Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Dean
To keep the system moving safely and smoothly, Coast Guard members in Alaska have the unique opportunity of maintaining navigational aids to ensure the consistent flow of goods throughout Alaska’s marine highway.
Most familiar to shipping and receiving by boat is the remote city of Kodiak, Alaska, an island that can only be reached by plane or boat, with the closest city being Anchorage, about an hour commute by plane.
Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Kodiak is no stranger to maintaining navigational aids to prevent hazards at sea, and to ensure the flow of maritime commerce for Western Alaska.
With five years of experience in Kodiak, Senior Chief Petty Officer John LaCroix, officer-in-charge of ANT Kodiak, is responsible for maintaining those aids year round.
ANTs in the lower 48 states can often service most, or all of their aids by boat. The Last Frontier brings about unique logistical challenges that won’t allow that, for a number of reasons.
LaCroix said that dealing with the distances traveled to the aids, coupled with the weight involved, the time allotted to work the aids, and the amount of daylight they have present the bulk of the challenge. Combine that, with the amount of flying time and fuel capabilities, these are all factors that lead to creating this unique mission.
“About 90 percent of our aids we service via helicopter,” said LaCroix. So, in that sense the team would consider themselves the “flying ANTs.”
In Kodiak, LaCroix’s team is responsible for servicing 108 aids, throughout the Aleutian chain and Southwestern Alaska.
“We have a 300,000 square mile area of responsibility,” said LaCroix. “It goes from Kayak Island, Prince William Sound, out to Dutch Harbor, and then north to Point Hope, Alaska.”
The great distances and Alaskan climate brings with it logistical difficulties, often increasing the time spent traveling to the remote locations to do the work.
“All of our aids are shore aids,” said LaCroix. “We build our towers. Factoring in the weight versus the distance traveled. We either have the helicopter sling the box out and we build it on sight, or we build it at the hangar location and then they sling load the tower out.”
As compared to the lower 48, ANT Kodiak members are also required to be hoist-qualified. This is because most of the aids are located on sheer rock cliffs, lagoons and other places high in elevation that can only be reached by helicopter.
“We have our own training, we’ve worked it out with the station and the swimmers, and we’ve built a training syllabus for our crews to be hoist-certified,” said LaCroix. “There are several aids to navigation that we have that are just little pinnacles on a rock somewhere, and we have to service the light.”
He said in these cases there is no place for the helicopters to land, so they have to be hoisted up and down to the aids.
Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffany Stratford, a boatswain’s mate at the ANT, said the towers are used to display the navigational aids, which range from large visual aids like the red and white dayboards, to the much smaller flashing lights that beam an array of sequences, depending on what they are meant to warn mariners of.
“We always have to discuss with the pilots ahead of time how much weight we are taking, because it’s going to determine how far out they can go, and how long they can wait on scene,” she said.
She mentioned that one of the issues they encountered was rushing to complete the aid work before the helicopter needed to go and re-fuel.
Occasionally, the ANT will enlist the help of C-130 Hercules aircraft when traveling to places like Cold Bay and Cordova, to transport equipment for working the aids. All hoisting evolutions are conducted with an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew.
Team members are required to carry a survival bag with them to the aid due to the remote locations, environmental factors and the potential for the helicopter being utilized for search and rescues.
With a minimally-manned crew of 17 members, it is critical for the ANT to employ the assistance of local Alaskans to help verify the aids throughout the year. Locals are helpful for alerting the team when aids are not working properly.
“If you see an aid that you use, and it’s not working correctly, it’s important that you report it to the Coast Guard,” said LaCroix.
Despite the limiting factors, ANT Kodiak crew members work diligently to ensure the navigational aids are maintained, re-built and serviced. With all the hard work and dedication to the mission, they help provide for the smooth and safe transit of all goods and services throughout the Alaskan maritime system.