When the Coast Guard received a report from the Kake clinic of an overdue air ambulance, its nearest helicopters at Air Station Sitka were about 40 miles away.
Coast Guard Commander Michael Kahle said the air station maintains three MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters: one disassembled for parts, one as a backup; the third is the “ready bird” for rapid response.
“The goal that we should shoot for is, from the time of notification, 30 minutes to get off the deck,” Kahle said in a Monday interview. “And then two hours to be on scene, and that’s where our assets are positioned to enable that.”
But according to mission logs obtained by CoastAlaska under the Freedom of Information Act, the Sitka air station’s “ready bird” Jayhawk immediately ran into problems.
The logs indicate an engine contingency switch had malfunctioned — effectively grounding the helicopter overnight.
“So now we are looking for other aircraft to bring in,” Kahle, who was incident commander, recalled. “We reached out to the Air National Guard and they said, ‘Well, we can get aircraft probably in the morning time.’”
Mission logs obtained in a Feb. 1 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal a string of mechanical breakdowns grounded the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters at Air Station Sitka.
After crews in Sitka weren’t able to get their helicopters cleared for take off, a second Jayhawk was requested from the Coast Guard’s Air Station Kodiak — 600 miles away.
“That process ends up taking about, you know, through the evening,” Kahle said. “And at first light, they’re basically on scene with a new aircrew, aircraft and underway out on scene.”
That meant there was no aerial search over Frederick Sound for the first 12 hours.
On the water it was a different story. The Coast Guard had quickly alerted the Cutter Anacapa, which was already in the area, and local search and rescue teams also searched for signs of the missing plane overnight.
Air Station Sitka got its Jayhawk in the sky the following morning. After completing a single search, the logs indicate it ran into the same mechanical problem. Its crew refueled in Petersburg and returned to Sitka for more repairs.
The longest federal government shutdown in history had ended just a few days before. Kahle said the Coast Guard’s maintenance schedule had been affected. He confirmed parts of an article in The New York Times that stated dockside maintenance to ships in Sector Juneau were delayed.
But the commander said the mechanical breakdowns of its Sitka-based helicopters weren’t shutdown-related. He called them “a mechanical issue that happened at the wrong time.”
The Coast Guard acknowledges its aerial response was delayed that night. But Kahle said it didn’t impact the overall response.
“Certainly we work very hard to keep our aircraft in a posture — so that we can respond within the Coast Guard’s goal or ahead of the Coast Guard’s goals,” Kahle said. “And I think we do a good job overall of maintaining that readiness.”
Federal authorities still don’t know what caused the Beechcraft King Air 200 to plummet more than 2,500 feet in 14 seconds before vanishing from radar.
NTSB investigator Brice Banning examines the recovered flight recorder from the Guardian Flight plane that crashed Jan. 29 over Frederick Sound. (Photo courtesy of NTSB).
The cockpit’s voice recorder was recovered by searchers contracted by Guardian Flight.
But Clint Johnson, the National Transportation Safety Board’s regional chief in Anchorage, said it’s in poor condition.
“We’re not sure if it’s actually impact damage or if its water immersion damage,” Johnson said Monday. “However, not all is lost at this point. Right now, our engineers in our cockpit voice recorder lab are working very, very hard to try and recover that information.”
He added the lab should know whether the data is recoverable within the next week.
Most of the plane’s wreckage has since been recovered around 22 miles west of Kake. It’s now in a hangar in Juneau. Representatives from Raytheon and Pratt & Whitney which built the airframe and engines will be assisting NTSB investigators.
Johnson said it’ll likely be some time before the public gets any answers.
“It’ll probably be another probably six, eight months, at least before anything else is released,” he said.
Following the Coast Guard’s intensive three-day search, Guardian Flight spent two months looking for its lost aircraft and crew.
Last week the company announced it had wrapped up its search. The bodies of Juneau-based pilot Patrick Coyle, 63; paramedic Margaret Langston, 40 and nurse Stacie Rae Morse, 30, remain lost at sea.