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When Alaska beachcombing trip becomes late-night helicopter rescue

Craig Medred

Safely home thanks to the late-night heroics of the Alaska Air National Guard on Sunday, Soldotna pilot Rick Kraxberger was back on remote Montague Island in Prince William Sound by Monday to retrieve his bent, single-engine airplane.

An employee at Kraxberger Drilling Inc. reported that by mid-afternoon, the boss had managed to get his Bellanca slung beneath a helicopter and delivered to Seward at the head of Resurrection Bay.

Thus ended one expensive beachcombing excursion.

The National Guard reported the middle-age pilot damaged the aircraft Sunday trying to land on the beach at Patton Bay on the southeast side of Montague, about 140 miles east of Soldotna and 125 miles southeast of Anchorage. A press release from the Guard reported Kraxberger and an unidentified passenger in his plane were landing to go "beachcombing when the aircraft flipped on its back."

Reached by telephone late Monday, Kraxberger said the aircraft's tires hit a soft spot just after touchdown. As a result, the plane went nose down and flipped over.

Kraxberger and his passengers were shaken but unhurt. If he could have talked to the National Guard, he would have alerted rescuers that everyone was fine before they undertook potentially dangerous nighttime rescue thinking someone was in danger.

'Nice to see them'

Unfortunately, he lacked a satellite phone. And, he admitted, "it was nice to see them" thundering out of the dark.

Patton Bay is a good spot for beachcombing these days as debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami continues to make its way across the North Pacific. The bay is attractive to small plane pilots because the usually firm beaches make for a good runway.

As Krazberger discovered, however, there are certain perils.

When he failed to show up back in Soldotna on Sunday night as noted in his flight plan, the Federal Aviation Authority notified the Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage. Airmen with the Alaska Air National Guard’s 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons were dispatched to the scene as the most readily available search-and-rescue (SAR) asset.

Alaska State Troopers, charged with coordinating 49th state SAR operations, have been struggling since the tragic loss of their only long-range helicopter, along with the pilot, a trooper and a passenger, in March. The state agency had a second helicopter on order before the crash, but it isn't expected until July. The agency will also need to hire and train a new helicopter pilot having lost one of the best in the business, Mel Nading

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) is continuing to investigate the crash at night in extremely bad weather just south of Talkeetna. A similar crash in New Mexico in 2009 led the NTSB to warn that state it needed to change its "organizational culture" to put more emphasis on safety. 

Practice for military missions

Helicopter rescue operations are always dangerous, especially at night. But the 49th state is blessed with the elite of the SAR business in the Guard's rescue squadrons. Trained by the military to rescue pilots shot down behind enemy lines in combat, the members of 210th, 211th and 212th consider Alaska operations good, real-world practice for their military mission.

Within two hours of being notified their help was needed Sunday, they were airborne for Montague with a HC-130 Hercules flying top cover and a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter with pararescuemen aboard ready to make a pickup and provide medical help if necessary. Half an hour later, the Guard reported, rescuers spotted Kraxberger's plane "overturned on a sandbar in Patton Bay, and a short time later, the HH-60 helicopter was able to land nearby. The Guardian Angel team assessed the two survivors’ conditions -- both reported to be uninjured -- and loaded them into the helicopter."

All were back in Soldotna by 2:20 a.m., and the rescuers were credited with two saves.

"The importance of filing a good VFR flight plan is what resulted in the speedy recovery,” Capt. Jeremiah Brewer, senior rescue controller at the RCC, observed. "(But) it would have resulted in an even faster recovery if there was a 406 (MHz) beacon installed in the aircraft.”

Reliable 406 beacons aren't foolproof 

The 406 beacon can immediately send a distress signal to a satellite after a crash. Krazberger said his airplane is outfitted with an older 243 beacon. Many Alaska pilots are still flying with those or even older 121.5 beacons in their planes. The 406 beacons are considered far more reliable, but even they are not foolproof.

“In this case, the survivors walked away,” Brewer said. “That’s not always the case, and a three- to four-hour response time might have been too late.” 

Recognizing the latter, many Alaska air carriers, a growing number of private pilots and some agencies, such as the National Park Service, have begun outfitting their aircraft with real-time tracking systems.

The decision by the Alaska Region of the Park Service to mandate flight-following technology in all of its aircraft and that of the planes provided by contractors followed a deadly crash offshore from Katmai National Park and Preserve in Southwest Alaska in 2010. Searchers looked for the aircraft for two weeks before accepting they were unlikely to find anyone alive. The plane never was found, but parts of it were discovered washed ashore a month later. 

Agency officials say they've found the flight-following technology to work extremely well. Kraxberger said he's thinking about updating the technology in his aircraft.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com