Chapter 1, The Search

December 2, 2009
The Search
Bristol Bay, Alaska
6.00 hrs

It was a dark, overcast, and damp morning in Western Alaska, when November-7-7-3-8-Charlie-Golf responded to the urgent call. Survivors from Western Airlines 72 were reported seen on a life raft, alone. The call had been received just minutes before from a private jet on a Northerly course from Honolulu, Hawaii, towards the Fox Islands in Alaska. 7738 Charlie was one of six Sea Stallions, along with two C-130’s of the Bristol Bay, Alaska, Coast Guard Station.

The Sea Stallion “Welcome Wagon Willie,” named by her crew of four, was the helicopter selected for the job. Her crew, consisting of Captain Joe Stykes, Co-Pilot Arlene Fischer, winch operator Steven McFarlan, and diver Jason McKinley, was one of the best fit for the job, with at least 45 total rescues under their belts. As soon as Willie was up in the air, her crew was directed on a south by southwest heading towards, and then over, the Andreanof Islands of the Aleutian Chain.

About 40 miles due south of the Island Cluster, and with 15 knot winds coming from the east, Co-pilot Fischer spotted a bright-red, flashing light approximately 10o east of their current position. As the chopper neared the light, a blip appeared on the chopper’s radar, and a flare quickly made a vertical ascent from the flashing object.

A few moments later the shape and color of an orange and white trapezoid began to form. With this observation, Stykes pitched the nose forward and throttled up a bit. Fischer radioed to McKinley and McFarlan in the back to get ready to make a retrieval. Steven McFarlan, 27, and already on his 26th mission, quickly opened the port-side hatch of the stallion, swung out the winch arm, and lowered it about 20 feet. Jason McKinley, 25, and on his 17th mission, was putting on his gear, prepping his body for the impact, and getting ready for his 12th dive so far in his career.

About an eighth of a mile from the raft, three figures could be seen moving on its sides. 40 feet above and 20 feet adjacent to the light, McKinley was given the signal, and down he went. When he safely splashed down, he fought through the rough water and boarded the raft, just as Stykes received an urgent message. A rogue wave was about half a mile west and closing fast. He needed to get up and out of the danger, but had no time to retrieve McKinley safely! He was going over his options when he saw it, the huge 60+ foot tall monster of water almost on top of him.

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