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Alaska National Guard’s ‘Operation Santa Claus’ became a life flight

This year, Operation Santa Claus also became a lifesaving mission.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
(Alaska National Guard)

Santa Claus brings joy and delivers presents with his sleigh, powered by flying reindeer. However, in Alaska, Santa relies on the help of the Alaska Air and Army National Guards. Dubbed Operation Santa Claus, the annual community outreach program sees gifts and holiday cheer delivered to remote Alaskan communities by way of a C-17 Globemaster III and UH-60 Black Hawk. However, in 2023, Operation Santa Claus also became a lifesaving mission.

Operation Santa Claus is a joint effort between the Salvation Army, the Alaska Air National Guard, and the Alaska Army National Guard (Alaska National Guard)

In 1956, spring floods and a subsequent drought impacted subsistence fishing and hunting in Alaska. To ensure that children in remote, struggling communities still had a Merry Christmas, the National Guard flew in donations of gifts and supplies. Now conducted annually, the Guard partners with the Salvation Army to deliver gifts, books and school supplies across the state. In 2022, the 67th Operation Santa Claus delivered 1,780 pounds of donations to 325 children in Scammon Bay, Minto and Nuiqsut.

On November 15, 2023, while conducting an Operation Santa Claus delivery to the village of Tuluksak, Alaska, an Army National Guard UH-60L was diverted on an emergency call. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson received an urgent request for assistance: a critically ill patient in Napaskiak, Alaska required immediate medical evacuation. With snow and ice blocking the area, helicopter evacuation was the only way to save the patient’s life.

Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and their National Guard helpers during Operation Santa Claus 2022 (Alaska National Guard)

Having completed one of two scheduled deliveries to Tuluksak, the Black Hawk crew altered their Operation Santa Claus mission to a MEDEVAC. With gifts and volunteers still on board, the helicopter landed at Bethel, Alaska, to bring two LifeMed paramedics and their equipment on board and headed out to Napaskiak. Less than five minutes after taking off, they landed and delivered the paramedics, who stabilized the patient for transport to a local clinic to prep for the MEDEVAC.

Since the stabilization process took 30 to 40 minutes, the Black Hawk took off and made the 15-minute flight to Tuluksak, where the crew offloaded the last of the Operation Santa Claus gifts and volunteers. Returning immediately to Napaskiak, they picked up the paramedics and their patient and flew them to the Army Aviation Operating Facility in Bethel. There, the patient was transferred to a LifeMed ambulance.

The patient is transferred to the LifeMed ambulance (Alaska National Guard)

Meanwhile, Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and 10 volunteers from the National Guard and Salvation Army celebrated an early Christmas with the children of Tuluksak. After gifts were distributed, ice cream was eaten and pictures with Santa were taken, the Black Hawk picked everyone back up. “This mission was a great example of how the Alaska National Guard is able to work jointly between Army, Air Force and multiple civilian agencies to support the local population through state missions like Operation Santa and through federal missions such as this RCC request for assistance,” UH-60 pilot Chief Warrant Officers 2 Colton Bell said in a National Guard Public Affairs release. “This mission specifically showcases our abilities to adapt to multiple, rapidly changing missions while operating in adverse weather while still completing them efficiently and safely.”