Last time in this column, a description of an oddball surprise which could conceivably befall any unsuspecting helicopter pilot was presented, and it implied that experiences which crop up in the environment inhabited by Coast Guard operators represent only a single category in an almost infinite variety of obstacles to safety unavoidable across the composite spectrum of rotary wing aviation. Being ambushed by cruise ship passengers armed with flash cameras is indeed one somewhat comical hazard to helicopter operations, easily nullified, it turns out, but darker, more subtly unexpected threats also exist, and they, with equal certainty, must also be neutralized.
On one beautiful Saturday morning our Coast Guard Air Station was advised that a crewman was known, within a very few minutes, to have gone over the side of a large freight-carrying vessel in the Mona Passage, west of Puerto Rico. Calm weather and the anticipated simplicity of the search problem promised an uncomplicated mission, so we launched immediately, and were able to locate the wide, smooth wake of the large freighter quickly, about thirty miles aft of the vessel itself.
Searching for a single survivor in the water is never completely easy, but the broad, glassy surface left behind the 800-ft ship presented perfect conditions for spotting a swimmer.
After only a few minutes of straight-line tracking we were treated to the sight of our apparent rescue subject, but he was not swimming. He was sitting very proudly upright, vigorously paddling a bright yellow life raft. We informed San Juan SAR Coordination Center that we likely had our reported distress in sight, and then contacted the captain of the reporting vessel on Channel 16.
The skipper was upset and minced no words insisting that we return his crewman to the freighter, where, the infuriated CO assured, he would be confined and put on bread and water. Surprised by the unanticipated drama, and attempting to pacify all concerned, we calmly educated the captain to the reality that hoist operations are not a whimsically elected activity, and that we would attempt to recover the survivor and fly him to our station.
We were also beginning to appreciate the extraordinary strangeness of finding a single, casual “man overboard” equipped with his own life raft, and to wonder what might have driven him to be the lone crewman to abandon ship, though the captain’s discernibly harsh management style seemed a likely factor. Moreover, it seemed improbable to us that our deserter would peacefully agree in any case to be hoisted back to the vessel he had just risked life and limb to escape.
The hoist was easy, and our raft-paddling escape artist appeared to be in good physical condition, but he was dressed, somewhat oddly, in a long rain slicker. He told our flight crew that the captain had tried to kill him, which seemed believable to us at that point, and that he wanted to get away from the ship, so we headed back to the air station, allowing our rescuee the standard onboard freedoms normally afforded any able-bodied passenger.
After landing, as we taxied back to our hanger in Puerto Rico, I was mildly surprised to peripherally notice that one of our station-assigned FBI agents was present, apparently greeting our return. Shutting down, I looked back through the cargo door and my moderate surprise was elevated considerably when I saw that the duty G-Man had our survivor flat on his face, spread-eagled, with a pistol to his head.
Alongside our paddler, laid out on the ramp, were two western-style revolvers and a long samurai sword.
It turns out that our rescue subject that day was a known seagoing lunatic, and, amazingly, he had somehow concealed all that weaponry under his raincoat. Our FBI Agent had figured out the identity of this wanted maritime felon, previously arrested for attempting sabotage of international shipping, just before we landed.
The moral of this story is that helicopter operational safety challenges can range far beyond normal aviation parameters and considerations, and that if an unusual story line seems to be unfolding around any given mission, frisk your passengers and be skeptical. Be very, very skeptical.