were crews of pararescuemen and combat rescue officers known as “Guardian Angels.”
The Coast Guard sent a C-130 aircraft, the Army National Guard provided a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, and the active-duty Army sent a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
The Canadians dispatched two C-130 aircraft, one configured for rescue operations and one for airlift, as well as a rescue helicopter.
Meanwhile, at the simulated crash site at the austere Donnelly Training Area south of Fort Greeley, role players standing in as crash victims huddled in the cold awaiting help.
Although modern aircraft typically are equipped to transmit their locations by GPS coordinates, the exercise planners opted to challenge the responders to find the crash site based on the aircraft’s last known position, VanderWeide said.
That involved a massive search -- not uncommon to staff at the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, he said. Part of a national and international system of rescue coordination centers, its area of responsibility covers a vast region about one-fifth the size of the continental United States.
“The fundamental challenge with SAR up here and for the Canadians in the far north is that the area is vast, with little infrastructure and very few resources,” VanderWeide said. “You can be hours away from the nearest anything. And to get a helicopter or ground vehicle to people may take a day or days.”
So as soon as rescue teams located the simulated crash site, they began airdropping emergency supplies for the survivors. The Canadians already had developed a kit of food, shelter and medical supplies able to be air-dropped from a fixed-wing aircraft.
But this exercise is serving as a proof-of-concept test for the “arctic sustainment package,” a U.S. version designed to help in keeping survivors alive for up to 72 hours in arctic conditions until they can be rescued or resupplied, VanderWeide explained. Each package includes specialized arctic tents with heaters, food, and survival suits for 25 people.
“The whole concept is to be able to airdrop what’s needed to keep them alive while they wait for that extraction,” he said.
Rather than simply airdropping survivor equipment, U.S. pararescue forces and Canadian search-and-rescue technicians jumped in with it to begin treating the casualties and assist the other survivors.
“So you are not just dropping gear and hoping people can figure out how to use it,” VanderWeide said. “You are dropping in the people to get that set up in arctic conditions, and also the medical capability to take care of them, until a helicopter or some other vehicle can get to them.”
Aviation assets began arriving at the site yesterday, and were expected to transport all of the survivors to medical facilities by this morning, he said.
Air Force Col. Joseph Kunkel, operations director for Alaskan Command and Joint Task Force Alaska, called the exercise an important step in improving coordinated arctic search-and-rescue capabilities in the region.
“A robust arctic SAR capability is essential,” he said. “As we have increased human activity in the arctic, there is going to be a requirement to have that strong SAR capability. This [exercise] is a baby step toward getting there.”
VanderWeide expressed hope that the exercise will help to reinvigorate an arctic SAR exercise program the United States, Canada and Russia began in 1993 and that continued during alternate years until 2007. Another positive sign, he said, are activities within the Arctic Council that are promoting regional cooperation in the region.
Exercising together promotes the competence and teamwork that arctic SAR missions demand, Kunkel said.
“It shows we have the collective interoperability to make it happen and that we can successfully carry out a SAR mission in an austere environment such as the Arctic,” he said. “It gives participants the confidence to know they can do that.
“But it also should give the general public confidence that if we have any kind of SAR event in the Arctic, we are preparing for that and ready to respond,” Kunkel added.