Written by Lt. j.g. James Christy
The Captain Frank Erickson Award annually recognizes a rotary-wing aircrew that has demonstrated exceptional performance while engaged in search and rescue operations.
This year The Captain Frank Erickson Award was presented to Lt. John Hess, Lt. Matthew Vanderslice, Petty Officer 2nd Class Derrick Suba, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Evan Staph for their daring rescue in Feburary 2015 of a father and son aboard the sailing vessel Sedona.
During a severe winter blizzard, the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew launched from Air Station Cape Cod after a 406 MHz EPIRB signal registered to the Sedona was activated approximately 150 miles south of Nantucket.
Despite navigating through convective cells in near zero visibility, the helicopter crew quickly located the beleaguered vessel as it rode precariously over waves which, at times, crested 40 feet.
“The vessel was pitching and heaving violently, and by the time we started hoisting, the visibility came down to approximately a quarter mile with heavy freezing rain,” said Vanderslice.
After establishing radio contact and conferring with the Sedona’s crew, Staph was hoisted down to the water to assist with the transfer of the survivors from their vessel to the rescue helicopter.
“It was an extremely difficult decision to have the survivors enter the water,” said Vanderslice. “They only had lifejackets and street clothes for protection. If we were unable to recover them from the water it would have been a death sentence.”
During the subsequent recovery operations, a malfunction in the primary hoist control further complicated the already challenging rescue effort. Without the ability to recover hoist cable at the normal rate, Suba had to deftly time the swells and advise the pilot to climb as he simultaneously took in cable to safely pluck the survivors, one at a time, from the turbulent waters below.
Recalling this non-standard recovery technique, Hess lightly remarked, “For the last couple hoists, [we were] in a pleasant dance with the seas and wind.”
As the hoisting continued, Staph remained below, helping each survivor into the rescue basket as it was delivered by the rescue helicopter. At one point, the basket was caught by an intense gust of wind and rotor wash which swung it dangerously towards one of the survivors.
With complete disregard for his own safety, Staph placed himself between the basket and the survivor, absorbing its impact and receiving an intense static-electric shock which knocked him unconscious.
“Our rescue could’ve turned into a tragedy in that moment,” said Hess. Fortunately, Staph came to with the survivor still in tow as he swam the final distance to the rescue basket, which now floated harmlessly atop the waves.
Once all personnel were safely back aboard the rescue helicopter, the Jayhawk, crew and survivors departed the scene and proceeded towards Air Station Cape Cod.
While the mission had been successful thus far, despite incredible odds, the danger was far from over. With cloud decks at 300 feet and blizzard conditions impairing almost all visibility, Hess said he had to remind himself and everyone else they were not done, and needed to stay focused.
As the crew raced home, desperately low on fuel from the 300-mile roundtrip transit, the remaining watchstanders at Air Station Cape Cod prepared for the helicopter’s arrival.
As plows cleared mounds of new snow from the runway, other personnel creatively provided visual cues for the pilot by spreading sea dye marker atop the snow to assist with what would almost certainly be a near whiteout landing.
“It was an all hands on deck effort,” said Hess. “Everyone was at work that day doing their part to help make sure we made it home.”
With two lives saved to show for their heroic efforts, the bravery, ingenuity, and grit of the crew of 6033 helicopter rescue crew are in keeping with the finest traditions of the Coast Guard and its long history of daring maritime rescues.