Lt. Commander Kimberly Hess watched the cliff.
That kept her steady, she said, as she fought a swirling 30-knot tailwind and lowered the Coast Guard chopper to the sea below, where two stranded fishermen had been waiting for eight hours in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
“It was super windy,” Hess said. “But the truth is, with that cliff there, I had good visual reference. It’s much harder to hoist over the water. So with the cliff there, I had something to look at, which helps me stay still.”
Hess was pleased with the rescue. And she had another reason to be happy: She’s nearly six months pregnant.
“My baby girl has saved three lives at this point,” Hess said. “She’s chalking them up.”
Few Coast Guard helicopter pilots are female, she said, which makes her unusual as it is. But in two weeks, she’ll have to land her chopper.
“You can fly up until the end of your second trimester, and I’ve got a couple weeks left, then I’ll be done,” she said in the Coast Guard’s Dutch Harbor office after the rescue.
The two fishermen were flown to Dutch Harbor – referred to as “North Ballard” because so many of the boats there come from Seattle. They did not require medical attention. The owner and skipper of the Alaskan Catch said he's glad he and his crewmate are unscathed, but his 35-foot boat is a total loss.
“It was pretty quick,” skipper Mihey Basargin said. “A couple minutes, we were flooded.”
The boat had fallen prey to a submerged rock that put “a pretty big hole” in Basargin's boat around 5 a.m. The two men put on their survival suits.
The Coast Guard and another vessel arrived at the scene at almost the same time, nearly eight hours after the accident.
Joseph Garofalo, a Coast Guard aviation maintenance technician, hoisted the men in a basket, one at a time, onto the helicopter. The tall cliff near the boat made the rescue dicey.
“We couldn’t get too close to them without risking our blades hitting the cliff,” Garofalo said.
Pilot Hess said the rescue went about as well as she could hope for, in part because once the Alaskan Catch ran aground, its crew did everything right.
“They did a great job. Those guys saved themselves really,” she said. “[They] called for help early. They put on their survival gear. They didn’t get off their vessel. They stayed warm. They stayed dry. They never got in the water. They never tried to climb up a cliff or something like that.”
Hess has also piloted the rescue of a man who had a stroke and seizures on the cargo ship Elsa about 150 miles south of Kodiak Island in July.
The Alaskan Catch rescue was the first for flight mechanic Garofalo in his eight years with the Coast Guard. Hess said a celebration was in order after someone does their first rescue.
“If you’re not six months pregnant, you definitely go out and have a beer, but we’re going to have to come up with something else,” she said.
The crew agreed that milkshakes would make a good substitute.
This story originally appeared at KUCB Community Radio, where John Ryan is currently on assignment.