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USCG Jayhawk crew called in mayday and quickly executed an emergency landing on south end of Kodiak Island (Oct. 11, 2012)

Posted by PA3 Jonathan Klingenberg, Friday, October 19, 2012
Air Station Kodiak crewmembers work diligently to complete repairs of an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter’s tail gear box in the remote location of Low Cape at the south end of Kodiak Island, Alaska, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2012. In the field a repair such as this can take more than six days to complete, where as it would take two days at the air station’s maintenance shop. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Air Station Kodiak.
The crew of a Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak Jayhawk helicopter, tail number 6005, geared up and set out on a mission on the evening of Oct. 11, in search of a crewman who was reported overboard from the fishing vessel Flying Ocean southwest of Kodiak Island near Shelikof Strait.

While the helicopter crew was conducting a search pattern in an attempt to locate the missing man, a caution light drew their attention to a tail gearbox high oil temperature indication.

“We had the potential of a very real catastrophic failure of the tail rotor drive system,” said Lt. Scott Wilkerson, one of two pilots on the mission. “That’s a helicopter pilot’s worst nightmare. You lose the tail rotor and the aircraft is going to want to spin, which was a very real possibility, but we were all prepared. We executed emergency procedures to try and stack the odds in our favor, but we knew it was only a matter of time before it failed on us.”

The Jayhawk crew called in a mayday and quickly executed an emergency landing to the beach at Low Cape at the south end of Kodiak Island, over 85 miles southwest of the air station.

“It’s something that we train for,” said Wilkerson. Along with many other types of equipment failures and emergency situation training, Wilkerson explained that, as helicopter pilots, they are required to go through simulated tail rotor failure training annually.

 After safely touching down and upon further inspection of the tail rotor, the crew found that all the oil had drained out of the gear box and it would require being changed out on location before they could move the helicopter again. This was only one of their problems however; darkness was setting in and a Kodiak grizzly bear was spotted not far from the landing zone. All four helicopter crewmembers and one Al Roker Entertainment cameraman had to retreat to the helicopter and wait until the bear moved on.

The Coast Guard Cutter Hickory crew and a Kodiak-based HC-130 Hercules airplane crew were both operating nearby and responded to the helicopter crew’s mayday. The Hickory’s crew quickly made plans to extract the crew and cameraman from the beach. They launched their small boat crew and headed to the stranded helicopter crew.

According to Wilkerson it felt like a surf rescue. The following seas and darkness made the small boat landing extremely challenging but he added that the Hickory coxswain made the best of a very difficult situation and deftly maneuvered the small boat to and from the beach recovering all the crewmembers safely and returning to the cutter.

With the crew safe aboard the Hickory, the command at Air Station Kodiak focused on developing a salvage plan to recover the helicopter.

“The Hickory played a vital role in ensuring the safe recovery of our folks,” said Cmdr. Mark Vislay, operations officer, Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. “In Alaska we are called on to cover vast distances and operate with very little infrastructure. The ability to self rescue our crews is critical whether that takes the form of launching another aircrew to get them or in this case relying on the support of the cutter.”

The stranded helicopter is one of five MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters stationed in Kodiak. At the time of the emergency, one helicopter was in Barrow, one was in Cold Bay and the remaining two were down for maintenance.

Until a Jayhawk was available, Air Station Kodiak was able to utilize their MH-65 Dolphin helicopters, a smaller and shorter ranged helicopter, to ferry parts and personnel to the scene of the stranded Jayhawk. More than four trips were made alternating between delivering crew, tools and parts necessary for the repairs. The maintenance crew, working to change out the tail gear box, where often dropped at the scene not long after sunrise and worked until sunset. In one instance the maintenance crew stayed overnight, periodically firing up the engines of the helicopter to stay warm.

According to Cmdr. John Hollingsworth, the Air Station Kodiak engineering officer, the time it would take to switch out a part like the tail gear box would be close to two days with optimal conditions, in house. In the field however, especially in a remote location like Low Cape, repairs took six days due in part to weather.

The tail gear box was successfully repaired on Tuesday, but due to weather, the crew of grounded Jayhawk, was not able to perform trial flights until the following day. With the success of the trail flight the helicopter crew returned safely to Kodiak.

Hollingsworth explains that, a field level repair is one of the most challenging tasks to accomplish, especially in Alaska, and with bears in the area.

 “To say this is a professional group of people who went down there to do the job would be an understatement,” said Hollingsworth. “We hand-picked these guys, we knew that their talents and abilities were far beyond anyone else on the hanger deck, and their level of professionalism is boundless.”