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Coast Guard Orchestrates Plane Ditching In Pacific Ocean, Pilot Rescued

Behind-The-Scenes Story Of A Cessna 310 Down En Route To Hawaii

The Big Island of Hawaii lies in the center of the vast Pacific Ocean more than 2,500 miles from the nearest point of land. Yet despite its remoteness, dozens of aircraft of all sizes make the long flight each day without issue. For one pilot flying from California in a small twin engine Cessna 310, this was a routine, well planned flight.

Cessna 310 File Photo

Traveling at an average 175.2 mph, Charles Brian Mellor's flight plan would have him reach the picturesque black beaches of Hilo just shy of 13 hours. During the flight, he had ample time to check and recheck his calculations. In doing so he came to a disturbing conclusion. He would not have the opportunity to fly into paradise. He was going to run out of fuel long before reaching the islands. At 12:30 p.m. the command duty officer, at the 14th Coast Guard District Joint Rescue Coordination Center, answers the phone and receives a briefing of Mellor's situation from the Federal Aviation Administration in Honolulu. Lt. Bridget Fitzgibbons learns that Mellor, a 65-year-old man is flying his Cessna from Monetary, Calif. to Hilo, Hawaii, and is running out of fuel about 500 miles from land.

Fitzgibbons calls FAA Oakland for flight details that will help her make accurate decisions in planning Mellor's rescue.

When Mellor made his flight plan in Monterey he determined how much fuel he would need to travel to Hawaii.  The Cessna's internal fuel tanks do not allow for trans-ocean flights, so he was allowed extra internal fuel bladders to complete the transit.  Mellor stripped out the back seats of the aircraft and replaced them with the extra fuel tanks required to make the trip. Although tailwinds pushed Mellor and his plane 60 percent of the way, he encountered headwinds after crossing the point of no return. It was at this point his calculations indicated something was wrong. He had enough fuel for 14 hours but had been airborne for 13 of what should have been a 12 hour flight.

Meanwhile, Fitzgibbons reaches out to Richard Roberts, District 14 response management deputy branch chief, to explain the impending rescue. Roberts, a former Coast Guard pilot, has vital experience and knowledge to contribute to the rescue. Although rescue of Mellor was imminent, he must first survive ditching his aircraft somewhere in the Pacific. Roberts and Fitzgibbons begin to formulate a plan. "The very first thing that needed to happen was to ensure all response coordination efforts are being managed to the fullest capacity," said Roberts. "Phone calls were made to not only to Air Station Barbers Point, but U.S. Pacific Command, the Navy, the nearest hospital and then to Coast Guard Pacific Area Command Center in California and Coast Guard Headquarters."

Coast Guard Video Capture

The plan was to have a Coast Guard Air Station Barber's Point HC-130 Hercules airplane aircrew rendezvous with Mellor.  The aircrew would coach Mellor through the complex process for ditching the Cessna. At Air Station Barbers Point, Hercules aircraft commander Lt. Eric Majeska gathers the aircrew to determine the best course of action. Majeska noted that the challenge facing them would test each crewmember's ability to function in a high stress situation. As the aircraft commander, Majeska explained "everything is depending on your ability to remain calm and confident to help someone who is going to have to make decisions that will determine their own fate."

For the aircrew, the confidence to help Mellor would come from their training and experience. Majeska and his co-pilot, Lt. j.g. Bryan Weber, reached out to other seasoned pilots to tap into decades of flying experience.  For Webber, a junior officer and pilot, gaining the knowledge of others was crucial for developing the best course of action. "His ability to ditch this plane successfully would depend on all the knowledge we would be able to lend him," said Weber.

Once Mellor entered the water there would be little the Hercules aircrew could do. That is when the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew takes over the rescue plan. They would meet the Cessna 310 at sea and deploy a rescue swimmer to recover Mellor after the plane ditched. As both aircrews prepared to launch, Fitzgibbons was busy developing the check list for the rescue plan. In gathering information, Fitzgibbons realized that Mellor may have to ditch outside the 80 mile range of the helicopter. If this occurred, a backup plan would be necessary to rescue Mellor. Fitzgibbons made a call to the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Kiska, a 110-foot patrol boat stationed in Hilo. He was directed to get the cutter ready and underway within the hour. "Our biggest fear at this time was Mellor may have to ditch his aircraft approximately 100 miles off the Big Island," said Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Sena, a watchstander working with Fitzgibbons.  Dolphin helicopters only have an approximate range of 80 miles. For this reason the Kiska and crew might become necessary.

Coast Guard Image

As the rescue crews were preparing, Mellor's plane caught a small tailwind and was covering more ocean than previously anticipated. Sena and Fitzgibbons coordinated a track line with the cutter to ensure they would intercept the Cessna. By this time the Hercules aircrew launched, and headed northwest to rendezvous with Mellor. As the multiple Coast Guard assets took to the ocean, and air or stood by the radio, all the elements of the rescue began to come together like a well-oiled machine. All with one goal; get to Cessna and rescue Mellur.

More than 150 miles off shore from Hawaii, the Hercules crew rendezvous with Mellor. By this time the Dolphin helicopter crew had landed at the Hilo International Airport for fuel and waited for their call to launch. The Hercules crew established communications with Mellor and the pilots began to talk him through the ditching sequence and rescue. "As soon as we found him on a frequency, we introduced ourselves and told him we are the Coast Guard and we are here to help him get through this," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Miguel Martinez, the radio man with the Hercules crew.  "Immediately he seemed relieved and we switched to a radio frequency with less traffic."

The aircrew instructed Mellor to secure anything that was loose in his aircraft and began to review his two options for ditching the plane. Mellor's options would be a power-on ditch or a power-off ditch. During a power-on ditch Mellor would have full control of the plane's engine, Webber explained.  This allows the pilot to add power and make the airplane more stable or add power to gain altitude to go up and then back down. A power-off ditch is where the engine is already gone, whether it was secured by the pilot or not.  In this situation, Mellor would have only one shot at landing the plane in the water. "Mellor originally wanted to perform a power-off ditch," said Weber. "However, we stood by our advice and said it would be best to conduct a power-on ditch."

Coast Goard Image

The reasoning behind the power-on recommendation lies in the Cessna's twin engine design according to Webber. It would be very unlikely for both the engines to cut off at the same time during a power-off ditch.  This would make the plane very unstable and Mellor would be forced to disable both engines manually, adding another task to the already complex situation. As Mellor debated which ditch to perform, the cutter Kiska and crew staged approximately 40 miles northeast of the Big Island. The Dolphin helicopter crew finished re-fueling and stood by for notification that Mellor was within range.

Sector Honolulu watch standers instructed the Dolphin rescue crew to launch as Mellor crossed the 80-mile mark. With the guidance of air traffic control personnel, the helicopter crew also rendezvoused with Mellor. At this point the the command center watchstanders could only listening to the radio traffic and wait for the air crews to execute the next phase of the mission. From this point on it was up to Mellor to follow the instructions given by the Coast Guard aircrew and ditch his aircraft into the rolling seas off of Hawaii.

13 miles from the Big Island the Hercules dropped to 1,000 feet and the Dolphin helicopter crew came in behind Mellor and tailed him as he descended into the South Pacific Ocean. "Looking out, at first I was sure he had it, he was going to be fine and we're just out here for protocol," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeffery Moeschler, flight mechanic aboard the Dolphin helicopter. "But as I'm watching him drop down to 400 feet and lower, he just kept dropping.  I just think it isn't going to happen."

In the front of the dolphin, aircraft commander Lt. Matthew Matsuoka, watched as the Cessna glided above the water. He calls for "rescue check two" and Moeschler and the rescue swimmer prepare for the impending rescue. They watch as Mellor glided his Cessna along the tops of the rolling seas, kicking up spray as the plane made several light brushes before dropping the nose and skidding across the surface as the Cessna spun 180 degrees in froth of turbid water before coming to a stop. Mellor kept the plane vertical, but within moments it begins to sink. The Dolphin crew approached as Mellor crawled out of the Cessna and onto the wing, clutching a life raft. Within seconds, the rescue swimmer, Petty Officer 2nd Class James Clyne, was lowered to the water. He swam to Mellor and guided him off the wing. Together, they swam to the  rescue basket.  Mellor was safely placed in a rescue basket and hoisted into the helicopter by Moeschler. Moments later the Cessna slipped beneath the surface and sank in more than 6,000 feet of water.  

Mellor was taken to Hilo Medical Center in good condition with no visible injuries. In the command center Fitzgibbons made final notes in the official operational summary report which was filled with a complex web of agency interaction, information sharing and asset coordination which led to the successful rescue. But the final piece of information recorded was perhaps the simplest and most important. One life saved.

ANN Salutes Petty Officer 3rd Class Angela Henderson



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