Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:09 PM
The night-vision image in the rescue helicopter showed a downed pilot in a life raft bobbing 35 miles from the Atlantic shoreline, but when Brian Fogle got ready to plunge down to him, the midnight sky and sea melded into inky blackness.
And then he stepped out that door and slid down a line into the rolling dark ocean.
“The hard part was not being able to see anything,” Fogle later recalled.
The signal had come to the Coast Guard 20 to 30 minutes before 11 p.m. Thursday: A D.C. Air National Guard F-16C was down in the Atlantic after touching wings with another F-16 at 10:28 p.m. Air Force officials had no comment Friday on the cause of the costly accident.
The F-16s — which retail for upward of $18 million each — had been taking part in routine night training about 35 miles off the coast of Chincoteague Island, Va. when they collided. The second plane was damaged but not so crippled it couldn’t limp home to Joint Base Andrews just outside the Capital Beltway in Prince George’s County, Md.
All the Coast Guard knew at that point was that the pilot of the downed fighter jet was somewhere out there in the ocean.
The life of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescue crew ranges from routine to boring about 99 percent of the time, but the sliver that makes up the rest is a mix of high adventure, great challenge and sometimes enormous risk.
Every night a “ready” crew of four and an equal number of backups while their time near their big MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters in places such as the Coast Guard Air Station in Elizabeth City, N.C., a coastal town just south of the Virginia line.
Sometimes they are called out when pleasure craft or fishing boats founder in the tricky currents as the Gulf Stream whips around Cape Hatteras. Now and then a cruise-ship passenger or a cargo-ship crew member stricken with illness or injury need to be hoisted from the deck and whisked to a hospital.
Rarely, however, do Air Force jet fighters end up in the ocean after dark.
“This does not happen very often,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Steve Bonn, who piloted the helicopter. “Going out and picking up a military jet pilot who collided with another jet or simply ejected for any reason is a very rare occurrence for us.”
“There were a lot of severe thunderstorms coming through the area. We were luckily able to skirt out to the east of the storms,” Bonn said.
Even with that signal beacon, they needed help finding their way until they hovered just above.
“We heard information that there was another F-16 from their squadron that had stayed on station and was orbiting overhead to keep an eye on their squadron-mate who was in the water,” Boon said. “We were able to get communications with him about halfway out there. He was able to relay communications with the pilot who was in the water.”
The pilot was reported as awake and alert but suffering from a painful leg injury. The helicopter crew quickly assembled a rescue stretcher.
“Once we got close we were able to have the pilot ignite one of his signal flares to let us see exactly where he was. It took a little bit of searching because it was so dark after his flare went out,” Bonn said.
Finally, they saw him bobbing below and Fogle — with swim fins, a face mask, a snorkel and rescue gear — plunged out the door and swam to the life raft.
“I introduced myself; he introduced himself,” Fogle said. “He was alert, responsive and in somewhat good spirits.”
The task was to get him out of the raft without causing enormous pain.
“We decided to pop the [inflatable] raft out from underneath him,” Fogle said. “That way he wouldn’t have to roll out of it.”
As Bergman lowered a long basket from 70 feet above, Fogle cut away lines and other debris that might tangle the process. Then he swam to the lowered basket and pulled it to the pilot’s side.
“Putting an injured person in a litter while it’s floating in the middle of the ocean at night when it’s pitch black is one of the most challenging things they have to do,” Bonn said. “It takes a little bit of time.”
Bonn pulled far enough away so that the chopper’s rotors didn’t blow around the two men below, but close enough so they remained in his spotlights.
Fogle tried to be gentle in easing the pilot into the basket.
“I gave it the thumbs up and they hoisted the pilot to the aircraft,” Fogle said. “This is hands-down the most rewarding rescue I’ve ever done. I’ve never had the opportunity to help one of our own military members.”
The names of the two F-16 pilots were not released. Both were taken to the medical clinic at Andrews. One was released while the pilot who crashed was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. for treatment of what were described as minor injuries.
“We are extremely fortunate to have lost only metal, and not the life of one of our Airmen,” Brig. Gen. Marc Sasseville, commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews, said in a statement. He praised the quick reaction to the downing.
“The mishap is under investigation and our findings will be used to continually improve our operations to provide the safest possible training,” he said. “The military has some of the best and most highly-trained people in the world, which reduced the potential magnitude of this incident.”
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