Tag Archives: Frederick L. Feinberg Award

12 February 1971

MEDEVAC FROM THE FOG – SS STEEL EXECUTIVE
By Sean M. Cross, CAPT, USCG (retired)

“Lewis had to make what he considered to be one of the most crucial decisions of his life. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge…”

TODAY IN COAST GUARD AVIATION HISTORY – 12 FEBRUARY 1971: an HH-3F #1473 assigned to Air Station San Diego, CA and crewed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis (AC), LT Joseph O. Fullmer (CP), ASM3 Larry E. Farmer (FM), AT3 Charles Desimone (AV) and HM3 Richard M. McCollough (AMS) launched in response to an injured or ill “seaman in need of an operation” ¹ from the 492-foot freighter STEEL EXECUTIVE, approximately 220 miles south of San Diego. The WWII-era Type C3-class cargo ship owned by Isthmian Lines, Inc. of New York was on an extended trip from Saigon, South Vietnam to New York City via the Panama Canal with stops in Astoria, OR and various east coast ports. They departed Saigon on 29 January 1971 and on 12 February were southbound for the Panama Canal.² After requesting assistance, the ship reversed course back toward San Diego to reduce transit distance for the helicopter. This is their story.

A United States Coast Guard Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican over Air Station San Diego. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Friday afternoon at around 4:00 PM, Rescue Coordination Center Long Beach launched the off-going Air Station San Diego HH-3F duty crew on a long range medical evacuation or MEDEVAC. The maintenance crew had to stop downtown vehicle traffic so that #1473 could taxi from the unit’s waterfront location across Harbor Drive to Lindberg Field in order to utilize the runway for a running takeoff – as the aircraft could not get airborne from a hover with a maximum fuel load.³ According to LCDR Lewis, taking off “out of San Diego, it was a clear afternoon,” ⁴ but the sun was lowering in the sky with official sunset at 5:31 PM.

Photo caption: profile view of generic Type C3-S-A2 cargo ship built by Ingalls – a development of the C3 basic design. During WWII these ships stood the test as cargo vessels and transports and after the war as cargo liners sold under Merchant Sales Act of 1946. These ships were widely used by U.S. and Foreign Steamship Companies into the 1970s.

After two hours of night overwater navigation and using a combination of radio direction finding, helicopter radar, and guidance from the STEEL EXECUTIVE, #1473 arrived in the vessel’s vicinity, but was unable to make visual contact through the dense fog which extended from the surface to about 700 feet above the water.

Flight mechanic Larry Farmer described the scene, “We flew over the estimated position at 1,500 feet and it was beautiful, you could see stars clear to either horizon, but glancing down – it looked like a huge layer of thick cotton blanketing the water below us.” ⁵

Chartlet Caption: Approximate route of flight to STEEL EXECUTIVE’s last known position “about 220 miles southeast of San Diego” en route to the Panama Canal.

With visibility less than 1/8 mile, the helicopter directed the vessel to turn on all available topside lighting and dropped two MK-58 marine location markers (floating cylinder that produces smoke and flames for 40-60 minutes) approximately two miles downwind to assist in executing an instrument approach to a hover above the water’s surface. ⁶

Lewis had to make a crucial decision. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge. ⁷ Lewis knew that the answer could spell a chance at life for the seriously ill merchant seaman. However, there was also his crew, his co-pilot, a radio operator, a corpsman and the aviation survivalman who operated the rescue hoist. Their lives and his own also were at stake. “I decided to lower the helicopter down to the water,” he said in an interview. “By then it was pitch dark. I flew away from where our radar told us the ship was and then went down to about 40 feet from the ocean.” ⁸

Diagram Caption: overhead view of the HH-3F PATCH (Precision Approach to a Coupled Hover) a procedure very similar to the “beep-to-hover”.

To transition from forward flight to a hover, #1473 executed a challenging “beep-to-hover” maneuver, which enabled them to safely approach the water and the ship. The “beep-to-hover” maneuver was developed by LCDR Frank Shelley, test pilot and program manager for HH-52A acquisition testing, to help pilots safely transition to an overwater hover at night and/or in instrument conditions. The HH-3F PATCH (precision approach to a coupled hover) eventually replaced the “beep-to-hover” in late-1971. ⁹ Interestingly, both procedures most closely mimic the ‘early’ MATCH (manual approach to a controlled hover) in the H-60 and H-65 series aircraft – the PATCH and CATCH in these aircraft utilize auto-pilot and trim functions to perform a ‘hands off’ coupled approach to the water.

This “beep-to-hover” maneuver can be disorienting in the clouds at night, particularly when low over the water with little room for error. Both pilots must continuously scan and interpret the flight instruments – this is critically important – while smoothly manipulating the controls to ensure they are hitting various airspeed and altitude windows to fly the correct profile.

At the completion of this very demanding approach, the helicopter crew found itself in nearly “zero-zero” weather but had executed the approach with such precision that the MK-58s were located. ¹⁰ Barely establishing visual reference with the ocean surface from a 40-foot hover, the helicopter crew was unable to see the vessel’s lights and therefore was hovering at night in a dense fog with minimal visual reference with the ocean surface.

“We made what amounted to an instrument approach to the water,” Lewis explained, “Hovering just over the waves we crawled toward the ship which was about two to three miles away.” ¹¹ At least that’s where a little black box on the instrument panel said the ship was. The aircrew inched forward using the helicopter doppler hover system, the radar, the RDF (radio direction finding, which provided a bearing to a radio signal from the ship). At about one mile out, the STEEL EXECUTIVE’s blip on the helicopter radar was lost in surface clutter – the mood was tense with the aircrew concerned about the combination of low visibility, closure rate, low altitude and vessel rigging obstacles. ¹² At an altitude of 40 feet in extremely limited visibility, the helicopter could literally stumble into the vessel, causing a collision that would doom everyone on board the aircraft and imperil the ship’s crew as well. Eventually, the ship’s surface search radar picked up the helicopter and guided it to her. ¹³ Farmer was on a gunner’s belt leaning out the cabin door and straining to find the ship’s glow. ¹⁴

Lewis praised ASM2 Larry Farmer for far exceeding the scope of duties he’d been trained for – hoisting the injured man off his ship and onto the hovering aircraft. “Farmer actually guided me to the ship.” Lewis said, “I had no visual references so I depended entirely on him. He became our aircraft’s eyes and brought us over the freighter.” ¹⁵

Pucker factor is a slang phrase used by military aviators to describe the level of stress and/or adrenaline response to danger or a crisis situation. The term refers to the tightening of the sphincter caused by extreme concern – on particularly challenging missions, the seat cushions might go missing altogether. The pucker factor had been high since the initial descent into the fog bank, however Farmer remarked that “finally gaining a visual with the ship eased the pucker factor and transformed the aircrew’s outlook from uncertainty of success to ‘we can do this’.” ¹⁶

Huge spotlights pierced the fog, but all Lewis and Farmer could see was the hoist аrеа. Even under ideal weather conditions, positioning a hovering helicopter over the crowded decks of a freighter is a delicate maneuver. “Doing it in pitch darkness while howling 25-mile an hour winds rock ship and aircraft alike is – in the words of the young crewmen who were there with Lewis – something else”. ¹⁷

Diagram Caption: HH-3F #1473’s approximate hoisting position with STEEL EXECUTIVE (represented with a generic Type C3 cargo ship plan of roughly the same arrangement).

The pilot and flight mechanic were still concerned with the helicopter’s low hoisting altitude as they surveyed the vessel obstacles – the ship’s towering rigging literally disappeared in the fog above. ¹⁸ Much of the obstacle clearance judgement and decision making fell on the flight mechanic’s shoulders as the pilot was unable to see the hoisting area behind him. The crew was convinced that a ‘basket with trail line’ was the right technique for the situation as it would allow the helicopter to hoist from a position offset 30-40 feet from the ship and facilitate Lewis’ use of the STEEL EXECUTIVE as a hover reference. A trail line is a 105-foot piece of polypropylene line (similar to a water ski rope) with a 300-pound weak-link at one end and a weight bag at the other. The weight bag end of the trail line is paid out below the helicopter and delivered to the persons in distress (usually vertically, but seasoned flight mechanics can literally ‘cast’ the weight bag to a spot). The weak link is then attached to the hoist hook and the helicopter backs away until the pilot can see the hoisting area. The persons in distress can then pull the basket to their location – creating a hypotenuse or diagonal – as opposed to a purely vertical delivery.

Farmer carefully conned the helicopter over the vessel providing voice commands to the pilot – delivering the trail line and, subsequently, the rescue basket to the stern of the STEEL EXECUTIVE. The semi-ambulatory patient was assisted into the basket by the ship’s crew and then hoisted aboard the helicopter. Lewis and Farmer were able to complete the hoist on the first attempt. Farmer appreciatively described Desimone’s efforts: “he spent most of his time working the radios, but he assisted me during the hoists. He was the extra set of hands getting the rescue basket into the cabin and then clearly directed the patient to the back of the cabin.” ¹⁹ Petty Officer McCollough secured the patient for the flight, administered antibiotics and maintained constant watch on the patient’s condition during the return flight. ²⁰

Often forgotten was the job done by Fullmer as Safety Pilot. He continuously scanned the system instruments to ensure the aircraft was operating normally and monitored the flight instruments to ensure obstacle clearance and safe altitude. He effectively conveyed critical information without interfering with Farmer’s conning commands. ²¹

After completing the hoist, it took a few minutes to secure the cabin – Farmer stowed the basket and secured the hoist hydraulics, then closed the cabin door and reported the cabin was secured and ready for forward flight. The pilots then executed a demanding night instrument take-off or ITO from a hover over the water. The ITO is similar to the “beep-to-hover” in terms of relying on aircraft instruments instead of visual cues, but its purpose is the opposite – to get you away from the water and into a forward flight profile at a safe airspeed and altitude. The maneuver was flawlessly executed and the aircrew soon found themselves above the fog bank in clear skies. The helicopter returned to San Diego to deliver the patient to medical authorities. The STEEL EXECUTIVE crewman subsequently recovered. ²²

LCDR Lewis earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, while ASM3 Farmer earned the Air Medal. The medals were presented by RADM James Williams, Commander, 11th Coast Guard District, in a ceremony at Air Station San Diego on 23 February 1972.

The Lewis and Farmer citations are below:

LCDR Lewis also earned the American Helicopter Society (now the Vertical Flight Society) Frederick L. Feinberg Award on 19 May 1972 at the Sheraton-Park Hotel, Washington, D. C – presented to the pilot or crew of a vertical flight aircraft who demonstrated outstanding skills or achievement during the preceding 18 months.

The award was presented by RADM William A. Jenkins, Chief, Office of Operations, Coast Guard Headquarters, who outlined the case as follows:

“Commander Lewis was selected for his sea rescue of an ill crewman from the merchant ship, S.S. Steel Executive, at night and under extremely hazardous weather conditions. Despite very dense fog, Lt. Cdr. Lewis took off and proceeded to the estimated position of the vessel some 220 miles south of San Diego, Calif. , and — by applying extremely skillful instrument approach procedures — was able to find the vessel with visibility reduced to an eighth of a mile and less at times, and by hovering 50 feet above the vessel, he rescued its seriously ill crewman and safely delivered the patient to medical authorities. The crewman subsequently recovered. This demonstration of courage, skill and airmanship has deservingly earned him the Frederick L. Feinberg Award.” ²³

LCDR Lewis provided the following acceptance speech:

“It’s indeed a deep personal honor for me to receive this award from the American Helicopter Society and from the Kaman organization. But in a sense I really feel that it’s unfortunate that this award should be given to an individual. Without attempting to feign false modesty, I sincerely feel that this award should be shared with many others; specifically the other 3 members of my crew, my service — the Coast Guard — and really, in a sense, you, the members of the American helicopter industry. I am sure there are people sitting here in the audience this evening that participated in the design, the development, and the production of the very fine Sikorsky HH-3 helicopter that was used in this rescue. In honoring the Coast Guard by my selection, I really feel that you honored a service that from the helicopters very beginning — we employed it to rescue thousands of people and saved millions of dollars of property. My rescue that is honored here this evening is really very typical of many other rescues that the Coast Guard has accomplished. And so — even though it’s my name alone that is on this award — I sincerely believe that the honor belongs to my entire crew for that evening that this rescue was accomplished and I feel also that it should be shared with the many other Coast Guard crews who accomplished many other rescues of equal ability or what may it be, but I feel I should share the honor with them.” ²⁴

Later that summer (1972), LCDR Lewis transferred to Air Station St. Petersburg, FL where he continued flying the HH-3F helicopter. Unfortunately, six months after the Feinberg Award presentation, on 16 December 1972, HH-3F #1474 assigned to Air Station St. Petersburg was lost off Sarasota along with the crew LCDR Paul R. Lewis, MAJ Marvin A. Cleveland, USAF (Exchange pilot), AD1 Edward J. Nemetz, AT3 Clinton A. Edwards, and four rescued crewmen from the 54-foot fishing vessel WANDA DENE William Peek, George Dayhoss, Herbert Hardy and Paul Manley. It was late on Saturday when the WANDA DENE, sent out a distress call. The stricken vessel was 35 miles southwest of Key West, taking on water and sinking in rough seas. HH-3F #1474 was launched with its crew of four for a long range rescue. The helicopter arrived overhead the WANDA DENE several hours later and successfully hoisted the four crewmen from the sinking vessel in challenging conditions. The #1474 then flew to Naval Air Station Key West to refuel. From there #1474, now with eight people aboard, departed at about 7 PM for a return flight to St. Petersburg. Normal flight operations were reported with regular radio position reports until about 8:30 PM. Two days later a small portion of the helicopter was found in the Gulf of Mexico south of Fort Myers. Despite a massive search, very little of the aircraft and only one body, that of one of the fisherman, was ever recovered. The cause of the crash was never determined.

On 04 March 2011, a dedication ceremony was held at Air Station Clearwater, FL to posthumously name an annex building in honor of the Service and Sacrifice displayed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis. Members of the Lewis Family including daughter Kara Lewis, wife, Jackie Lewis, sister Abby Sauer, son Curt Lewis, daughter Megan Lewis, sister Joan Chaffee, and Abby’s husband, Gene Sauer were in attendance. Here is a section of the presentation that was made that day:

“LCDR Lewis was a tall, athletic Coast Guard Academy graduate who was regarded as the type of officer and pilot that others strive to become. He graduated in 1960, and went to serve his time aboard a Coast Guard cutter before attending flight school.

Prior to being stationed at Air Station St. Petersburg, LCDR Lewis served at the following air stations: Miami, Kodiak and San Diego. LCDR Lewis was known for his exceptional crew resource management and inclusion of his crew in all his flying duties. Among the pilots he was heralded as a flight instructor and examiner who knew the aircraft better than anyone.
LCDR Lewis is notably remembered for being the first Coast Guard pilot awarded the Frederick L. Feinberg Award for a rescue he performed offshore in San Diego. For that same rescue, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
While the building was named to honor Lewis, the air station believed Lewis would have wanted to honor the service and sacrifice of his crew as well. Hence, the auditorium within the building was named for Major Cleveland, the conference room for AD1 Nemetz, and the training room for AT3 Edwards.

¹ Staff writer, “Ex-Area Flier Lost In Crash”, Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY. December 19, 1972, page 22. NOTE: The crewman, name and ailment unknown, may have been suffering from appendicitis and needed to get to a higher level of medical care within 6-12 hours. Various articles describe the issue as “severely ill crewman”; “ill crewman”; “seriously ill seaman”; “injured merchant seaman”; “seaman in need of an operation” and “injured crewman”, but I was unable to ascertain the exact ailment.

² Vietnam Era Voyages as reported in Lloyds Shipping Index (SS Steel Executive)

³ Larry Farmer (HH-3F Flight Mechanic) in email message to author on January 12, 2022 (and subsequent phone interview).

⁴ John Phillip Sousa, “Fog Thwarted Mission – Hero Recalls Perilous Rescue,” The San Diego Union, San Diego, CA, February 27, 1972, page B-3.

⁵ Ibid.

⁶ Air Station San Diego – “Awards Board Minutes” – Case #200-71, page 3.

⁷ Sousa newspaper article.

⁸ Ibid.

⁹ LCDR D. K. Shorey, “The PATCH: Precision Approach to Coupled Hover”, Flight Lines, Summer 1972, pages 2-3.

¹⁰ Ibid.

¹¹ Ibid.

¹² Farmer email.

¹³ Air Station San Diego.

¹⁴ Farmer email.

¹⁵ Ibid.

¹⁶ Ibid.

¹⁷ Ibid.

¹⁸ Ibid.

¹⁹ Ibid.

²⁰ Air Station San Diego.

²¹ Ibid.

²² “28th Forum, Trade Exhibit Registers 800 as 533 See Honors Night Awards Distributed” Vertiflite July/August 1972, pages 6-9.

²³ Ibid.
Ibid.
Ormie King, “Ormie King’s Legends of Auburn: Honoring a native son”, The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY. May 05, 2011 – available here: https://www.syracuse.com/neighbors/2011/05/ormie_kings_legends_of_auburn_honoring_a_native_son.html .

²⁴ Ibid.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Retired CAPT Sean M. Cross served 25 years in the Coast Guard as a helicopter pilot and aeronautical engineer. Flying both the MH-60T and MH-65D, he accumulated over 4,000 flight hours while assigned to Air Stations Clearwater, FL; Cape Cod, MA; San Diego, CA; Elizabeth City, NC and Traverse City, MI – which he commanded.

“LCDR Paul R. Lewis is first Coast Guard Aviator name etched on the Feinberg Award and the story of HOW it got there should be preserved for posterity.”

© 2022, Sean M. Cross

 

5 February 1962

Lieutenant Robert W. Crafton, U.S. Navy, and Captain Louis K. Keck, U.S. Marine Corps, with the record-setting Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King. (FAI)
Lieutenant Robert W. Crafton, U.S. Navy, and Captain Louis K. Keck, U.S. Marine Corps, with the record-setting Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King. (FAI)

5 February 1962: A Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King (later redesignated SH-3A) became the world’s fastest helicopter by establishing a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world speed record for helicopters of 339 kilometers per hour (210.645 miles per hour) over a 19 kilometer (11.8 mile) course between Milford and New Haven, Connecticut.¹ The pilots were Lieutenant Robert Wiley Crafton, United States Navy and Captain Louis K. Keck, United States Marine Corps. Both pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the American Helicopter Society’s Frederick L. Feinberg Award.

Having served the United States Navy for 45 years, the Sea King is still in service world-wide, most notably as the VH-3D “Marine One” presidential helicopter.

Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King, Bu. No. 147xxx, modified for the speed record attempt. (FAI)
Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King, Bu. No. 147xxx, modified for the speed record attempt. (FAI)

The Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King was the first of the S-61 series of military and civil helicopters. It is a large twin-engine helicopter with a single main rotor/tail rotor configuration. The fuselage is designed to allow landing on water. The XHSS-2 made its first flight 11 March 1959. The helicopter was originally used as an anti-submarine helicopter.

The HSS-2 is 72 feet, 6 inches (22.098 meters) long and 16 feet, 10 inches (5.131 meters) high with all rotors turning. The helicopter’s width, across the sponsons, is 16 feet. The main rotors and tail can be folded for more compact storage aboard aircraft carriers, shortening the aircraft to 46 feet, 6 inches (14.173 meters). The empty weight of the HSS-2 is 10,814 pounds (4,905 kilograms). The overload gross weight is 19,000 pounds (8,618 kilograms).

The main rotor has five blades and a diameter of 62 feet, 0 inches (18.898 meters). Each blade has a chord of 1 foot, 6¼ inches (0.464 meters). The rotor blade airfoil was the NACA 0012, which was common for helicopters of that time. The total blade area is 222.5 square feet (20.671 square meters), and the disc area is 3,019 square feet (280.474 square meters). The tail rotor also has five blades and a diameter of 10 feet, 4 inches (3.150 meters). They each have a chord of 7–11/32 inches (0.187 meters). At 100% NR, the main rotor turns 203 r.p.m. and the tail rotor, 1,244 r.p.m.

The HSS-2 was powered by two General Electric T58-GE-6 turboshaft engines, which had a Normal Power rating of 900 horsepower, and Military Power rating of 1,050 horsepower; both ratings at 19,555 r.p.m. at Sea Level. The main transmission was rated for 2,000 horsepower, maximum. (Later models were built with more powerful T58-GE-8 engines. Early aircraft were retrofitted.)

The HSS-2 has a cruise speed of 125 knots (144 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and a maximum speed of 133 knots (153 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level. The service ceiling is 12,100 feet (3,688 meters). The hover ceiling at normal gross weight is 5,200 feet (1,585 meters), out of ground effect (HOGE), and 7,250 feet (2,210 meters), in ground effect (HIGE). The HSS-2 had a combat endurance of 4 hours and a maximum range of 500 nautical miles (575 statute miles/926 kilometers).

The Sea King was primarily an anti-submarine aircraft. It could be armed with up to four MK 43 or MK 44 torpedoes and one MK 101 nuclear-armed depth bomb. Other weapons loads included four MK 14 depth charges and four MK 54 air depth bombs.

In 1962, the HSS-2 was redesignated SH-3A Sea King. Many early production aircraft have remained in service and have been upgraded through SH-3D, SH-3G, etc. In addition to the original ASW role, the Sea Kings have been widely used for Combat Search and Rescue operations. Marine One, the call sign for the helicopters assigned to the President of the United States, are VH-3D Sea Kings. Sikorsky produced the last S-61 helicopter in 1980, having built 794. Production has been licensed to manufacturers in England, Italy, Canada and Japan. They have produced an additional 679 Sea Kings.

Captain Louis K. Keck, USMC (left), and Lieutenant Robert W. Crafton, U.S. Navy, in the cockpit of their Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King. (U.S. Navy NH69960)

¹ FAI Record File Number 13121

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

26 October 1980

THE RESCUE OF THE CREW OF THE SCALLOPER TERRY T

By Sean M. Cross, CAPT, USCG (retired)

“As the basket was lowered a fifth time to pick up the two remaining men, a huge wave hit the awash stern of the TERRY T knocking the last two crewmen – the master and the engineer – into the water downwind of the helicopter and the ship. With the lives of the two crewmen suddenly threatened by the turbulent seas and the ship drifting down upon them…”

TODAY IN COAST GUARD AVIATION HISTORY — 26 OCTOBER 1980: HH-3F #1484 assigned to Air Station Cape Cod, MA and crewed by LTJG John P. Currier (AC); LTJG Robert L. Abair (CP); AM1 David L. Seavey and AE2 Gordon R. Warren (AV) was launched at 3:40 AM in response to the 110-foot fishing vessel Terry T out of New Bedford sinking with 10 crewman aboard. The eastern-rigged scallop trawler was 80 miles southeast of Nantucket in 30-foot seas, blowing snow and 60 knot winds gusting to 80 knots. The Terry T reported “4-feet of water in the engine room” (i) and requested dewatering pumps to help control the flooding. (ii)

That weekend, a coastal storm wreaked havoc when high winds and heavy seas lashed the Massachusetts coast line, damaging scores of small work and pleasure craft. (iii) The 31-year-old skipper, Roland Farland, said the Terry T was water tight when it was checked about 10 PM Saturday night as it rode out the severe coastal storm 70 miles east-south east of Nantucket. But when he checked the boat again shortly after midnight, water was flooding the engine room. (iv)

The TERRY T was built by Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding as hull number 228 and official number 258929. The original name was “Wisconsin” – delivered in 1949 to the original owner John Roen. Records indicate that “John Roen would continue to be a forerunner in maritime accomplishments […] launching an Atlantic fishing fleet out of Boston, which was run from Sturgeon Bay.”
“We got three pumps going but we couldn’t contend with the water,” Farland said. (v)In the Interim, the Terry T had been in frequent radio contact with the Coast Guard through the Nantucket Lightship and by 3:30 AM had informed the Coast Guard they would have to evacuate. (vi) Currier, the most junior Aircraft Commander at the unit, noted he “got stuck” with duty that night because there was a wardroom party planned. It turned into a busy night, The #1484 aircrew had already flown on several SAR cases that evening including evacuating Coast Guard members from the Buzzards Bay Entrance Light due to structural concerns caused by the adverse weather. (vii) Currier described their return to base from the last case, “We went back into the air station and I remember shooting an instrument approach at 120 knots indicated airspeed and doing less than 20 knots over the ground.” He added, “We came in, landed and taxied into the lee of the hangar to shut the rotor head down and those guys were taking care of the post-flight and my wife was at the wardroom party. So when we got back into the wardroom at about 8 o’clock at night she said ‘You’re not going out again are you?’ and I said, ‘No way—nobody’s out there.’ ” (vii)
Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican 1484 (Sikorsky S-61R, s/n 61-661) hovers over Lands End with Golden Gate Bridge in background. 1989 photograph.  (U.S. Coast Guard 191114-G-G0000-006/SFO Museum 2012.114.002)

About 3:40 in the morning the aircrew was awakened by Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) Boston saying there was a scalloper taking on water and unable to control flooding about 80 miles southeast of Nantucket. The aircrew described it as an interesting launch because it was still blowing 60 knots (which exceeded the main rotor start limit)—so the duty crew dragged the helicopter about halfway out of the hangar to start the turbine engines and engage the rotor system. They did it in this manner because when a helicopter first starts, the rotors are flexible and droop under their own weight. Strong winds can cause the blades to flap up and down when they are at slow RPM causing them to contact the tail boom or fuselage and do serious damage.

#1484 took off and flew toward the last known position (LKP) about 15 miles east of the Nantucket Lightship under instrument flight rules (IFR)—flying in clouds with limited to zero visibility, navigating only by cockpit instruments. The aircraft experienced severe turbulence and Currier remarked, “The crew was holding on for dear life.” (ix)

Approximate route of flight to TERRY T’s last known position “about 70 miles southeast of Nantucket, about 15 miles east of the Nantucket Lightship.”

At 4:54 AM, #1484 was approaching the Terry T‘s LKP and Currier further described the situation as, “Pitch black except for the lightning and there was sleet—so we were concerned about icing.” Helicopter pilots avoid icing like dental work. When ice forms on rotor blades, they lose their ability to provide lift, and the aircraft can no longer maintain flight. The aircrew contacted Terry T on the radio and confirmed they still wanted dewatering pumps—they concurred and reported that the fishing boat had lost steering and “was at the mercy of thirty foot seas and fifty knot winds.” (x) However, the master came on the radio a few minutes later as #1484 was inbound and said, “We got a fire in the engine room, we can’t control it and I want everybody —there are 10 of us.”

As the water level rose it produced short circuits that caused spontaneous fires in the boat’s electrical system. Farland said the crew had used four fire extinguishers and had nothing left with which to fight the fires. Then radio contact was lost. (xi) From their transit altitude, the aircrew performed an instrument approach to the water astern of Terry T. (xii) The crew used a PATCH or Precision Approach to a Coupled Hover, an autopilot maneuver that transitions the helicopter from forward flight in the clouds down to an automatic hover at 50 feet visual with the water. (xiii) This maneuver can be disorienting in the clouds at night, particularly when low over the water with little room for error. Both pilots must continuously scan and interpret the flight instruments—this is critically important—to confirm the autopilot is flying the correct profile. This maneuver was described as “dicey” due to the HH-3F’s unreliable doppler. The aircrew finally made visual contact with the trawler’s glow as the aircraft descended below 150 feet.

Currier described the challenging situation, “When we arrived in a hover, we turned on the floodlights and neither myself, nor the co-pilot nor the flight mechanic thought we could do it. The tops were blowing off the waves and going over the boat and the boat was dead in the water so it was in the trough—so it was rolling more than rail-to-rail—it was getting green water over each rail as it rolled.” (xiv) With the helicopter pointing into the strong westerly winds—Terry T‘s “bow was pointed to the right (the aircraft’s 3 o’clock position), so I had no place to go to hoist,” added Currier. (xv) Seavey had similar sentiments, “This case was the only time that I had thoughts that I might not be able to complete the hoist [due to] the combination of high winds 50–60 knots or so and 25–30 foot seas.” (xvi) The aircrew was concerned with the extreme pitch and roll of the fishing vessel and height of the rigging and other obstacles, so they initially requested that the Terry T crew disembark the vessel to the life raft. However, when the fishermen inflated the raft, it immediately blew overboard. (xvii) After careful assessment, they decided that hoisting from about 40 feet above the highest waves to an area just aft of the pilot house was their best chance of success.

An MH-65D demonstrates a “trail line hoist” with a Coast Guard small boat. Note the hypotenuse or diagonal formed by the trail line running from the person on deck to the hoist hook. (U.S. Coast Guard)

With no suitable hover reference, Currier was guided only by the voice of his hoist operator, David Seavey. Initial attempts did not go well. The pilot is typically unable to see the hoist area (below and aft of the pilot seat) and must fly exclusively off the flight mechanic’s conning commands—this can be very challenging when the sole hover reference is a raging and turbulent sea surface of 30–35 foot swells. The crew was convinced that a “trail line hoist” was the right tool for the situation as it would allow the helicopter to hoist from a position offset 30–40 feet from the boat and facilitate Currier’s use of the bobbing fishing vessel as a hover reference.

A trail line is a 105-foot piece of polypropylene line (similar to a water ski rope) with a 300-pound weak link at one end and a weight bag at the other. The weight bag end of the trail is paid out below the helicopter and delivered to the persons in distress (usually vertically, but seasoned flight mechanics can literally “cast” the weight bag to a spot). The weak link is then attached to the hoist hook and the helicopter backs away until the pilot can see the hoisting area. The persons in distress can then pull the basket to their location—creating a hypotenuse or diagonal—as opposed to a purely vertical delivery.

Danforth anchor

This was great in theory, but not in practice as Seavey said, “The high winds caused the trail line delivery, even with the heavy weather weight bags (25 pounds) to sail aft and twice get fouled in the rigging. We backed off, discussed the situation and decided to try using the Danforth anchor—which worked.” (xviii) Being an amphibious helicopter, the HH-3F kit included a Danforth anchor (similar to any small recreational boating anchor) with a half-inch line—they used this as an improvised trail line and it worked perfectly—with one exception which would trigger problems later in the evolution. (xix)

Currier was now able to use the vessel’s radio antenna and momentary glimpses of the superstructure for visual reference. (xx) Seavey conducted four hoists with assistance from Warren, taking crewmen in the basket two-at-a-time on each hoist. (xxi) This was unusual but necessary due to fuel concerns, the need to hoist everyone before the trawler sank and the extreme difficulty involved in placing the basket on the vessel each time. Abair added, “While a series of ten one-man hoists could have been successful, it would have more than doubled the difficulty of the rescue and would have likely resulted in loss of life.” (xxii) Between hoists, Warren took the survivors aft in the cabin and provided them with blankets to get warm. Seavey gratefully described Warren’s efforts: “He assisted me during the hoists, was helping out without having to be told what I needed. He anticipated what I needed. He was the extra set of hands getting the rescue basket into the cabin and then clearly directed the survivors to the back of the cabin.” Often forgotten under these conditions was the superlative job done by Abair, a Direct Commission Aviator and veteran Marine Corps helicopter pilot, in his Safety Pilot role. He continuously scanned the system instruments to ensure the aircraft was operating normally and the flight instruments to ensure obstacle clearance and safe altitude—occasionally coming on the controls to assist. He conveyed critical information effectively in a dynamic environment without interfering with Seavey’s commands—the crew said he did a masterful job. (xxiii)

HH-3F #1484’s approximate hoisting position with TERRY T (represented with a generic fishing boat plan of roughly the same arrangement). As Dave Seavey stated, that diagram is accurate, “minus the massive seas, near hurricane force winds, pitch black and the boat being DIW.”

As the basket was lowered a fifth time to pick up the two remaining men, a huge wave hit the awash stern of the Terry T knocking the last two crewmen—the master and the engineer, brothers Roland and Brian Farland—into the water downwind of the helicopter and the ship. (xxiv) “I had one hand on the basket and one hand on my brother,” Farland said. (xxv) With the lives of the two crewmen suddenly threatened by the turbulent seas and the ship drifting down on them, Currier had to reposition the aircraft over the two men with only the conning commands from Seavey to guide him, With Seavey’s instructions, Currier demonstrated extreme skill and daring and maneuvered the basket into a position in the water so that the two men could literally fall into it, and they were lifted to safety—or so they thought.

At this point, the boat actually started to go down by the stern, Seavey had the basket and two men about two-thirds of the way from the boat deck to the helicopter when he realized that earlier in the evolution without aircrew knowledge, the fisherman had tied the trail line off to the pilot house rail. The helicopter was connected to the boat by the anchor line. Seavey shouted, “We’re tied to the boat, we have problems here.” (xxvi) Currier and Abair assessed the sea state then carefully descended from their hoisting altitude of 40 feet to 25 feet creating enough slack in the trail line and allowing Seavey and Warren to bring the basket into the door. At once, Seavey cut the anchor line with a knife and immediately conned, “Up, up, up” for the pilots to immediately pull power. At 25 feet, Seavey could see that the wave tops on either side were level with the helicopter. (xxvii)

After completing the hoists, it took about five minutes to secure the cabin—Seavey and Warren working together—Warren helped the Captain and crew to the rear of the cabin and secured the basket while Seavey was securing the hoist, closing the cabin door and reporting that the cabin was secured and ready for forward flight. As #1484 circled the scalloper, it had already began to founder—the decks awash with sea water. (xxviii) The flight mechanic and avionicsman administered first aid to the injured crew on the return flight that landed at 6:52 AM. Throughout the mission, Currier and his crew showed exemplary skill and courage. Currier stated, “We got them off and got back. The helicopter was pretty beat up—they actually had to change the tail rotor because of overstresses.” (xxix)

All 10 men (listed below) were saved from the Terry T—four of the survivors were from the same family. (xxx)

Roland Farland (Captain)
Elmer Beckman (Mate)
Brian Farland (Engineer)
John Santos (cook)
Donald Capps (deckhand)
George Altman (deckhand)
Ronald Charpentier (deckhand)
Stephen Farland (deckhand)
Peter Farland (deckhand)
George Johnston (deckhand) (xxxi)

“It was pretty hairy,” Roland Farland said. “I just have to commend the Coast Guard for doing such a terrific job. It was blowing good,” the New Bedford man said: “Seas were 30 feet and winds were blowing 60 to 65 miles.”

In a post-mission interview, Currier conveyed, “Visibility was about half a mile and it took us five hoists to get 10 people off the boat. We had to hover over it for about an hour. (xxxii) The problem with a situation like that is that you have no point of reference,” he said. “All you can see is the boat and the water, and they are both in motion. You try to keep the helicopter a stable platform, but it’s hard. I’ve been here three years and those were the worst condition I’ve seen.” (xxxiii)

Thirty-five years later, and older and wiser Vice Admiral (VADM) Currier reflected on that night. “This was not a solo pilot operation. This was a reflection of an incredibly talented flight mechanic and a solid co-pilot. Actually, I think that was my co-pilot’s first rescue mission after transitioning from the Marine Corps to the Coast Guard, and I think it was a heck of an eye-opener for him.” VADM Currier added, “In the Coast Guard we have some of the best rotary- and fixed-wing pilots there are. I can say that as the old Coast Guard aviator, but I’ve been around long enough in civil and military aviation to say our people are among the very best. They are challenged on a daily basis with missions that would be a big deal in other services. For us, they’re how we do business—night, offshore, poor visibility, terrible weather. It’s always single-ship, and it’s always single crew. It requires skill, proficiency and individual initiative.” (xxxiv)

For this nearly impossible rescue, Currier earned the Harmon International Aviation Trophy—the only Coast Guard Aviator to warn this distinction. The Harmon Trophy—the aviator’s award—is given for the most outstanding international achievements in the preceding year, with the art of flying receiving first consideration. He joined other winners such as: Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh: General Jimmy Doolittle, Major Charles E. Yeager, Howard Hughes, Major Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and Amelia Earhart.

The Harmon International Trophy at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. The Harmon Trophy (1926) was established by Clifford Harmon, a wealthy balloonist and aviator.  (NASM)

The Harmon Trophy was presented to him at the Old Executive Building across from The White House by Vice President Dan Quayle on 21 June 1991 (11 years after the mission). His name is inscribed on the six foot tall trophy in a glass enclosure in the National Air and Space Museum. Interestingly, Currier was never notified regarding his selection of the award, which has historically been presented by the president. The Reagan assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr., on 30 March 1981 wreaked havoc with the President’s schedule and the award presentation was overlooked. His parents while visiting the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., six years later, reportedly saw his name engraved on the trophy and asked him about it. It took another four years of action by headquarters and the Coast Guard Aviation Association before Currier received the award.

Vice President of the United States James Danforth Quayle congratulates Lieutenant Commander John Philip Currier, U.S. Coast Guard, on the presentation of the Harmon International Aviator Trophy, 21 June 1991.

The #1484 aircrew also earned the American Helicopter Society (now, the Vertical Flight Society) Frederick L. Feinberg Award in March 1981—presented to the pilot or crew of a vertical flight aircraft who demonstrated outstanding skills or achievement during the preceding 18 months. (xxxv)

The Frederick L. Feinberg Award (1961) was established by the American Helicopter Society, in memory of an outstanding helicopter test pilot and an exemplary person.

Lieutenant (junior grade) Currier and AM1 Seavey both earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, while LTJG Abair and AE2 Warren earned the Coast Guard Commendation Medal with Operational Distinguishing Device in a ceremony at Air Station Cape Cod in June 1981. (xxxvi) The Currier and Abair Citations are below. The Seavey and Warren citations have not been located.

Vice Admiral John Philip Currier, Vice Commandant of the United States Coast Guard. Photographed 2009. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Vice Admiral John Philip Currier, United States Coast Guard (Retired), passed away on 01 March 2020 from natural causes at his home in Traverse City, Michigan. His ashes were interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on 14 September 2021. He is recognized as the “godfather of the Coast Guard’s modern H-60 helicopter program” and received commendations for flying and rescue work over his 38-year career in the Coast Guard. He held assignments as an aviator at Air Stations Cape Cod (MA), Sitka (AK), Traverse City (MI), Astoria (OR), Detroit (MI) and Miami (FL). He held many senior leadership positions including Chief of Operations and Chief of Staff for the Pacific Area; Commander of the Thirteenth District in the Pacific Northwest; Coast Guard Chief of Staff; and finally, Vice Commandant, the Service’s second in command.  From 2008–2012, just prior to his tenure as Vice Commandant, the Coast Guard Aviation community experienced a horrendous series of aircraft accidents that took the lives of 18 Coast Guard aircrewmen. The dilemma weighed heavily on Admiral Currier, but—he was the RIGHT man, in the RIGHT place, at the RIGHT time when the Service needed him most. The Service was searching for solutions—long fatigued and exasperated from attending memorial services, hearing eulogies and listening to “Amazing Grace”—he led us out of that morass to “clearer skies” with a new focus on cockpit leadership, proficiency, risk management and a “back to basics” approach when it came to tactics, techniques and procedures. He guided a structured fleet-wide operational risk assessment and directed corrective actions which yielded a remarkable improvement in aviation professionalism and safety. These efforts added to his already robust Coast Guard Aviation legacy.

***********************

Retired Captain Sean M. Cross served 25 years in the Coast Guard as a helicopter pilot and aeronautical engineer. Flying both the MH-60T and MH-65D, he accumulated over 4,000 flight hours while assigned to Air Stations Clear Water, FL; Cape Cod, MA; San Diego, CA; Elizabeth City, NC and Traverse City, MI, which he commanded.

“There is only one Coast Guard Aviator’s name etched on the Harmon Trophy and the story of HOW it got there should be preserved for posterity.”

i Boston AP article – multiple sources – “The ‘Terry T.” of New Bedford called for help at about 3:30 a m. when its engine room filled with about four feet of water, spokesman Mario Toscano of the Coast Guard’s Boston Rescue Center said.” – available here: https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/439301890/
ii John Currier (HH-3F Aircraft Commander) in video discussion (Exit Interview) with Scott T. Price (Coast Guard Historian) in Washington, D.C. on April 23, 2014.
iii Jack Stewardson, “10 fishermen saved; 2nd trawler overdue,” The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass., October 27, 1980, page 1.
iv Jack Stewardson, “It was pretty hairy, but help came for fishing crew,” The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.,, October 28, 1980, page 4.
v Ibid.
vi Ibid.
vii Gordon Warren (HH-3F Avionicsman) in phone interview with the author on September 30, 2021.
viii Currier interview
ix Ibid.
x Barrett Thomas Beard, “Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopters,” (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), page 146.
xi Ibid
xii Currier interview
xiii Robert Abair (HH-3F Co-Pilot) in email message to author on September 30, 2021. “The term PATCH implies a coupled hover, which was not the case. All hovering was done manually. Because of the heavy seas, it was impossible to couple the aircraft to the radar altimeter. The entire mission from lift off to touch down was hand flown due to turbulence.”
xiv Ibid.
xv Ibid.
xvi David Seavey (HH-3F Flight Mechanic) in email message to author on September 22, 2021.
xvii Currier interview
xviii Seavey email.
xix Currier interview
xx Beard, “Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopters,” page 147.
xxi Seavey email.
xxii Abair email.
xxiii Seavey email.
xxiv Staff Writer (1), “Manchester Man Cited by U.S. Coast Guard,” Manchester Evening Herold, June 22, 1981, page 20 – available here: http://www.manchesterhistory.org/News/Manchester%20Evening%20Hearld_1981-06-22.pdf
xxv Stewardson, “It was pretty hairy, but help came for fishing crew,” page 4.
xxvi Currier interview xxvii Ibid
xxviii Seavey email.
xxix Currier interview
xxx Beard, “Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopters,” page 147.
xxxi Stewardson, “10 fishermen saved; 2nd trawler overdue,” page 4.
xxxii Staff Writer (2), “CG pulls 10 from blazing trawler,” Cape Cod Times, October 27, 1980, page unknown
(Falmouth Public Library Microfiche retrieved on September 29, 2021 by Sue Henken). xxxiii Ibid
xxxiv American Helicopter Society International – Vertipedia. “Biography, John P. Currier, United States,” Last modified April 14, 2021. https://vertipedia-legacy.vtol.org/milestoneBiographies.cfm?bioID=428
xxxv Vertical Flight Society. “Frederick L. Feinberg Award previous recipients,” Last modified in 2021. https://vtol.org/awards-and-contests/vertical-flight-society-award-winners?awardID=3
xxxvi Staff Writer (1), “Manchester Man Cited by U.S. Coast Guard,” page 20.

© 2021, Sean M. Cross