Confessions of a Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot Part IV

By Jack McCormack

edited by Don Gardner


At altitude, I thought this would be a piece of cake once I got down through the dark. A 600-foot plus ship, plenty of visual references to fly formation, no sweat. WRONG.................

My first two stories I told of some of the emergencies I had encountered. It's rather interesting to note that the first story, a transmission failure off the coast of Alaska, took place close to my retirement; the second, engine failure off the coast of Maine, took place near the beginning of my aviation career. It is also noteworthy to mention, they were the only real emergencies I had in over 15 years and over 3200 hours of flying for the Coast Guard.

Yes, I lost a gadget here and there, but nothing life-threatening, more an inconvenience or minor concern to be watched, rarely serious enough to abort a mission. That, I think, can be attributed to the excellent aircraft that Sikorsky produces; and, unlike some of the other services, the careful and thorough maintenance performed by the people who maintain our aircraft and fly them as aircrew.

In early December of 1969, we had recently closed our Air Station at Salem, Mass., and commissioned a new station at Cape Cod as a tenant of Otis AFB. There were many reasons for this move but, primarily, we needed more space and runways. Salem had no room to grow and no runways. No runways at an air station, you ask? Salem was commissioned in the late 30's when the Coast Guard operated seaplanes (PBYs, PBMs, and P5Ms) and used Salem Harbor for landing and takeoff. As the years passed, it was decided that New England needed more air coverage. In addition to the HU16E Albatross twin-engine amphibian aircraft, and the HH52A and HH3F helicopters that Salem provided, C130 Hercules were to be added to the fleet. You can land a C130 in Salem Harbor, but only once.

During the worst winter months, operating the HU16's from water can be difficult. On the takeoff run, you could pick up enough ice to make flying a hazard to your health. During these months we kept the ready HU16 at Beverly Airport, increasing our fixed wing response time by an hour at a minimum; we had to drive to Beverly, preheat the engines and shovel off the snow. We also kept a detachment at Naval Air Station, Quonset Point, with one HU16, to overcome some of these problems; but the logistics were terrible. For instance, most of the maintenance had to be done at Salem, along with other support activities.

I had the duty on a glorious New England December day. The weather was overcast and windy, but there was no storm brewing. The duty day at most Coast Guard Air Stations begins at 0800 and runs to the next day at 0800, then you begin a normal workday. If there are no SAR cases, you can catch up on your paper work and possibly get a night’s sleep before starting the next day’s work. You are more or less guaranteed that you won't be on the flight schedule for logistics or training flights, during your ready pilot status. SAR crew must be ready to be airborne within ten minutes. The SAR alarm went off about 2300. It was reported that the container ship, American Archer, came across a group of Japanese fishermen rowing around the ocean 240 miles southeast of Nantucket. It did seem rather strange to the Captain, this not being a recreational boating area, that something might be amiss. After picking up what turned out to be the survivors of the Japanese fishing vessel Togo Maru, it was learned that the vessel had exploded and sank a few hours earlier. Among the survivors, there were some who were quite seriously injured.

Since the distance was pushing our maximum radius, I decided to top off the fuel tanks (possibly going over the maximum gross of 22,050 lbs. a bit). Best to take off a little heavy and to ensure we had enough to make it back. Running out of fuel and/or not completing the rescue mission is not my idea of having a good day. In addition to our normal crew of four, we also managed to get Capt. John Little, a USAF flight surgeon, assigned to our crew, one of the advantages of being a tenant at an Air Force Base.

Heading southeast and quickly establishing radio contact with the American Archer, we could home in on their VHF radio signal with our VHF/DF and fly directly to their position. Our only problem was: How far out there are they? We knew the direction with the VHF/DF but not the distance. In the late 60's, I didn't trust a ship far at sea knowing their position with a fair degree of accuracy. Aboard the helicopter we used LORAN A, which, to say the least, wasn't as reassuringly accurate as today’s equipment.

The plan was to fly for 300 miles and, if the ship wasn't there, then head back for land. As it turned out, he was where he said he was. After getting the needle swing on the VHF/DF, we set up for a Precision Approach to a Hover (PATCH), using his VHF transmitter as our NAVAID. Remember, this is 0-Two Thirty dark in the middle of the Atlantic with an overcast and high winds. This is no place to try a visual approach to a small light in the ocean—depth perception will get you every time.

The PATCH is basically a tear-drop pattern using a datum (reference point), whether it is a light on the water, a transmitter, or a time mark you select, designed to get the aircraft from altitude and a cruise speed of 120 knots to 50 feet and zero knots. Yes, we have a radar altimeter, along with a full panel of instruments without which we could easily bump into the water with unfavorable results. Incidentally, this maneuver is performed completely on instruments. Once in a hover at 50 feet, the copilot takes control if he has visual reference. If not, we would descend to 25 feet. I don't care how thick the fog may be, or how calm the seas may be, a 22,050 lb. helicopter will blow away the fog to a certain extent and make enough ripple on the water to enable a visual hover. The Coast Guard's H3's have all the bells and whistles for instrument flying, which is a must, considering our all-weather mission requirements.

As a result of Dr. Little’s discussion of the medical situation with the Captain of the American Archer by radio, it was decided we would lower him to the ship where he could determine more accurately the medical condition of the crew and determine who, if any, would require evacuation.

Good for him, I wouldn't want to be lowered to a ship in the middle of the Atlantic at night by a couple of guys I had only recently met. On the other hand, if my ship was sinking, introductions wouldn't be necessary.

The crew and the American Archer's Captain were briefed, then we commenced our approach. This briefing included a heading for the ship to steer, putting the wind 30 degrees off his port bow and a speed to maintain steerageway, but no faster. This heading would allow us to hover over the ship’s stern into the wind and provided a good visual reference of the ship to our starboard (the pilot being in the right seat and the cabin door/hoist on the right).

Our approach brought us to about 200 yards astern of the ship in a hover taxi, approaching at about 15 knots with good visual references, then came to a hover over the stern (actually, flying close formation with the ship underway) while I evaluated the situation.

At altitude, I thought this would be a piece of cake once I got down through the dark. A 600-foot plus ship, plenty of visual references to fly formation, no sweat. WRONG. The plusses were: a large area over the containers to hover with no obstacles and plenty of light. The negatives: the stern was moving up and down about 75 feet (in about a 10 second period) because of the heavy seas, her length, and the gasses coming from the stacks just forward of the hoisting site.

We dropped the doctor off for his house call, then climbed to 500 feet to conserve fuel to get out of the stack gas. The H3, like all helicopters, uses less fuel with forward airspeed than in a hover, and you are not likely bump into the water unless we fall asleep.

About 20 minutes later we got a call from the doctor, who had determined that four of the crewmen from the Togo Maru needed evacuation, three with severe burns and one with a badly fractured hand. The remaining crew members would be fine aboard the American Archer until she reached port, which I think was New York.

Down we came again with another PATCH. This time we were prepared to make five hoists, the doctor and the four evacuees. By the end of the last hoist, which took about 20 minutes, we were all glad to get out of the stack gas—I could hardly see and had one hell of a headache. Time to go home—a 300 mile trip to Boston, where the best medical facilities were available, considering our patients needs. This required refueling at CGAS Cape Cod en route however, delaying us somewhat.

To expedite the refueling, I decided to hot refuel, taking on only enough to make it to Boston and some reserve. Hot refueling is somewhat risky—you single point refuel (high pressure to all four tanks at once) while the engines and rotors are still turning. Should something fail, you could get a big fire.

We then continued on to Boston, shot an ILS approach to Logan since the weather had deteriorated somewhat, and discharged our patients to the awaiting ambulances for further transfer to Mass. General. Mission complete. We then took on more fuel and headed home to Cape Cod, arriving around sunrise.

A long and rewarding night. Flying doesn't get much better than that. SEMPER PARATUS!

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