Email sent Post SAR-Missions April 1999

Dearest Family and Friends,

I hate to do the generic e-mail thing, as you all well know, but this week has left me emotionally drained and completely exhausted. I want to share with everyone that which I have experienced, but I haven’t the energy to write about it again and again. It’s going to be difficult enough to get through it once.

I have just returned from a six day trip to Guam. For the first time in my flying career, I hit what’s known as “high time.” Any time aircrew fly more than 50 hours in a week (that’s actual time in the air, not including our 2-3 hour preflights, hour-long post-flight, briefing, and debriefing), they are automatically grounded for 24 hours which assumes you will be able to regain your perspective and sanity before going flying again. Our crew flew close to 60 hours in a week with our last mission’s flight time totalling 14.4 hours.

On Sunday, 25 April 99, my crew was the off-going Ready-1 crew and would not be relieved of our duties until 2 p.m. that afternoon. Just before 9 a.m., we got the call to “pack an overnight bag, you guys are getting launched.” With that phone call, we all packed for a couple days (Five months into our deployment we’re a little wise to the Navy’s planning… 1 night often means 5 or more in reality), threw on our flight suits, and were out the door in minutes with no idea what our destination was nor what our mission would entail.

Upon arriving at the squadron, we learned that we were going to Guam to conduct a Search and Rescue (SAR) mission. Some of you may remember that my crew had a similar experience in January (also on a Sunday, we noted) with great success. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please let me know and I’ll be glad to forward you the article I wrote on the CAROLINE rescue.

The details of the mission were sketchy. We learned that there were 3 people who had gone out reef fishing for the afternoon in an uncovered 12′ skiff and did not return. They still had not returned two days later when we launched for Guam. The delay in requesting a search platform’s assistance is not unlike the required wait for filing a missing persons report. Generally the Coast Guard (CG) uses their SAR aircraft (a C-130) for such situations, but their plane was downed for maintenance (needed a new prop) and we were sent in their stead.

We were off deck shortly after getting the CG’s computer-generated search area. They use historical current and weather patterns to come up with a drift rate and apply that to the missing craft’s last know position to come up with an area of probability for an aircraft to search. The search area they generated for us was a 50X50 square nautical mile (NM) box. We conducted a “ladder” search 500 feet above sealevel, meaning we started at the furthest point the craft could possibly be located and methodically worked our way back to its last known position. At about half way through our mission, the sun started to set. Our only means of detecting such a small vessel at night on our infrared detection system (IRDS) which detects heat differential, and as we were in the balmy South Pacific, the detection ranges weren’t the best.

Our search was coordinated with two CG cutters, the GALVESTON ISLAND and the SASSAFRAS. Kinda sissy names if you ask me, but I wouldn’t tell my CG friends that since the mighty P-3 Orion doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of those who see its powerful props turning. 🙂 Anyway, we advised the CG station that we would continue to cover our search area, but warned them that our IRDS system was not performing well and our visual detection ranges were down to virtually nothing from our unlimited visibility that afternoon.

Imagine if you will going out into a meadow roughly the size of an unmowed football field at night, taping a small pencil light to either side of your head and running back and forth (in a very organized manner, of course) staring at the ground and looking for a safety deposit box key which is taped to a small insect who is creeping along at its own pace SOMEWHERE in the middle of the field. While the image is a little bizarre, that is the closest thing I can come up with to communicate to you the difficulty of finding small vessels adrift at sea after dark and without any sort of signaling device. Fortunately our crew has seven pairs of eyes staring out the windows looking for a vessel instead of just one pair.

Thankfully, the 3 people who hadn’t even a paddle to propel themselves back to shore, had the foresight to bring flashlights. During one of our passes a few miles from their position, one of our observers said they saw a flashing light in the distance. We turned in toward the lights and located what looked to be a small boat. We made several passes overhead. On our first pass, our IRDS operator confirmed that it was in fact a small skiff and there were 3 people on board. We circled overhead and saw their lights flashing at us with each subsequent pass. To assure them we knew where they were, we flashed our landing lights in return. We then called the two CG cutters on the radio and vectored them in to effect the rescue. (Note: while the P-3 is exceptional as a search platform, other assets are always required to pull survivors out of the water. We can land on the water only once and then it is called a ditch, an emergency situation we don’t generally like to practice.) We deployed several flares for visual reference and maintained our overhead presence until the GALVESTON ISLAND reported that all 3 people were safely on board, a little tired and a lot hungry, but in generally good condition. As you can imagine our crew was elated! Combat Air Crew Five (CAC-5) saves the day again.

The following day, now Monday the 26th, we were lounging by the pool for a few hours before we were scheduled to fly back to Kadena (on Okinawa). I had just gotten settled when one of the acoustic operators found me and told me that the CG called our hotel and had another SAR mission for us, about an hour away from Guam near Pulap Island (for those of you who enjoy looking such things up, the Lat/Long is approximately 7-30 N/14730E). I immediately went inside and got the details. Similar to the previous day’s events, there was a fishing craft (this time 19′ and with 4 people on board, including a 12 year old child) which had been missing for over two days. We received the new search area and immediately kicked into high gear to get airborne as soon as possible. It was already afternoon and daylight was waning.

We first arrived on scene and toured all the tiny islands near Pulap to see if they had drifted onto one of the other islands. After no luck with first sweep, we initiated our “ladder” search for the missing craft.

Again, half way through the search the sun slipped below the horizon and we were left with our limited night vision through the IRDS equipment. After covering the entire search area without locating the vessel adrift, we decided to return to Guam to rest up for another follow-on mission the next day. We advised the CG of our intentions and they agreed with our logic.

The next day we set out to do the same mission with the benefit of additional daylight hours. As the flight station was conducting their “Before Engine Start” checklists, the CG station called us on the radio and asked us to hold our take off as they had additional information for us. It was 20 minutes before we were told that a local fishing vessel had in fact located the skiff and had taken the 4 people on board. The vessel reported that all four were in good health, also a little tired and a lot hungry. Furthermore, they reported that they had seen our aircraft overhead the previous night but had no means of signaling us. Apparently any sort of survival equipment is considered bad luck in those parts. I was pleased to note that the position at which the small craft was found was in the middle of our revised search pattern and I am confident our crew would have located them had they not been picked up. The 4 lucky people claim that a shark had smacked into the stern of their boat and disabled the motor. Now, I am still scarred from watching JAWS at a young age, but that explanation seems a little fishy to me (no pun intended….). So, now what? you ask…

Instead of doing a SAR mission, the CG asked us to conduct a Maritime Patrol (MAP) mission (standard P-3 mission) looking for any suspicious vessels approaching Guam. ???? As opposed to those who act casually I guess. They had it on good authority that there was a fleet of unseaworthy vessels carrying Chinese refugees that was limping toward the coast, similar to the influx of Caribbean Islanders landing in South Florida, with the intent of claiming asylum after beaching itself on US soil. I had no idea that this was even happening in Guam and more surprised that it happens far more often than you’d think. Our first mission we reported that our shores were safe for another day with no suspicious activity noted.

The next day we were tasked to conduct a similar mission and to expand our search area. About two hours into our flight we located a veritable rustbucket which was trying to pass itself off as a fishing boat. To make a long story short… after the suspect vessel did everything but act casually, the CG planned to intercept it prior to reaching Guam waters. Unfortunately the first cutter they sent out blew a turbine and had an enormous engine fire (30 foot flames) and had to deploy both its fire extinguishing systems to put it out. Said cutter required a tug to help it back into port. Meanwhile the other cutter got underway, picked up the boarding party from the disabled cutter, and motored out to pounce on the vessel. And as we were limited in gas, we went back to Guam, refueled, and returned to watch the CG do their job and stay on scene for SAR support in the event that any of the 106 people on the rustbucket got antsy and jumped ship. It was the wildest thing I had ever seen.

The following day we flew another similar mission but without all the fireworks and chaos of the previous night. Thank goodness. And on Friday we flew a leisurely four-hour flight to return to Kadena. Our brief stint in the Coast Guard drew to a close, so we thought.

Now, I admit I have been very tongue-in-cheek up to this point about our crazy week in Guam, but the levity ended when we landed in Kadena. Shortly thereafter we discovered we were scheduled for another SAR mission the following day. It is important to note that this would be our 3rd SAR mission this week and the 4th this deployment. Generally an entire squadron of 12 crews might see that many in a deployment and the success rate is usually well below 50%. So our week’s activity is not a normal occurrence by any means.

For this mission, a good-sized fishing vessel carrying 47 people (including 2 kids) for a day’s pleasure cruise to the NW of the Philippines had been ravaged by Typhoon Leo. The boat was demolished by the storm, it broke into 4 pieces and sank. When we returned from Guam, there was another of our squadron’s crews conducting a search for the remains of the vessel, but they had reported no luck locating anything.

Our crew launched the next morning with as much gas as we could carry and started the three hour transit to reach the latest computer-generated search area. This time the area was approximately 30 NM X 30 NM area and we extended that out a bit to cover more water. As per standard SAR procedures, when we arrived on-station we shut down one of our engines to conserve fuel.

An hour into our search, one of the observers called out “I’ve got debris in the water, port side!” The pilots immediately turned the aircraft back in toward that position and we flew over a bright orange piece of the boat with three people jumping up and down and frantically waving their arms at us. “I’ve got survivors!” was the next call in the aircraft.

The crew reacted immediately. The pilots initiated an racetrack pattern overhead, smoke/flare markers were prepared for deployment to mark the position of the survivors, and we put out a generic broadcast on marine band channel 16 common (the one channel all ships monitor all over the world), something along the lines of… “All stations, all stations, this is QE288, we are a U.S. Navy P-3 aircraft conducting search and rescue operations at (Lat/Long) and request all stations to respond. We have located survivors in the water and request the assistance of all stations for a rescue.” I am very please to admit that with the exception of one vessel (the closest one to the area blatantly ignored us and will be reported to the CG for that illegal action — international law of the sea requires all vessels to render aid to fellow mariners in distress), the response was overwhelming. All sorts of ships responded, “Navy P-3, this is (fill in the name), my current position is (L/L), I can be at your position in 45 minutes. What assistance do you require?” It was awesome to see so many people come to the aid of complete strangers. To start, we vectored in four supertankers and continued our search.

After deploying a flare near the three survivors we first located, we adjusted our plan and searched for additional survivors.     In the turbulent wake of Typhoon Leo, the wreckage had drifted over 80 NM from where the vessel had first broken apart and was spread out over an area 5 NM wide by 10 NM along the direction of the drift. The currents were totally unpredictable and moving faster than ever anticipated. With that first orange piece of boat, we had located the majority of the debris. When we saw the first of the survivors, we reassessed our flight plan and asked our home base to make the necessary diplomatic arrangements for us to land in Manila International Airport to refuel before returning to Kadena. By refueling in Manila, we were able to extend our time on-scene by an hour.

The only way I can think to describe what we saw is as a trainwreck in the water, but with a far greater damage radius. We saw survivors clustered together in groups of 1 to 5 people clinging to whatever buoyant material was left of the boat and each cluster was drifting at a different rate making our ability to track them extremely difficult.

At this point, given our perfect SAR record, the idea that people had not survived did not enter any of our minds, we simply assumed we would locate each of the 47 missing and once located, each would be recovered by a ship and found to be alive and well. Looking back now that may seem to reek of overconfidence, but it was simply that the whole experience was so surreal that death was an intangible concept for us to grasp. For example when we flew by another piece of debris, there were four people on it; three were standing up and one was prone. It never entered our minds that the person lying down was no longer alive, we just assumed he was simply resting. After a few days at sea with no food and no water, I think I would be resting too.

The supertankers took anywhere from an hour to three hours to arrive at our position. It was imperative that our crew keep track of all the people we located as it was up to us to bring the ships in to the EXACT location of each piece of debris supporting survivors. To do so we “revisited” each location and to the smoke/flare markers we added sea-dye markers, small packets which act like tea bags when they hit the water, leaving a large, bright green stain on the surface of the ocean. While this is very effective during the daylight hours, it doesn’t make much of a difference at night. As luck would have it the sun set a couple hours after the first ship arrived in the area.

It was now dusk and we had four supertankers in a very tight area, a condition which makes the majority of supertanker captains extremely uncomfortable, but they all were very generous with their time and patience and extremely professional. By now 8 people had been recovered onto two different vessels and the last man brought on board reported that his wife did not survive, that she had gone down with the boat. That was the first reality check of the evening and it was utterly silent on the aircraft save the steady hum of our three operating engines.

It was about this time that it dawned on our crew that we were not in fact going to save everyone and that the losses were going to be high. We continued to direct the ships in their maneuvering to pick up people we had seen. Half an hour prior to our scheduled time to depart the area, our #4 engine had a malfunction. We restarted the #1 engine, deployed another smoke on the last people we had located and diverted to Manila. We passed one final vector to a ship and climbed up to altitude to transit to Manila. At this time, there were 12 people rescued and three confirmed dead (including the man who we assumed was resting), leaving 32 still missing at sea.

We provided the on-coming aircraft a full brief on what the situation was and asked that they keep us apprised of the situation. We fueled in Manila, added oil to the #4 engine, and flew home. Shortly before we landed in Kadena, the crew on-scene passed to us that one of the supertankers (the last one we vectored in) had heard voices as they were sweeping the wreckage and found a makeshift raft with 5 people on board, 4 adults (including the skipper of the fishing vessel) and a 13 year old child. As they were in the process of recovering the adults, the raft tipped and the child went in the water. The first mate from the supertanker jumped from its deck into the water to save the child. He was successful and they both made it safely on board, but I am sad to tell you that the child died twenty minutes later.

That is one of the toughest things I am dealing with now. That and knowing the search was called off after four flights while there were still 19 people unlocated. I’m still reeling emotionally while I continue to try to process the why of it all. I guess the most amazing thing that I get out of all of this is I know now that God does fly. I have never in my life prayed as I have this last week, praying so incessantly, so fervently to God, asking for strength and courage and wisdom for me and my crew to do our job and do it as best as we could. He was there in that aircraft, giving us all His strength, and I was very aware of His presence. I am convinced that while He had already chosen those He would call home through that tragedy, He sent our crew out there to save the rest. I am thankful He made me a part of that. This has been a life-changing experience for me, one I will never forget.

Wow, I think I wrote a short novel. I hope you can excuse the length and that I have managed to share a small part of this week’s impact on me.

In closing I would ask that you pass on to any of your friends and family members that if you are going to go out boating for the day no matter how long the trip, please please please take along at least a flashlight. It makes our jobs so much easier finding you should your engine give out.