An aircrew aboard an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter makes an approach on their return to Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, June 5, 2019. (Petty Officer 1st Class Bradley Pigage | U.S. Coast Guard)

An aircrew aboard an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter makes an approach on their return to Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, June 5, 2019. (Petty Officer 1st Class Bradley Pigage | U.S. Coast Guard)

When you need them most: Coast Guard MH-60s and their crew

The Sitka-based helicopters fly demanding missions saving lives

For most of the country, the hospital is only an ambulance or a car ride away. In Alaska, naturally, things are more complicated.

For evacuations in isolated areas when commercial medical flight companies can’t reach someone who needs immediate evacuation, the U.S. Coast Guard and its MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters are often the tool of last resort.

“We’re equipped to deal with any sort of search and rescue that might be required,” said Lt. Will Sirokman, an MH-60 pilot with more than three years of experience flying in Southeast Alaska. “We usually go out with a crew of five: two pilots, a flight mechanic, a rescue swimmer, and a flight corpsman.”

The flight corpsman, an in-flight medic, is a particularly local adaptation to the search and rescue or non-maritime emergency medical service evacuations that the Coast Guard is called on to perform, Sirokman said.

Coast Guard rescues stranded hunter after boat capsizes

“We have flight corpsmen here in Sitka, which is unique for Coast Guard aviation units. It’s kind of something that’s developed here in the Southeast,” Sirokman said. “We keep that core unit together so the aircraft is always ready to deal with an emergency.”

Coast Guard Air Station is home to three MH-60s. The crews rotate 24-hour duty shifts, so the aircraft’s five crew are ready to go at any time. After they get the order down from District 17, Sirokman says, the aircraft is usually airborne within 30 minutes. Once they’re in the air, the challenges of flying in Alaska become rapidly apparent.

“It’s not uncommon that we have to follow the waterways to get to where we’re going. A big part of the challenge here is the navigation and dealing with the elements, and the darkness,” Sirokman said. “There’s very little cultural lighting here. We fly with NVGs (night vision goggles).”

Flying at night is one of the biggest challenges of the aviation world. While NVGs amplify ambient light, Sirokman said, there are conditions and places where lack of ambient light and lack of civilization mean there’s little-to-no light to amplify, and experience is the best guide.

Coast Guard medevacs teen from wilderness therapy camp

“They will not send a brand new pilot to Alaska. That’s a huge help to us,” Sirokman said. “These cases are very demanding on the crew.”

Non-maritime EMS transports typically involve meeting an ambulance at an airport or helipad, often not equipped with the kind of instrument flight rules infrastructure that a field at the Lower 48 would have, Sirokman said. Once the handoff of the patient is made, the flight crew will take them to a facility where a higher level of care is on offer, typically Juneau or Sitka, Sirokman said. The level of medevacs varies across the year, with more in the winter, but the number generally stays stable, Sirokman said. “Last year, we did 50, and that would be pretty typical over the last few years,” Sirokman said. ”I counted four that we’ve had in the past week or so.”

Sitka and CGAS Kodiak have to cover a lot of challenging terrain in some of the gnarliest weather imaginable, but Sirokman said he’s happy to be here, with a supportive community and a good mission.

“It has been a great experience, and I wouldn’t trade it,” Sirokman said. “When our SAR alarm goes over, more often than not, we’re going to go out and help someone.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 8

Here’s what to expect this week.

Bill Thomas, a former Republican state representative from Haines, announced Friday he is dropping out of the race for the District 3 House seat this fall. (U.S. Sustainability Alliance photo)
Bill Thomas drops out of District 3 House race, says there isn’t time for fishing and campaigning

Haines Republican cites rough start to commercial season; incumbent Andi Story now unopposed.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, speaks at the Alaska Democratic Party’s state convention on May 18 at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Peltola among few Democrats to vote for annual defense bill loaded with GOP ‘culture war’ amendments

Alaska congresswoman expresses confidence “poison pills” will be removed from final legislation.

A celebratory sign stands outside Goldbelt Inc.’s new building during the Alaska Native Regional Corporation’s 50th-anniversary celebration on Jan. 4. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Medical company sues Goldbelt for at least $30M in contract dispute involving COVID-19 vaccine needles

Company says it was stuck with massive stock of useless needles due to improper specs from Goldbelt.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, June 12, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A yearling black bear waits for its mother to return. Most likely she won’t. This time of year juvenile bears are separated, sometimes forcibly, by their mothers as families break up during mating season. (Photo courtesy K. McGuire)
Bearing witness: Young bears get the boot from mom

With mating season for adults underway, juveniles seek out easy food sources in neighborhoods.

A chart shows COVID-19 pathogen levels at the Mendenhall wastewater treatment plant during the past three months. (Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Wastewater Surveillance System)
Juneau seeing another increase in COVID-19 cases, but a scarcity of self-test kits

SEARHC, Juneau Drug have limited kits; other locations expect more by Saturday.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters during a news conference Feb. 7. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Gov. Dunleavy picks second ex-talk radio host for lucrative fish job after first rejected

Rick Green will serve at least through Legislature’s next confirmation votes in the spring of 2025.

A used gondola being installed at Eaglecrest Ski Area may not begin operating until 2027, according to Goldbelt Inc. President and CEO McHugh Pierre, whose company is providing $10 million for installation costs. (Eaglecrest Ski Area photo)
Eaglecrest Ski Area gondola may not open until 2027 due to CBJ delays, Goldbelt CEO says

Agreement with city allows Goldbelt to nix $10M deal if gondola doesn’t open by May 31, 2028.

Most Read