To Answer The Call

By Dave Gillespie

 

 

Imagine the joy of landing at Kodiak in the fog with a mountain at the end of the runway to catch you if you miss. This was the culmination of an effort to assist a fishing vessel in distress. 

It is Saturday and as I report to Hanger One at the Coast Guard Base here at Kodiak, I look at the weather outside and tell myself that we should be able to get back in here tonight, Hopefully, if the weather forecast holds. It is 1:00 p.m. and our scheduled Law Enforcement Flight is scheduled for a 3:00 p.m. departure. As I check in with the Duty Section Watch Captain, I learn that we are also assigned to pick up two non emergency medivac patients from the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton at St Paul Island located in the heart of the Bering Sea 600 miles away.

With the rest of the crew showing up for our flight it is becoming apparent that we are going to be in for a long night. While preflighting our Lockheed C-130 assigned to us, we find a problem with the landing gear brake system. We are unable to fix the aircraft in a timely manner so we are assigned another "Herc" to complete the mission.

Its now 4:00 p.m. and our aircraft with its crew of nine and a medical pallet aboard makes its way to the runway for departure. Our 62,000 pounds of fuel will let us stay in the air for eleven hours. Our original mission planning calculated that we would not be in the air that long and would not use that much fuel, but as we would soon find out, that extra fuel would make the difference for one particular boat out in the Bering Sea.

At 112 kts. the pilot pulls back on the yoke and our 145,000 pound aircraft lifts off the ground, climbing ever so slowly over Chiniak Bay with a left turn over the city of Kodiak to our assigned altitude of 14,000 feet. Our route of flight will take us along the Alaska peninsula towards Cold Bay where we are to begin our Law Enforcement efforts.

It's been two hours since we took off and our Law Enforcement work begins with a descent to the waters surface to look at a vessel that has appeared on our radar. With crew checklists complete we prepare to fly over the vessel at an altitude of 400 feet traveling at 170 kts. Suddenly, we are interrupted by our radioman informing us that the Coast Guard Communication Station at Kodiak has picked up a mayday call from the 55 ft fishing vessel Christie II reported to be taking on water. We quickly plot the coordinates given to us by the Communication Station and find the Christie II is approximately 200 miles north of us. We apply the maximum power available to our four Allison turboprop engines and set a course to the vessels last known position, hoping to find the Christie II still afloat and its two man crew still protected from the frigid Alaskan waters.

As we race to the last known position of the Christie II, the 378 foot high endurance Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton changes course and also proceeds to the same position. It will take her a least three hours to reach the Christie II at full speed. With no other vessels in the area it appears that we are the only immediate chance the Christie II has for survival in the Bering Sea.

With our aircraft approaching the area, our crew in the cargo compartment has prepared our drop equipment consisting of two dewatering pumps in metal containers and a life raft for immediate deployment should the need arise. We all scan the waters surface, hoping to see the Christie II still afloat. Suddenly our navigator announces that he has a vessel on radar and gives us a course change towards it. Slowly the image of a vessel comes into view and it matches the vessel description. The decision is made to drop a smoke next to the stricken vessel to make it easier to relocate it in the reduced visibility. As we release the smoke over the vessel, I notice that the vessel is sitting low in the water and wonder if we are going to be able to save her in time.

With no time to lose, our aircrew opens up the aft ramp and door for an air delivery of a dewatering pump. The captain of the Christie II stated that his engine room was flooded with four feet of water and was about to lose his main engine if the flooding was not brought under control very quickly. With checklists complete we approach the Christie II at an altitude of 200 feet traveling 130 kts. over the water. The pilot calls out " Thirty Second Standby".

"Roger, Thirty Seconds, Standing By With One Pads Kit Dewatering Pump", the dropmaster states as he anticipates the next command.

"Fifteen Second Standby" " Roger. Fifteen Second Standby, strobes on, pin pulled" the dropmaster states as he inches the pump container closer to the edge of the cargo ramp.

"Drop, Drop, Drop" the pilot commands as our aircraft flies directly over the disabled vessel.

"Drops Away" the dropmaster calls out as he pushes the pump can out into the airstream and watches it fall towards the surface of the water. As the parachute deploys, the pump container slows its descent where its contact with the water will be less violent.

We orbit over the vessel and wait for the Captain to call us on the radio with the results of our drop efforts. The next fifteen minutes seemed like an eternity. We are all hoping that our drop efforts are going to start turning things around for the Christie II and her crew.

As we began calculating at how much fuel we still had in our eight fuel tanks, the radio comes to life with the Christie II. The Captain states that he has successfully recovered the pump, but the pump suffered a mechanical problem and was unusable. With that information and still in the drop configuration, we were ready for the immediate deployment of the second and last dewatering pump. Again we drop the second pump right over the Christie II and anxiously await the results of our second drop effort.

After a short period of time the Christie II reports another successful pump recovery and was beginning to pump out his flooded engine room. A sigh of relief was felt by the entire aircrew with the vessels report, but our work was far from over as we prepared the aircraft for another drop run over the vessel, this time a well equipped life raft would be dropped so that the two crewmembers would have additional survival equipment, if needed.

With the successful recovery of the life raft by the crew of the Christie II we closed up the aircraft and climbed to a safer altitude making sure that we didn't lose sight of the fishing vessel. It was 9:00 p.m. and we had been in the air for five hours.

With the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton continuing to steam towards the Christie II, we continued to monitor the vessels situation. The pump that we dropped to the vessel continued to pump out the water faster than it was coming in. This allowed the captain to work on continually improving the situation he was in. We now needed to reassess our fuel situation. With the cutter still two hours away from the vessel, we were going to need to stay with the Christie II until help arrived. It would take us three hours to get back to Kodiak once help did arrived and we could depart. We were looking at another five hours in the air.

We set up a communication schedule with the Christie II that had him calling us every 30 minutes with a situation report. With that established we climbed up to 15,000 feet and slowed the aircraft down to conserve fuel. This would ensure that we could stay over the vessel as long as possible.

After two hours of orbiting over the vessel and the Christie II safely alongside the Cutter Hamilton it was time for us to leave as we were getting fuel critical. We applied power and set a course for our three-hour flight home.

It was now 1:30 in the morning and as we descended into the Kodiak area the weather there had gotten worse while we were gone. Fog and light rain had moved into the area reducing the visibility. As the pilot finished his approach briefing to the crew, I thought to myself that this was going to be another challenging night approach to the Emerald Isle. We only had enough fuel for one attempt to land at Kodiak. If we were unable to land then we were going to have to fly to Elmendorf AFB for our landing where the weather was better.

With our before landing checklists complete and the landing gear down and locked we continued a slow descent to the point where we had to have the runway in sight or turn back out over the water to avoid the Mountains. Just as we were preparing to turn back out over the water and declare a missed approach, the runway lights slowly emerged from the fog.

With the runway in sight, the pilot called out "Flaps 100 Percent" and began a steeper descent to center up the aircraft on the proper glide path as dictated by the lights he now saw next to the runway. The pilot slowed the aircraft as we crossed over the approach end of the runway at 110 kts. as we all anticipated our impending touchdown on the runway. As the aircraft settled onto the runway, the throttles were put into reverse and the aircraft shuddered as our four propellers converted forward thrust to reverse thrust in an attempt to slow down our 98,000 pound aircraft.            

With our aircraft making itís way to the ramp we were beginning to feel the fatigue of our successful Search and Rescue Mission. We had been in the air for almost ten hours and had burned nearly 50,000 pounds of fuel.

As we gathered up our gear and walked away from our parked aircraft I thought to myself that when the next call for help came in, we would again be ready to answer the call.

 

  Dave Gillespie is a C-130 Flight Engineer stationed at the Kodiak Air Station             

 

Return to Coast Guard Stories