Safety

‘Never Alone’

By By Terry Terrell | December 1, 2015


By Terry Terrell

Watching the television news reports covering the very sad search attempts last July aimed at finding the two teenage boys whose boat capsized off Jupiter, Florida, I was reminded of a sometimes irreplaceable helicopter performance feature that will never appear highlighted in a descriptive reference or sales brochure.

U.S. Coast Guard aircraft flew precise search patterns for more than a week—a period that accommodated all possible expectation of survival for the boys—without finding any trace of them. I then remembered a similar search conducted during a past Christmas.

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That search yielded an unforeseen but absolutely invaluable product, saving a life in a completely unexpected way. It proved that the mere presence of a helicopter can occasionally accomplish a specifically needed miracle.

Back then, two experienced scuba divers were enjoying an outing in a 25-ft Boston Whaler off the west end of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. They persisted with their diving activities despite increasing winds and roughening seas.

As they returned to the surface, they found their anchored boat partially swamped, taking more water over the bow every moment. Their rugged vessel featured extensive built-in flotation and was in no danger of sinking outright, but it did eventually become completely awash.

The veteran boaters climbed into their craft, now floating just under the surface, and attempted to minimize gear loss. They decided their strategy would be to have one of them stay with the boat in an attempt to save it and their equipment, while the other swam to the beach a few hundred yards away. The swimmer reached St. Thomas by nightfall, alerting our Coast Guard station, and the Search and Rescue Coordination Center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, asked us to launch.

After arriving on scene, we began a wheel-and-spoke pattern over a datum position identified very precisely, since the divers’ position was known when the swimmer left the distressed boat and the exact timeline was understood. We flew all night but could never spot the survivor.

The next morning, the weather worsened. The 5-ft chop that had swamped the divers became seas with tops blowing off whitecaps. The search area became larger and larger, expanding every hour due to compounding time/datum movement analysis. But the SAR coordinators knew ocean current patterns and rates, and could calculate wind effects on an immersed small boat. So we continued to search, flying our pattern hundreds of times and moving its center gradually west with current and wind effects.

We kept our Sikorsky HH-3F flying 24 hr a day, with fresh crews enlarging and moving our search patterns slowly westward, for four days. We all looked for some flash of light or color in the vast chaos of foamy streaks. We stuck with the search longer than we might normally have, since the lost individual was young and known to be a competent and fit swimmer, with likely access to good flotation.

On the morning of the fifth day, we were treated to the astonishing news that the survivor had been located on dry land in Puerto Rico. (Our search area had migrated almost to the eastern shore of the main island.) He had walked up on a beach in the northeastern town of Fajarado (about 40 nm west of St. Thomas), flagged down a car and reported his own survival immediately because he knew we were likely flying ourselves into advanced fatigue trying to find him.

I met our survivor later and was amazed at how appreciative he was of what we did, even though we had never been able to see or assist him directly. He expressed great regret in having had no lights, mirrors, beacons or radios, and no way of signaling us all that time.

Yet he said that he watched us fly over very closely hundreds of times, sometimes so close that he could read the small lettering on our aircraft. He said that without us, he would have given up. But he felt that he was never alone and consequently maintained good survival morale.

After the “failed” search for the Florida teens, it strikes me that there are times in a variety of settings of rotary-wing assistance—including EMS, wildfire control and law enforcement—when the mere presence of helicopters above can prove immeasurably valuable.

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