The Perfect Rescue

If, as hoary nautical tradition holds, it's bad luck to rename a ship, then the poor old SS Sea Breeze was damned and damned again.

The midsize (606 feet) cruise ship began life in 1958 as the Federico C, designed for service out of Genoa for immigrants heading to new lives in Buenos Aires and Sydney. In a later and particularly hideous configuration she was tarted up with bright red hull paint, based in Florida and rechristened the Starship Royale. A Greek company, Dolphin, then acquired the aging ship and came up with the name Sea Breeze. Premiere Cruise Lines bought out Dolphin, took over its vessels and went bankrupt.

The Sea Breeze, docked for an overnight stay in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with some 450 elderly cruisers aboard, suffered one of the more draconian repossessions in the history of the seas. The ship was seized by creditors at two in the morning, the hapless oldsters rousted from their bunks and plunked on the dock with what luggage they could handle. Get yourselves home, folks. There the pitiful vessel remained until late 2000, when new owners prepared to move her to Charleston, South Carolina, for something like a sixth refit and yet another name.

The Sea Breeze sailed out of Halifax in mid-December with her old captain in charge of an inexperienced pickup crew of 33. The Atlantic was one big gale from the Grand Banks to the Outer Banks, and the ship was in trouble within hours. East of Boston, one of her two steam turbines gave out, and the cooling condensers began taking on sea water. The crew was undrilled in the procedures for securing watertight doors. The Sea Breeze made it to a position some 230 nm east of Norfolk before the skipper put out a distress call. The ship was beyond saving. She was leaking, listing and rolling helplessly in 35-foot waves and 60-knot gusts. Evacuation via lifeboats would be out of the question. A raft inflated by the crew had blown away like a helium balloon.

Coast Guard rescue aircraft at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, got the scramble just before noon on Sunday, December 17. The date may ring a bell; it was the anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, only a few miles east of the base. Extra crews were in for weekend duty, as ceremonies and a flyby were planned at Kill Devil Hill. (Normally a crew for a single helicopter launch and a companion C-130 are at work Sundays.) An Air Force four-star was due at the base to officiate at the celebration, but he had aborted his landing in a military Gulfstream due to gale-force winds across the runway. The doings at Kitty Hawk went to standby.

The Coast Guard boys were hunkered down in the TV room, hoping to avoid flying in the hellacious weather. But they knew better: get a near-perfect storm like this one and some boat will certainly get in trouble. Sure enough the bebop alarm, more in keeping with a fire station than a military ready room, sounded at 11:29 a.m.

CDR Charlie Holman, senior officer on duty and skipper of the C-130H Hercules crew, had already checked the weather. Twice, in fact, and it had only gotten worse. In the absence of a dire emergency it would have been a strict no-fly day. But the folks up the road at District Five Emergency Headquarters in Chesapeake, Virginia, had just received what dispatchers refer to as the quality call. The Greek skipper of the cruise ship Sea Breeze was on the satellite phone, and his tone of voice was not confidence inspiring. His vessel had a total of 34 souls on board, sinking was imminent, and the crew was in desperate need of helicopter rescue.

The duty Herk, one of five based at Elizabeth City along with three Sikorsky HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters, was fueled and cocked. Flight engineer Don Welch (a civilian CFI-I and de facto third pilot) had already conducted his preflight. After the remaining five crewmen (copilot, nav, radio operator and two crew chief/loadmasters) had been rounded up, the big four-engine turboprop taxied out into 65-knot gusts and a near-black ceiling. The C-130 launched precisely at noon, the GPS loaded with what would hopefully prove to be a righteous lat-long for the sinking ship. They weren't going to find it VFR.

The Herk immediately encountered absolute-zero visibility and such violent turbulence and wind shear that two of the high-time crew were soon airsick. CDR Holman remembers flying with the most intense despair and anxiety of his entire career. "I was pretty pessimistic, to put it mildly," he recalls. "I said to everybody on the intercom, 'The Coast Guard is going to make headlines today, and it ain't going to be pretty.' But we had to go. We had gotten 'cruise ship' from Portsmouth HQ, but we had not gotten the part about 34 people. Of course 34 is bad enough, but for all we knew we were going after 3,400 people. I figured we'd have airplanes thrashing around out there for a week."

One of the C-130's duties would be to use its superior digital weather radar to help the helicopters find a safe path to the rescue. But the radar was solid red; there was nothing resembling a hole in the storm. The first Jayhawk would launch a minute behind the Herk, and another (fortunately a second crew was on hand, thanks to the planned Wright Brothers celebration) would follow in a half hour.

Helicopter 6031 had quickly slapped on a third 120-gallon external tank outside the right door (it's normal to carry two of the fiberglass 120s, both on port stations) and squeezed in all the JP-5 fuel the ship could hold-just over 6,400 pounds. The sling operators hate using the third tank on the Jayhawk, because it intrudes forward into the doorway and gets in the way of the steel hoist cable. But this would be almost a 500 nm round trip, with a good half hour of max-power hover work over the sinking ship, and monstrous headwinds on the return, so "three bags full" were a must.

Don't get things confused at this point with the helicopters involved in the rescue during The Perfect Storm. The Air National Guard "Pave" variants of the Sikorsky H-60 Black Hawk series sent into that maelstrom are refuelable in flight, but the orange-striped Coast Guard Jayhawks are not. The Long Island Guardsmen lost a ship and a crewman in that epic 1991 rescue evolution when the tanker's drogue mechanism malfunctioned and the Pave Hawk couldn't complete a desperately needed fourth refueling. Pilot Dave Ruvola had to ditch the bird among swells the size of office buildings. Read Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm (Norton, 1997) forthwith if you haven't already.

The four-man Jayhawk crew were dressed in cumbersome dry suits in case they wound up in the December Atlantic. Water temperatures were in the high 40s-not Titanic cold, but bad enough. In command of 6031 was LT Dan Molthen, a former Navy helicopter instructor with extensive rescue experience out of various Coast Guard bases and ships in Alaska. To his left (military helicopter commanders always fly from the right) sat a "new hire" for the Coast Guard, a former Army Black Hawk medevac driver named LT Craig Neubecker.

Interesting side fact: half of Coast Guard pilots have switched from other branches, mostly the Army. The deal is less soldiering, no deployments to the Somalias of the modern world and a lot more flight hours every month. Oh, and awesome "saves," or life-and-death rescues. The Elizabeth City boys and girls have pulled up several thousand-thousand!-grateful civilians in recent years.

Two enlisted crew rode in back; Flight Mechanic AMT 2 Lorne Green (Yep, just like "Bonanza") and Rescue Swimmer AST 1 Darren Reeves. When it came time to drop the hammer, Reeves would descend to the sinking ship and supervise the loading of the rescue basket from the fantail while Green operated the hoist and directed the pilots to make miniscule lateral movements to keep the sling in place over the sinking ship. Usually the pilots can't see their swimmer and the person being lifted. Neubecker later said, "Lorne is the best. You can do good sling work with a so-so pilot and a hot hoist man, but you just can't do it with good pilots and a lousy hoist man."

The helo ride outbound was bronco rough, but gigantic rear quartering winds blew the Jayhawk along at a tidy groundspeed. Still, the crew did a lot of big S-turning in search of better visibility through the awful murk. Twice Dan Molthen felt an attack of "the leans." Good horizon reference is especially difficult when you combine helicopters, water and darkness or zero-zero visibility. Copilot Neubecker called out a reassuring "wings level, dude" on several harrowing occasions. As they neared the ship, the visibility picked up to two and three miles, although the winds and downdrafts remained just as nasty.

The Herk was on-scene and in contact with the skipper of the Sea Breeze via marine VHF-FM channel 16. CDR Holman had also succeeded in diverting two cargo vessels and a Navy helicopter carrier, the USS Saipan; all were steaming to assist, but they were crawling in the 35-foot waves. The closest vessel, the MV Front Rider, was only 15 miles away, but she was never able to make it to the scene. The Navy flattop was a good 100 nm away to the southwest. She would attempt to position herself on the route home, in case a Jayhawk ran into trouble or out of gas.

CDR Holman had instructed the Greek skipper to organize his crewmen in two queues for liftoff. As the Jayhawk slid into a hover off the port stern of the Sea Breeze, the Coast Guardsmen were gratified to see two orderly columns of about 17 each. The ship's master apparently had maintained good discipline. But even a person who had never watched Titanic-if such a creature exists-could see that the ship was in serious peril; she was listing to starboard, rolling drunkenly in the troughs and dead in the water. Waves crashed above the rails and over the afterdecks where the 34 men waited.

Molthen saw no reason to wait around burning gas; he put Darren Reeves down in a harness and then sent the stainless steel basket down after him. The instant the basket hit the deck, the panicked crewmen broke ranks and rushed it. Reeves was knocked off his feet. He recovered and struggled with the terrified men, almost none of whom spoke English. Several had large knives. "It was like a pirate movie," he marveled later, when he could laugh about it. The rescue swimmer manhandled them back into position on the wet and listing deck. The reestablished ranks would break again and again, each time the basket clanged onto the deck.

Reeves yelled up to Molthen on the handheld FM, "Boss, we gotta go up two at a time." Official policy says only one person in the basket, but Reeves did some quick instinctive calculating when he hit the deck. As soon as he climbed out of the harness, he said to himself, "Darren, this thing is going down." It was actually possible that the Sea Breeze could slip from under them if they took the time for 35 separate lifts. (Darren Reeves wasn't planning on remaining behind.)

CDR Holman in the Hercules could see the chaos on the afterdeck, and he could hear the anxiety in Darren Reeves' voice. He raised the skipper and ordered, "Sir, take command of your damn people. You don't want to make me come down there." Everybody got a much-needed giggle from that one, and things did calm down somewhat. It was partly because the sling lifts seemed to be going so well; the crew of 6031 was yanking up pairs in just over two minutes per lift. "Yeah, we got a nice groove going," pilot Molthen remembered later. "Sometimes there's a rhythm."

One can only imagine the pins-and-needles atmosphere up in the glass-walled Hercules cockpit. These guys are in a special hell where they can supervise and communicate and observe, but they can't really do anything. They have large auto-inflating rafts they can push out the ramp, but they would have been useless in this scenario.

Molthen handled the H-60 controls, gripping the cyclic so tightly that his right hand began to go numb. Lorne Green fed him calm instructions from the back door: "Two feet right, sir, down five, up two, lifting two more now." The Jayhawk was digging into the screaming wind, actually flying at 60-plus knots in its own little mind-translational lift, they call it. Copilot Neubecker was handling comm and watching all the systems, especially the fuel management.

Sikorsky gifted the Hawks with ultra-precise digital gauges, good to under a pound (figure 6.7 pounds of JP-5 to a gallon). Fuel consumption was right on the money, even a little under their flight-plan predictions. They might as well keep lifting, as long as everything was going so swimmingly. Well, maybe that last was a bad choice of words.

Craig Neubecker says, "You're listening like crazy to the engines, watching the gas, reassuring your crew, and every now and then you'll look over and there's the ship's lifeboats. You're looking up at them-not good. It was murder to hold position, and of course the boat was bouncing around like a rubber duck. You really, really want every little thing to work the way it's supposed to work. I don't mind telling you, I'm a religious man, and I was praying the whole time out there-before and after, too. To God first and to Igor Sikorsky second. And sure enough, our ship was an angel. It was perfect."

Well, almost. The Black Hawks carry a superb automatic flight control system (AFCS). We're talking about God's own power steering. The equipment includes dual stability augmentation systems (SAS), one digital and an analog backup. Combined with autothrottles and power trim, the big copters can almost fly hands off. Pilots get very used to their AFCS, especially in high-stress situations involving rescues and bad weather. You'd hate to have it give you grief when two guys are halfway up in the basket.

Molthen says, "Only two things are wrong with the Jayhawk. The radios are less than terrific-especially the HF-and the AFCS doesn't like to get wet." And it usually doesn't get wet: it's in a sealed black box just ahead of the windscreen and behind the radome. But 6031 was getting doused by the occasional 50-foot spike of a wave, and the AFCS started getting temperamental. In the midst of the third hoist the box went offline completely, the Jayhawk turning into a nightmarish, drunken handful in a millisecond. As Molthen yelled "AFCS!" Neubecker was already hitting the four reboot buttons. The infernal device came right back, only to knock off another half-dozen heart-stopping times. "At least it always came back up," recalled Neubecker. "Sometimes it's like your Microsoft PC, refusing to restart. We're working with Sikorsky to shield it better."

"You hate to get scared like that. It can't be good for your heart," Molthen put in.

Think of the mission in terms of a really horrible simulator session. The offstage operator keeps thinking of more and more fiendish elements to hurl into the mix: make the boat rock and roll. Throw in some microbursts to go with the 70-knot gusts. Douse the nose with a wave or two. Oh, and flick the AFCS off and on, just to get their attention. Maybe even an engine failure.

Just kidding. Black Hawks can fly and even hover on one engine, but in these extreme conditions of wind and weight an engine shutdown would have led to an unrecoverable disaster. Rest assured that both General Electric T700-401C turboshafts kept on putting out up to 1,940 shaft horsepower apiece (that's "contingency power," good for 2.5 minutes max) into the 54-foot, four-blade rotor.

The Black Hawk series is immensely powerful. Hard to believe, but its tail rotor has as much thrust authority as the main rotor of an S-76 executive helicopter. The Coast Guardsmen are of the opinion that no other helicopter on earth (save a couple of new designs just now coming onto the scene from Sikorsky and the Europeans) could have handled this particularly hellish combination of distance, weight and weather. Their old heavy lifter, the Green Giant-derived Sikorsky H-3, didn't have the necessary power to weight, and with its slab sides it had a terrible time hovering in crosswinds. Their current light-duty ship, the Aerospatiale HH-65A Dolphin, doesn't have nearly the oomph or the legs.

The second Jayhawk had arrived on scene from Elizabeth City. Number 6001 was a half-mile astern, impatiently waiting its turn to come in and save somebody. The original plan was for each ship to pick up half, but 6031 just kept pulling them up.

At one point Molthen asked the mechanic Green, "How many people we got back there?" Green answered, "Sir, I have no idea. A lot. Maybe 13." "Whaddya mean, 13? Aren't they coming up in pairs?" They reeled in some more.

Molthen says, "We didn't figure out the numbers until we were on the way back. Things were really going great, even with the AFCS problems, and I thought we should keep hoisting as long as our gas looked good. Which it did. You have to remember, this boat was on the way out. The way it was wallowing, we expected to watch it slip under at any minute. I was really afraid we weren't going to get them all."

Copilot Neubecker, between arguments with the fun-loving AFCS, was watching the digital fuel gauges for bingo fuel: 3,000 pounds, drop-dead. At 3,050 he said, "Skipper, that's about it." Green had just completed another double haul. Molthen said, "Fine. As soon as we get Darren, put him in the harness and leave the basket." When Reeves came up on the cable, it was all he could do to press himself into the ship and slide the door closed.

The crush of humanity in the Jayhawk cabin was way worse than the old fraternity trick with the brothers and the VW bug. Reeves recalled, "Yeah, what I needed was one of those guys that pushes on your backside, like in the Tokyo subway. I don't know how we got the door closed."

Molthen immediately pedal-turned left and headed for the beach. The heavy H-60 struggled to accelerate into the colossal headwind. The return trip would take a solid two hours. Meanwhile the second Jayhawk was in position, lifting the remaining crewmen one at a time. Their eighth lift was the Sea Breeze's exhausted skipper, Solon Papadopulous, with rescue swimmer Bobby Florisi.

Only eight rescuees in the helicopter; was the master sure that no one was left behind? The C-130 dropped to wave top level and flew around the ship, looking for anybody walking on the decks. There was no sign of life, and the ship herself was looking terminal. The list had steepened, and the bow was slipping under. The SS Sea Breeze sank at some undetermined moment after all aircraft had departed. No one stayed around to watch the sad end.

CDR Holman kept bugging the returning crew of 6031 for a good head count. He reported that the second bird had only hoisted eight; could they possibly have 26 victims aboard? Molthen said he thought not. He promised to do a careful tally when they landed, but it was out of the question at the moment.

The passengers were moaning and screaming in terror and pain. No one could move. You have to realize that the Jayhawk, although a sizeable airframe at 51 feet in length, has a cabin that starts getting crowded with 10 adults. The one thing the Coast Guard pilots miss about their dear departed H-3 Jolly Green was its huge interior capacity. A lot of the rescuees were smallish; most were Filipino or Indonesian. But 26 people is still 26 people, and some had thoughtfully brought along their life possessions. With the USCG crew there were 30 souls aboard, a pound of sardines in a six-ounce tin, and they had ahead of them a 225-nm jaunt into the wind over the utterly unforgiving December Atlantic. If the helicopter would have to ditch for some reason, no one would have the slightest chance of getting out.

The relatively good viz at the rescue scene soon evaporated, and zero-zero conditions returned. Now the divine, or diabolical, sim operator throws in rain and lightning-a lot of lightning. Airspeed was looking like about 80 knots. The Jayhawk expects to high-cruise at almost twice that, even with the external tanks.

Neubecker thoughtfully called out to Reeves and Greene on the ICS, "Fellas, an hour fifty to go, an hour forty to go, an hour thirty five to go." Reeves answered, "Sir, please stop that, or I'll have to kill you." Molthen had turned off the air conditioning to save fuel, and the cabin temperature rose to triple digits, despite outside temps around 45?F. Reeves had standing sweat pools up past his ankles inside the exposure suit. He struggled to reach a sliding window, but he couldn't make the move. He grabbed the Greek skipper's arm and worked it as a tool to force open the window.

Molthen relented and gave the prisoners a shot of AC; the fuel situation at the halfway point was looking pretty damn healthy. All of a sudden the crud disappeared; they popped out the back side of the storm, and the sky went severe clear to the west. The pilots could easily see the high-rise hotels of Virginia Beach 70 miles away. But the wind did not let up at all.

Neubecker was steering them to NAS Oceana, a Navy jet base almost 40 miles closer than their Elizabeth City digs. The big base could provide better medical care, immigration officials and needed security (that business about the pirates with knives in their teeth). Also, Neubecker had asked Portsmouth HQ to alert the local media. The copilot also served as the unit's part-time public affairs officer, and he wasn't going to let the perfect rescue slip by without industrial-strength coverage.

The epic flight made worldwide news that night and the next day. In addition, the ABC news program 20/20 had been shooting at Elizabeth City for several weeks in the hope of catching just such a sensational event. Of course they weren't on hand for the big one; things never work out that way. But they had rigged one of the Jayhawks with four digital video cameras and recorders. This turned out to be the second ship in the mission, 6001, so ABC got excellent quality tape of their eight lifts along with lots of compelling intercom audio.

Aircraft 6031 had a single camera, looking straight down from the hoist, but its connections got wet and it delivered only so-so results (and no audio) during the thirteen double lifts. Best of all, the local TV stations and papers caught the money shot when the copter's door slid open and the 26 gasping rescuees spilled out onto the tarmac like circus clowns from the tiny car. Rest assured that there was a fair amount of ground-kissing involved.

Was the Jayhawk over maximum weight at any point in the mission? Possibly, but not by more than a couple hundred pounds. The helicopter took off with 6,400 pounds of fuel and shut down with a not-too-shabby 800 pounds at Oceana. So it got rid of 5,600 pounds and lifted something like 4,500 pounds of people and possessions. The most ponderous moment would have been at the breakaway from the sinking ship.

"It never really felt all that heavy, except maybe climbing out from the ship," recalls Dan Molthen. "The wind was helping the aircraft fly, and the thing is just incredibly strong. It's a beast of a helicopter, way overbuilt and overpowered. We call it the mighty Jayhawk. We've relied on it more times than I can count, and it always comes through. We flat couldn't have pulled off this rescue in any other helicopter I know about. We actually could have lifted more people-probably…all 34-but there was no way to squeeze them in."

Naval aviators are known for their rampant egos, but these guys are so modest and self-effacing that you want to slap them. Molthen gives full credit to the Sikorsky H-60 Jayhawk, and the devout Neubecker just thanks God. They sound like firemen: glad to be of service, it's just the job, it's what we're trained to do, everything went great, wouldn't have missed it, our enlisted guys did the really hard work, blah, blah, blah.

The boys are all back to normal these days-nothing quite as epic as the Sea Breeze, but that's all right. There is an average of one good run a day. The usual gamut is pleasure boaters over their heads, fishermen or freighter crews with medical emergencies and flood victims after the coastal storms for which the Outer Banks are infamous. Craig Neubecker has moved on to a different high-adrenaline challenge, flying a new and semi-secret helicopter type with a USCG drug-interdiction unit in Florida. The flurry of media attention and rubber-chicken award dinners has waned.

The crew of 6031 seem almost unaware of their participation in the greatest Coast Guard aerial rescue ever-and that's saying a piece. Igor Sikorsky, smiling down on the proceedings, would probably go along with a stronger assessment: the Sea Breeze rescue was arguably the most amazing feat of airmanship in the history of his marvelous invention. And it happened on Wright Day, to boot.


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