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Hovercraft Mud/Ice/Water Rescue
Prepared for worst
Exercises at airport include water rescue for first time By Lucas Wall
Anchorage Daily News
May 16, 2002
Two planes approaching Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport collide, sending one into Cook Inlet and the second crashing in flames onto the runway while attempting an emergency landing.
A slew of local, state and federal agencies practiced that scenario Wednesday morning during the airport's required mass casualty exercise. The exercise, mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, occurs every three years, but this was the first time it included a water rescue.
The exercise included the first test of a Cook Inlet multiagency rescue plan developed after an Era Aviation helicopter crashed during an October snowstorm. Two Era passengers were plucked from the icy water by the Alaska Air National Guard. The pilot and two others died.
The simulation began at 9:20 a.m. Two Guard pararescuers acting as victims jumped into the Inlet between points Campbell and Woronzof. Just off the east-west runway, volunteers sat in the airport's recently acquired L-188 jet to act as injured passengers involved in the crash-landing.
The Airport Safety Department's hovercraft arrived first at the water scene. Its two-man crew deployed an orange life raft, which is designed to hold eight survivors until they can be lifted off the water. The two "victims" climbed into the tiny hovercraft and were ferried to the raft to await further help. In a real event, the hovercraft would continue to round up survivors.
The airport purchased its hovercraft earlier this year and added two of the inflatable life rafts last month.
"This is the first time in the history of the airport that we've had the capability of response out to the Inlet," said Sgt. Bill Weiss of the Safety Department. "This craft has exceeded all of our expectations."
A survivor would likely last no more than 30 to 45 minutes in the cold water of Cook Inlet, he said. Therefore it's critical to quickly get them in a raft. The Safety Department's goal is to launch the hovercraft within 15 minutes of a crash.
Once in the life raft, the two mock victims were rescued three times by the Air National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard practicing different techniques. The Air Guard's Pavehawk helicopter came first with its new heli-basket, designed for up to 15 survivors. It took the Pavehawk crew two attempts to successfully lower the basket onto the water and hover so the victims could climb in.
They exited to continue the training while the Pavehawk flew back to Kulis Air National Guard base to drop off the basket. Then the Coast Guard's Jayhawk copter lowered a rescue swimmer to help hoist the victims up one at a time. It circled the scene and deposited them back in the water for the final trial run.
The Pavehawk returned so its pararescue crew could be lowered into the life raft and hoist the victims to safety.
While all this went on, an Alaska State Troopers helicopter hovered in the area with Mort Plumb, airport director, watching the action. An Era helicopter, two Coast Guard rubber boats, and two private airboats were also filled with observers.
Back at the airport, firefighters from the Safety Department, Anchorage Fire Department, and Kulis pulled people out of the smoking L-188 and practiced containing a blaze. A triage area was set up, and volunteers, who had fake wounds painted on them, were treated and taken to local hospitals.
A command center in the safety building coordinated among the eight agencies participating in the drill. About noon, once the first exercise was completed, supervisors gathered to evaluate the response.
A second exercise Wednesday afternoon simulated the arrival of the training jet with a biohazard on board. The National Guard's 103rd Civil Support Team responded with the FBI and Anchorage Fire Department to enter the plane in protective suits and test the mystery agent.
Wednesday's drills contained many firsts, Plumb said, and it'll take awhile to sort out what new improvements should be made in the disaster plan.
"That's why you do these: you learn," he said. "The main objective is to ensure that we are ready in the unfortunate event that something catastrophic happens." Testing the interagency cooperation was among the most important things, he said.
"There's no one single agency that can do it all," Plumb said. "I'm optimistic that we are better off today than we were yesterday and we will have things that we can then probably practice and get even better at the next time." Sgt. Weiss comments:
When the exercise began on May 15, 02, we were relatively close to shore. Throughout the exercise the current and outgoing tide took us farther out into Cook Inlet. We deployed an 8 person inflatable buoyant apparatus (IBA). We stopped momentarily to disconnect the IBA lanyard from the hovercraft then started our search and recovery of "survivors." We picked up two "survivors" and transported them to the IBA then stood by for helicopter arrival.
A Kulis Air National Guard MH60-J Pavehawk helicopter then hoisted the two "survivors" from the IBA. The empty 87-pound IBA flipped over during the second hoist. We expected that to happen. One week prior to this, we had the same helicopter do the hoist directly from the hovercraft. The intense rotor wash had no effect on the stability of the hovercraft. The U.S. Coast Guard also did two hoists from the IBA. Again, when empty, the IBA flipped, but the nearby hovercraft was absolutely stable in the sea conditions and rotor wash. The Pavehawk also brought out a new recovery basket to try out. During this operation, we kept the hovercraft at idle next to the IBA and held the IBA to stabilize it. The recovery basket floats in the water while the "survivors" swim toward it. I've included this last photo to somewhat show the rotor wash effect and the sea state as we drifted west. The hovercraft is to the left in the photo. Throughout the exercise, we were well protected and comfortable in our Mustang Ice Commander suits, and the hovercraft remained a stable work platform. The earlier photo I sent that was in the Anchorage Daily News was a better shot of this same event. Photos taken by Bill Roth, copyright 2002 Anchorage Daily News and Mickey Hendrickson, an employee of Anchorage Airport.
Sgt. Weiss describes the airport's hovercraft training exercises:
Yesterday the 16th April 02, was our first test at negotiating out into Cook Inlet. We had a number of challenges.
The previous week we buried our Honda ATV in deep snow at the edge of the mud flats in our first attempt at deploying into the inlet. Yesterday I simply flew the hovercraft on the ski trail from Gate W-4 to the bike trail, which is on the perimeter of the airport. To get down the hill to the mud flats, we connected the hovercraft to a snow machine (snowmobile) with a rope. The hovercraft went down the slope first, using the snow machine for breaking. I pretty much kept the hovercraft at idle and slid down the snow-covered slope. This method worked quite well over the deep snow. The sloped trail was narrow with trees on both sides.
We then flew about three hundred yards across snow-covered mud flats to near the inlet. Again, no problem flying over deep snow and slush. The hovercraft starts up and runs fine since the throttle cable fix.
The tide line was an enormous problem. The tide line consists of frozen mud, icebergs and boulders. The consistency is much like that of the worst lava fields. Even at high tide, we had to drop down a ledge of approximately three feet to enter the water. In traversing the tide line and entering the water, we broke at least two consecutive plastic skirt segment p-clips at the right front of the hovercraft. We discovered this as soon as we applied power. One skirt segment was completely blowing up, causing excessive spray and air loss. I had to enter the water to inspect and repair the problem. As there were no p-clips to connect to, I simply used the wire ties to connect the segment to the adjacent loose skirt segments. The fix worked and the hovercraft flew as if the p-clips were still intact. Working in the water was very comfortable in our new Mustang Ice Commander suits - good digital dexterity and plenty of warmth and buoyancy.
The sea conditions were pretty rough. There was a significant chop coming from a variety of directions, which is typical for the inlet. The windshield iced up, along with some buildup of ice on the skirt, but no icing was detected on the fan blades. The craft flew very well. We flew for about three hours. My trainee did hit one iceberg and put a crack in the left front cowling. We later found the crack extended through two consecutive air duct feed holes on the left front. The initial crack caused a dimple in the cowling, which popped out with the first application of power after the collision. There was no noticeable effect on flight operations.
We spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a spot to exit the inlet. As the tide was now going out, we had to get out at the mud flats, or fly all the way to the port of Anchorage, with no guarantee that the conditions there would be any better. We attempted to lift the hovercraft back over one ice shelf at the tide line, but we were not successful. We worked both in and out of the water, but were not able to overcome the slippery conditions, the weight of the craft, the very sharp and very rough terrain. We believe we would have easily solved this if we had two additional people - one lifting each handle. We will now deploy and recover with four people (two ground crew) when we encounter these conditions.
I finally found a spot I could fly ashore. What, from the water, looked like flat, snow covered mud flats, turned out to be an extended area of deep, sharp, frozen depressions. Consequently, shortly after flying ashore, I lost my air cushion and banged to a rough stop atop what I would describe as a frozen reef of the worst kind. In that landing, we broke some additional plastic p-clips. I did what skirt repairs I could while my other officer walked back to the snow machine. We planned to use the snow machine and what air cushion I could muster to tow the craft off the "reef." When he didn't return, I walked to the snow machine to find it would not start. We walked back to the hovercraft. We started the hovercraft; we both remained outside the craft at the front lift handles. I operated the throttle from outside the craft. We were able to get enough lift and thrust to get the craft off the rough terrain and fly back to the snow machine. Again, throughout the day, we never had any problem with the engine, throttle or flying the craft over the water or snow. Considering what we encountered, the hovercraft was extremely rugged and durable.
After finally fixing the snow machine, we reversed the process for going back up the hill. We tethered the snow machine in front of the hovercraft and planned to use both the snow machine's and hovercraft's power to get up the hill. As it turned out, the snow machine was only used for directional control going up the narrow slope. The hovercraft climbed the slope under its own power. That worked very well.
In all this, we came close to expending all the fuel in the short-range gas tank.
Upon inspection, the forward bottom of the craft did take some dings from the impacts of the sharp, frozen, uneven terrain at the tide line. We'll look at doing full repairs over the next couple of days prior to flying again.
The main lesson we learned from this in all four people are needed - two to lift and carry the hovercraft over the frozen tide line for deployment and recovery. Again, I hope our experience will be of some help to others.
Last night was finally our first chance to work with an Air National Guard Blackhawk UH-60 helicopter out in Cook Inlet. See picture.
We deployed with three people and extra equipment in the hovercraft. The weather and payload made it a challenge just getting to the training area out in the ocean. We fought a twenty-knot head wind and rough seas to get there. Heading out, we never did get over the hump. We just plowed our way out. The engine ran fine and the cylinder head temp stayed right around 400 degrees. This is what we're normally seeing for all of our salt-water ops.
Once on site, the hovercraft was extremely stable in the rough water. Throughout the mission we were either at an idle or moving. We never did shut down the engine. The Blackhawk made a number of passes over the hovercraft and also did some low hovers over us to check the effect of the rotor wash on our craft. Even with the rough seas, wind and rotor wash, the hovercraft was exceptionally stable in the water. The helicopter then dropped a pararescue swimmer in the water. We picked him up with the hovercraft, and then the helicopter hoisted him back onboard directly from the hovercraft. That worked very well.
We were out there for a few hours doing some other work with the Blackhawk, including filming their work with a new rescue basket. Again, even in the rough conditions and passing rainsqualls, the hovercraft made a stable platform for filming. Our Mustang Ice Commander suits continue to provide very good protection from the elements.
Earlier in the day we did a media shoot for the upcoming Cook Inlet exercise. During that filming we deployed from a rocky beach at low tide. We managed to break six plastic "P" connectors in the forward area of the craft. We replaced those with rubber insulated metal connectors before the evening mission. I'll let you know how these connectors are holding up to the salt water.
Yesterday we started to see some electrical problems. Our running lights no longer work, which is no big deal, but we had to reset our bucket computers a number of times. I had more success keeping the buckets on line if I had all the other electronics shut down. In the ocean it's not that big of a deal to lose the buckets anyway. We mostly fly just on rudders. The buckets are more important for landings on the rough beach though. I'll do some troubleshooting and adjust the computers before next Wednesday's exercise. I'll let you know how it goes. In the mean time, we'll keep pushing the limits.
10 May 2002
I think the computer shut down is due to low voltage. There may be a short in the system affecting both the running lights and draining the battery. This would make sense with all the saltwater work we're doing. We'll get through Wednesday's exercise and continue to troubleshoot.
The next hovercraft we buy should go with only the minimum essential electronics and as tight a system as we can as far as protecting the wiring. Other than the gauges to monitor the systems, the only lighting we really need is the clear strobe and the headlights. We haven't used the headlights yet, because we haven't had any true night ops. The clear strobe is fantastic under low visibility conditions (snow, rain, fog). For a spotlight, we would use a hand held.
We're stilling running hand held radios. At this point I don't think installing radios is a good idea. I don't think they'll hold up to the salt water and I don't think the electrical system will handle the load. We may well end up staying with the hand held Motorola's. We wear them on a small chest harness over our ice rescue suit. One radio is an 800 MHz trunking system that ties us into our dispatch, Anchorage Fire Department and other agencies. The other radio is a VHF that includes marine band channels. They both work well. We also carry a cell phone in the glove box. That works well also. I'd recommend to anybody to stick with hand held radios for the craft.
This is a great deal of hard work that is extremely satisfying as we learn top deal with challenges. I only have two Officers trained at a minimum basic level so far. Our other work commitments have also been a large part of the challenge to brining this program up to a 24/7 capability. It may well take me the rest of this year to get us fully capable. Thanks for your tremendous support.
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