What’s it like to be part of a Coast Guard aircrew? In short, it is a privilege. Few people will ever get the opportunity to experience the support of fellow aviators at the crux of Coast Guard operations.
Each member of an aircrew lifts and elevates their individual performance to new heights – pun intended – but also recognizes their responsibility to the aircrew itself. The Coast Guard aircrew is a team that comes together for a common goal. For the aircrew of CG6504 this common goal was to save the lives of five fishermen from the Bering Sea’s wrath.
The 6504, based out of Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, was deployed aboard Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau as the ship patrolled Alaskan waters. In the early hours of a February morning, Morgenthau’s watchstanders received a mayday call from the fishing vessel TerriGail, which was disabled and drifting toward Unalaska Island.
The 6504 was launched as TerriGail’s crew worked to repair their propulsion system. Morgenthau attempted to take the ship under tow but the tow line parted. TerriGail’s crew also faced a similar misfortune when they tried to set anchor but the anchor brake failed, causing the anchor to break away.
Lt. Stephanie Hurst, the 6504’s aircraft commander, made the decision to land on a high plateau atop Unalaska Island. This gave them a vantage point to ensure TerriGail’s crew was safe as they tried to gain power but still conserve their fuel supply. It was an important decision that would become crucial later in the rescue.
Despite the fishing vessel’s best efforts and exhaustive work by Morgenthau’s crew, the vessel could not gain power and was drifting dangerously closer to Unalaska’s rocky coastline.
The situation was bleak; it was time for the 6504. The aircrew launched and hovered 200 feet over the fishing vessel.
“I remember looking down and saying to myself I got this; this does not look that bad!” recalls Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Stark, an avionics electrical technician who was 6504’s flight mechanic.
But as the helicopter moved within 100 feet of the vessel, the violent rocking of the boat’s masts became ever apparent.
“I was stationed in Houston before Kodiak and the worst hoisting I had ever conducted was maybe six footers and the boat had power to control some of the movement,” said Stark. “The TerriGail was at the mercy of the Bering sea. It was getting tossed around.”
“I have been doing this for quiet a while, 21 years, and have about 2,500 hours of flight time in helicopters. I sat in the door and knew that this case was going to be dangerous and difficult,” added Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Wright, the rescue swimmer.
The 6504 aircrew lowered Wright directly onto the fishing vessel. But putting him down on the TerriGail as it took 60-degree rolls in 15-foot swells would require each member of the aircrew to dig down deep.
Stark communicated precise commands to Hurst to avoid the wildly swinging masts, not to mention the ship’s extensive rigging and antennas. Sitting in the left pilot seat, Lt. Harry Greene notified the aircrew of incoming waves, which were causing the fishing vessel to become a helpless cork, violently tossed in the angry Alaskan sea.
After two passes, Wright finally made it onto the TerriGail and the rescue basket was lowered down. The rocking of the vessel caused the basket to become unstable, but Wright was able to keep the rescue basket from getting out of control, breaking a finger in the process.
Each test the Bering Sea presented was no match against the aircrew’s training, and soon three of the five fishermen were safely hoisted.
The 6504 was forced to return back to Morgenthau due to excessive weight, but there were still two fisherman aboard TerriGail. Wright stayed behind and kept the remaining fishermen calm despite the nightmarish conditions.
The 6504 returned to recover Wright and the two fishermen, with just minutes to spare before the TerriGail met her fate and ran up into the rocks. As fate ran out, so too did the 6504’s fuel supply. The aircrew had to perform a challenging helicopter in-flight refueling evolution to stay airborne.
True to any good team, each individual’s preparation and training benefited the mission; they were strong as individuals but excelled as an aircrew.
“The reason this case was so successful was because the crew, pilots and swimmer were all excellent top-notch individuals who were great at their job and knew what to do,” said Stark. “I feel honored to have completed this case with them.”
“Our crew was solid. The type of people who make me feel more comfortable because of their extreme professionalism and skill,” added Wright.
In a crucible of a search and rescue case, the crew of the 6504 came together to save lives. And save lives they did.
“There is no other feeling like it, once you have completed something like this,” said Stark. “It’s what you have trained your whole career for.”