Barrow, Alaska – When the United States Coast Guard arrived in this remote corner of the Arctic this month to begin its biggest patrol presence in the waters north of Alaska, only one helicopter hangar was available for rent, and it was not, to put it mildly, the Ritz. Built by someone apparently more familiar with the tropics than the tundra, the structure had sunk several feet into the permafrost, with the hangar entrance getting lower as the building sank. Squeezing two H-60 helicopters into the tiny space? Think of parallel parking a stretch limousine. And for this — the only game in town, take it or leave it — the owner demanded $60,000 a month, a price that made Coast Guard leaders gasp.
“Not perfect, but you’ve got to learn to do it somehow,” Josh Harris, a Coast Guard aircraft mechanic, said as he stood surveying his first and not entirely straight attempt at towing in an aircraft.
In the land of the midnight sun, the Coast Guard’s learning curve is steep indeed.
The effort, called Arctic Shield, began this month as a pilot project combining search and rescue responsibilities with disaster response and maritime safety enforcement. It will presumably only expand, Coast Guard officials say, as global warming melts these once ice-locked waters.
With air operations based here in the nation’s northernmost community, more than 300 miles past the Arctic Circle, the assignment is expensive, logistically complicated to supply and far from backup should things go wrong.
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Photo credit: Juliancolton2