A dark and foggy night

Chugiak High graduate awarded Air Medal for role in rescuing six hikers stranded in California


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U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. James Kenshalo, far right, received the Air Medal for helping save six hikers stranded on a California cliff. Commendation medals were also presented to, from left, Petty Officer 3rd Class Corey Fix, Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis Swain and Lt. Beau Belanger.

PHOTO BY PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS BARRY BENA

It was a dark and foggy night back in July 2013 and visibility hovered around zero when Lt. Cmdr. James R. Kenshalo maneuvered his U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter above cliffs outside of Point Reyes, Calif.

Six hikers shivered on the cliffs, stranded by the tides and weather.

Kenshalo, 33, an aircraft pilot and 1999 Chugiak High graduate who grew up on Hiland Road, hovered alongside the cliff, relying on radar and GPS for sight.

“It was intense,” he said.

Kenshalo was recently honored with the prestigious Air Medal award for his role in the rescue.

Commendation medals were also awarded to his co-pilot, aviation maintenance technician and aviation survival technician.

Kenshalo felt humbled by the recognition.

“I didn’t know I was going to get it,” he said. “I was pretty shocked.”

 

Flying under the bridge

When the call came in to the 11th Coast Guard District in San Francisco that six hikers were stranded and possibly hypothermic, Kenshalo and his crew had just taken off for training. It was about 8:30 p.m. and beginning to get dark. It was drizzling, and the fog was rolling in.

“You get a feel for fog here in San Francisco,” Kenshalo said. “It’s a whole physical thing, a kind of third player in the rescue.”

Kenshalo and his crew started out for Point Reyes, about 20 miles away, and found the hikers around 9 p.m., stranded on a skinny strip of beach surrounded by water and rugged cliffs. Unable to get near, Kenshalo dropped down a crewmate (a swimmer), who made contact.

Four of the hikers were soon hoisted up in a rescue basket.

By then, visibility was almost nonexistent and they were low on fuel.

“The fog was like flying in a box,” Kenshalo said. “I couldn’t go up, couldn’t go sideways because of the cliffs, couldn’t go down because of the water. So I hovered, trying to stay close to the beach without hitting the cliffs.”

They pulled out and headed back to the air station to fuel up and then flew back out for a second attempt.

“And now it’s really dark,” Kenshalo said. “There was so much humidity in the air that our normal search lights weren’t working. I couldn’t even see the cliffs.”

They were flying around 125 feet. Normal flights average between 500-1,000 feet.

 

An old trick

Unable to see, Kenshalo relied on radar to guide them back to the area. Once located, he dropped flares behind them to light up a path.

“We had some flares that would light for about 18 minutes, so we dropped one in the ocean and it lit up the cliffs just fine,” he said.

They picked up one of the hikers and after dropping a second flare, attempted to hoist the swimmer and the last hiker. It required more power than the helicopter possessed, which left Kenshalo and his crew with little option but to rely on the ground effect efficiency.

Ground effect improves performance by harnessing airflow rotor patterns near the ground, increasing blade efficiency through less induced drag and offering a better vertical boost.

Kenshalo turned the aircraft around, pointed the nose toward the cliffs and harnessed enough energy to pick up the swimmer and last hiker.

They were pointing right at the cliff, which was less than 100 feet away.

“I know that if I pull the nose away from the cliff, I don’t have enough power,” he said.

He pulled to the left, which utilized less power, he said.

“It looked as if we were heading straight into the cliff,” he said.

They flew back to the station in thick fog and almost no visibility.

But they made it. And at the six rescued hikers were soon warm and safe again.

“At the end of the night, you come back and slump down in a chair and the wind knocks right out of you,” Kenshalo said. “I’ve been on a couple of really tough cases, but this one was the hardest to pull off.”

 

Contact Star reporter Cinthia Ritchie at 694-2727 or cinthia.ritchie@alaskastar.com.

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