From their first appearance in military operations, when they were sent to ferry supplies during the closing months of World War II, helicopters have been pressed into service to rescue the endangered and the wounded. With the ability to fly low and slow, hover in one spot, and land virtually anywhere, rotary-wing aircraft turned out to be the perfect search-and-rescue vehicles. But the attributes that make the helicopter so useful also make it vulnerable, in combat zones, to enemy fire. And its utility has not been without cost: For every seven men saved during the Vietnam War, notes a Naval Air Command study, one rescue crew was lost. Such statistics help explain how helicopter crews earn reputations for uncommon bravery.
These five search-and-rescue missions showcase the remarkable capabilities—and flexibility—of the helicopter and the pilots who fly it.
The Sikorsky HH-60 Jayhawk was hovering rock-steady over the water, but the radar altimeter kept fluctuating wildly between 100 and 30 feet. Not because there was something wrong with the instrument, but because the waves roiling beneath the Coast Guard helicopter were cresting at 70 feet.
Think about that for a moment: waves the height of a seven-story building. And floating in those angry, froth-filled seas, being tossed around like a rubber duck in the bathtub of a petulant child, was a raft holding three shipwrecked sailors.
It was May 7, 2007, and earlier that morning, Jean Pierre de Lutz, Rudy Snel, and Ben Tye had abandoned ship after their 44-foot cutter Sean Seamour II capsized off North Carolina during Tropical Storm Andrea. (Two other boats also went down in that storm, and one disappeared without a trace along with its charter crew of four.) Although the three managed to launch a raft, their emergency homing device failed, and they’d resigned themselves to being lost at sea. Even after they were spotted by a Coast Guard C-130, they assumed the appalling conditions made rescue impossible. Obviously, they weren’t familiar with the immensely capable Jayhawk. “It’s really a monster truck with two jet engines and a huge fuel tank in the back,” says the helicopter’s commander, Nevada Smith.
The C-130 vectored the chopper to the raft, where pilot Aaron Nelson fought rain and violent headwinds to maneuver into position. (Although the airspeed indicator showed 70 knots, the ground speed was zero.) While Nelson hovered at 100 feet, flight mechanic Scott Higgins lowered rescue swimmer Drew Dazzo by winch into the water, timing his splashdown so that he entered on the back side of a wave. Dazzo unhooked from the cable so it could be retracted back into the helicopter, then swam to the raft. When he got there, he draped an elbow over the side and matter-of-factly asked the dazed sailors, “How you all doing?”
De Lutz was in the worst shape; he’d broken ribs, and hypothermia was making him slip in and out of consciousness. Dazzo held both arms over his head to signal that he needed a rescue basket, so Higgins winched it down, and Dazzo took de Lutz up. When he returned to the water, Dazzo was swamped by a wave the size of a drive-in movie screen. The wave ripped the mask off his face and inundated him with saltwater. Nevertheless, he managed to take Snel up. Then, after securing Tye inside the basket, he sunk the raft by puncturing it with his knife, so another Coast Guard crew wouldn’t see it and attempt a rescue. So far, so good. But as Higgins winched Tye up to the helo, he felt the cable starting to fray. Dazzo, meanwhile, was vomiting and fighting for breath as he fought the powerful seas. Exhausted, he flashed the emergency pickup signal. Higgins disconnected the basket and immediately lowered a bare hook into the water. Dazzo hooked it to himself, and was hoisted into the bird. The process wrenched his back badly, but he and the three shipwrecked sailors were alive.
The rescue operation took 28 minutes. During that time, the helicopter flew backward 1.8 miles to maintain station on the raft. Once the men were back at the base, the air crew gorged on sandwiches left over from an airshow that had been canceled because of the storm. “We were euphoric,” Smith says. “In military aviation, you’re naturally paranoid because you’re always waiting for something to go wrong. But that day was why you join the Coast Guard, why you become a rescue swimmer, why you become a pilot.”