BOYS AND THEIR TOYS
By K. C. LILLY

 

 

The following received from Ptero Carl Hankwitz via Jack McCormack.  Picture NOTAL  Reprinted from 'FORE 'n AFT' the Official publication of the Honolulu Council Navy League of the United States - February/March issue, 1999

On the evening of December 24th, we got a call from the RCC (joint Rescue Coordination Center) telling us the balloon had run into bad winds, wasn't making headway to the east any longer, and it was possible they were going to have to ditch up to 100 miles off shore." -Commander Robert Palatka, USCG, HH-65A Dolphin helicopter pilot.

That was the call which started into motion the rescue of Richard Branson, Steve Fossett and Per Lindstrand from their aborted attempt to circumnavigate the globe aboard the hot-air balloon "Virgin," we say 'boys with their very expensive toy.

This is a story about what Christmas was like for the air crews of a C-130 fixed-wing aircraft and two HH-65A helicopters. Please keep in mind the people in the air (12) is only part of the picture. There were also ground crews involved (an additional 12 to 15 people), not to mention the entire crews aboard the 110-foot Coast Guard Cutter Washington and 225-foot Coast Guard Cutter Kukui, plus the staff at the Joint Rescue Coordination Center, which effectively put their holiday on hold for these three boys with their toy. Am I getting a little sarcastic?


While most of you were sipping a Christmas Eve wine or eggnog, Lt. Lance Isakson, USCG, got his first heads-up call. Isakson, a C-130 pilot said, "We had no C-130s available. No up aircraft at the time. So Capt. Gunn, our executive officer, and I did a test flight on an aircraft and as we taxied in they called me on the radio and said 'get ready to go back out' because we've got a balloon that's possibly going into the water.

"We scrambled the crew and got airborne within 30 minutes and rendezvoused with the balloon at about 7:30 p.m. They were about 250 miles north of Oahu so it took us a little less than an hour to get there. Once we were in communication range with them we could talk with them directly. Mr. Branson was on the radio and he requested we fly a line 200 miles east of their current position just to get the winds at 20,000 feet and then return along that same track at 30,000 feet. The winds are different at different altitudes," Isakson explained.

"The balloon was at 23,000 feet at the time," he continued. "But since we had just taken off we were still pretty heavy (with fuel) so we decided the only way we'd be able to make 30,000 feet on the return trip was if we flew 300 miles east just to burn a little more gas.

"Every 25 miles we reported our winds. There was a low-pressure trough that they were stalled in. The winds were about 20 knots where he was. They were hoping that we could tell them whether or not the winds were going to improve out to the east.

"So we flew this track 300 miles east and the whole way out the winds were 20 to 25 knots. It didn't look like it was improving much for them. We climbed up to 30,000 feet despite [the fact that] we had a pressurization problem. Our airplane was unable to maintain as much cabin pressure as it normally does. But we were able to [handle the problem] and climb to 30,000 feet."

The wind information was passed along to the three aboard the balloon, to Air Traffic Control, the balloonists' London control center and the joint Rescue Coordination Center.

"Everybody knew what the winds were," said Isakson. "Based on our wind information they [knew they] would not be able to make the mainland. They figured it would be safer to ditch the balloon off of Oahu the next morning."

Isakson and his six-man crew were on scene from about 7:30 p.m. Obviously it was dark. "Just moonlight and starlight," Isakson said. "They had a position light and we flew under the balloon and got a look at it on the way out," he continued.

Of course the balloon was on the C-130's Traffic Collision Alert System radar, but it's worthy to report this was all taking place at night on Christmas Eve.

At about 10:30 p.m. Isakson and his crew left the balloonists and returned to their Barbers Point base on Oahu. "We asked them if they needed any further assistance and they said 'no, thanks for the information' and we headed back."

Upon return to Oahu, Petty Officer Ken Norris and Petty Officer Tony Hernandez stayed and worked on the aircraft until 1:30 a.m. to fix the auxiliary power unit which runs the electrical systems in case of emergency.

"I got the call in my room at 4:45 a.m.," said Isakson, "and told us I the balloon is ditching, get ready to go' and that's when we scrambled again and got airborne about 5:30 a.m.

"Again we established what the winds were like from 8,000 feet, all the way down to the surface at different altitudes, he continued.

The balloon, the night before, was 250 miles north of Oahu. What they did was use our trade winds to bring it south, and thus closer to Oahu and within range of the helicopters which would pluck them out of the water.

Isakson and his-130 crew rendezvoused with the balloon north of Molokai "We gave them wind information and sea stages how high the waves were.

From that point Isakson and crew coordinated the on-scene aircraft: the two HH-65A Dolphin helicopters, a Lear jet (the ICO Global chase aircraft), plus the C-130.

Cmdr. Palatka got his call Christmas Eve to be ready to be airborne early in the morning of Christmas day. He was the senior officer among the two crews of HH-65A Dolphin helicopters to be used for the actual rescues.

Due to continued slow wind conditions, Palatka and crew didn't take off until 8:30 a.m. with an anticipated ditching slated for 9:30 a.m.

"We were on scene about 9:00 a.m, They were relatively high then, about 2,000 feet and they were starting down. We just flew around them"

The second helicopter was about a half-hour behind Palatka and crew. "We had more fuel so we could stay on scene longer," he continued.

"They (the balloonists) started to descend into the water, and that's when they started [to bounce]. They would descend, the gondola would hit the water, it would drag for 10 to 20 Yards, and then it would pop back up." Palatka said. "It would get back down in there, drag, [and pop back up.] It did that probably 30 times. After about 12 [times] stuff started breaking off, falling off. It wasn't big pieces - - more like insulation on fuel tanks.

"Eventually, with all the stuff breaking off, it seemed to get lighter and
would go higher in the air and then when it came down it would come down harder. They had a pretty good ride in there I think.

"Once the balloon was in the water and dragging along two guys got out it was Branson and Fossett - -they got out on top of the gondola and jumped in. The balloon, pushed by the wind, was pushed away so they were in the water floating there.

"They had 'dry suits' on and floatation devises," Palatka continued. "I was the senior duty officer so I picked up the first two and told Lt. Chris Hill to pick up the third guy when he comes out.

"We moved in and hovered right by them and put Petty Officer Sullivan in the water. He did a 'free fall deployment' from about 15 feet and swam over to them. He gave us the signal they were alright and signaled for the basket."

All three were retrieved one-at-a-time using the basket and hoist.

 

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