A Search and Rescue (SAR) team from Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island in-route for a mission to rescue a severely distressed hiker on the Okanagan Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) the evening of July 2, temporarily postponed that mission after one of its crewmembers spotted a different potential victim in the water east of Whidbey Island.
NAS Whidbey’s SAR unit departed from the base just after 7 p.m. to the PCT following notification from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. As the helicopter transited over Dugualla Bay, one of its crewmen spotted a man in the water near an overturned kayak. Turning toward the scene it became readily apparent the kayaker was struggling to stay afloat in the cold Puget Sound water. Once overhead the crew immediately lowered a rescue basket to the struggling man while another crewmember suited up in case he had to assist the victim in the water. The kayaker, who was suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion, was able to lift himself into the basket. The crew then hoisted him aboard and flew him back to Ault Field where base paramedics attended to him.
After dropping off the injured kayaker, the crew then resumed its original mission to Okanagan PCT around 8:15 p.m. After locating the distressed hiker who was in a remote area surrounded by tall trees at approximately 5,000 ft. above sea level, the crew intended to rappel down and assess the situation. After dropping the rappel line it became tangled in the trees, forcing the crew to cut the line and reassess their options. The crew then decided to lower a hoist down to the victim. After getting the hiker aboard the helicopter, who was suffering from severe dehydration and rhabdoomyolysis, the SAR crew flew her to Skagit Valley Hospital.
According to the SAR mission commander, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Hartz, the mission was challenging due to the terrain and surrounding area. “Ground crews would have taken over eight hours to reach her,” Hartz said. “And in her condition, she may not have made it through the night.”
Hartz also noted that the earlier inadvertent rescue was fortunate for the hypothermic kayaker. “If it was not for the aircrews' vigilance and constant scan this individual would not have been identified and quite possibly would not have survived.” Hartz said. “Our crewmembers did a great job being flexible and adjusting to changing missions quickly.”
These were the seventeenth and eighteenth rescues of 2017 for NAS Whidbey Island SAR, which has also conducted five searches and 14 Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) missions this year.
The Navy SAR unit operates three MH-60S helicopters from NAS Whidbey Island as search and rescue/medical evacuation (SAR/MEDEVAC) platforms for the EA-18G aircraft as well as other squadrons and personnel assigned to the installation. Pursuant to the National SAR Plan of the United States, the unit may also be used for civil SAR/MEDEVAC needs to the fullest extent practicable on a non-interference basis with primary military duties according to applicable national directives, plans, guidelines and agreements; specifically, the unit may launch in response to tasking by the AFRCC (based on a Washington State Memorandum of Understanding) for inland missions, and/or tasking by the United States Coast Guard for all other aeronautical and maritime regions, when other assets are unavailable.