Between flights to Tuluksak, Operation Santa Claus turned into a rescue mission

a medevac
LifeMed flight paramedics and an Alaska Army National Guardsman move a critically ill patient from a Black Hawk helicopter to an ambulance during a medical evacuation from Napaskiak to Bethel on Nov. 15, 2023. (Balinda O’Neal/Alaska National Guard)

Over 100 kids and their parents waited patiently Wednesday for Santa and Mrs. Claus in the Tuluksak school gymnasium. The Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk from Bethel had to make two trips to Tuluksak, about 34 miles away. The first trip brought six passengers that included Guardsmen, representatives from the Salvation Army and this reporter. Most importantly, of course, it also carried presents.

But Santa was a bit delayed.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Colton Bell is assigned to Golf Company, 2-211th General Support Aviation Battalion. He was the lead helicopter pilot for the mission.

“We had Santa on the second flight. He was with the medics,” Bell said, referring to staff from the air medical transport company LifeMed.

In the middle of Operation Santa Claus, there was an urgent assistance call from the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

“We got a rescue mission, patient transport from the village of Napaskiak about in the middle of it,” Bell said. “So we took off from Bethel and took two LifeMed medics with us over to Napaskiak to drop them off, and then continue the mission up to Tuluksak. Dropped off those passengers, the second round of presents, and then returned back to Napaskiak. Picked up the patient and the two medics and transported them back to Bethel over to the hospital.”

The wind and runway conditions made it too dangerous for LifeMed’s air ambulance to respond to a man from Napaskiak, who had gastrointestinal bleeding. So they called the rescue center for help.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 David Berg was the helicopter’s support pilot.

“We as a team, the whole crew here from Bethel, plus the support team from Anchorage — Air Force and Army — really came together to reconfigure the aircraft to include the medics and their equipment,” Berg said.

Berg also said that it was a seamless transition to go from dropping presents, Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their team of volunteer elves into a rescue mission.

“And then go back and pick up the patient — and it all happened fairly smoothly,” he said. “We had to shut down a couple times, but it was a smooth afternoon. In my experience, it was definitely a highlight of my career.”

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Nicholas Lime served as the crew chief for the second leg of the mission.

“So my role for this was purely to get the passengers loaded for the second leg,” Lime said. “So normally when we’re loading and unloading with the rotors turning, we’ll have a backseater on board to make sure everybody gets out, clear the aircraft safely.”

According to the crew, they didn’t want to shut the Black Hawk down.

“We had a rescue mission, so we didn’t want to shut the aircraft off and have something not start back up,” Lime said. “So we landed in Tuluksak and unloaded while we’re running. Make sure when he gets out safely away from the aircraft and then reconfigure the aircraft to put the back row or the stretcher across the back row, instead of presents, and then help the LifeMed people put the passenger in the aircraft.”

Lime also said that the conditions in Napaskiak were wet, icy, and windy, not ideal conditions to transport a patient.

“Yeah, everyone’s okay. Nobody, nobody got dropped. Nobody slipped and no one got hurt. So yeah, it was a good mission,” Lime said.

The Alaska Army National Guard aviation facility in Bethel has been active since the Black Hawk’s arrival on Feb. 4.

The rescue center, which organized the medevac, said that the patient was stabilized and transported to Anchorage, where they remained in stable condition as of Thursday.

Then it was back to the mission of holiday spirit. The crew reconfigured the Black Hawk to allow for all 12 passengers, including Mr. and Mrs. Claus, to be picked up from Tuluksak, leaving the presents behind.

Although Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived a little later than scheduled in Tuluksak, the community immediately forgot about the tardiness when the honored guests arrived. And the pictures with Santa and Mrs. Claus, free ice cream, and presents helped.

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