NAVAL AIR STATION KEFLAVIK, Iceland - Two HH-60G Pavehawk helicopters from the 56th Rescue Squadron raced 230 miles to evacuate a 19-year-old Russian Sailor from the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko last Tuesday afternoon.
The rescue off the southern coast of Iceland began after the squadron was notified of the situation at 1:25 p.m. and began preparations for the rescue.
"We always keep one helicopter on alert at all times," said Tech. Sgt. Paul Crumpton, the flight line expediter for the mission. "In this instance we just happened to have another helicopter preparing to take off for a training mission so we were able to launch the alert crew on it before the alert helicopter."
Crumpton added that the 13 Airmen of the 85th Maintenance Squadron's helicopter flight quickly reacted to reconfigure both aircraft for the mission.
"Both of the helicopters had ammunition and mini-guns on board when the call came in," said Crumpton. "Our weapons crew went to work removing all of the ammunition and guns so that there would be room for the flight crews to perform their mission. They had the first helicopter ready within about five minutes and once it had launched they began pulling the second helicopter out so that it could be launched as a cover ship."
While the maintenance crews reconfigured the aircraft, another flight crew and pararescue team assembled, gathered information, and reviewed the plan formulated by rescue operations supervisor Maj. Brett Hartnett. By 1:45 p.m. the first helicopter lifted off, followed 14 minutes later by the second helicopter.
Due to the long distances involved in the round trip mission, both helicopters were required to stop en route and refuel in the Vestmann Islands before continuing to the Russian vessel.
By 3:48 p.m. the lead helicopter had made contact with the Russian destroyer and was gathering information so that the crews would know what equipment they might need or what precautions they should take.
At 4:10 p.m. the pararescuemen were lowered to the deck of the ship and they went below to the ship's medical ward, where they conversed with the ship's crew through one of the sailors who spoke English. There they saw the wounded Russian Sailor still on the operating table with an open abdomen.
"The language barrier itself wasn't much of a problem," said Tech. Sgt. Eric Barry, one of the pararescumen. "The problem was in translating medical terminology from one language to another so we could properly assess the situation."
Through their initial observations and conversations with the crew, the pararescuemen determined that the man had suffered blunt trauma from a large object and the ship's medical crew had suspected internal bleeding so they made an incision to try and stop the bleeding.
"Each of us are trained as paramedics," said Barry. "It's critical for us to understand the mechanisms of injury so that we can safely transport and properly treat the patient. So it's very important for us to have this level of medical training."
The pararescuemen used the medical training they received, bandaged the man up and kept his organs moist to prevent further damage to them. They then packaged him up and carried him through narrow passageways and up two flights of stairs to the top deck.
"It was pretty difficult to maneuver the patient through the dark and cramped passages and stairs to get him to the top deck while concentrating on not causing any further injuries," said Barry. "We were able to get him up top though, and from there Staff Sgt. Jamie Sowels [the flight engineer for the helicopter] and Staff Sgt. Jason Marfell, the other pararescueman who entered the ship with Barry, used a tagline to hoist him up."
The mission did not end with the retrieval of the wounded man. They still had to keep him stable while they flew back to the hospital in Reykjavík.
"Our primary concern was to make sure he remained stable throughout the flight," said Maj. Brian Tollefson, the flight surgeon for the 56th Rescue Squadron. "It was clear from his injuries and subsequent surgical procedure that the patient was in critical condition. We were able to keep the patient hemodynamically stable and keep his exposed abdominal organs viable during the long helicopter ride back for definitive surgical treatment."
Marfell said that the environment inside the helicopter was difficult to work in.
"Although we get all of the same medical training as most paramedic crews have, it's a whole different ballgame out here," said Marfell. "They might have a ten or 15 minute drive as opposed to our 200 mile trip. We're also working in a cramped, dark and noisy area with the wind shaking us as we're trying to care for the patient."
En route to the hospital in Reykjavík, the helicopter crew relayed vital information, such as the patient's current condition, vital signs, and blood type to the surgical team at the hospital through the Icelandic Coast Guard. This allowed the Icelandic doctors to better prepare for his immediate surgery.
At 5:50 p.m. they dropped the patient off at the hospital and the helicopter crew returned to the base while the sailor was rushed to the operating room to begin surgical operations.
1st Lt. Scott Adams, the co-pilot of the recovery helicopter, said that with the exception of the pararescuemen Marfell and Barry, his crew had limited real world rescue mission experience in their current positions.
"This was my first time as co-pilot in the recovery helicopter," said Adams. "Last time I was in the cover ship. This was also Capt. Ron Henderson's first flight as aircraft commander in the recovery helicopter and Sowels first rescue ever."
Adams further added that the mission was a textbook operation and that everything worked well.
Henderson agreed and said the mission was a cooperative success.
"The work the maintenance team did to get us out in 20 minutes was phenomenal," said Henderson. "Once we were in the air, both crews worked exceptionally well together. I couldn't have asked for a better rescue."
Sowels said his first mission was intense, but that he didn't really have time to be nervous during it.
"We had to make sure all of our bases were covered," said Sowels. "We planned the mission well and throughout the entire flight I was concentrating on executing my portion of the mission."
The best moment for Sowels was when he found out the sailor had come through surgery and was going to make it.
"When I got the call from Maj. Hartnett, at 11 p.m. that the Sailor had completed surgery and he was going to make it, I got really excited," said Sowels. "It finally hit me what we had done -- That we had saved this guy's life."