JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- With two days' supply of food and a few more days' supply of water, Japanese climber Masatoshi Kuriaki found himself in dire straits at 8,600 feet up Mount Hunter in Denali National Park.
He was 75 days into what was originally planned to be a 65-day expedition through the snowy slopes surrounding North America's highest peak. According to the National Park Service release detailing the incident, unseasonably warm and wet weather conditions combined with 30 inches of fresh snow to make for extreme avalanche conditions.
Facing the possibilities of starvation or being buried alive, Kuriaki made an emergency call using his GPS-tracking communication device. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center responded, launching an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron and an HC-130J Combat King II from the 211th Rescue Squadron, both carrying pararescuemen of the 212th Rescue Squadron.
Flying above the situation in the HC-130 was Alaska Air National Guard Senior Airman Marcus Moloney, Combat King loadmaster. Despite the Pave Hawks not being able to get to Kuriaki due to marginal weather, Moloney's aircraft would provide the lifeline the climber needed to stay in touch with the efforts to find him. Two days into his ordeal, the weather improved and Kuriaki was rescued.
Moloney, a native of Anchorage, said he joined the Guard to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. He is taking college classes in an effort to earn an officer's commission and his pilot wings.
“I've loved aviation since I was a little kid,” Moloney said. “I wanted to be a pilot someday, so I was looking around at different jobs I could do while I was going to college that I thought would be fun and keep me in the aviation field. I heard about being a loadmaster, so I looked into it.”
The young Airman enlisted as a loadmaster for the Combat King, which is a modified version of the “slick” C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft.
“The HC-130 is a specialized platform designed specifically for rescue,” said Senior Master Sgt. Marty Bellerive, 211th RQS A-Flight chief. “Some of the differences between an HC and a regular 'slick' is we have refueling pods, which is our bread-and-butter mission because we can aerial-refuel helicopters, giving them extended legs.”
In the case of the Kuriaki rescue mission, Moloney's Combat King flew with the HH-60 during the 200-plus mile journey from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Mount Hunter. Moloney controlled the two refueling pods, extending a drogue that interfaced with the refueling boom sticking out of the Pave Hawk like a giant Q-tip.
With the added fuel, the HH-60 had the endurance to push to the slope in an attempt to rescue the isolated climber. Once the helicopter was done with rescue operations, the refuel procedure was repeated for the journey to JBER.
As often as this drill is done to rescue hikers, hunters and other isolated outdoorsmen in Alaska, the process becomes even more critical in combat, Bellerive said, when their primary mission becomes combat search and rescue of U.S. and allied personnel isolated behind enemy lines.
In a scenario where a fighter pilot ejects in hostile airspace, Bellerive said the HC-130 crew's mission of supporting HH-60s remains primarily the same. The Combat King would refuel the Pave Hawks in friendly air space and then serve as a command-and-control platform that can fly high and relay radio signals if satellite communications fail on the helicopter.
Because the J-model HC-130 is new to the squadron and recently replaced legacy Combat Kings, Moloney said he had a somewhat circuitous route to qualifying for the new rescue bird. He learned general C-130 loadmaster operations at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, before attending the legacy Combat King course at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Because of new J-model systems and the fact the legacy enlisted positions of flight engineer and radio operator were eliminated, Moloney had to return to Kirtland to learn the new aircraft and how to pick up some of the slack left by the eliminated aircrew positions.
“It's a little more responsibility,” Moloney said of taking on added crew duties. “But it's more fun.”
Before each sortie, Moloney said he is responsible for carrying out preflight checks, much as a flight engineer did in the past. He then transitions to his loadmaster duties, inspecting and loading cargo, and ensuring the weight of passengers and the load is centered in the HC-130's hold.
Moloney said his favorite part of the job is loadmaster-directed airdrops. The process involves flying at very low altitudes and kicking cargo out the airplane while hitting a target area to within 25 yards. Because of the distances involved and the fact Moloney can see things the pilots can't, it is one of the few occasions he is in charge of the aircraft.
“I'll stick my head out of the paratroop door and get my eyes on the target, and I'll direct the pilots to get the airplane lined up exactly on the target,” Moloney explained. “Then I will throw the load out at just the right time.”
Moloney said months of training and memorizing volumes of information on HC-130 flight operations came to fruition during his first mission rescuing a stroke victim in Port Graham, a small isolated community with no access to the state's road system. Though the Airman said it was a relatively routine mission, the implications for the saved victim could not be overestimated.
"It felt really good at the end of the day to help someone who really needed it," he said.