Written by David Santos
U.S. Coast Guard Academy
Director of Communciations
On Veterans Day, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 1986, fall had turned to winter in the southern Great Lakes region. A major blizzard had struck Winnipeg far to the north a few days earlier, and harsh weather blanketed the area.
At some point during the day, a distress call was received at Coast Guard Air Station Detroit. A small passenger plane crashed in the waters of Lake St. Clair.
The air station’s area of operations encompasses more than 1,100 miles of shoreline, which includes the southern portion of Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. This area is known as a snowbelt, where heavy lake-effect snow is particularly common.
As the crew of a Coast Guard HH-52A helicopter, led by pilot Lt. Mark Feldman prepared to respond, temperatures continued to drop near the crash site and news came that two people were in the water.
A citation to accompany the Air Medal that Feldman subsequently received told the story of the rescue that unfolded.
“Faced with rapidly deteriorating weather conditions including a 300-foot overcast ceiling, blowing snow, and visibility of less than one mile, Lieutenant Feldman expertly piloted his aircraft to the scene while closely monitoring its airworthiness as icing conditions worsened.
Once on scene, Lieutenant Feldman was forced to search for survivors through his side windows because ice accumulation on the aircraft’s windshield had completely obscured forward visibility.”
The citation went on to read:
“The survivors were soon spotted by the aircrewman who provided directional commands to Lieutenant Feldman for a platform pickup.
Realizing that the victim was severely hypothermic and unconscious, Lieutenant Feldman turned control of the helicopter over to the co-pilot and quickly moved aft to assist the aircrewman with the recovery. After the victim was brought safely aboard, Lieutenant Feldman immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation while the aircrewman assisted the co-pilot with a second platform pickup.
The second victim, severely hypothermic but conscious, was quickly recovered and wrapped in blankets. Lieutenant Feldman, unable to return to the cockpit, directed the co-pilot to proceed to the nearest hospital while he and the aircrewman continued their cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts.”
The crash victims were a professor from the University of Michigan and his wife. Both survived the crash.
When the professor was brought on board the helicopter he was not breathing. Feldman started CPR, while crew members rescued his wife. As he continued CPR the man eventually started breathing and did have a heart beat as they reached the hospital.
Several hours later though, Feldman received word that the man had suffered a massive heart attack and died.
“Flying in those conditions, 300-foot overcast ceiling, blowing snow and a mile of visibility, is a big challenge even in daylight,” said Mont Smith, a retired Coast Guard aviator with more than 1,300 hours of flight time in the HH-52A helicopter.
“It’s called ‘IMC’ or Instrument Meteorological Conditions,” Smith explained. “I flew in Antarctica, and I can attest to the fact that in these conditions there is no visible horizon and one loses all depth perception. The tendency is to fly into the water.”
“I think what stood out most to me is that we were put in very unusual circumstances,” Feldman remembers. “I, as the aircraft commander, had to leave the cockpit to help pull the professor in and start CPR, while the other two crew members rescued his wife and flew to the hospital. Not what we were trained for, but we successfully completed the mission.”
Nearly 32 years ago to the day of the rescue, Feldman was inducted into the Wall of Gallantry at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, his alma mater where he played quarterback on the football team as a junior and senior, and served as captain of the team during his last year there.
The Wall of Gallantry is a memorial honoring Academy graduates who are considered service heroes.
During the ceremony the entire Corps of Cadets and Academy community participate to commemorate and thank those who demonstrated courage in the face of danger.
Inductees, their families and friends return to the Academy for an induction ceremony generally held near Veterans Day.