The smell of crisp pine in the air and the peaceful quietness of nothing but the rushing of emerald green glacial rivers as they flow down the side of a mountain describes most of the state of Washington. However, this heart-stopping landscape has a potentially lethal side that can claim even the most experienced hikers. But, luckily for those in northern Washington, there’s a highly trained group of Sailors ready to answer the call.
Video produced by Jonathan Snyder, Defense Media Activity
From the frigid waters of the Puget Sound to the dense tree canopies of the Olympic forest to the towering rock facades of the Cascade Mountain Range, Sailors from the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Search and Rescue (NASWI SAR) team provide 24-hour SAR for the fixed winged assets in the area, as well as the civilian population. While most squadrons in the fleet have multi-mission platforms, Whidbey Island SAR’s one focus is rescue.
“Generally, helicopter squadrons around the fleet, whether they’re a Romeo or Sierra Squadron, they’re going to have a multi-mission platform. Those helicopters, pilots and flight crews need to be able to do a multitude set of missions, from the Romeo side, which is hunting subs and possible rescues, where the Sierra side could go from rescue, logistics and anti-mine warfare. Unfortunately, they don’t get to really ever focus on one,” said Lt. Chris Pitcher, NAWSI SAR operations officer. “Our job is to go out and save people, whether it’s pulling them out from the water or from the side of a mountain, and we train almost every day for those different scenarios. So when those scenarios do pop up, we’re not surprised, and we can get the job done and get that person to a higher level of care.”
Because of this, NAWSI SAR is the only squadron in the fleet that is outfitted with an advance life-support helicopter platform. It allows crews to not only save pilots in case of emergencies, but also work with local hospitals and emergency rooms to provide care for anyone in need of medical attention.
“We are a fully outfitted, advance life-support helicopter platform,” said Chief Hospital Corpsman Wayne Papalski, NAWSI SAR’s flight paramedics lead chief petty officer. He explained that the team operates the same way as first responders who save lives after someone calls 911 for a family member. “We strive to mirror ourselves with the civilian community, so that way we can have that continuum of care that started in the civilian community and continue to a local hospital.”
With the millions of visitors the Pacific Northwest sees every year, NAWSI SAR has not only performed rescues in the Cascades and Olympic National Parks, but also in Idaho, Oregon and even Canada. This has made the Sailors learn to quickly adapt to changing environments.
“The terrain here is pretty diverse. You have the ocean that can range from mid 50s to high 40s. You have mountain ranges that can have some of the densest forest with 200-foot firs to some the rockiest sheer rock cliff faces that you can imagine. And once you get past the other side of the Cascades, it turns from this nice coastal 60 degrees here in Whidbey Island into this dry desert that reaches 110 to 112 degrees,” said Pitcher. “It just depends on what the mission calls for, and to be ready to be able to respond to any kind of situation, because, obviously, if the jets go that far, we need to be able to respond.”
The unpredictable landscape has made Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Francisco Toledo learn to be uncomfortable, he said. But he also said that the only way to become comfortable is by constant training.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, we kind of check your ego at the door. We have our own training syllabus, so when you check in, you start from scratch using what you learned previously in the fleet to come up here to make yourself a better aviator or crewman,” said Papalski. “We have a pretty robust training syllabus that takes you throughout the entire state to all of our local working areas. Pretty much any situation that you will probably face as a qualified crewman or pilot, we try to put you in.”
Because of the level of difficulty and danger of the job, Sailors said it leaves a lasting memory. Most believe that when they look back at their careers someday, they will consider their time at Whidbey to be some of the best years they have had.
“Looking back at my four years here, I’ll tell you this is the best command I’ve been at. It’s just been an amazing and humbling experience, getting to do what I got to do up here, and what some of my brothers and sisters in the other room got to do to help people,” said Papalski. “When you look back at your career 20 or 30 years from now and know that you actually did something that was giving more than you were taking, it means a lot.”