Medical helicopter carrying patient, three others vanishes

Bad weather hampers search near Anchorage

Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Poor visibility Tuesday hampered searchers looking for a medical helicopter that vanished in blowing snow while carrying a patient and medical crew over mountainous coastal terrain.

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The cloud ceiling was at water level Tuesday in the search area about 75 miles east of Anchorage, preventing aircraft aerial searches.

"The weather is bad enough 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 searching for the helicopter Tuesday, listening for radio signals.

The LifeGuard Alaska helicopter, which was heading from Cordova to an Anchorage hospital, disappeared early Monday evening, authorities said. The helicopter crew had made a satellite phone call at that time, but it was not a distress call, said Coast Guard Lt. John McWhite.

The aircraft was reported missing after the crew failed to check in for position updates that are supposed to be issued every 10 minutes, said Providence Alaska Medical Center spokeswoman Becky Hultberg. It was considered overdue at 5:15 p.m.

A patient, pilot, paramedic and nurse were aboard the Eurocopter BK 117. Their names were not released.

The helicopter's last known position was the southeast side of Esther Island in Prince William Sound, about 75 miles southeast of Anchorage, said officials with the Alaska Air National Guard, which was leading the search. The trip from Cordova to Anchorage is about 150 miles by air.

A Coast Guard cutter left Cordova just before 5:30 a.m. Tuesday and was making its way through Prince William Sound, Lt. j.g. Johna Rossetti said. Crews were hoping to pick up a signal from the helicopter's emergency beacon and checking for any signs of distress, the Coast Guard said.

Volunteer searchers directed by Alaska State Troopers also were heading to the area in three fishing boats.

Bad weather hampered search efforts, with wind gusts close to 60 mph on Tuesday.

Around the time of the helicopter's disappearance, the 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, he said.

The patient's condition and the reason for the flight were not immediately known.

Despite the poor visibility, Lowell said they would continue to search "until it's not plausible or reasonable to go on."

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