USCG Aviators Put Themselves On The Line During Natural
By USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler (Reprinted in
In 1786, a group of visionaries gathered at a Boston tavern with
the shared goal of reducing the loss of life at sea. America's
first maritime lifesaving service was born of their initiative,
called the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The
practices of this agency were used in the creation of the
federalized U.S. Life Saving Service, which merged with the Revenue
Cutter Service to become the Coast Guard in 1915.
Cape Cod Station Patch
One of the first successful Coast Guard air stations was also
established in Massachusetts, utilizing a Vought UO-1 seaplane
(borrowed from the Navy) at Ten Pound Island in 1925. The Coast
Guard had successfully tested aircraft for search-and-rescue (SAR)
purposes as far back as 1915, but hadn't yet been able to get the
funding to put them to use. These days, Coast Guard aviators in the
region fly out of Air Station Cape Cod.
I had the privilege of deploying to this hot spot of lifesaving
practice and tradition on Aug. 27, 2011 to document the arrival of
Hurricane Irene. When word came that the storm would hit
Massachusetts on the 28th, the Coast Guard was ready with the
wisdom of centuries, satellite imagery and established agency
partnerships. Weathering storms in the Northeastern United States
is in our service's ancestral DNA.
As Irene struck the coast, a single watch stander at Air Station
Cape Cod, Lt. Adam Burda, intently monitored phones and the VHF
marine band radio, a paradigm of the service's ageless devotion to
the call for help. Reports began to come in. Flash floods had
driven people onto rooftops in Connecticut. Power outages were
widespread throughout the Northeast.
Lt. Adam Burda
"I have stood my fare share of operations duty officer watch,
and that was the most hectic, but rewarding duty I've had yet,"
said Burda. "Literally, the phone did not stop ringing for over 24
hours." Weekend watch standing duty at Cape Cod is 8 a.m. to 8
a.m., Sunday to Monday in this case, and Burda stood the entire
watch as normal.
Men of the 'old guard' had a saying, "We have to go out, but we
don't have to come back." The romanticized statement stood as a
noble reminder of the potential martyrdom of SAR jobs. These days
we say, 'risk assessment.' Risk assessment is an outlined process
that basically weighs the peril of the person that needs saving
versus the peril of the crew going to save them. It helps determine
what the best vehicle, action or agency may be. National Guard
troops, or local responders could have more applicable capability
to perform a rescue. It isn't about being a hero as much as making
sure everyone gets to go home at the end of the day. "One of my
biggest concerns is putting my crew in harm's way, so we really
urge folks to heed the warnings of their local authorities," said
Lt. Cmdr. Curtis Brown, an aircraft commander and pilot at the air
station. Brown spent a large part of the hurricane laying out
charts and determining if our guys should launch. As the risk
became acceptable, assets began to hit the tarmac and crews began
to suit up.
The first aircraft to depart was a Coast Guard HU-25C Falcon
with a five-man crew, and your writer as a passenger. A brief call
for help had been reported with no further attempts to communicate,
referred to as an uncorrelated mayday. No assumptions can be made
when the Coast Guard receives an uncorrelated mayday. As likely as
it is to be nothing, is the likelihood that a person was only able
to get out one call for help prior to their boat sinking or loss of
power and communications.
Lt. Ashley Lovejoy was one of two pilots assigned to the first
flight. "I recently transferred from Air Station Miami about a
month prior. The night we flew was my second duty night in Cape
Cod," said Lovejoy. "Besides pop up thunderstorms and large
systems, flying in Miami is very mild compared to Cape Cod."
Lovejoy described the overall feeling as excitement mixed with a
little trepidation, "I've flown in similar conditions only once
before during Hurricane Ike, but never anything as extreme as that
night. Despite the weather and my little time at the unit I was
confident in both the crew and aircraft's ability."
Cape Cod HU-25 Falcon, MH-60T
The Falcon crew screamed down the runway and hit the sky with
wings dipping dramatically as it was blasted by Irene's fury. The
crew's manner was calm and confident. Not a visible hint of fear.
As the aircraft took flight the wind gusted at 62 knots, or just
slightly over 70 miles per hour. The plane pushed into a thick
ceiling of clouds with rain tracing the window frames, and after a
very long moment, the cockpit emerged into daylight. The crew
protected their eyes as the sunlight streaked through the reliable
HU-25C's airframe. "Breaking through the clouds definitely made me
feel better, but I also knew we had to fly back into it to get to
the search area," said Lovejoy.
Weather had improved by the time we reached the sea and
conditions were acceptable for flying low search patterns. Petty
Officer 2nd Class Jason Stanberry, an aviation electrical
technician at Cape Cod, called out for vessels in distress on
marine band VHF frequency. Co-pilot Lt. Phillip Wade and 3rd class
aviation maintenance technician petty officers Ryan King and Jason
Zeddies searched the sea for any signs of vessels in distress, but
after extensive efforts the search was suspended.
Accompanying the strange feeling of suspending the search, was
an odd realization. "The area that we were flying is perhaps some
of the busiest airspace in the country maybe even the world, but we
were literally the only plane in the sky," said Lovejoy. "Air
Traffic Control, New York Approach, Boston Approach, New York
Center, we were literally their only customer. We didn't know for
sure which airports were open or providing fuel service. They kept
us informed of changing weather conditions, airport closures and
any other info we asked about."
As the Falcon crew prepared for the return trip radio traffic
began to ramp up. Through the increasing activity, another rescue
call was heard. A vessel in distress was calling for help, and this
one was unmistakable. The crew was quickly able to locate the 2nd
vessel, which had been grounded on rocks and was taking on water.
They identified a small life raft departing the vessel and making
its way safely towards shore. The coordinates and information were
relayed back to Coast Guard operations centers and, after doing a
few circles, the Falcon departed the scene to refuel.
Landing and taking off during the gusting winds was another
memorable evolution. A third search was conducted for an inflatable
boat reportedly drifting in Norwalk River, but nothing was found.
After the search we landed at Boston Logan Airport to wait for
winds to subside. The international airport was practically empty
of aircraft and personnel, another eerie moment. The crew finally
ended up spending the night in Boston to wait out the storm, and I
departed by rental car back towards Cape Cod.
A report came in at approximately 3:30 a.m., Aug. 29th, that
waves had swept a man and woman from rocks at Narragansett Beach,
R.I. Reports stated that the man had made it back to shore, but the
woman was still at sea. An MH60T Jayhawk helicopter crew was sent
Jayhawk Prepares For Dawn Mission
In the world of SAR, strange stories are relatively common.
Reports that would be hard to make up are abundant. We sometimes
call them sea stories, as the tales get taller and taller. The
below, hard to believe account, is a true sea story. The Jayhawk
crew located the person in the water and lowered a rescue swimmer.
When he reached her, the swimmer was notified by the young lady in
the cold, pre-dawn, post hurricane, Atlantic Ocean, that she was in
no need of assistance. The determination was made to conduct the
rescue, and she was resistantly taken aboard the aircraft to be
transported to a nearby hospital. A strange judgment call made
under extreme duress by a young rescue swimmer. The rescued person
turned out to be intoxicated and her impaired decision to remain at
sea could have cost her life.
Capt. David Throop, Commander of Air Station Cape Cod expressed
that following the storm one of the biggest things would be
assessment of the ports. Other agencies would be depending on our
'eyes in the sky' to determine what areas would need aid and how to
prioritize those needs. "This activity would be essential to things
returning to normal," said Throop.
At about 5 a.m. the sun began to rise. The first Jayhawk
helicopter had returned from its rescue mission, and a second was
on the tarmac getting ready to fly. Stars in the west submitted to
the rising sun in the east with a cloudless sky between. Birds and
insects remained strangely silent. I remember thinking how strongly
the environment contrasted the roaring winds of the day before. The
assessment helicopter picked up Congressman Tim Bishop, Senator
Kirsten Gillibrand and Capt. Joseph M. Vojvodich, Commander of
Sector Long Island Sound. The crew, passengers and I flew along the
Sector Long Island Sound area of operations where neighborhoods had
become inaccessible, flooded and lost power.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Aboard USCG
"Overall, my impression of the south shore of Long Island and
its bays was that we weathered the storm pretty well," said
Vojvodich, whose area of responsibility includes all of the coast
and navigable waterways of Connecticut, Long Island Sound itself
and the coasts and back bays of Long Island. "I noticed some surge
waters in some communities in the northern portions of the Great
South Bay and Moriches Bay, but you could already tell that the
water was receding. I was concerned about any breaches along the
south shore of Long Island and excessive shoaling of the inlets,
but we weathered the storm pretty well."
He went on to say that, "In the end, our ability to invoke a
confidence in our waterways for recreational boaters, commercial
operators, and the maritime industry, especially when a crisis
occurs, is the true value of the public service that the Coast
Guard brings to the table."
Air Station Cape Cod was commissioned on Aug. 29th, 1970,
celebrating its 41st birthday the afternoon following the storm. It
is the Atlantic Coast's only Coast Guard aviation facility north of
Atlantic City, New Jersey, and its area of responsibility spans
Northern New Jersey to the Canadian Border.
In Massachusetts, early notifications had not been ignored. When
the storm arrived, airports were like ghost towns and many
neighborhoods had been evacuated. In the region that gave us SAR,
Hurricane Irene was a case study of preparedness. Another storm for
the books, to test our skills, crisis communications and the
effectiveness of our programs.
To the Coast Guardsmen on watch it was a day representative of
the reasons we join the service. As a new response crew replaces
those that stood the hurricane watch, the same ritual is being
conducted at stations up and down the coast. Tales of the previous
day are passed to the new ready crew, and those lessons become part
of the Coast Guard's ongoing story.
(Image credits USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
[except as noted])