ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- As heavy rain poured and damaging winds blew, five men received an unexpected call for what would become one of the most dangerous nights they would ever experience.
Standing inside a hangar at the Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two-Five, gazing out at the approaching storm, Lt. Walter McGann, an HSC-25 search and rescue officer, expected nothing more than a quiet night since Andersen Air Force Base had shut down during Independence Day weekend. All operations ceased since the installation was just put in Typhoon Condition of Readiness 2. Just as he was about to head inside to wait out the storm, the on-call phone rang, and he received the message to gather a crew as quickly as possible. They were to conduct a search and rescue mission.
“The weather was crazy, I definitely did not think we would get a call in the middle of a typhoon,” McGann said. “When we found out the call was from the Guam Coast Guard and that there were five hikers lost, I knew it was about to be a long night, but we were ready to get out there and find them.”
The search and rescue team consisted of Lt. William Thornely, Lt. Walter McGann, Naval Aircrewman First Class Johnathan Hampton, Naval Aircrewman Second Class Ryan Duran-Fujii and Naval Corpsman Third Class Jacob Tittle, who quickly assembled and headed out to the helicopter pad to begin their journey into the dark, cold night.
Once the team arrived on scene at Tarzan Falls in Yona, Guam, they learned that of the five hikers, two were children and three were middle-aged adults. Guam Fire Rescue was able to contact the individuals for a limited time and instructed them to “flash” their camera flash repeatedly so the Search and Rescue team could spot them.
“We arrived at our destination and realized we didn’t have much time as the storm was approaching fast,” McGann said. “We got our pre-flight planning together and although we were confident in ourselves, I was a bit nervous, since we had a very small window of time before the typhoon was directly over our heads. Despite my nerves, I stayed calm, because I knew panicking would not help my crew in the search for the individuals.”
The team begin an extensive search, keeping their eyes peeled for any movement beneath the dense jungle canopy. After about 30 minutes of searching, they decided to start at square one when all of a sudden they saw a flashlight flashing right beneath the trees below them.
“We were literally seconds away from leaving the area when we saw the flash,” McGann said. “After we realized we found the hikers, a wave of relief fell over me, I was excited and relieved all at once. Now that we found them, I knew we had to work quickly to get them in the helicopter before the weather worsened.”
The aircraft lowered to a hover and the corpsman and rescue swimmer evacuated the helicopter to assess the situation and retrieve the hikers.
As the area around the hikers began to flood, and the weather conditions were rapidly deteriorating, the two Seamen made the decision to send up one of the adults first, who had a severe laceration to the leg. As soon as she was safely on board, they sent up the two children in a basket.
“Myself and the helicopter aircraft commander continued to hover in place while the crew chief secured the hikers in their seats while the corpsman and rescue swimmer remained on the ground with the other individuals,” McGann said. “We weren’t new to this type of mission, so we worked quickly and safely to get these folks the medical attention they needed.”
Once the last individual was on board, the team was notified by the Agana International Airport that they were now to operate with instrument flight rules with heavy showers and visibility less than one mile. The team made the decision to head directly to Naval Hospital Guam for further medical treatment and survivor transfer.
“Our first option after we had everybody was to get to the Naval Hospital, if we weren’t able to make it, our alternate landing place would be at the international airport,” McGann said. “Luckily, we had a small window of time to get them to the hospital where they could get checked sooner.”
After getting the survivors to safely to the hospital, the team made it back to Andersen AFB just minutes before the typhoon was directly over the island.
Their heroic efforts resulted in five lives being saved and the crew being awarded the 2015 Naval Helicopter Association Aircrew of the Year (Non-Deployed) award, which is given to aircrews who demonstrate bravery and devotion to duty. The award citation stated the five crewmembers who responded to this rescue mission demonstrated exceptional perseverance and fortitude in an extremely difficult and unforgiving search and rescue environment. Despite the dangerous and life threatening conditions of the approaching typhoon, the team recovered five hikers in an immensely dense jungle who may have otherwise perished due to the flash flooding that hit the area only hours after survivor extraction.
“This award is such an honor, it belongs to not only the aircrew that flew that mission but to the countless individuals that were involved such as the Guam Fire Department, the Coast Guard, and the crew chiefs that helped us get the helicopter in the air and back on the ground safely,” McGann said. “We all earned this together and I am extremely humbled and grateful to have been considered for this award.”
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