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The search and rescue flyboys stationed out on the weather-flogged tip of Japonski Island in Sitka Sound were well aware of the historic night Pat Rivas and his crew were killed. But over the years, as successive crews had come and completed their tours and then departed again, recent memories of new adventures had understandably replaced the old, and the specific details of that infamous mission had gradually become muddled in translation; some parts lost altogether.
These days, at Air Station Sitka, the story was passed down in a kind of loose, anecdotal form; scuttlebutt, really, bits and pieces recollected by longtime "sourdough" pilots who'd been kicked upstairs, or retired nearby, much the way World War II fathers, just home from the front, had once handed out machine-gun shell casings to their wide-eyed sons.
Even after nearly twenty years, approaching the subject of the crash of the 1471 is still a kind of walking-on-eggshells thing. And to ask a pilot who was currently faced with the the day-to-day challenge of staying alive while flying in southeast Alaska about it was a little like talking about the history of fatal crashes with a race car driver about to compete in the Indy 500. The heroics that Pat Rivas and the boys displayed that night, as well as the incredible run of plain old bad luck, is treated with both reverence and discretion, the plain truth being that it is really nobody's damned business.
There are, however, those heroic tales that just won't go away, the ones that have grown to almost mythological proportions; the true stories of those who'd somehow managed to fly into hell and return with survivors, crew, and helicopter still intact.
For instance, there was the time Capt. Jimmy Ng (pronounced "Ing")--a highly decorated former Sitka-based helicopter pilot (and now the commanding officer of the Integrated Support Command at Air Station Kodiak, the largest Coast Guard base in America)--encountered one of the most deadly anomalies of nature any chopper pilot has ever faced. While flying a rescue mission over on the Alaskan mainland, he came upon a 2,500-foot-high, 20-mile-long swath of powdered snow that was being blown down out of the mountain passes and out to sea at no less than 118 miles per hour.
Unable to ignore the pleas for help coming from the crew of a commercial fishing boat trapped inside the strange aberration, Ng deliberately plunged ahead. With his helo icing heavily in the -- 10-degree-below-zero winds, he was slammed around by the typhoon-force winds, like a racket ball in play, and yet somehow managed, in the blinding blizzard, to find the last few feet of the frozen vessel still sticking above water, and to hoist the four otherwise doomed fishermen aboard it to safety.
Although he was only a young lieutenant when chopper #1471 crashed, Ng also just happened to be the same young man who, even at that age, had the red-blooded temerity to think for himself, politely side-stepping the suggested search area, "because it made no sense." Instead, evaluating the situation for himself, Ng calculated that the shore of Montague Island was the most likely place to look for survivors. A short time later, he landed his H-3 Pelican on the beach next to what appeared to be the blue-clad body of a pilot. He set his chopper down so close that when one of his crewmen turned the body over, Ng could decipher the name tag on the man's jumpsuit pocket. It read "Lt. Pat Rivas." Ng felt as if a sword had run him through. Pat Rivas just happened to be Ng's best friend.
Nor can the legendary exploits of former Sitka helicopter pilot Cmdr. Tom Walters in any way be omitted. Long retired from the Coast Guard, these days he continues to work as an active pilot flying choppers commercially out of Kodiak. During the years he spent in the Coast Guard, he earned a reputation among those who flew with him of being "intimidating. And absolutely fearless." And in so doing, he rewrote the history books, often performing with seeming impunity that which had never been attempted before.
Flying one wicked night along the coast at the base of the Aleutian Mountains, Walters found himself caught short while trying to rescue two castaway fishermen, who were being washed by mean sets of thirty-foot waves toward certain death on the five-hundred-foot face of the nearby cliffs. It was then that Walters abruptly announced that he was going to try to land on the top of one of the storm waves at precisely the moment when the two crewmen drifted over its crest.
There was no precedent for this, yet this he did. With the red glow of his fuel warning light pulsing in his face, he touched down just long enough for the astonished members of his own "heart-attack crew" in back to lean out the side door, reach down into the water, and drag the severely hypothermic fin-chasers aboard.
Now another problem arose: Walters had remained on-scene too long. Running on empty, with too little fuel to return to base, Tom Walters diverted into the nearest bay and searched the drenching black space for an island flat enough and large enough to hold him. And that's where searchers found them the next morning, tanks empty, but alive.
Today, friends and pilots scattered all across America will tell you that Tom Walters is a stand-up guy as well as an extremely capable pilot, who has lived, more or less, by the proud and extremely honorable old-school Coast Guard motto, "You have to go out, but you don't (necessarily) have to come back."
Historians credit this saying to a lifeboat oarsman during the early 1900s. In a letter to the editor published in the March 1954 issue of Coast Guard Magazine, a Clarence Brady wrote in to explain that the first person to make this remark was a man named Patrick Etheridge. Brady knew him when both were assigned to the Life Saving Station at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
Brady's letter explains it this way:
A ship was stranded off Cape Hatteras on the Diamond Shoals, and one of the life-saving crew reported the fact that this ship had run ashore on the dangerous shoals.
The old skipper [Etheridge] gave the command to man the lifeboat, and one of the men shouted out that "We might make it OUT to the wreck, but we will never make it BACK." The old skipper looked around and said, "The Blue Book says we've got to go out, but it doesn't say a damned thing about having to come back!"
The gallant dory captain was not exaggerating. The 1899 edition of the Life Saving Service Regulations (the Blue Book), in force at the time (the precursor to today's Coast Guard Boone & Jackets Manual), in Article 6, entitled "Action at Wrecks" (section 252, page 58), makes it clear that while attempting a rescue at sea, those so engaged may not cease their efforts "... until, by actual trial, the impossibility of affecting that rescue is clearly demonstrated...." It goes on to say that any after-the-fact statements made by those in charge "... that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy, will not be accepted unless attempts ... to launch it were actually made and failed."
This regulation, emphatic and uncompromising in its tone, remained in force long after the Life Saving Service became the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. In fact, in 1934, when the new U.S. Coast Guard regulations were published, this section in particular was copied word for word and was published just as it appeared in the 1899 edition.
"That attitude," one retired Coast Guard pilot recently told me, "has changed a lot. These days, you damned well better come back. And bring that search and rescue resource, and all those people along with you."
On a clear day in southeast Alaska, the cockpit view of a Coast Guard aviator as his or her helicopter glides along is unparalleled. Perched in the front right-hand seat, a pilot flying out of Sitka can experience the rain forest, islands, tidelands, and inland sea (known as the Alexander Archipelago) that comprise southeast Alaska at a speed and altitude entirely subject to his or her own whim.
The H-60 helicopter they fly has a blunt nose and a long, muscular body. In overall form, it bears a striking resemblance to a hammerhead shark, complete with canted tail fin. These aircraft, referred to as Jayhawks by the Coast Guard, and Blackhawks by the U.S. Army, are built by Sikorsky Corporation in the state of Connecticut.
In the air, the H-60 is a high-tech marvel of power and potential. It can cruise along at better than 150 miles per hour, and can accelerate to all-out sprint speeds of over 195 miles per hour. It has a deicing system that heats not only the windows, but also the helicopter's rotor blades and intake manifolds. It has midair refueling capabilities, and a hoist that allows its operator to raise six-hundred-pound loads at will.
Her twin General Electric turbine engines cost about $1 million apiece. Together, the two 1,980-horsepower engines propel the fifty-three-foot-wide main rotor blades at three hundred revolutions per minute, creating nearly 22,000 pounds of lift, and enable the H-60 to pick up and fly off with a whopping 6,000-pound load. Under ideal conditions, pilots can command her onboard computers to hover and land the aircraft all by herself. By comparison, the H-3 Pelican (the H-60's predecessor) that Jimmy Ng and Tom Walters piloted flew like a bread truck with wings.
At $18 million a helicopter, however, the H-60 is expensive. For about the same price, one might purchase 400 new Lincoln Continental automobiles.
Handpicked out of the ranks of fellow Coast Guardsmen from all across America, the pilots who fly these helicopters and patrol this hostile portion of Alaska are the chosen few. They are lean, clean, fit, and disciplined. Overwhelmingly male in gender (fifteen of the sixteen helo pilots stationed in Sitka are male), they keep their hair trimmed "high and tight," as they call it. They are intelligent, educated, thoroughly screened, highly trained, well paid, and often remarkably gifted. They are, it is said, America's finest. And they love what they do, piloting the finest gleaming orange, black, and white state-of-the-art toys ever produced, as they patrol the last great frontier.
A Coast Guard helicopter pilot stationed in Alaska will pull down close to $70,000 a year, more or less, plus medical and dental benefits (within limits). Pilots are allowed thirty days of vacation a year. And while the U.S. Government carries a basic $200,000 life insurance on them, those who fly often carry policies that would pay out an additional two to three times that amount to their families, should they be killed in action. After twenty years of service, most will live to enjoy retirement checks in the amount of two-thirds of their base pay for the rest of their lives. Many will immediately be scooped up by one of the commercial airline companies.
I wondered at how, with so many assets, they went about keeping their pride in check, and the goal of helping others solidly in their sights. One pilot told me that the flying conditions in the outback of Alaska were, on occasion, so challenging that "from time to time they make even the best of us eat humble pie."
Capt. Jimmy Ng explains it this way: "From the get-go a pilot is taught that aviation is so dangerous that you cannot do it by yourself. And so if a crew goes out and they almost fly into the water, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that crew is going to come back and less up, and they are going to tell everybody. And the reason they're going to tell everybody is because they don't want their buddies to make the same mistake. That's part of 'service above self.'"
Pilots also aid one another in remaining right-sized by practicing a self-deprecating type of humor within their ranks. When one newspaper reporter mistakenly wrote that the popular and good-natured Lt. Dan Molthen, a much decorated helicopter pilot who had twice been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (one of the highest accolades a pilot can be awarded), had vomited into his own lap during a rescue mission, the boys at Air Station Sitka never let up.
"Hey, Russ," shouted one tongue-in-cheek pilot to another in the ops center, loudly enough to draw everyone's attention. "Did you hear about Madison? He had a really tough flight last night. Snow, wind, vertigo, the works. And I'll bet you already guessed what happened to him. Yeah, he Molthenned."
Under normal conditions, each H-60 helicopter has a crew of four, which includes a pilot, a copilot, a flight mechanic, and a rescue swimmer. Essentially, the pilot flies the helicopter while the copilot plots their course, entering the navigation way-point positions into the on-board computer.
Unless they have something important to share while en route to the scene, the flight mechanic and rescue swimmer generally contribute by keeping quiet. The pilots up front, they know, are working hard; they are the navigators and fuel managers, and until the hoisting actually begins, communication with them is kept to a minimum.
In the severe weather, the flight mech (who operates the hoist) is crouched in the doorway, his heart racing a mile a minute as he faces a never-ending series of fight-or-flight predicaments. During missions launched in the subzero temperatures of winter, his hands may literally freeze from the 120-mile-per-hour downdraft of the chopper's blades; in summer, his body will sweat profusely inside the sweltering confines of his dry suit.
Regardless, with one hundred feet or more of slack cable playing out far below him, he tries to guide the pilot and aircraft in over those waiting to be saved while simultaneously lowering the rescue basket without bludgeoning those in the water to death with the difficult-to-control basket.
In a bad storm, a flight mech's task is somewhat like trying to drop a clothespin dangling from the end of a one-hundred-foot length of string into a milk bottle from the seat of a moving Ferris wheel.
It is the rescue swimmer, however, who, when lowered into the water, faces the modern-day Coast Guard crewman's most dangerous and unpredictable task.
When not out flying, which is about 90 percent of the time, both rescue swimmers and hoist operators serve as helicopter mechanics on the ground. Using one of the most advanced computerized diagnostic systems in the world, they do maintenance work on helicopters inside the base's giant hangar.
As chief engineering officer at the base in Sitka, Lt. Stu Merrill decides what must be done, and he schedules people to do the work. "I have the best job in the Coast Guard," he says. "And the reason it's the best job is because I work with fifty of the hardest-working, most talented people I've ever met in my life."
His fight-hand man is Reggie Lavoie, who has been working at the Sitka base since 1977, when it first opened. Lavoie is looked upon as the perfect example of the farm-boy work ethic. "He starts when the sun comes up," says Merrill, "and he won't quit until the work is done."
Merrill and Lavoie are also quite aware of the fact that the one undeniable drawback to the high-tech H-60 is the amount of maintenance and money needed to sustain her. Roughly fifteen man-hours of mechanical labor are required to support each and every hour of actual flying time.
It is a rare occasion when all three choppers are mission-ready at the same time. The three helos at Air Station Sitka fly roughly 2,100 flight-hours per year, or 700 flight-hours per aircraft. This means that their mechanics must work 31,000 hours, more or less, each year to keep just two of the base's three "birds" on-line at all times.
If Lavoie and Merrill receive a request for an additional one hundred hours of flyovers by the fisheries enforcement, or National Park Service people, they and their crews are faced with an additional 1,500 man-hours of maintenance work--the equivalent of one mechanic working for nearly a year, just to support those few extra hours of flying time.
Each morning, pilots meet up in the ops center to be briefed on the day's flight assignments. It sits on the second floor of the two-story, flat-roofed office building that is attached to their hangar and extends out past it on both ends. The room at the head of the stairs is filled with expensive-looking communications equipment and large, square map tables. It looks out over one end of the hangar building, the helicopter pad just beyond it, and the broad, spacious, island-dotted waters of Sitka Sound, which splash up against the entire length of the airport runway.
Night and day, at least one set of pilots and their crew remain at the ready, staying overnight in the ward shack, a compact little bunkhouse built on the rocky knoll across the way. When hungry, search and rescue flight crews make the short hike to the "gazebo" nearby. This octagonal kitchen sits beside the water on the Sitka side of the narrow island. When not on duty, pilots and their crews may often be found exercising at the on-base gym. During off weekends, they may be found next door at the Eagle's Nest, leaning over a cool, tall, wet one.
Today, drinking to excess is frowned upon. A pilot who has drunk so much as a single beer on any given day is not considered mission-ready for the next twenty-four hours. In fact, in today's modern Coast Guard, a hard-partying young enlisted man with an understandable penchant for malt liquor and impromptu sessions of stand-up lovemaking, who may accept a fight-for-fun challenge from some local fisherman on the end of a three-day drunk, will quickly find himself expelled from that branch of the military. One alcohol-related infraction is the limit; two will get you booted from the service. Guaranteed.
Nearly all the tiny, weatherbeaten villages that dot the Alexander Archipelago, which comprises southeast Alaska, are positioned by the sea at the head of a bay, or near the mouth of one of the pristine rivers that flow out of the lush green rain forest here. And Sitka, though her eight thousand residents give her bragging rights as the sixth-largest town in the entire state, is no different. She sits huddled along the shoreline, inside the protective width of Japonski Island and the wave-snuffing reefs and tree-covered islands that are dispersed across Sitka Sound itself. As further protection against the wild fluctuations of the Alaskan tides, the canneries and fuel docks and cargo sheds that stand shoulder to shoulder along the waterfront are balanced upon wooden pilings so tall they appear to be mounted on stilts.
A robust walk along the water's edge in either direction from Sitka's downtown area leads one past a sprawling maze of interwoven marinas and boat docks. A thousand or so yards inland, the town rises up on terraced lots carved out of the surrounding wilderness, her back pressing up against the steep, forest green slopes of undeveloped wilderness that dominate bear-infested Baranof Island.
At night, especially in winter, the cold, rarefied air and strange atmospherics of the place serve to create an illusion that seems to draw the pointed, snowcapped peaks such as 4,200-foot-high Bear Mountain much closer; so near, in fact, that the threat of an avalanche to the town itself appears quite real.
Sitka, once called "Sheet'ka" by the Tlingit Indians, means "where the mountains cascade into the sea." Around 1800, Russian imperialists led by Alexander Baranof sailed into Sitka Sound and abruptly claimed it for themselves. Then, using hundreds of Aleut slaves brought in from the Aleutian Islands to hunt from kayaks, Baranof's forces set out to kill every living sea otter.
For several thousand years, by most estimates, the local tribe of Tlingit Indians had ruled the land and waterways of Sitka Sound and beyond. Rival tribes, such as the Haida, looked upon them as a fierce but tactical lot. Politely acquiescing at first to the strange but well-armed newcomers, the puzzled Tlingits soon grew sick of the intrusive and unpalatable combination of Russian arrogance, greed, and piety. They waited until Alexander Baranof was away on business over on Kodiak Island to attack; then they burned the new fort to the ground and drove its inhabitants into the sea.
Several years later, the Russians returned, led once again by Alexander Baranof and backed by three fighting ships and several score of cannons. The Russians pounded the Tlingits for six days, shelling men, women, and children, killing the young and the old alike before finally routing what remained of the brokenhearted people.
This time around, Alexander Baranof came determined to stay. He named the spot New Archangel, a site that would serve as the Russian-American capital for decades to come. While his hunters once again resumed the hugely profitable slaughter of sea otters, Baranof put his carpenters to work. They constructed a fort, a huge bunkhouse for his men, extensive storage facilities, and even a library and a small school. Sitka's new identity would also soon include one of the most advanced shipyards to be found anywhere in the world.
Baranof's own modest but comfortable home was built on a point of rock close to the sea where he could overlook what he must have considered to be his own wild kingdom. Today, from that same promontory (known as Castle Hill), one of the original cannons remains, aimed harmlessly out to sea. Looking closer at the jet-black surface of this ancient cannon, one can see letters painted in nail polish inside the form of a heart; an innocuous bit of young lovers' graffiti applied, perhaps, as a small rebellion against the bloodletting of the past.
Across the way lie the floating docks where, during the long, industrious days of summer, local fishermen come in their boats to repair their worn purse seines and gillnets, or string new ones. Farther up the shoreline, a solitary pier stretches out into the deep waters of the main channel. Often the Coast Guard buoy tender Woodrush is moored to it, taking on food stuffs and replacement parts in preparation for her next sea patrol.
Back on the Sitka side of the channel, the downtown area is lined with trinket shops, banks, apartments, and old, square-fronted hotels, as well as the watering holes frequented by local fishermen. There is Earnie's Bar, The Bilge, in the basement of the Sitka Hotel, and the museumlike Totem Bar, whose interior walls are covered with hundreds of framed photographs of wrecked fishing boats that have run aground.
Most of the businesses in the downtown are positioned along two narrow one-way lanes of twisting pavement that lead ears and people around the old Russian Orthodox church. Its clean blue belfry and chapel tower rise up smack in the middle of downtown, oblivious to the ever-encroaching nature of modern man.
Near the breakwater and boat docks, hand-carved totem poles rise from a flat chunk of grass-covered ground known as Totem Park. The radiant green grass flows from the bank at the water's edge, fills the rectangle of the park itself, leap-frogs a street, and then begins again, ending in an invitingly landscaped sweep of lawn and rose gardens at the front steps of the Pioneers' Home. This large, four-story building was established by the State of Alaska in 1913 as a place where indigent prospectors and homesteaders might come when, in their later years, they could no longer care for themselves in the wilds.
Just a stone's throw to the south, a massive suspended bridge extends for over 1,200 feet out across the channel that leads into Sitka Harbor. Christened in 1977, the O'Connel Bridge allows locals free and open access to the airport and Coast Guard base over on Japonski Island, while doing away forever with the need to ferry commuters back and forth across the channel.
Excerpted from Coming Back Alive by Spike Walker Copyright © 2002 by Spike Walker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|Book I: Flyboys and Fishermen||1|
|Book II: Into the Storm||95|
Posted June 14, 2007
This book is an amazing tale of survival and the will to keep on living. The determined efforts of each member of each helicopter crew were described in such detail that you feel each and every emotion that the crew experienced, from tragedy to triumph. Just an amazing story of the determination to live and save another human being. A great portrayal of the lives of Alaskan fishermen and the members of the United States Coast Guard. An amazing read for everyone...especially if you like the 'Deadliest Catch' on the Discovery Channel!
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Posted November 22, 2003
Spike Walker is the best writer of misshaps on the waters of Alaska to date. I interviewed Spike on his book signing tour in Ketchikan, Alaska, just after 'Coming back Alive' was printed. I previewed the book and couldn't put it down. I started commercial fishing at the age of 15 and have heard many a stories, but Spike has a way of bringing you right there with the people that lived the experience. Many fisherman and Coast Guardsmen have read this book as you really don't know what it's like to be out in that type of weather first hand until a writer like Spike comes along. For me it brought back many memories. Thanks Spike for bringing the insight of the things that those tough sometimes maybe crazy fisherman go through in thier lives. Oh, the interview about Spike and his book won first place in the Alaska Press Club Awards Contest that year. It just happened two of my fishing friends had footage from the same boat that Spike fished crab on, showing the ice conditions, pulling pots and big seas. This is a must read along with Spikes other books.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 19, 2003
Decent read, though it helped I personally knew a significant count of the characters... Some inacuracies bothered me-- namely the COVER-- the helo pictured on front is a H-65 Dolphin- it was a H-60 Jayhawk used on the rescue... the only helo type located at Air Station Sitka. Seriously-- shouldn't someone have looked into that?? Overall-- an interesting look into a day in the life of a Sitkan- whether fisherman, coastie, or just a good ole carhartt wearin, xtratuf toatin born& bred Southeaster! Allows for some due respect to those putting their lives on the line daily. Thanks guys!
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Posted August 30, 2001
I only wish that there were more than 5 stars in the ratings! This book is outstanding!!! I wish that James Michener was still alive to beable to give a review of THIS one!!! What a GREAT read!!! I will most definitely read THIS one again and again and again!!! After seeing the movie and reading the book, 'The Perfect Storm', I was a little leery of reading this book, fearful that it might leave me with the same, sad and depressed state of mind that I was in when done with 'The Perfect Storm'. I thought that I would NEVER get the lump out of my throat when finished with the movie! Then I read THIS book and Mr. Walker didn't disappoint me!!! I felt good, I felt relieved, jubilant, tense, subdued when a death occurred, and VERY much appreciated the respect that Mr. Walker treated both the survivors, the deaths and the families from both extremes!!! Compassionate, thrilling, respectful, informative, left me at times feeling light-headed, TENSE, all the things that it takes to write a GREAT book!!! It left me with a good, uplifting feeling and bewildered my mind with the capabilities of mankind and the dedication of the Coast Guard!!! These men daily put their lives on the line and 'Coming Back Alive...' vividly portrays the experiences these men go through. This is a book that EVERYONE should read. Life will be a bit more sacred for it!!!!
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Posted July 26, 2012
Posted August 2, 2013
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