Connecting Alaska to the World And the World to Alaska
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Army Aviation Unit’s Deployment Reduces Military Role in Remote Civilian Rescues

U.S. Army

About 190 members of a Fort Wainwright-based aviation unit will be largely unavailable for civilian search-and-rescue for at least a year. The Alaska Aviation Task Force regularly helps find and pick up missing and injured from remote backcountry locations, but as KUAC’s Tim Ellis reports, personnel in a key Army unit that’s part of the task force are deploying overseas.

U.S. Army-Alaska spokesman John Pennell says crews with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment are packing up their Blackhawk helicopters in preparation of a round of intensive training at Fort Irwin, California. And from there, they deploy to Afghanistan.

“We’re expecting the deployment to last about nine months,” he said. “So, we’re expecting them to be back in the fold sometime very late 2017, or early 2018.”

Pennell says in the meanwhile, the remaining members of the first of the fifty-second won’t be able to help out with emergencies involving civilians who are injured and need to be medevacked from remote areas. He says instead the unit will focus on responding to emergencies on military land, especially on the Army’s sprawling training ranges around the Interior.

“The main mission for the unit is to provide support for military training exercises,” he said.

Pennell says the first of the fifty-second helped rescue civilians about a dozen times in 2016, when doing so would not diminish its ability to carry out its main mission of responding to emergencies during high-risk training that, for example, included use of explosives.

Credit U.S. Army
1/52nd soldiers and National Park Service staff prepare to unpack supplies from a Chinook helicopter at the Kahiltna Glacier base camp in Denali National Park. The camp, at 7,200 feet, is the main staging area for climbers headed up Denali and other major peaks in the area. The 1/52 helps supply the camp as part of a long-standing arrangement with the Park Service. The annual mission helps crews practice flying CH-47F helicopters in mountainous areas, and medics to train for high-altitude rescues.

“Depending on the training exercise and the risk involved,” he said, “we had to have that asset standing by, just in case.”

Under the terms of 2015 agreement, the first of fifty-second would send a helicopter and crew to emergencies when requested by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center. The center is operated by the Alaska Army National Guard’s 176th Wing, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Pennell says plans call for the first of the fifty-second to resume such assistance when it returns from the deployment.

“Of course, between now and then, any number of things could change,” Pennell said. “But as of right now, that is our plan.”

The loss of the unit over the next year could cause delays in responding to emergencies in remote areas. A news release issued Monday by U.S. Army-Alaska says if the first of fifty-second is able to respond to a request for help, it may take up to eight hours to get a helicopter and crew airborne.  

Officials with Alaska Air National Guard and Alaska State Troopers did not respond Monday afternoon to requests for comment on the loss of the Army aviation unit’s assistance.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.