Poor visibility hampers search for helicopter
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) ” Searchers were gearing up Wednesday morning to continue looking for a missing medical helicopter in Prince William Sound.
Poor visibility hampered efforts Tuesday to find the LifeGuard Alaska helicopter the mountainous coastal terrain. The twin-engine aircraft was heading from Cordova to an Anchorage hospital when it vanished in Monday evening with a patient and three others on board.
A thick cloud cover prevented an aerial inspection of the area where the Eurocopter BK 117 last made contact with operators. Wind gusts of 60 mph also were recorded in the search area.
“The weather is bad enough that we can’t get into any approaches in Prince William Sound,” said Col. Dave Lowell, director of operations for the Alaska National Guard.
A Coast Guard cutter and fishing boats were on scene, listening for signals from the helicopter’s emergency beacon.
The helicopter crew made a satellite phone call at 5:18 p.m. Monday, but it was not a distress call, said Coast Guard Lt. John McWhite.
After that, the aircraft failed to check in for position updates that are supposed to be issued every 10 minutes, said Providence Alaska Medical Center spokeswoman Becky Hultberg. The hospital launched its overdue plane procedures at 5:50 p.m.
Monday and reported the helicopter missing to the Alaska Air National Guard’s Rescue Coordination Center at 6:55 p.m., Hultberg said.
The patient, a pilot, paramedic and nurse were aboard the helicopter. Their names were not released.
The aircraft’s last known position was the southeast side of Esther Island, about 75 miles southeast of Anchorage, said officials with the Air National Guard, which was leading the search. The trip from Cordova to Anchorage is about 150 miles by air. It usually takes about 90 minutes, Hultberg said.
“My understanding is that this was a routine flight until it missed the two position updates,” she said.
Around the time of the helicopter’s disappearance, a National Weather Service buoy just south of Esther Island recorded sustained winds at 25 mph, with gusts around 50 mph, according to aviation meteorologist Victor Proton. The agency issued advisories alerting pilots about moderate turbulence as well as low visibility.
“Gusty winds are bad for any type of aviation,” Proton said.
The patient’s condition and the reason for the flight were not immediately known.
Despite the poor visibility, Lowell said the search would continue “until it’s not plausible or reasonable to go on.”
LifeGuard Alaska is an air ambulance service operated by Providence. The missing helicopter is among two leased from Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska, Inc., which provides the pilots and maintenance. Evergreen was referring calls to the hospital, according to the company’s after-hours answering service.