A Long Day for One Atlantic City Aircrew

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher D. McLaughlin

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -As the duty aircrews of Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City went to bed, Sunday, May 11, a powerful storm known by locals as a “nor’easter” was brewing offshore. At 3a.m., the crews were awakened by a distress call from a 27-foot sailboat with two people aboard, signaling the start of a very busy day for the air station

Working in the air station’s operations center that morning, Lt. j.g. Bruce Plummer looked at the weather and expected the worse.

“Usually when weather is this bad, you know the crews are not going to get a lot of sleep,” said Plummer.  “Despite weather warnings some people find themselves in dangerous situations on the water. It causes us to have to go out and help them.”

Plummer briefed the duty helicopter crew that the boat’s engines had failed and they were drifting onto the rocks. Within 30-minutes the crew was flying to the scene in Delaware Bay near Philadelphia facing the beginnings of a raging storm.

“I’ve never felt turbulence like that before,” said Lt. John Scott, a helicopter pilot at the air station. “I’ve flown enough where I know what’s going on and what to expect but I hadn’t experienced it that intense before.”

Scott and his crew arrived on scene. He could see a boat from Port Penn, Del., Fire and Rescue Department trying to assist but the water depth was too shallow for their rescue boat  to get to the two sailors aboard the Sailing Vessel Tapped Out.

The helicopter crew hovered above the flailing boat fighting strong winds. A rescue swimmer was lowered to the water and the two men jumped from the sailboat into hip deep water and helped into the rescue basket. One by one they were hoisted into the helicopter and flown to Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City where they spent the remainder of the night.

“I don’t want to have to fly in turbulence like that again. It wasn’t any fun,” said Scott.

Several hours later, the storm grew progressively worse.

“We change [the watch] over at eight o’clock in the morning and at 7:50 the next case came in. I launched that crew before changing duty to the next on-coming duty officer,” said Plummer.

For four Coast Guard aviators, the most dangerous test they ever faced in their lives was about to become reality.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday this is the Russell W. Peterson about 14 miles east of Rehoboth Beach. We’re a three-legged jack-up. We’re breaking up. We lost one, possibly two legs. We need immediate assistance,” said the captain of the 64-foot research vessel in his distress call to the Coast Guard.

Two crewmen aboard the Russell W. Peterson were in an extremely dangerous predicament off the Delaware shore. Waves the size of buildings pounded the boat and the captain was fighting to maintain control of his ship.

“As soon as the hangar door opened everybody knew it, even the senior chief here came out to help get the plane ready,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Tye Conklin, a rescue swimmer at the air station.  “The guys knew this was going to be something big.”

The aircrew took off from the air station in hurricane force winds with wind speeds reaching 80 mph.  A category one hurricane has wind speeds of  74 mph.

“It was the worst weather I have ever flown in, in my entire life,” said Lt. Clay Clary, a helicopter pilot at the air station. “We were getting beat. It felt like someone was shaking the helicopter up and down and from side to side.”

The helicopter crew arrived to the location of the faltering ship and began assessing the situation.

“We did a visual approach and pulled into a hover about 100 feet above the boat,” said Conklin. “You could see they were still underway coming with the waves.”

The aircrew made contact with the ship. The captain radioed that he was  still driving the boat and couldn’t leave the helm to look for his crewman. The rescue crew decided to put Conklin down on the boat to find the other person. Conklin knew he was putting his own life at risk.

“It took three attempts to lower me down,” said Conklin. The first two attempts were unsuccessful because the boat was still coming at us. Our helicopter had to actually fly backward.”

Clary and his co-pilot flew the helicopter backward to keep the nose in the wind and to keep pace with the direction of the ship.

“Normally, when you do a hoist, you try to have the vessel go into the wind and you’re flying the same the direction the vessel is moving,” said Clary. “I had to match his speed by flying backward. I’ve never done this before. It was insane.”

On the third attempt,  Conklin was lowered a little bit at a time so he wouldn’t swing too much in the wind. The pilots were able to match the speed of the boat and got Conklin right on the deck of the ship. He unhooked himself from the hoist cable and went right up to the pilothouse to talk to the captain.

“The captain said ‘welcome aboard and I do mean welcome because I knew what you did to get here,'” said Conklin. “It kind of broke the ice and it made me realize that he knew he was in trouble.”

Conklin asked where the other crewman was.  The captain told him he hadn’t seen him in while. Conklin knew he had to act quickly to try and find him. He went below to search for the man but first he had to move all the gear that was blocking the hatch to the lower deck. Once inside, Conklin discovered where the missing crewman was.

“Everything had been ripped off the wall- just in a big pile,” said Conklin. “The gentleman was underneath all that stuff. A refrigerator and a broken TV. I had to get that stuff off of him. He had no vital signs.”

Conklin dragged the man on to the open deck and signaled the helicopter to lower the basket. The captain and Conklin put the man in the basket and he was hoisted into the helicopter. The ship was ready to capsize at any moment and Conklin and the captain were ready to get out of there.

“When the second hoist came down, I hooked myself and the captain up to it and the two of us were lifted up together,” said Conklin. “The whole time he was telling me if this boat rolls 15 degrees more the whole thing is going to capsize.”

The aircrew fought their way through the raging storm arriving at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Md., hospital staff met the crew on the helicopter pad and took both men inside to the emergency room.  The man who had been under the debris below deck was deceased. The helicopter crew landed at the airport in Ocean City, Md., to refuel and take a break from the storm before making their way back to the air station. Four minutes into their return flight, they received word of another mariner in distress just 12 minutes off the coast of Ocean City.

A man aboard a 37-foot sailboat with a 100-foot mast with no sails, no motor, no radio and a broken rudder was desperately awaiting rescue.

“He couldn’t steer- he was kind of a cork floating in the ocean,” said Conklin. “We pulled into a hover over him.”

Conklin again was lowered into the water to brave the thrashing sea. Conklin instructed the man to jump into the water, where he hooked him up to the hoist and both were lifted from the water and transported to Ocean City Municipal Airport.

The aircrew eventually made it back to the air station and had plenty of time to reflect on their experience.

“It was definitely scary and it challenged us all,” said Clary. “Getting out there, flying the aircraft and fighting low cloud ceilings. It was pretty hazardous.”

None of the rescuers or the people they saved from the sea that day will forget the experience any time soon.

“On a whole everyone did a good job,” said Conklin. “We were the ones out there but there was a 100 people backing us up. It was good communications on the radio and we were getting good information fed to us.  We’re only as good as the information we get.”

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