Written by Lt. Anastacia Visneski
To say that the North Shore of Alaska is a remote place is an understatement. The North Shore borders the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, two marginal seas of the Arctic Ocean. Even in the middle of July, the waters in the area are still icy with large ice flows in many areas. It is not hard to see that conducting search and rescue, one of the Coast Guard’s core missions in the area, presents unusual challenges.
It was through that ice that Coast Guard Cutter Healy made a path last week to conduct an interagency search and rescue exercise. The exercise was designed to test new technologies using unmanned aerial systems and identify benefits to cooperative search efforts between federal and industry partners.
Coast Guard Cutter Healy was the at-sea platform for the exercise.
With teams for two different types of unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, aboard, the intention was to locate the target then vector in a Coast Guard MH-60 rescue helicopter and an Era Group Inc. helicopter to the right location.
“One of the things that’s unique about Healy, is that we talk about interagency and cooperation, we get to demonstrate that on a daily basis,” said Capt. Jason Hamilton, commanding officer of Cutter Healy.
Working in conjunction with the Coast Guard Research and Development Center, the crew of the Healy lowered a “thermal Oscar,” a rescue dummy, out into the water.
This rescue dummy was tied to a six man emergency raft. Once this was done the Healy steamed away from the raft and moved into the second phase of the exercise.
At the 17th Coast Guard District in Juneau, Alaska, the command center received a call that a plane had gone down in the Beaufort Sea, cuing the start of the exercise from shore-based units. On the North Shore, a Coast Guard MH-60 helicopter and an Era Group Inc. helicopter were put on standby while an unmanned aerial system called a ScanEagle was launched to look for the raft. On the second day when the exercise was run again, a second UAS called a Puma was used.
Once the raft was located, the information was passed to the helicopter team, vectoring them to the rescue location. On the second day of the exercise the helicopter teams lowered rescue swimmers when they arrived on scene.
The exercise not only tested the abilities for search by a multiagency group, it also successfully tested communication capabilities, including the ability to pass control of a UAS from shore to an underway asset.
With increasing traffic through the Northwest Passage, exercises like this are important for Coast Guard readiness in the Arctic. Building and testing partnerships during exercises helps to increase operational capabilities throughout this remote region.
Coast Guard Cutter Healy is currently underway preparing for Geotraces 2015, which will take her to the North Pole. This will be the first time a U.S. icebreaker has journeyed to the North Pole completely unaccompanied.