Air Station Sitka, Alaska

June 14, 2022

Air Station Sitka, Alaska

Original Location: Annette Island, Alaska

Current Location: Sitka, Alaska

Date of Commission: AIRSTA Annette: 14 May 1944; AIRSTA Sitka: 17 October 1977

Fate: Still in operation

Historical Remarks:

In 1977 the Coast Guard Air Station was relocated from Annette Island to Sitka, Alaska which was more centrally located in the Southeastern Alaska operating area.  Additional concerns were the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 and the completion of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline and it was thought that Sitka would prove to be a more advantageous location. 

 In March of 1977, the barracks and hangar on Japanski Island in the immediate vicinity of Sitka were completed, and the move of personnel and equipment from Annette Island to Sitka began. On April 19, 1977, flight operations for the three Sikorsky HH3F’s were shifted to Sitka. On Alaska Day, October 17, 1977, United States Coast Guard Air Station, Sitka, was officially commissioned.

In the 1980s, Coast Guard Air Station Sitka was manned by 20 officers and 102 enlisted personnel.  The station’s area of responsibility extends throughout the "gateway" of what is called America’s "last frontier"-- more than 500 miles from Dixon Entrance to Cordova.  Air Station Sitka’s 3 HH-3F’s logged an annual average of 2100 hours.  These Sikorsky-built helicopters carried a standard crew of four, comprised of a pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic, and radioman, and seats for seven passengers.  The helicopters cruise at 120 knots and can carry fuel for five and one-half hours.

In a "ready" status 24 hours a day for search and rescue, the crew and helicopters were also used for maintaining 39 marine aids-to-navigation along the rugged coastline and "inside" passage, fisheries laws enforcement patrols, enforcement of laws and treaties, and various other missions in cooperation with federal, state, and local government agencies.  Additionally, the aircraft were often utilized for medevacs from outlying native communities and logging camps.

Coast Guard Air Station Sitka is located on 165 acres of property owned by the Coast Guard.  The physical plant consists of a hangar complex, a barracks/ medical facility, a NAFA building, and fifteen family housing quadruplexes.  In addition, there are several outbuildings serving various purposes such as storage, fuel pump room, and a deluge pump building.  The facilities are located immediately adjacent to the Sitka Municipal Airport and near the Mt. Edgecombe USPHS Hospital.  Coast Guard floating units also tie up to a Coast Guard dock located on Japonski Island.  Captain David W. Irons, served as Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Air Station, Sikta, since its commissioning in October 1977, until relieved by Commander Robert A. Ginn in July 1978.  Between July 1980 and July 1982, Commander Charles W. Peterson was the Commanding Officer of the Air Station. Commander Peterson was relieved by Commander Terry D. Beacham, who served as interim Commanding Officer for the month of August 1982. Since August 25, 1982, total responsibility, authority, and accountability for Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, has been with Commander Thomas J. McCarthy.

It was during 1980, that Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, became involved with the most successful air-sea rescue in modern history.  At 1:00 a.m., October 4, 1980, a distress call was sent from the Dutch luxury liner, the M.V. Prinsedam.  The distress radio transmission stated that the vessel’s engine room was on fire in the icy Gulf of Alaska, approximately 195 miles west of Sitka. T he 427-foot liner, owned by the Holland America Lines of the Netherlands, was on the first leg of an extended cruise up the Inside Passage to Glacier Bay and across the Pacific to the Orient.  On board were 522 passengers and crew.  Within moments, a joint international force consisting of U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Air Force, commercial and Canadian forces was alerted and responded to the stricken ship.  Crewmen of Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, were the first on the scene.  There, the station’s two helicopters illuminated the area while the passengers and crew abandoned the Prinsedam into lifeboats.  Thirteen aircraft, rotary and fixed wing, three Coast Guard cutters, and three commercial vessels were involved in the rescue mission.

Rescuers in helicopters plucked survivors from the tossing lifeboats and rafts, and ferried them to the M.V. Williamsburgh and the CGC Boutwell.  Most of the passengers were elderly Americans. Meanwhile, preparations were being made to accommodate the 522 survivors ashore.  Citizens of Valdez, Yakutat, Juneau, and Sitka gathered blankets, set up lines of communications, and readied hospital facilities and medical supplies.  Within 24 hours, all of the passengers and crew had been accounted for with no casualties or serious injuries.  During the next six days, the 50 million dollar ship became a burned-out hulk.  Gradually, the ship took on enough water to acquire a 35-degree starboard list.  At 8:30 a.m., October 11, the charred Prinsedam rolled to its side.  At 8:33 a.m., the vessel sank to the bottom in its cold watery grave, 1,473 fathoms below the surface of the Gulf of Alaska, and the seven-day episode was over.  In response to the threat of a major oil spill from the tanks of the Prinsedam, daily overflights of the area were made until the hazard passed.

"The rescue of this large number of people from lifeboats and life-rafts under extremely adverse weather conditions without serious injury will go down in history as one of the greatest rescue efforts of all time," said Admiral John B. Hayes, then-Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.  Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, was the recipient of many military and civilian awards as a result of its extensive involvement in the rescue of passengers and crew of the Prinsedam, including official recognition by proclamation of the United States Senate.  The Air Station was awarded the Coast Guard Unit Commendation. " The skilled and dedicated performance of the personnel on scene, matched by those involved in coordination and logistic support behind the scene, resulted in the rescue of 522 passengers and crew of Prinsedam without loss of life or serious injury.  The professionalism, ingenuity, and unwavering devotion to duty displayed by the men and women of Air Station Sitka reflect great credit upon themselves, their unit and the United States Coast Guard," concluded the citation that was signed by Vice Admiral J.S. Gracey, Commander of the Pacific Area.  A total of nine Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals were awarded to flight crews from Sitka for their part in the rescue.  In addition, CWO3 Kenneth Matz received the Meritorious Service Medal for his efforts in fire-fighting after being lowered down to the blazing ship.

Historical Sources:

Air Station Files, U. S. Coast Guard Historian's Office

Arthur Pearcy.  A History of U. S. Coast Guard Aviation.  Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.