Five daring helicopter crews on five very bad days.

The rugged and reliable Sikorsky HH-60 Jayhawk, here in a demonstration near Yorktown, Virginia, is the Coast Guard’s only medium-range search-and-rescue helicopter. It can loiter over a target for 45 minutes, and bring back six survivors. (USCG / Jacquelyn Zettles)
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The morning after Hurricane Floyd tore through the Carolinas in the fall of 1999, the weather for flying was perfect. Which was a good thing, because Curt Pool and his Marine Corps crew needed as much time as possible to rescue residents and motorists who had been stranded—or worse—by rising flood waters.

Pool and copilot Shane Hill were flying a Boeing Vertol CH-46D, a long-in-the-tooth warbird officially dubbed the Sea Knight but, because of its homely looks, popularly known as the Phrog. “There’s nothing sexy about it,” Pool says, “but it’s fun to fly, and with the twin rotors, you don’t get pushed around too much by the wind, which makes it a good search-and-rescue platform.”

Pool launched out of the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, in search of motorists whose cars had been engulfed in water. But as soon as the crew arrived on the scene, it was besieged with emergency calls from local police, and the helicopter spent the rest of the day criss-crossing the area in search of survivors. Pool and Hill swapped flying duties according to which had the better visual reference for hovering. Among other missions, rescue swimmer Corey Beem plucked a trucker from a tree. Flight surgeon Mark Pressley treated a driver who had suffered a heart attack. And Corpsman David Clipson was center stage for not one but two high-intensity rescues.

The first involved a family of four who had taken refuge in the attic of their three-story house in Nashville County. By the time the Phrog arrived, water was rising past the second floor. Pool hovered 50 feet over the roof between trees and power lines, but almost as soon as crew chief Ed Morris started winching Clipson down to the house, the system “birdcaged,” locking the rescuer in a useless position. So Clipson was hauled back up into the chopper, where he set up a rope he could use to rappel down to the roof, manually controlling his own descent and then relying on the helicopter to short-haul him to safety. Clipson landed on the roof, climbed onto a ledge, and entered the attic through a dormer window. Many round-trips later, the family was safe.

With the house evacuated, Clipson repacked his rope so he could again use it for rappelling. A few hours later, it came in handy: The helicopter was dispatched to rescue two firefighters stranded in a small boat—one they had been using for swift-water rescue operations, ironically—whose motor had died. The raging floodwaters had pinned them against a giant pine tree, and the large branches obscured them from above. So Clipson rappelled down to the water, and the helicopter inched him toward the boat. Then, disaster.

“You need a stable hover reference,” Pool says. “If you’re looking at the water and it’s moving, it gives you the impression that you need to move, so you start drifting.” Just as Clipson reached the boat, he was dunked in the water. His waterlogged gear dragged him under and he nearly drowned. But he was able to grab the edge of the boat and muscle his way back up to the surface. “Can you guys help me out?” he asked the firefighters, but they shook their heads, afraid that if they moved the boat would capsize.

Clipson found a branch to support one foot, and he flopped into the boat like a hooked fish. Eventually, the helicopter short-hauled both firefighters through the tree branches to safety, bringing the crew’s rescue tally for the day to nearly a dozen. “It was crazy,” Clipson says. “That was truly a case where reality was better than a made-up story.”


Shortly after midnight, on a warm summer night in 1968, a nimble Kaman UH-2A/B Seasprite launched off the destroyer Preble in the Gulf of Tonkin and flew along the coast of North Vietnam.

A few hours earlier, naval aviators John Holtzclaw and John Burns had ejected after their F-4J Phantom was hit by a missile. Still, LeRoy Cook, flying in the left seat as copilot of the helicopter, didn’t expect to be dispatched on a search-and-rescue operation.

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