Sometimes you just have to laugh when the irony hits: watching Coast Guard Alaska on a cutter in Alaska is an incident you have to laugh about. If you have ever watched an episode, you probably noticed the most flashy rescues and law enforcements advertised; many of the most exciting cases involve air stations. While aboard the Cutter Maple in Alaska, I had the opportunity to visit Air Station Sitka. When I was dropped off at 7:30 a.m. I was briefed by a swimmer about emergency egress from the helicopter and then decked me out in gear for the flight. A middle aged man walked us through the plan for our all day flight, introducing himself and the co-pilot by their first names. I had experienced briefs before at the small boat station and on the buoy tender, yet this one was distinctly different. It was not until hearing one of the mechanics address the speaker as sir that I realized they were officers, experienced and respected lieutenants at that.
We climbed into the helicopter under the typical Sitka gray skies and even with all of my questions, the crew didn't falter in their routine. An in-flight communication system allowed me to listen to all communications between the pilots and the two mechanics in the back with me, and allowed me to ask questions throughout the flight. We flew from Sitka north through Angoon and Haines, to Glacier Bay, where we flew along the boundaries of the national park and landed on a wooden pad in the middle of the bay. The pilots later discussed prone locations for mountainside rescues and the isolated villages that need medical evacuations. About an hour after landing in Juno for lunch, the mechanics walked me through the pre-flight checks they did and we took off southbound for Sitka. During the flight I was hooked into a gunner's belt, which is a waist belt that allows the wearer to move freely around the cabin and even hang at the door. Standing next to a second class petty officer new to Alaska, we saw our first bear cubs running across the fields and whales breeching along the coast. We landed for a brief time on Sea Lion Cove, the first sandy beach I'd seen there. Flying back to Sitka, I felt exhausted and could tell the crew was worn out as well, but their diligent practice even at 4 p.m., more than eight hours later, was unaffected.
Throughout my remaining two weeks in Sitka, I spent my free time learning about aviation and sending dozens of questions to the mechanics and anyone I could find with knowledge about flight. While the buoy tender Maple was my primary focus this summer, I could not help but want to learn more about the air station after this life-changing flight. The camaraderie amongst aviators was immediately apparent and the teamwork so seamless; the opportunity to work with these crews again in the future is enough temptation to shift my goals. Spending time with Air Station Sitka exposed me to more opportunities and missions then I could have seen elsewhere, and gave me the direction I needed to keep focused through the rest of my Academy career.
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