A night like any other

The night of July 30, 2013, was a night like any in the San Francisco Bay Area – foggy, with a high probability of low cloud ceilings. Those who know the area are well aware of the micro-climates and chilly fog layers that can overtake the Bay in a matter of minutes. Images of the city skyline and the twin stantions of the Golden Gate Bridge peering out through snow-like clouds are a common sight.

Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco, based at San Francisco International Airport, is home to four Coast Guard MH-65D Short Range Recovery Helicopters. Lt. Cmdr. James Kenshalo was the duty aircraft commander that evening, along with co-pilot Lt. Beau Belanger. Both were well aware of the unpredictable weather conditions, and had practiced the “low visibility route” many times; a precision passage which forces the pilot to fly beneath both the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridges in order to safely reach offshore airspace.

So the night was just like any other. And then suddenly it wasn’t. The quiet was interrupted by the SAR alarm.

The crew of CG-6515. Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco

The crew of CG-6515

Both pilots and the assigned air crew — Aviation Machinery Technician Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Swain, and Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer 3rd Class Corey Fix — were geared up and ready to perform. The crew of CG-6515 was directed to launch and rescue six hikers requiring immediate evacuation from a secluded cove in the vicinity of Point Reyes, Calif., notably one of the foggiest places in the country. As the rescue crew lifted off, they quickly encountered a dense fog offering less than 200 feet of space between the waterline and the cloud layer, and a mere one-half nautical mile of visibility.

“It was intense,” said Kenshalo. “You get a feel for fog here in San Francisco. This fog was pushing us down.”

The barrier of mountains ahead blocked the most direct route to the search area. Exercising “superior crew resource management,” the decision was made to utilize the low-visibility route offshore and follow the coastline to the hikers’ location. But precipitous cliffs, poor visibility and low cloud ceilings made the search conditions extremely hazardous. As they navigated past steep-walled bluffs along the coastline, the crew used night vision goggles and the aircraft’s radar, at last locating the stranded hikers in a narrow cove surrounded by towering rock fingers.

The easy part was over. With only a few feet of clearance between the rotor blades and the jagged face of the cliffs, Kenshalo and Belanger struggled agianst buffeting winds to maintain position over the survivors.

An aviation survival technician practices hoisting manuevers beneath a Coast Guard helicopter. (Coast Guard photo) - See more at: httpwww.uscgnews.com/go/doc/4007/2137410/#sthash.H5duUseG.dpuf

An aviation survival technician practices hoisting manuevers beneath a Coast Guard helicopter. (Coast Guard photo)

“I couldn’t go up because of the fog, I couldn’t go sideways because of the cliffs, I couldn’t go down because of the water,” said Kenshalo. “So I hovered, trying to stay close to the beach without hitting the cliffs.”

As the helicopter hovered over the small beach, flight mechanic AMT3 Swain lowered rescue swimmer AST3 Fix down to the cove in order to triage and assess the frightened hikers and prepare them for hoisting. The deafening roar of the engines echoed off the bluffs, rendering traditional radio communications all but useless.

“We were all on the same page, but couldn’t hear each other,” said Fix. “The radio was pretty much out, so I switched to hand signals. That worked out well.” Using nighttime hand signals and solid crew coordination, the pair worked to hoist four of the survivors aboard. But by now, the helicopter was running dangerously low on fuel and had to turn back. Swain then lowered emergency provisions to Fix, who would remain behind with the two hikers.

Managing their dwindling fuel reserves, Kenshalo and Belanger reversed their perilous course to the station, delivering the first four stranded hikers to emergency medical technicians waiting at the air station. They landed with less than 20 minutes of fuel remaining in their tank.

The rapidly deteriorating weather made the second low-visibilty route back to the incident even more challenging. Not only were the pilot and co-pilot unable to see suspension cables, towers, or the auto decks of bridges but the added moisture in the air caused the helicopter’s landing lights to create visual illusions, disorienting the crew. Forced to shut off the lights, they made the transit blind, using only the radar to guide them.

“And now it’s really dark,” Belanger reiterated. “There was so much humidity in the air that our normal search lights weren’t working. I couldn’t even see the cliffs.”

Instead they used flares to reflect light off the cliffs and illuminate the cove. Once again operating the helicopter at the edge of its performance envelope, the crew completed another hoist, raising the first of the two remaining stranded hikers to safety. As each flare was extinguished, the pilot was forced to initiate a demanding “no-reference orbit” in the fog surrrounding the confined inlet until another flare could be lit.

“We had some flares [aboard] that would light up for about 18 minutes, so we dropped one in the ocean and it lit up the cliffs just fine,” said Belanger. Using the light, the crew repositioned themselves for the final hoists.

Suddenly the wind shifted, significantly increasing the amount of engine power required to maintain a hover and causing the aircraft to unexpectedly settle towards the water. The crew was forced to momentarily abort the hoist as Fix, now dangling beneath the helicopter, used his own body to shield the remaining hiker from banging against the rocks.

“I braced for impact,” chuckled Fix as he later related the incident. “Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I’m still not sure how that one didn’t hurt!”

Knowing that if the helicopter experienced a second similar power loss, it would likely cost them their lives, Kenshalo manuevered the helicopter “nose-to” the cliff without the usual emergency “fly-out” route in order to optimize the buffeting wind ricocheting off the rock face around the helicopter. This unconventional and risky maneuver provided just enough power to complete the final hoist.

The Golden Gate Bridge enveloped in dense fog. U.S, Coast Guard photo

The Golden Gate Bridge enveloped in dense fog. U.S, Coast Guard photo

The moment Fix and the remaining hiker were safe in the cabin, Kenshalo completed a hovering pedal turn and put the aircraft on a safe heading before completing an instrument-only climb through the dense fog. At 2,000 feet, the helicopter finally broke free of the clouds with the last of the rescued hikers.

Emotionally and physically exhausted after three hours of the most challenging flying conditions in nighttime fog, including four demanding hoists and six low-level passes beneath two bridges, the crew landed – again, with only minutes of fuel remaining.

For pilots of all professions, every geographic location comes with its own unique set of challenges. “I’ve been on a couple of really tough cases, but this one was the hardest to pull off,” said Kenshalo.

“At the end of the night, you come back and slump down in a chair, and the wind knocks right out of you.”

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