Folks in Burden remember Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Craig Neubecker as the 2-year-old who wanted to fly. He was a good boy, just a bit ornery, recalled Neubecker's father, Don "Whitey" Neubecker. A boy who built award-winning rockets for 4-H competitions and wanted to be an astronaut and, later, a jet pilot.
"He loves to fly. He don't want to do anything else," Whitey Neubecker said.
A few times since he's grown up, Craig Neubecker, 41, has returned to his hometown. Family and friends call him a hero.
But for Neubecker, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, saving lives is business as usual.
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Last month, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski honored Air Station Kodiak helicopter crews for rescuing 14 fishermen over a three-week period, including an impressive rescue of five men plucked from their fishing boat by Neubecker's crew amid damaging winds and 25-foot swells.
Neubecker called the Feb. 11 mission the most challenging of his career.
"That's the worst one I've ever had to hoist in, and I've never had to do one that fast," Neubecker said. "I think God was definitely looking out for us."
In Alaska, 99 percent of distress calls to the Coast Guard are genuine cries for help. In the lower 48 states, Neubecker said, that number drops to 25 percent.
On Feb. 11, fishermen on the Midnite Sun made the call. The boat had crashed against the rocks at Tanaak Cape, 36 miles northwest of Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska. Freezing water was spilling into the boat, and the crew needed help... fast.
In different conditions, the rescue might have been by-the-book, Neubecker said. But time was short. And the weather was harsh.
Ice and blowing snow covered the runway, and wind gusts topping 60 mph swept off the mountains, forcing the chopper to spin when Neubecker attempted liftoff.
But at 1:17 a.m., the rescue crew launched.
"We were getting our rears handed to us by the turbulence," Neubecker said, recalling the windy conditions.
Initially, the plan was to detour around the mountains to get to the Midnite Sun. But Neubecker said he made a quick decision to maneuver among the cliffs when he heard the fishing crew screaming, "Where's the chopper? Where's the chopper? We're breaking up!" over the radio.
Twenty-one minutes into a harrowing flight, Neubecker stared down at the 68-foot Midnite Sun. What he saw made a routine rescue impossible: 52 mph winds, tangled rigging, swinging masts and 25-foot waves rolling the fishing boat on its side.
"Once we arrived on scene, it was worse than we thought," Neubecker said. "The five crew members were huddled in the wheelhouse just screaming to be rescued."
It wasn't safe to lower a Coast Guard swimmer to assist the men. They would have to rely on the rescue basket to hoist them one by one, Neubecker decided.
In severe downdrafts, Neubecker steadied the chopper and timed the waves. Within 15 minutes, the fishermen were safe.
In Alaska's harsh weather, time influences the chance of survival, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally, who is also based in Kodiak. In minutes, the freezing water can kill a person not wearing safety gear, he said.
"He's (Neubecker) been doing this job for quite a long time," Lally said. "The pilots that come up here are well-trained, especially for the environment."
The oldest of two boys, Neubecker grew up on a farm 2 1/2 miles outside Burden, a 90-minute drive southeast of Wichita.
After he graduated from Kansas State University in 1993 with four years of service in the Air Force ROTC and a degree in history, he expected a career as an Air Force pilot. He was a Kansas kid who made a ritual of attending the annual McConnell Air Force Base air show, which fell near his birthday.
But the Army guaranteed Neubecker immediate admission to flight school. Five years later, he transferred to the Coast Guard on the advice of a commanding officer who thought Neubecker needed more flight time than the Army offered.
This winter is the last on Neubecker's three-year tour of duty in Kodiak. This summer, he will move to Mobile, Ala., with his wife, Kimberly, and children, 5-year-old Duke and 3-year-old Faith Esther, where he will teach military pilots to fly in extreme weather.
Neubecker said he will be glad to trade Kodiak Island's neglected dirt roads for a chance to jump in his Corvette — it has spent too long in storage, he said — and drive for miles like he did as a kid back in Burden.
He said he won't miss the weather, either.