SAR in the Atlantic…
In 22 years of Naval Aviation, this was one of my most memorable flights.
Normally these stories start off- It was a dark and stormy night… This one doesn’t… It was the typical Bermuda day. Nice onshore breeze, sunshine and a few clouds over the base. Off to the north was a hurricane running out to sea from the States.
Preflight and briefings were normal, no real ops expected since there were no “players” in the box. The crew secured around 1030 for a boring 24 hour ready one. A couple of us went to the club to get an early lunch, and the Ordy went to the Commissary to restock the chow box, since we were scheduled for a CTF/checkride coming off the alert.
About 1300 that all changed as beepers started going off- We jumped in the van and hauled to the ASW Operations Center, with three of us bailing out, while the rest of the crew continued to the aircraft. As we walked in the door, the watch officer came out of Ops and told us we had a SAR and he had notified maintenance to load the SAR kit (two rafts and an equipment package tied together). We walked back into Ops to hear one of our pilot training flights coming over the radio saying they had an EPIRB pointing North but they couldn’t get to it as the weather was too bad and they had no radar operator onboard.
We grabbed the comm gear, briefing package and a couple of charts, and caught a ride to the hangar; after getting our flight gear out of the hangar, we threw it on and walked out to the aircraft. The fuel truck was just being unhooked as flight engineer and second mech finished pulling the plugs and covers off the engines and pitot static system.
We climbed aboard, checked the SAR kit, loaded the comm gear and got a quick systems check- All stations were up, so we briefed, started engines, and taxied out. I was talking to the pilot trainer asking for their location and found they were only 10 miles North of the field. We lifted off around 1350, and immediately got into light chop.
We turned Northwest circling as we climbed to try to get a rough triangulation with the other aircraft, but both bearings were roughly North, so we turned and put the needle on the nose. Radar immediately called major cells and feeder bands directly ahead of us, and no real holes, so we decided to stay low and try to minimize the penetration.
About 5 minutes later we took multiple lightning strikes on the nose (bout half blinded the pilots and FE’s, a real Oh SHIT! moment in the airplane), and knocked out all the radios, radar, inertial systems and the computer. Oh yeah, we also were immediately in moderate turbulence, heavy rain and almost constant lightning…
We managed to get a couple of radios back on line, but the inertials were down for the count, too rough to even attempt an alignment, and we were bouncing too badly to have the in-flight tech attempt to bring the computer back on line. The forward radar wouldn’t cycle, but the aft came back up.
I reported back to the ASWOC that we had taken a lightning strike and were evaluating our status, only to be told by the ASWOC we were it, the ready two had gone down with a fuel leak and they were recalling the pilot trainer as the ready two…
We held a crew meeting on ICS, and figured what the hell; we were still flying, had comms and we could DR nav, so we would continue.
Called the ASWOC back, they told us the Coasties had launched out of Elizabeth City, but were 1-2 hours out. I passed we would press and continue the mission… What the hell, we’d been flying P-3’s into hurricanes for years, so the odds were a dissipating hurricane couldn’t hurt us much more that we already were, and we were a lot better off than whomever was under the EPIRB. We continued North after getting a TACAN fix off Bermuda and backing it up with the aft radar. Turbulence was continuing to be moderate to severe so we continued to try different altitudes and a few orbits to use the aft radar to pick holes (there weren’t any, just more feeder bands).
Finally about 90 miles out of Bermuda, we got reversal on the needle, indicating we had passed the EPIRB. Radar had nothing, so we did a mark from 10000 feet and went to call home- No joy… Oh great! Now what is going on, just static, meanwhile we are descending in an orbit to try to see what was on the water. Finally, we got comms with Jacksonville on HF, ironically perfectly clear. They were not aware of what we were doing, so it took a few minutes to get that worked out. At this point, we were descending through 1000 feet, with zilch visibility, moderate turbulence, but abating.
Passing 400 feet we break out of the clouds and the flight station eases the descent planning to level at 300 feet, the IFT calls that he thought he saw something red at 8 o’clock and there were BIG effing waves down there… It was so rough we decided not to have anyone up, and we would not drop the SAR kit unless there were people in the water, as I was afraid we would drop both the SAR kit and a crewman if we weren’t careful, since the procedure included opening the main cabin door and two people working at the door with only Gunner’s belts to keep them in the aircraft.
Flight cranked the aircraft around and stabilized at 200 feet, everybody manned the windows and we spotted a square red raft about a half mile off the port wing. We guesstimated the mark, spit a buoy and came back around one more time. The second pass, a hand came out of the raft and gave us a three count and a thumbs up. Meanwhile, I’m talking with Bermuda via Jax on a phone relay (imagine saying Over after every sentence), trying to coordinate a possible rescue. They wanted the exact range to Bermuda, so we climbed back to 10000 feet and got a fix of about 90 miles out at 010 True. The radar operator located a small contact about 10 miles away, and we descended again to locate the contact and see if the ship could come rescue the people in the raft…
We broke out at 200 feet and found a US Navy Research Ship, maintaining headway only. They told us they were taking 40 foot waves, had 60 knots of wind, gusting to 80 knots and could not attempt a rescue and they were almost in extremis themselves. We climbed back into the cloud deck and headed back to our buoy, hoping the raft would still be fairly close to it. As we were bouncing along, I continued to talk to Bermuda and the flight station came on ICS and said they had the Coast Guard C-130 inbound. I told flight to coordinate with them and get them into the area.
Bermuda came up with an option of launching the rescue helo, but it was limited to 100 nm range and would need steers to get to the raft. We went back down and relocated the raft, and determined it was drifting away from the buoy pretty quickly. We went down the drift line and placed another buoy and a smoke, coordinated air to air with the Coasties, and got them down to 300 feet and in trail with us staying at 200 feet.
Once they had the scene, we turned back toward Bermuda and told them to launch the helo, and we would meet them VFR just before the first feeder band. About 20 minutes later, we popped out of the feeder bands at 2000 feet to see the UH-1 (Huey) heading toward us and low. Flight indicated they had comms and had told the helo to stay 200 and below. We descended to 300 and slowed to 180 knots; started S-turning to allow the helo to follow us back out. We were getting bounced around pretty good, in and out of rain bands and talking to both the helo and Coastie C-130. The Coasties were telling us the raft was continuing to drift, they estimated it was 015 at 95nm, I told them 30 minutes for us to get back on scene with the helo in tow.
The helo aircraft commander (HAC) was telling us they were getting beaten up pretty good, and again stated 100nm max limit to attempt the rescue. As we passed 95nm, the HAC called again and asked how far. Flight said 7 miles to the C-130 which was orbiting the raft. The HAC came back with a standby…
Meanwhile, I’m still talking to Bermuda, giving them updates and trying to get a plot to figure out where we actually are. The HAC comes on and says he has the C-130 in sight, and estimates we are at 103nm from Bermuda; he thinks he has three to four minutes to attempt a rescue. We immediately climb to 10000 feet and get a fix, and in fact we are 104nm from Bermuda. The HAC comes on again and says he has the raft in sight one person in the water, he will low hover and only deploy the horse collar, no basket.
We start another descent, as the HAC calls one in the helo, collar out again another person in the water; I report to Bermuda via Jax as we continue to descend. The HAC reports second person in the helo, third and last person in the water and he wants a steer as this will be a drag recovery.
Flight clears the Coast Guard C-130 to the East and asked them to check on the research ship before they went home; we continue to descend, and I report three saved to Bermuda, and that both the we and helo are enroute. Now we just have to find the helo again…
We descend to 300 feet and pop out about two miles behind the helo. As we pass overhead, we tell them 85nm 187 to Bermuda. The HAC comes back thinking he will have enough gas, but it’s going to be close… We S-turn in front of the helo until he tells us they have Bermuda in the TACAN and he’s running on fumes. We climb and give the helo the priority for landing.
We land about 15 minutes later, as we taxi in, the HAC calls to tell us he flamed out one engine while he was air taxiing back to his hangar. As we pull into the parking spot, the linesman is directing us and shaking his head simultaneously…
We throw the ladder down and walk off the aircraft at 1800, it was a LONG four hours…
Remember the lightning strike? Well, as it turns out there were multiple strikes on the nose radome, at least three holes, the strikes burned the arrestor material off the radome, softened it , and collapsed the radome over the antenna, locking it in position, that explained why the forward radar wouldn’t work. We were also missing the tail cone from the MAD system in the tail section. The lightning strikes burned the bolts off and blew the foot long tail cone off somewhere over the Atlantic. To add insult to injury, all of the static wicks on the aircraft were burned off, and the lightning arrestor in the cabin was melted.
The rest of the story- The next morning we received a call from Base Ops, they wanted the crew at Ops to meet the folks we had assisted in saving. We loaded up and went over and met both the rescuees and the helo crew. The HAC told me they had just installed a new collapsible fuel bladder in the Huey, otherwise they would never have been able to make the rescue and when he landed he was showing less than 300lbs of fuel remaining!
To this day I remember the comment from one of the rescuees, he said, “I knew when I saw the P-3 we were saved.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him how close they came to NOT being saved… It turned out the three guys were ferrying a 65 foot Nautor Swan sailboat from Gibraltar to Annapolis and got caught by a rogue wave. The wave knocked the mast over, causing severe leaks and the sinking. All three were ex-Royal Navy, and one was an ex-rescue swimmer; that is what allowed them to be saved in three minutes!
They had all been through training and knew all the procedures! I understand the helo pilot was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the rescue. For us, it was just another ready one, albeit with a twist…
Ironically, in the 22 years I flew and participated in SARs, this was the ONLY time I ever met the folks we rescued after the rescue.