Yukon Quest helicopter rescue squadron honored at barbecue

Others Add comments

When Staff Sgt. Mike Sullivan stepped off the HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter onto the windblown surface of Eagle Summit and heard a yelp come from under his feet, a rush of relief came over him.

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE–When Staff Sgt. Mike Sullivan stepped off the HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter onto the windblown surface of Eagle Summit and heard a yelp come from under his feet, a rush of relief came over him.

"I knew then that at least some of those dogs were alive," said Sullivan at a Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race barbecue arranged as a thank you for the helicopter pilots at an Eielson Air Force Base hangar on Thursday afternoon.

A group of about a dozen attended the hastily scheduled event. None who were rescued were able to attend. Thankyou e-mails from the race's Yukon board and musher Wayne Hall of Eagle were read at the event.

Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, and three of her dogs, did attend. It was one of Zirkle's dogs that Sullivan remembered from the summit. Her dogs, on loan to Quest musher Randy Chappel, were separated from the musher in the blizzard. Chappel ultimately hitched a ride to the next checkpoint when he bumped into another musher. The lost dogs were on their own when the helicopter pilots found them.

Sullivan was one of six members of the Air National Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron who braved the February snowstorm on Eagle Summit to rescue 89 dogs and six mushers who were stranded overnight in a blizzard. All the dogs and mushers came home safely.

Sullivan was in Fairbanks from Anchorage for maneuvers Thursday and was joined by fellow Quest team rescuers Maj. Bill Kupchin and Lt. Col. Dave Looney.

Staff Sgts. Dave Torrance, Andrew Marron and Dave Shuman were not able to attend.

The pilots lifted Quest rookies Yuka Honda, Kiara Adams, Phil Joy, Saul Turner, veteran Jennifer Cochrane, Quest 300 musher Jodi Rozmyn, and Chappel's dog team to safety.

"When we got our first visual, the mushers and dogs were pretty much hunkered down," said Sullivan, who joined the Guard in 2003 after a stint in the Air Force. "We were just thinking 'let's get everybody out of here.'

"Most of them were real glad to see us, even the dogs."

Visibility was less than a quarter-mile and the wind was blowing at 50 knots, or 57.6 mph, on their first approach to Eagle Summit, Looney said.

After circling a few times, Looney found a spot to land on the rocky hillside. The mushers were located and told to gather their dogs and possessions if they wanted a ride off the mountain.

"Nobody was forced to go," said Looney. "But after spending a night in that storm, I don't think it was a tough choice for anyone."

Loading the dogs into the aircraft one by one, some of which were handed off through the window, was exhausting for all involved, but it was almost like the animals knew they would be better off and offered little struggle, Sullivan said.

By the time Sullivan and his crew got to Chappel's team, they were expecting the worst.

"I thought the dogs would be frozen solid," Sullivan said. But when he heard the faint cry from under the layer of snow, his hopes began to rise.

"We just started digging them out and we couldn't believe it, the whole team was OK. The resilience of these animals is just amazing."

On the last of five flights to the Mile 101 dog drop, where Quest officials and vets waited, 25 dogs were packed into the helicopter. One brave pooch decided to rest for the ride on the center console between the pilots.

"The dog part of this mission was unique," said Looney, who flew the helicopter along with Kupchin. "But we are in the rescue business. We've never done a major rescue for the Quest or Iditarod, but the procedures are pretty much the same."

Added Kupchin: "This was the quintessential Alaskan rescue mission."

Source:  Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

WP Theme & Icons by N.Design Studio
Entries RSS Comments RSS Log in