DC-3 Ditching Northeast of Hilo
by Art Ladley CAPT USCG (Ret) CG Aviator 724
Another adventure story! It happened this way. About 1:30 PM on the afternoon of March 7, 1969, a DC-3 inbound to Honolulu from Oakland reported he was past the mid-point and was losing oil from #2 engine. The DC-3 pilot requested a precautionary intercept and altered course for Hilo on the Big Island. One may wonder why a DC-3, a twin-engine transport, was making such a long overwater flight. In fact this type of operation was not an unusual way to ferry planes of this size and smaller to such places as Australia and New Zealand. To get back to the story however, we decided to divert an HC-130B training flight that was over near Maui to make the intercept. LT Bill Rollins was the aircraft commander of that plane and quickly headed out to intercept the DC-3 with an on-scene estimate of 5:30 PM. About an hour or so later the pilot of the DC-3 reported that he was shutting down (and feathering #2) while he still had some oil. Suddenly the complexion of the case had changed. With only one engine operating the DC-3s speed was reduced dramatically and the other engine had to be run at higher power to keep the plane in the air. Could he make it to Hilo? If he didn’t and had to ditch, Bill Rollins’ C-130 might not have the loiter time left to ensure that the planes position could be marked and survival equipment dropped. At this point I elected to launch another C-130 with myself as AC, LT Bruce Clark as copilot and LTJG Duane Jefts as navigator. Within twenty minutes we were on our way, passing Diamond Head and climbing through 5000 feet.
As we proceeded to rendezvous with Bill Rollin’s C-130 and the DC-3, communications were paramount. Both Coast Guard C-130s (Bill and his crew in the 1348 and myself and my crew in the 1351) were controlled for the mission by the 14th Coast Guard District Rescue Coordination Center (Honolulu RCC) using high-frequency radio. Both C-130s and the DC-3 also were controlled for air traffic purposes by the FAA using VHF and HF frequencies.
With about forty minutes left before rendezvous time, the pilot of the DC-3, who was then in constant VHF radio contact with Bill Rollins, reported that he was now losing oil on his remaining engine and planned to ditch before sunset while the engine was still running. Wow! It now looked like Bill and his crew would have to depart scene just as we arrived to relieve them. I had Bruce Clark get us a descent clearance to cruise below 5000′. Bill Rollins was at
1000′ and the DC-3 had dropped to 500′. Things were happening fast. In short order we had a visual on Rollin’s C-130. Bill said the DC-3 was just ahead of him and below on a course of 240 magnetic. He had already discussed possible ditching headings with the DC-3 in consideration of the wind and swells. While the weather was typical VFR trade wind type, there were also scattered to broken clouds at about 800′. And now the time was just before 6 PM, Honolulu time. The sun was sinking fast! Suddenly the DC-3 pilot announced that he planned to ditch in about two minutes. Bruce Clark, my copilot called out that he had the DC-3 in sight at one-o’clock low at about two miles. I continued descending to just below the thin clouds and observed the DC-3 make a shallow turn to the north and suddenly he was on the water in cloud of spray. Quickly we were overhead and dropped a smoke marker, having already completed our equipment drop check and opened our ramp at the rear of the plane. As we came back for another pass we could see three people on the port wing of the DC-3 which appeared to have survived the ditching impact intact. The sun had already set and the gloom of the short tropical twilight was at hand. On our next pass we didn’t see any people on or near the plane but we dropped a raft which was packed with a variety of survival equipment. We already knew that the DC-3 had its own raft, etc., but we couldn’t be sure that it’d been deployed.
In the meanwhile Honolulu RCC was doing their usual first class job to support us by looking at the known vessel plots to determine if there was a nearby ship to assist us and by alerting the 76th Air Rescue Squadron at Hickam AFB for possible help. Now the waiting game began as we tried to determine if the three DC-3 crewmen were safely in a raft. We continually orbited the ditching scene using lighted floats that we periodically dropped while we scanned the surface for any sign of lights hopefully coming from people in a raft. Also we monitored various radio frequencies that might come from a raft. Our position at this time was about 300 miles northeast of Hilo. In short order RCC advised that the 76ARS had one of their C-130s en route with a rescue jumper aboard. Can you believe that there are people gutsy enough to jump out of a plane, at night, in the middle of the ocean, just to see if some people are safe or need help? RCC had some other good news. The M/V Hawaiian Monarch, a freighter, was only about 50 miles northwest of us heading towards San Francisco. However RCC was unable to establish any radio contact with them. The problem of contacting merchant vessels was not unusual but always frustrating. We could have departed our position, flown to the ship, made some low passes and hopefully established radio contact. But we felt that it was far more important to keep
our position with respect to where the DC-3 had ditched lest we couldn’t locate it again. The Pacific Ocean is an unimaginably large space to be lost in!
Now the 76ARS C-130 was on scene above us and decided (I assume with the concurrence of the rescue jumper) to have their jumper parachute to the locale of our float lights (We now had two or three burning close to each other). While we maneuvered clear, the 76ARS plane came in and quickly dropped their jumper who was to report his status by radio ASAP. Eagerly we all listened on the frequency for the rescue jumper’s call. The silence for the next few minutes was almost unbearable. Then the pilot of the 76th ARS C-130 decided to drop another rescue jumper! In short order there were now two Air Force jumpers in the water with no word from either one. What was happening below? These Air Force men were superbly trained and their equipment was highly reliable and well checked out. However except for the float lights we never had a radio transmission or saw another light except for the float lights. Of course the low scudding clouds didn’t help either.
About 10:30 p.m., RCC advised that the M/V Hawaiian Monarch was altering course to assist. Now I was starting to be concerned about my fuel state. But with the Air Force C-130 also orbiting over the ditching site we were able to head off to the Hawaiian Monarch, establish radio contact with the ship and ensure they were heading towards the ditching scene. And so the long night continued as we returned to scene and orbited with 76th ARS C-130. The Air Force pilots had wonderful confidence in their rescue jumpers and assumed they were safe on the water, at least in their own rafts and just incommunicado for whatever strange reasons.
At midnight our C-130 was relieved by another Coast Guard C-130 from Barbers Pt. We traded all the necessary information and headed for home. About twenty minutes before landing, RCC called to advise that a Navy tug, the USS Molala, had been located closer to the ditching scene, had been alerted, and had just picked up the two rescue jumpers and the three DC-3 crewman, all in good condition and with no injuries. It had been a long day and a longer night but we all felt a great sense of relief and thanksgiving. We learned later that the pilot of the DC-3 was Don Wharton, a former Coast Guard pilot with lots of experience flying across the Pacific. He’d picked up a bit more that night!