During the Alaska National Guard’s Operation Santa Claus, a festive mission has turned into a critical rescue operation.
On November 15, 2023, at the Army Aviation Operating Facility in Bethel, an Alaska Army National Guard’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was getting ready to participate in the Operation Santa Claus initiative, which has brought holiday cheer to children and families in remote villages across the state since 1956 by delivering toys and school supplies.
However, an urgent call for assistance came to the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The call reported a critically ill patient who needed immediate evacuation from Napaskiak, 9 kilometers (6 miles) south of Bethel across the Kuskokwim River.
With no viable boat or snowmobile transportation options due to river ice and insufficient snow, the only feasible solution was evacuation by helicopter. However, adverse weather and icy runway conditions made it impossible for civilian air ambulances to land.
Festive mission takes a critical turn
The Operation Santa Claus pilots adjusted their plans, prioritizing the medical evacuation. Paramedics and medical equipment were loaded on the helicopter along with the gifts.
“Our UH-60L is able to transport up to 13 passengers with a full assortment of seats,” explained one of the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Colton Bell, in a subsequent press release. “In this case we didn’t need all of them so we took out the extra seats to make room for the presents, medical equipment and paramedics.”
After a brief stop in Napaskiak to deliver the paramedics and stabilize the patient, the crew then flew to Tuluksak, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northeast, to fulfill their original Operation Santa Claus mission by delivering volunteers and gifts.
They returned promptly to Napaskiak to pick up both paramedics and patient, flying them back to Bethel. The patient was transported by road ambulance to a local hospital where they were reportedly in stable condition.
In another example of a swift transition from routine operation to a real-life rescue mission, on July 10, 2023, a French Air and Space Force A400M military transport aircraft training near Guam, western Pacific Ocean, carried out a joint search and rescue operation after receiving a call from a distressed fishing vessel.