Coast Guard Aviation Tragedies

 


The Loss of HH-3F 1471 and Its Crew©
August 7, 1981

By Ken Freeze

Republished By Permission

 

Alaska - The Last Frontier

There are few regions in the world as hazardous to fly in as Alaska. Besides the tremendous distances between points of habitation, and extremes in terrain, Alaska has weather that might be sunny and calm one minute, then change to near-zero visibility with hurricane force winds and high seas the next.

The Coast Guard has long recognized the hazards of flying in Alaska. Thus any pilot who flies in Alaska can only command an aircraft after receiving additional training and experience, sometimes taking as long as six months. But sometimes, no matter how hard they train or how much experience they have, it still isn't enough.

Such was the case in the early morning hours of August 7, 1981 when the crew of the Coast Guard HH-3F helicopter #1471 from Air Station Kodiak sacrificed their lives while going to the aid of another.

A Lone Fisherman

Skip Holden had hitchhiked to Alaska from California with his future wife after graduating from high school in the late ‘60s. After working years in canneries, he had finally saved enough money to purchase a commercial salmon fishing boat and license. Homeported in Cordova, Alaska, Holden made his living by fishing the Prince William Sound in his 26-foot gill-netter called Marlene.

As any commercial fisherman will tell you it is not an easy life, especially in Alaska. Commercial fishing in Alaska is widely recognized as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and exerts a heavy toll of human life each year. More often than many would like to admit, fishermen will go out, even if the weather is threatening, because they have bills to pay and a family to feed.


Cordova Alaska

August 6, 1981 found Holden fishing outside the Copper River Flats east and just outside of near Prince William Sound. The weather had been rough for a couple of days but Holden had managed to hold is own. However, as the day worn on, the wind and seas began to pick up and soon a storm, the likes of which Holden had never seen, had kicked up, barring his return home and threatening his very life. Just when Holden thought it couldn’t get any worst, his boat lost its steering and began taking on water. As darkness fell, Holden was alone in a ragging sea, at the mercy of the 90-mph winds and 15-foot seas. Calling for help was his only hope.

Holden got on his CB radio and tried to call the Coast Guard for help, however, his signal was too weak to be picked-up by the Coast Guard. Luckily for him, the fishing vessel Keeper did pick up his distress call and relayed his distress called via VHF-FM radio it to the Coast Guard Communications Station in Kodiak. Now, if he could just hold out until help arrived.

The Flight of 1471

The Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) Kodiak was a relatively small room in the upper level of Hanger 1 at the Coast Guard Air Station. Manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, from this small room, a Controller and Assistant Controller can direct rescue operations over nearly 4 million square miles including the Gulf of Alaska, Bristol Bay, Bering Sea, and the Pacific Ocean. While late evenings and early mornings were often quiet, a crack of a radio or the ring of a telephone often set in motion search and rescue missions where Coast Guard men and women risked their lives to save others.

It was early in the evening on the 6th when one such call came in. The Communications Station Kodiak had passed Holden’s relayed distress call to the RCC. Helicopter 1471 was already in the air on a local training mission and was alerted of the distress call. On board were Lt. Ernest (Pat) Rivas, pilot; Lt. Joseph Spoja, co-pilot; AM1 Scott Finfrock and AT3 John Snyder, Jr. 

Soon, Coast Guard 1471 was airborne headed out across the Gulf of Alaska, first for a refueling stop in Cordova and then on to assist Holden aboard his boat.

 

Since the location of the boat was far off shore, it was standard procedure for a Coast Guard C-130 to escort the helicopter in the unthinkable event that something might go wrong.

The helicopter arrived in the area and was able to locate the Marlene. With down steering, no engine and very poor communications the only choice was to get Holden off the boat.

As the C-130 circles overhead, it relayed messages from the helicopter to the Rescue Coordination Center at Kodiak. It was reported that the crew of the 1471 was having difficulty getting the hoist down to the boat. After struggling for well over an hour, Lt Rivas decided it just couldn't be done in the high seas and hurricane force winds. However, before the 1471 was to leave the scene, they would try to drop a radio to Holden to improve communications between him and other rescue units.


The painting "That Others May Live" by Arden Von Dewitz, depicts the rescue attempt by 1471.

Suddenly, all communications from the helicopter was broken. On board the C-130 the crew started picking up the warbling sound of an Emergency Location Transmitter (ELT)  in their headsets. They knew immediately that something had gone terribly wrong.

The crew of the C-130 immediately notified the RCC at the Air Station Kodiak. Aircrews were alerted and a massive search and rescue effort was launched for the helicopter and its four crewmen.

As the rescue efforts were getting underway for the crew of 1471, Holden, still onboard the Marlene, managed to regain control and eventually made it back to his home in Cordova.

Throughout Friday, the Coast Guard used aircraft from Kodiak and Air Station Sitka, along with the Coast Guard cutters Jellison and Campbell to search the icy waters of Prince William Sound. Also assisting in the search were aircraft from the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.

Saturday, a Coast Guard helicopter located two bodies on the beach at Montague Island. They were positively identified as Rivas and Snyder, the lost aircraft's radioman.

By this time, two Exxon tankers, along with the vessel Aleutian Developer, were assisting in the search for the downed helicopter and the two missing crewmen.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, the fishing vessel Daryl J. contacted the Coast Guard, reporting it had found what it believed to be the missing HH-3F in the McPherson Range, a narrow passage, of Naked Island. A C-130 from Kodiak immediately flew over the area and confirmed that it was indeed the missing aircraft. It was floating upside down in shallow water. The Coast Guard Cutter Sedge arrived later that afternoon, but upon inspection found no trace of the two remaining crewmen.

A ground search of Naked Island also yielded negative results.

By Monday, search units had discovered an inflated life raft, a survival suit in its storage bag and the hood to a wetsuit on the shore of Long Island, 10 miles west of the helicopter's location. That day a National Guard helicopter also arrived on scene with the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star to assist in the recovery of 1471.

 

That evening the National Guard helicopter hoisted the downed HH-3F onto the deck of the Polar Star for transportation to Kodiak. As water was still pouring from the helicopter, photographs of the instrument panel of the helicopter were taken in the hope that they might reveal some clues into what went wrong. The Polar Star then began its journey to Kodiak where the helicopter would be examined in an attempt to discover the cause of the crash.

By Wednesday, despite and intensive search effort by the Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol, and several Coast Guard Auxiliary boats, the fate of the remaining crewmen was still in question.

The following morning, however, a Coast Guard helicopter discovered the body of Finfrock, the flight mechanic from the ill-fated HH-3F.  Finfrock, who had apparently been able to struggle into a wetsuit before his death, was located and recovered on the southeast shore of Naked Island in Prince William Sound.

The next day, a Coast Guard HH-3F found a right-hand glove in the vicinity of Disk Island. A ground search of Montague Island followed, but to no avail.

By Saturday, Aug. 15, after 10 days of combined effort by the Coast Guard and other assisting agencies, the active search was suspended. The body of Lt. Joseph Spoja was never recovered.


In the days that followed, the 1471 as well as the bodies of three of the crewmen were returned to Kodiak. At the Air Station, an accident investigation board was formed to determine the case of the accident. The conclusion was that the helicopter's tail rotor contacted the water causing the aircraft to become uncontrollable and crashed into the water. The crew drowned after escaping the inverted helicopter.
 

Copyright © 2002 Check Six

Visit Ken Freeze's Check-Six Website

 

Return To Coast Guard Stories