by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn
Human flight is inherently amazing. For people looking to satisfy their wonder, or to simply bask in astonishment at accomplishments in the history of aviation, there’s no better place than the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
The museum includes representative aircraft from every U.S. military branch, with the exception of one – the U.S. Coast Guard. The life-saving service famous for hoisting survivors at sea to its helicopters doesn’t yet have one on display there, though that’s about to change.
What makes it so special, like the service it represents, is the missions it performed saving peoples’ lives. One particular mission performed by a 1426 crew stands out not only as one of the greatest for that airframe, but perhaps in Coast Guard aviation history.
The companion facility to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the center includes two enormous hangars – the Boeing Aviation Hangar and the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar – where visitors can find thousands of aviation and space artifacts that tell fascinating stories of women and men taking to the skies and stars. Visitors stand awed before sights like the actual B-29 Enola Gay, the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb, and the space shuttle Discovery, world record holder for most spaceflights.
Soon to join the ranks of these relics is the Coast Guard HH-52A Seaguard helicopter, tail number 1426. Like many of its soon-to-be museum counterparts, the 1426 was an aircraft piloted in the performance of famous feats. What makes it so special, like the service it represents, is the missions it performed saving peoples’ lives. One particular mission performed by a 1426 crew stands out not only as one of the greatest for that airframe, but perhaps in Coast Guard aviation history.
On the morning of Nov. 1, 1979, then Lt. j.g. Chris Kilgore and Lt. J.C. Cobb, both pilots, along with Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Wynn, an aviation electrician’s mate, rescued 22 survivors from the burning tanker Burmah Agate and freighter Mimosa after the two vessels collided near Galveston, Texas.
Burmah Agate was fully loaded with fuel, and the collision resulted in an explosion that ignited leaking oil. The tanker went down soon after the collision, while the burning Mimosa remained underway, slowly circling around a dropped anchor.
The 1426 crew was one of two helicopter crews from Air Station Houston to respond and hoist survivors from the ships. A memoir of the famous case titled “Just in Time,” written by 1426 co-pilot Kilgore, details his firsthand account of what the rescuers faced that day.
He wrote of explosions, intense heat from the fire, turbulent air, taking on survivors until the helicopter exceeded its maximum allowable weight – and dropping them off on a nearby oil platform before returning to rescue more.
“With the two survivors on board, we turned our attention to Mimosa,” wrote Kilgore. “The fire on that vessel was spreading from the forward area aft, toward the superstructure. The crew appeared to all be crowded onto the port bridge wing. Over the next several minutes, we hoisted 10 crew members in three hoists. Although the fire danger was not as immediate, these were interesting hoists nonetheless. When the basket was lowered, the ship’s crew were all clamoring to get into it, all grabbing for the basket at once. To make it more interesting, the ship was underway, but without command of the rudder it was doing a constant 360-degree turn. Because of weight and wind, we could not follow the ship around. The situation was further complicated by the masts, wires, antennae and other gear above the bridge, necessitating a high hoist.”