National award for Ripinsky rescuers
The crew of the Coast Guard helicopter that plucked a Haines hiker from a Mount Ripinsky cliffside in January received a national award from the head of the service during a banquet at a New York City ballroom Thursday.
The crew of CGNR 6038 – commander Andy Schanno, co-pilot Mike Snyder, flight mechanic Nick Giumette and rescue swimmer Craig Power – won the Coast Guard Foundation Heroism Award, an honor that goes annually to only one Guard helicopter crew.
"It’s a biggie. It’s the award everybody knows about and wants to win, so we’re excited about that," said Doug Cameron, commander of the Guard’s Air Station Sitka.
Co-pilot Snyder described receiving the award from Admiral Robert Papp, who leads the 40,000 men and women in the Guard. "I was certainly excited. It’s definitely an honor just to be considered for an award like that, much less to win it."
In making the award, the foundation cited dangerous weather conditions including whiteout conditions and gusting down drafts as the crew hovered next to a steep cliff where hiker Keith Hutchins was perched, his back broken.
The crew demonstrated "exceptional resourcefulness," including by using a track beam spotlight to signal Hutchins to better pinpoint his location, according to the foundation.
Commander Cameron said what made the rescue great was the teamwork that was involved, including with local rescue teams and Hutchins. "They had to work together against some very difficult conditions and (the crew) had to push their machine to the limit."
For Snyder and Giumette, the rescue was their first against the side of a mountain. "Before we went, Andy and Craig explained some of the process to us." Downdrafts coming off the mountain forced them to dump 1,000 pounds of fuel to hold the craft steady and as soon as Hutchins was aboard, clouds enveloped them, leaving only a view out Snyder’s starboard-side window.
"Reduced visibility was a hindrance to say the least," Snyder said. "I was just staring at the mountain and we slowly inched down. (Pilot) Andy (Schanno) was a little more uncomfortable than me. He couldn’t see anything."
Besides free drinks, Snyder has received a lot of questions about how it feels to save another person’s life, he said. "It’s really indescribable. The good part is to know that all the training we do really makes a difference. And it’s really great to have a positive outcome."
The plaque the crew received will go in an awards case at the Sitka air station with others, including an identical one from the foundation for rescuing a person off Devil’s Thumb, a peak near Petersburg, about 10 years ago. "This will be in a place of honor there," Cameron said.
Cameron said the station’s 60 crewmen use three helicopters to make about 120 rescues a year, about half of which are medical evacuations. About 95 percent of rescues are over water.
"Alaska is known as the A-game or the varsity in terms of search and rescues. Air stations Sitka and Kodiak get more than their fair share of awards," Cameron said.