WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. —
The smell of pine trees and the peacefulness of rushing rivers in the high country is evident across much of the state of Washington.
The region is a hiker’s dream.
However, this beautiful landscape has a potentially lethal side that can claim the lives of even the most-experienced hikers. Luckily, sailors from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Search and Rescue team are on 24-hour duty.
“Our job is to go out and save people, whether it’s pulling them out from the water or from the side of a mountain,” said Navy Lt. Chris Pitcher, the air station’s SAR operations officer, “and we train almost every day for those different scenarios. So when those scenarios do pop up, we’re not surprised, and we can get the job done and get that person to a higher level of care.”
Although the opportunity to be able to focus on saving lives makes NAWSI SAR a choice assignment for most naval aircrew members and pilots, the opportunity to live in an area like the Pacific Northwest makes the billet just as coveted.
“This is definitely the place to be,” said aircrew member Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Cody Wall. “There’s just so much to do here if you like being in the outdoors, whether it’s hiking, snowboarding, camping or climbing. But it’s not just the area that makes this place nice. This is one of the most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had, whether it’s going out during a night rescue or being able to fly over parts of Washington few people have ever been to.”
The unit has performed rescues in Washington state’s Cascades and Olympic National Parks, as well as in Idaho, Oregon and Canada. Constant training is necessary, due to the region’s unforgiving terrain.
“The terrain here is pretty diverse,” Pitcher said. You have mountain ranges that can have some of the densest forests with 200-foot firs, to some the rockiest sheer cliff faces that you can imagine.”
Despite the harrowing flying conditions, many search-and-rescue sailors say that when they look back at their careers, they will consider their time at Whidbey to be some of the best years they have had.
“Looking back at my four years here, I’ll tell you this is the best command I’ve been at,” said Navy Chief Petty Officer Wayne Papalski, a senior hospital corpsman. “It’s just been an amazing and humbling experience, getting to do what I got to do up here, and what some of my brothers and sisters in the other room got to do to help people.”