The Alaska State Troopers are adding a fully-loaded rescue helicopter to their arsenal about two months after a failed search-and-rescue mission killed three Alaskans, including two troopers. The troopers reorganized how they handle those missions since the loss of Helo-1 and its veteran pilot.
The law enforcement agency's expensive addition will not replace the now infamous Helo-1, as it was purchased before the late-March accident.
A new 2012 American Eurocopter A-Star 350B3e will be delivered next month to Grand Prairie, Texas. Its final destination is Fairbanks, Alaska's third largest city located in the Interior. The aircraft cost the state $3.2 million, an appropriation by the Alaska Legislature.
According to the A-Star's manufacturer, American Eurocopter, the single-engine workhorse has the best performance in its category of helicopters:
Built and certified in the United States, this cost-effective helicopter accommodates five to six passengers in all forward-facing seats. High performance, enhanced maneuverability and reduced pilot workload make American Eurocopter's AS350 the preferred rotary-wing aircraft for a growing number of U.S. civilian users, air medical services and law enforcement agencies.
It's the latest version of the A-Star but is functionally the same as Helo-1, which was also an A-Star, said troopers' spokesperson Megan Peters in an email. Helo-1, also an A-Star, was equipped with multiple navigation systems, flare guns and night vision, among other equipment needed for rescue missions.
Helo-1 far outperformed the troopers' four additional helicopters, Robinson R44s, which don't run on turbine engines. "Their capabilities are limited," said trooper Col. Keith Mallard. That's not to say they don't serve a purpose, as the Alaska Wildlife Troopers and other departments within the agency use them for patrols, nearby search missions and fish openers.
The troopers' highly-equipped Helo-1 was airborne for seven minutes March 30 before it hit the ground in a fiery crash that killed all three aboard, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board. The helicopter had been summoned to an area near the intersection of two established snowmachine trails by 56-year-old Carl Ober, a longtime Talkeetna resident who has been described as "a dog musher, trapper, and carpenter."
The crash killed Ober, as well as troopers Tage Toll and Mel Nading, a veteran pilot who had rescued more than 70 people last year alone.
After the crash, the troopers rotated an R44 from the Alaska Wildlife Troopers post in Soldotna. Their plan was to use the copter for search-and-rescue missions, but its limited capabilities left it sitting in a hangar in Anchorage. Troopers were unable to use the R44 in a number of instances, Mallard said.
"It delayed our response times quite a bit," he said. "But thankfully it hasn't resulted in unsuccessful rescues." Now, it just takes longer. The R44 returned to Soldotna; troopers at that post need it, Mallard said. If a rescue mission near Anchorage requires the helicopter's use, the extra travel time from the Kenai Peninsula would not be significant.
"It will be a slower response, but we figured it's better to have that piece of equipment where it will be used versus sitting in a hangar somewhere," Mallard said.
Instead, the troopers shifted search efforts to the ground. Partner agencies and the Air National Guard's Rescue Coordination Center -- a military unit of the 176th Wing located in a small, high-tech facility at Elmendorf Air Force Base -- can be called upon if needed. The RCC, which organizes rescue operations between multiple units and agencies, has stringent rules for the types of search-and-rescue missions it'll lend a hand on.
In addition to search-and-rescue work, Helo-1 was kept at the ready and on hand for certain events, like the Arctic Man Classic, a combination downhill ski and snowmachine race and a popular gathering for snowmachine fanatics. The mission is the same: search and rescue; Helo-1 simply sat in a tent at the ready.
This year, a 9-year-old boy fell into a deep crevasse while snowmachining in the HooDoo Mountains, where the Arctic Man is held. If the troopers had had Helo-1 at the event, they would've been on scene in a few minutes rather than the 10 minutes in took them to arrive at the crevasse, said Lt. Lonny Piscoya. Also, glacier climbing experts and extra gear could've been hauled out faster, he added.
"But for this call, the severity of the case occurred almost instantly ... regardless of our response time, either by (helicopter) or snowmachine, the damage was done," Piscoya said.
Mission need has not changed
Mallard said the troopers still hope to replace Helo-1, but right now it's a question of funding. The agency is examining its budget, and if it does request the purchase of another helicopter, funding will fall the following year.
"Our desire is to replace it; the mission need has not changed," Mallard said.
While in service, Helo-1 completed about 100 "saves" a year, missions that resulted in people being rescued from the Alaska wilderness. Troopers conduct 800-900 search-and-rescue missions a year.
When troopers requested a helicopter for the Interior, the intent was to cut response time. Now, when the highly capable Eurocopter arrives in Fairbanks, delays will be significantly reduced, Mallard said.
As for replacing the irreplaceable, Nading's expertise will be hard to match. But Mallard is confident once the troopers' advertise a new pilot position -- the Eurocopter currently lacks an assigned pilot -- skilled individuals will step up to the plate. There's enough talent in Alaska to fill the position, he said.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com