It was a cold, windy and snowy morning on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A fierce winter storm had blown through the night before and entire towns were shut down because of the conditions. Emergencies don’t wait for the weather to clear, however, and a patient at The Outer Banks Hospital needed care beyond what could be provided. With roads swathed in snow, the only way to get out was by air; Air Station Elizabeth City, that is.
Elizabeth City was called in to assist and crews – both in the air and on the ground – began to make preparations. Piloting the aircraft would be Lt. John Poley. He led the crew in a pre-launch discussion about procedures they would use to ensure they could safely complete the mission.
“The highest risk areas for us were the take off and landings in confined areas such as the hospital pads surrounded with freshly plowed snow,” said Lt. j.g. Kevin Riley, the aircraft’s co-pilot. It would be his first case since he started flying in the Coast Guard, making this snowy flight particularly memorable.
With the briefings complete and safety as fresh on their mind as the snow on the ground, the aircrew launched with Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Bergman as the flight mechanic and Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Scheren as the rescue swimmer.
Arriving in Nags Head, Riley recalls seeing buildings completely covered in snow with nearby rivers choked by ice. With a 30-knot tailwind the crew reached the pick up location quickly. Once on scene, Poley elected to use the “hover down” approach method, using the hospital, ambulance and parked cars should they lose reference because of the blowing snow.
“Coming to a 50-foot hover all of us were ‘eyes out’ and calling the snow cloud so that we all would know exactly when we might be engulfed in the snow,” recalled Riley.
Despite the blowing snow, the crew maintained their references all the way down to the ground and the swimmer and flight mechanic got the patient loaded along with a Dare County EMS flight nurse.
“They were impressive to watch,” remarked Greg South, a resident who witnessed the crew in action. “It’s great knowing that when the world stops due to nature’s unkindness, you guys are there to help.”
With the patient aboard, the aircrew took off and did a rapid climb out to stay ahead of any blowing snow. The 30-knot tailwind that had once helped them now hindered them but they soon made it to Norfolk. The aircrew did another “hover down” approach since it worked so well at the previous helipad and safely offloaded the patient for further treatment.
Arriving back in Elizabeth City, most of the storm’s clouds had cleared out and the crew could see the entire airfield for the first time; it was completely covered in snow except for one small spot just perfect for a helicopter landing.
“Our ground crews had spent the time we had been flying the mission in clearing a pad for us to land to near the hangar for our return,” said Riley. “Conditions had improved throughout the flight but it was still very cold and our maintainers had to work hard to recover the aircraft in the snow and ice ramp conditions.”
Air Station Elizabeth City proved once again the Coast Guard is Always Ready, even when nature forces them to transition from operating as an air station to an ice station.