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A Few of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Greatest Air Rescues

April 1, 1916, marked the U.S. Coast Guard’s aviation birthday, the date when 2nd Lt. Charles E. Sugden and 3rd Lt. Elmer F. Stone reported for aviation training.

While there are many notable, heroic rescues, here are a few of the most daring lifesaving operations in Coast Guard history, in no particular order.

In July 1934, Frank A. Erickson became a Coast Guard aviator, and some time later he was designated the service’s first helicopter pilot. In 1944, he conducted the first lifesaving mission – in snow squalls and strong winds – with a helicopter.

Over the years, the service has honed its airborne  techniques of search and rescue (SAR), which is one of its 11 statutory missions, assisting people in danger on the high seas and inland waterways.

While there are many notable, heroic rescues, here are a few of the most daring lifesaving operations in Coast Guard history, in no particular order.


1980: Dutch cruise ship Prinsendam

The Dutch cruise ship Prinsendam, steaming through the Gulf of Alaska near Ketchikan, caught fire in its engine room at midnight on Oct. 4. The ship’s captain ordered 520 people – 320 passengers and 200 crewmembers – to deploy the lifeboats and abandon ship, more than 150 miles from the nearest coast.

The Coast Guard got underway with what would become one of the largest rescue operations in U.S. history.

Coast Guard and Canadian helicopters and the CGCs Boutwell, Mellon, and Woodrush as well as rescue aircraft launched from air stations Sitka and Kodiak, and with assistance from the U.S. Air Force, Royal Canadian navy, and an Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System-tasked tanker, the service began the coordinated operation of aiding the passengers.

Dutch cruise ship Prinsendam

The Dutch cruise ship Prinsendam. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Their efforts lasted 24 hours in 12- to 15-foot seas and winds of 28 to 35 mph, despite the fact that the Prinsendam was positioned 130 miles from the closest airstrip. Rescue helicopters would transport to shore passengers who were hypothermic and the aircraft would refuel and return to the scene to pick up another load of survivors.

As a result of coordination and teamwork among the rescue parties, all 520 aboard were rescued and no one sustained serious injury.


2008: Fishing vessel Alaska Ranger

At 2:52 a.m. on March 23, and 120 miles west of the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the captain of the 189-foot fishing trawler Alaska Ranger sent a distress call that was picked up at U.S. Coast Guard Station Kodiak.

The ship’s aft compartments had begun filling with water. There were 47 crewmembers aboard.

As the fishermen began putting on their survival gear, the 378-foot CGC Munro, which was on patrol in the Bering Sea, was strategically positioned to help distressed mariners. It, too, had received the mayday, turned toward the position of the call, and steamed to assist.

The crew of the Munro had jumped into action, turning the mess deck into a treatment center for survivors and preparing the flight deck to launch Munro’s HH-65 Dolphin helicopter. Crewmembers also prepared to receive fishermen from an HH-60 Jayhawk stationed on Saint Paul Island, a tiny island in the middle of the Bering Sea.

The Jayhawk aircrew arrived on scene to find a line – stretching for about a mile – of survival suit strobe lights blinking in the darkness.

Meanwhile, aboard Alaska Ranger, the captain had given the order to abandon ship. Crewmembers tried to launch the ice-crusted life rafts, but as the trawler moved astern, the rafts lurched toward the bow, instead of remaining on the ship’s sides, and drifted away. The men jumped. Some made it into life rafts; most bobbed on the sea. Then the Alaska Ranger sank.

The Jayhawk aircrew arrived on scene to find a line – stretching for about a mile – of survival suit strobe lights blinking in the darkness.

Amid snow squalls and rotor wash, rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class O’Brien Hollow was lowered into the freezing water by flight mechanic Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert R. DeBolt to begin hoisting the survivors. For nearly an hour, the aircrew worked to rescue 12 men.

Alaska Ranger’s sister vessel, the Alaska Warrior, which had been a short distance away, had transited to help. The Jayhawk crew had planned to offload the survivors onto the ship’s deck, but there was too much rigging and it was too dangerous to attempt a drop-off. Running low on fuel, and at capacity with fishermen in sea-filled survival suits, they could fly back to Dutch Harbor, offload the fishermen, refuel, and return or the aircrew could fly to the Munro. The aircrew made the call to fly to the cutter, where the survivors could be dropped off, treated and cared for, and the Jayhawk could be refueled midair to continue the rescue operation.

By now, the smaller Dolphin arrived on scene. The aircrew began pulling survivors into the aircraft, but only four men, in addition to themselves, could fit into the cabin. Rescue swimmer Petty Officer 3rd Class Abram Heller chose to remain in the water – in 20-foot waves and 30 mph winds – so the fifth survivor could be hoisted aboard by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alfred Musgrave, the flight mechanic.

Alaska Ranger

A survivor from the Alaska Ranger rescue operation is offloaded onto the CGC Munro. U.S. Coast Guard photo

The Dolphin, at this point, was running critically low on fuel and reported the situation. As it sped toward the Munro, the Jayhawk hovering above the cutter’s flight deck had refueled just over halfway; Lts. Brian McLaughlin and Steve Bonn, the Jayhawk’s pilots, calculated they had enough fuel to return and search for more survivors. The Alaska Warrior, meanwhile, had picked up 22 survivors.

The Jayhawk’s crew retrieved another four fishermen, as well as Heller, and continued their search until the aircraft, again, ran low on fuel. Bonn and McLaughlin returned to the Munro, offloaded, refueled, and began the flight back to Saint Paul Island.

Forty-two lives were saved in those early morning hours. Four would die of hypothermia, and one fisherman remained lost.

The crews of the Jayhawk, Dolphin, and Munro said the rescue of the Alaska Ranger was the largest operation they had ever been involved with. For the mission, five aircraft, seven crews, and a cutter, along with the assistance of Alaska Warrior’s fishermen, carried out one of the largest air rescue operations in the service’s history.


2012: HMS Bounty

HMS Bounty sailed on Oct. 25 from New London, Connecticut, for St. Petersburg, Florida. On Oct. 29, Hurricane Sandy was heading toward land. In an area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for its notoriously treacherous seas, the 108-foot-long three-masted tall ship attempted to transit into the forecasted path of the hurricane, approximately 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In 18-foot seas and 40 mph winds, Bounty had lost power, was taking on water, and its pumps were failing, forcing the crew of 16 to abandon ship.

HMS Bounty

The HMS Bounty is seen submerged in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 29, 2012. Of the 16-person crew, the Coast Guard rescued 14, recovered a woman, and the captain was not found. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski

As the mariners drifted in two life rafts, the Coast Guard’s Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, dispatched an HC-130 Hercules aircraft. Once on scene, it flew above the survivors to keep watch. As it did so, the first MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter was launched from the air station.

Weather conditions had deteriorated, with winds increasing to nearly 70 mph. Flying at about 300 feet above the sea to remain beneath the clouds, the first Jayhawk arrived at Bounty’s position. The crew had to overcome the challenge of safely deploying the rescue swimmer and hoist basket. In one attempt to manage the basket in the wind and high seas, the aircrew placed weight bags into it; however, as soon as it hit water, it sank. After multiple attempts to safely deploy and lower the swimmer and manage the basket, their teamwork paid off; rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class Randy Haba was finally lowered to begin pulling the sailors from one of the life rafts.

Coast Guard crewmembers from subsequent aircraft as well as personnel from the CGCs Elm and Gallatin searched for the two missing sailors.

A second Jayhawk arrived to assist with rescuing sailors from the second life raft, as 30-foot waves washed over it. The pilot hovered above the raft, which was approximately 1 mile from the first. Petty Officer 3rd Class Dan Todd, the rescue swimmer, swam to the huddled, cold survivors, and said, “Hi, I’m Dan. I heard you guys need a ride.” His hope was that the greeting would calm the sailors and let them know the Coast Guard was in charge of the situation, he explained later in an interview.

Of the 16 sailors, 14 returned to the air station. Coast Guard crewmembers from subsequent aircraft as well as personnel from the CGCs Elm and Gallatin searched for the two missing sailors. One crewmember was recovered 7 nautical miles from the Bounty’s original position when it reported it was sinking. The search for the 16th sailor, Bounty’s captain, lasted for more than 90 hours and covered 12,000 overlapping nautical miles before it was called off. He was not found.


2005: Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the Coast Guard had already mobilized assets to begin SAR operations, as well as conduct marine pollution response and the management of maritime commerce missions.

After Katrina struck, 40 percent of the service’s helicopters were supporting SAR operations. Air stations from Kodiak, Alaska, to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Barbers Point, Kapolei, Hawaii, provided relief crewmembers. Aircrews saved 12,535 people.


One of more than 33,000 people rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 30, 2005, in New Orleans. AP photo/David J. Phillip

There were so many individual acts of skill and courage that it is difficult to put together a narrative. Instead, here’s a sampling of comments from some of the aircrew members as well as personnel who supported them during interviews conducted by the Coast Guard Oral History Program.

Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Joshua Mitcheltree

“It was very busy. The main thing we were hearing was there was not enough room in the helicopters to pick up the entire section that they were hoisting to. We kept hearing, ‘Are there any more available 60s [HH-60 Jayhawks]? Are there any more available helos,’ and they were just running out of room inside the helicopters to transport. … They were, at the time, asking for any helos that could take any additional tasking so we jumped on that and we were called to pick up two elderly folks that were on a roof that needed to get off. It was really hard to find them with the position we were given. There’s a big radius of area from the position that we were given. So when we were hovering in there we couldn’t find one roof with just two people on it. You know every rooftop had 10 to 15 people on it. So we found a good hoisting area and just commenced hoisting from that position.”

Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Sara Faulkner

“This is the one [rescue] I always get choked up on. That first balcony that we went to we specifically picked it because we saw women and children there. So it took me a while to get lowered down and in position and as soon as I kind of straddled the balcony – I’d grab onto it and then I’d sit on it – they put a baby in [my] arms. And our rescue devices are too small for babies so I had to hold him in my bare arms [tearful], and just the look on the mother’s face. …”

Aviation Maintenance Technician 2 Matthew Dwayne Talton

“… I mean for instance one of the more memorable ones [rescues] that I experienced was I put the swimmer down inside of a house where there was a hole blown out of the side of this attic. So the swimmer goes in and he calls back up and says that there are approximately six or seven people in this attic. So I put the basket down. He pulls it into the hole and he gets the person loaded and I would get a little tension on the cable and I would con [or steer] the aircraft, “Easy back,” and that would basically kind of drag the basket up and then that’s when I would take the load in and bring them up, and so it was different. It was way different.”

HH-60 Jayhawk Helicopter Pilot Lt. Rick R. Hipes

“… we found an elderly person in his attic. We were unable to get him to the rooftop in the beginning so we sent a rescue swimmer down. He axed through the roof, cut the person out and then pulled him through the roof where we took him also to New Orleans International. …”


Petty Officer 1st Class Steven Huerta hoists two children into a Coast Guard rescue helicopter. Others watch from below as the children are among the many New Orleans citizens to be rescued from their rooftops due to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi

“And the biggest thing was definitely navigating the airspace there because there were so many helicopters. I think at any given time there were over 300 helicopters in the sky at a time, which I would relate that to like driving, it was almost like driving on the freeway. You got nowhere and usually you know it’s a big sky. You’ve got a few helicopters and airplanes here and there that you’re trying to avoid but there it was like ‘Okay, let’s see, I’m going to turn right so let me make sure that nobody is sitting on my right side. I’ll turn on my blinker again to get over,’ and a lot of the helicopters used the roadways and stuff to navigate. And of course we were all at different altitudes that were specified by the Katrina efforts.”

Electrician’s Mate 2 Rodney Gordon

“… when we got that fuel farm going – I think that was the third day we got that going – I only worked on it for like five or six hours and that was at nighttime. So of course there is no light so you’re working out of a flashlight pretty much stuck in your mouth just working. And so we got that joker fired off and going. And I’ll tell you what; there were a lot of smiles around because I mean that’s all the helos. You can’t fly without fuel and they pretty much put that all on me.”

Chief of Operations, 8th Coast Guard District, Capt. Joe Castillo

“… I hope our people really understand just how significant it is what they’ve done because this is not a once-in-a-career event. This is not even a once-in-a-lifetime event. This is a once-in-the-services’-lifetime event. There may be half a dozen similar things by the time whatever happens to the Coast Guard in 200 years from now that changes us … I think we’ll be around forever. Whenever they close the books on the Coast Guard there may be half a dozen things tops in that entire four or five or six hundred year period that would go down as major events and this [Katrina rescue operation] is going to be one of them.”

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook 2015-2016 Edition.


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