The Long Blue Line: A tragedy remembered — SS Marine Electric sinking 40 years ago, Part Two

By United States Coast Guard Retired Captain Mont J. Smith, Jr.


This continues U.S. Coast Guard Retired Capt. Smith’s three-part eyewitness account of the search for and rescue of the Marine Electric’s surviving crew. The first part appeared last Friday, and the series will conclude on Wednesday. Part one left off with the crew fighting snow and freezing temperatures, and was closing within about three miles of the ship … 

I gradually descended to 200 feet AGL and called for the Precision Approach to a Coupled Hover (PATCH) checklist. It was snowing harder and harder. I briefed the PATCH: 

In the event we are not visual with the surface at 50 feet with hover power established, Doppler hover indicator centered, and flood/hover lights on, engage the hover coupler on my command, and scan outside for a visual reference. If you are visual and ascertain that you can maintain a safe hover, take the controls, call out ‘my aircraft,’ and I will shift from instrument scan to outside reference and back you up. If you are not visual, so state, and I will direct you to ‘crank me down’ to 40 feet on the altitude potentiometer. We will go no lower than 30 feet without visual reference to the water. In the event we cannot get visual or cannot establish a safe hover, I will execute an instrument go-around by pickling off the altitude hold, setting the nose attitude on the artificial horizon, pulling in 95% dual engine torque. Call a positive rate of climb and back me up on the power settings. Passing 100 feet, I will lower the nose 1-2 degrees to gain forward airspeed. Monitor and call out my altitude and airspeed. At 50 knots, I will transition to a steady-state climb attitude, reduce power to 86% continuous and climb at 80 knots. 

We started a straight-in PATCH into the wind. At 50 feet, Lt. Pete Spence coupled the hover and called visual. I shifted my scan from the instruments to outside. We had a comfortable visibility of maybe two miles in scattered snow showers. I looked to my right and saw that we were maybe a half-mile away from the other two helicopters, forming an eerie scouting line in the darkness. Bathed in reflection from flood/hover lights, rotating red anti-collision beacons and white strobes, their helicopter main rotors were kicking up sea spray that blew away behind them in a fine sparkling mist.  

I decided to try to maintain a safe altitude of 30 feet or so to stay above my rotor wash yet be close enough to the water to observe the debris field and search for survivors.  

Could he be alive? 

We air-taxied forward and side to side, the big cockpit side windows fully open so we could see clearly out as debris rose and fell on each wave crest. I was cold, even with the heavy wet suits we wore. Ice was forming around the windshield wipers on the forward cockpit windscreen. Pete in the left seat, and the hoist operator behind me in the big cabin door, were watching for any signs of survivors.  

We began to see lifeless bodies floating erect in old World War II-style kapok life jackets. Incredibly, many appeared to be dressed in nothing more than pajamas or work clothes. They were ghostly white and limp, bathed in the illumination of our lights. We scanned the first person we encountered very intently. His eyes were wide open. He looked to be in his 50s, with grey hair. His right arm was raised, and as he rose and fell on each wave it seemed to beckon us. I was reminded of Ahab in the novel Moby Dick. We all began to chatter on the Intercom System (ICS). 

Pilot: “What do you think? Could he be alive?” 

Flight mechanic: “Yeah, maybe he’s so hypothermic, it’s all he can do to move his arm!” 

Co-pilot: “Maybe he’s trying desperately to get our attention!” 

Corpsman: “If you can get him into the helicopter, I can revive him with the oxygen!” 

Avionicsman: “I’ll go down on the hoist, commander!” 

It happened like that, although I can’t recall anyone’s exact words. Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch volunteered to ride the hoist, and we all mulled over the circumstances and the possible consequences, but in the end, it was my decision as aircraft commander to accept or reject the risk. Only later did I contemplate the possible consequences of our actions.  

Was it really a reasonable thing to put a crewman in the water? We were trained in water survival, but it’s one thing to get in a pool once a year and practice putting on your wet suit, inflating your life vest and climbing in and out of a raft. It’s another thing to be in the open ocean, untethered, dealing with slashing seas and a hurricane-force rotor wash — and that’s just considering your own survival. What about struggling to help another individual who may be incapacitated? Or the danger of getting entangled in debris? Or encountering “creatures of the deep?” There were literally dozens of considerations. 

In retrospect, I realized this was very hasty and ill-advised. Yet here we were, pondering this potential life or death situation. We all felt helpless. The only way to describe our emotion was compelling. We were looking at another human in acute distress, and it was a universal feeling. There was no way to know if the man was dead or alive, but we had to try something.  

Pesch volunteered again without prompting. “I’ll go down on the hoist, commander!” 

I decided to send Pesch down in the rescue basket. There was a brief discussion about whether or not we should tether him to a trail line (a 200-foot length of polypropylene line). He decided it would be too easy to get tangled up with the rescue basket and hoist cable.  

“Rescue checklist complete!” the flight mechanic reported.  

“Go on hot mike and conn me in,” I responded.  

He was hands free and able to transmit continuous advisories over ICS. He activated the hoist and paid out slack, attaching the hook to the rescue basket on the cabin floor, in which Pesch was now sitting. Pesch was equipped with a standard aircrew flotation vest. It was a net mesh affair with two large compartments under each arm containing a CO2 cylinder and a folded air bladder. When activated, the bladders would inflate, creating a large kidney shaped float under each armpit. His vest also contained sea dye marker, shark repellent, a high-energy strobe light, and a whistle. If separated from the victim, he could at least help himself a little by inflating the vest and signaling us for pick-up.  

“On hot mike, how do you hear?” started the flight mechanic.  

“Loud and clear,” I replied.  

“The survivor is at two o’clock. Conn me in.”  

“Roger. Forward and right 20 feet … basket’s going out the door and down.” I applied slight pressure to the cyclic control between my knees. I had to overcome the tendency of the force trim system designed to keep the flight controls centered for a stable hover. After overcoming inertia, 10 tons of big helicopter began to respond ever so slowly. “Basket’s 10 feet above the water. Forward and right 15 … forward and right 12.”  

“Lost target!” 

The victim was now so close to the nose of the helicopter that I could no longer see him. I advised the flight mechanic I no longer had a visual reference and was depending solely on his advisories. The challenge now became resisting false sensations of movement created by the churning seas outside my window. I was peering through a haze of sea spray, rotor wash and violently heaving seas. I couldn’t trust myself to read the aircraft’s relative motion by judging the visual clues, like the trail of foam on the back of receding waves.  

I had to trust the eyes of the flight mechanic. He had to move the aircraft by instructing me, always anticipating both the movement of the basket in gusting wind and rotor wash, and allowing for the time delay between his words and my reaction. 

“Roger, lost target. Target is in sight at two o’clock. Basket’s five feet above the water. Down five. Move right five … hold … forward five … hold. Up three! Forward and right three … forward easy … hold. Basket’s in the water. Paying out slack. Clear to move left and aft. Up 10!”  

Join us for the final part this Wednesday, Aug. 23. 

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The Long Blue Line: A tragedy remembered

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