USCG Aircrew Receives Nation’s Highest Award for Heroism in Aviation

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On Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard recognized two SAR helicopter crewmembers with the nation’s highest award for heroism in aviation for their role in a high-stakes rescue during last year’s California wildfire season. 

Pilot Cmdr. Derek Schramel and rescue swimmer PO1 Graham McGinnis received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the same award first granted to pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh. Their crewmates, Lt.j.g. Adam Ownbey and PO3 Tyler Cook, received the Air Medal, a military award for heroic or meritorious service in flight. 

The medals were in recognition of their role in rescuing two injured firefighters who were unable to evacuate from a burning mountainside in California’s remote Trinity Alps Wilderness. On the night of September 5, 2019, the U. S. Forest Service asked for the Coast Guard’s assistance with the rescue of two injured firefighters. The men had been struck by a “car-battery-sized rock” on a steep hillside and had sustained serious injuries, according to a USFS after-action report. One of the men sustained a broken and twisted femur, and the second had head lacerations and neck injuries. Both had to be moved by stretcher to keep ahead of the fire, and the condition of the patient with the broken femur began to deteriorate. 

Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay accepted a request for assistance from the USFS and dispatched Cmdr. Schramel’s helicopter crew. When they arrived on scene, they found the victims were located within 10 yards of the fire line in a clearing that the fire crew had cut in the forest to allow for an extraction. After assessing the scene and making some adjustments, the helicopter crew approached the extraction zone and made a high-altitude, tree-top hoist from 240 feet, near its maximum hoist range. The crew took both patients aboard and delivered them safely for treatment. 

“It was just the best example of what we aspire to in naval aviation, in Coast Guard rescuing and in lifesaving operations,” said Rear Adm. Brian Penoyer, the Eleventh Coast Guard District commander. “This aircrew did [everything required] in the worst conceivable conditions that you can imagine.”

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