Search and Rescue 1960’s

Ray Copin, CG Aviator 744

This is a story about an unusual search and rescue flight in the mid 1960’s. The aircraft was an HC-130B Lockheed Hercules. The CG air station,at San Francisco International Airport,was situatedon the Bay east of the main San Francisco runway (28-10).

At that time at San Francisco, we flew three different models of aircraft: the HC-130B, the Grumman amphibian Albatross (HU-16/SA-16) and the Sikorsky amphibious helicopter (HH-52A). I was a rated aircraft commander in alland flew various missions in each during my three year assignment at that air station.

The station included an aircraft ramp into a lagoon connected to the Bay, a large hangar, a building with offices,and another with basic accommodations for ready crews. In those days, the Coast Guard was short of pilots,so we rotated each day on a one-in-three basis. This meant that one of three days we were at the air station for a 24 hour ready crew stint ready to launch in any of the three models of aircraft depending on the day or night mission. On one of the other three days, we were on ‘standby’ for 24 hours required to keep the air station informed of our whereabouts so we could be telephoned to come in if necessary. We didn’t have cell phones nor pagers then. During regular business weekday hours on our ‘standby’ day and also on the third of the three days, we were at the air station for various duties and training. Only on Saturday and Sunday and national Holidays, barring a recall alert, we could enjoy being home for the day and night. When on duty at the air station, we slept with flight gear close to our bunk for rapid access and dressing. At one end of that building,on a second floor, we had a coffee bar positioned at a large window facing across the runway toward the San Francisco terminal.

Before proceeding with the main story, I’ll mention two of my San Francisco air station memories.

  1. At the window looking toward the terminal, we monitored San Francisco tower communications and could follow takeoff and landing instructions.One very windy day, several of us relaxed at the window as a high wing Cessna private aircraft landed on runway 28 into a stiff wind from the west, flowing through what was known as “the gap,” literally a gap in the hills between the runway and the ocean. We watched as the Cessna made a mistake after landing. It turned too quickly to the left toward the terminal putting the wind under the right wing, and sure enough, over went the aircraft on its back with its propeller striking the surface several times. With little to do but observe, we watched the apparently sole occupant crawl out from the aircraft and run toward the terminal. I guess he made it to safety before his airplane was salvaged.
  2. On another night, I was turning into my bunkas ready pilot and senior duty officer when our gate guard phoned saying a sports car had made it as far as our gate but was turned away with instructions back to the highway. Instructions to turn right were not followed.The car turned left, andonto runway 28.That call from our ‘sentry’ was followed almost immediately by an alert from the control tower requesting assistance. I jumped into my flight gear and started toward our ready helicopter having learned a sports car had just gone the length of runway 28 heading toward,and ‘launching,’ into the bay at the end of the runway. With a crewman accompanying me, I started the HH-52 helicopter and took off, communicating with the tower. I thought initially we might be able to pick up a survivor.Not so. As we hovered near the end of the runway, limited to providing illumination, we observed airport fire department people wading into the water to recover the body of the auto driver. Shortly afterward, we were called off, returned to the air station,and eventually went back to sleep.

Now,to my C-130 tale:

On June 22, 1965, approaching midnight, I had just begun what I hoped would be a night of sleep when an alarm loudly announced “Possible SOS, launch the ready C-130.” I donned my flight suit and trotted to the operations center. Crewman were already boarding the ready C-130 to prepare for flight. I quickly learned a commercial airliner inbound from Hawaii had radioed seeing intermittent flashing lights from the ocean about 300 miles from San Francisco. With pre-takeoff checks complete and using a rescue call sign (CG Rescue 1350),we then took off about midnight, climbed and headed west toward the reported site of the lights. Approaching the area of the report, we descended through a cloud layer and, indeed, saw flashing lights from the surface. In those days, navigation was not as precise as it is today, but it was close enough for us to find the lights. We also could tell from our instruments the wind of 35-40 miles per hour would be pushing ocean waves. With no communication with whatever the flashing light source,first we had to mark the location with a candle-like float (drift signal of which we carried several of different sizes). We circled once at low altitude, opened the rear ramp, and prepared for a drop of a drift signal. As we came around into the wind, flying at 300 feet above the water at 150 knots(170 mph) headed toward the“lights,” I called “drop, drop, drop.” Away went a 15 minute drift signal. We flew in total darkness, on instruments and under clouds, no moon to help.

As we passed where the flashing lights were expected, nothing was seen by either those of us up front or crew in the back.I added power and pulled up, turning downwind. I climbed to 1,500 feet just under the cloud layer to drop a parachute flare. I flew downwind for a few minutes, then turned upwind. I was able to seethe small light from our drift signal and said ”Drop, drop.”Parachute flare away, I pulled power, nosed over, and descended in a tear drop maneuver to see the surface under the glow of the flare. A parachute flare would be very bright during its descent for about three minutes before hitting the water and going dark. We leveled off at 500 feet near the flare glow. No luck seeing the flashing lights. As we passed our initial drift signal, none of us saw anything helpful to identify the source of the flashing lights. So, again, I added power, pulled up and circled at 300 feet to place a long lasting drift signal in the water near our first one. We came around into the wind and could see our first marker and, once again, I called “drop, drop.” Again, this was in the dark on instruments. The crew aft called out “drop away,” and,instantly, we were enveloped in a very bright light silently all around us. Again, add power, pull back, get outa there!We climbed back to 1,500 feet to try another parachute flare. While maneuvering, communication with our crewman at the open ramp explained the bright light (which went dark during our climb out). Instead of dropping a longer lasting marker, he misunderstood and pushed out another parachute flare instead of a 45 minute drift signal. That flare had lighted up our world. The intended 45 minute marker was a Mark 6 drift signal. The flare was a Mark 6 parachute flare. As we maneuvered for another parachute drop, this time again from 1,500 feet, I had a lump in my throat wondering if we may have just dropped a parachute flare at low altitude on or into a darkened ship. I flew a few minutes more downwind before turning upwind hoping for a better chance of identifying the source of the originally reported flashing lights under our flare.

“Drop, drop.” As soon as I heard “drop away,” I pushed over the nose, pulled power, and circled again to get under our parachute flare. This time, identification success! There in the glow of our flare was a large sailboat with no sails flying. Later we learned the boat was a Trimaran headed to British Columbia from Hawaii that, in the waves, was starting to come apart. Hence, an intent to signal SOS resulted in just lights flashing because of the motion of the boat tossing in the waves. The occupants of the boat were not answering our calls on various international frequencies, and we did not drop a radio, believing there would be little chance of recovery by the boat.

We radioed our situation to the San Francisco CG Rescue Coordination Center. A C-130 was dispatched to relieve us,and a Coast Guard Cutter was ordered to depart San Francisco to assist the sailboat. We dropped a series of 45 minute drift signals near the Trimaran, and circled the boat’s position. I turned the controls over to my copilot. He took over and reversed the orbit so he could see our drift signal lights in the water. I enjoyed a break as night faded into a gray morning under the clouds. Abruptly, my copilot announced he had lost sight of the sailboat. Crew aft also had lost sight of the boat in the waves. We could see white caps on the waves.I took control and circled into the wind. I flew at 500 feet and begana square search pattern. A couple of minutes this way, then a turn to the right for a couple of minutes, then another turn and another. Today’s navigation would have made this easy but then, it was all timing. I remember thinking, “did the boat sink? ”Thankfully, after a few search ‘legs,’ a lookout in the back exclaimed “There it is!” As I turned the aircraft, I too, saw the boat. It looked in gray daylight as it had earlier in the dark under our flare. We’re still with them. Whew!

Shortly after that, our relief aircraft and buddies arrived to take over the orbit awaiting the surface Cutter. It was much lighter by then. We flew back to San Francisco. After landing, we were debriefed and went home to sleep. Just another day at work having logged another 9.7 hours of flight time on a SAR case, mostly at night.

A few final thoughts. During my 34 years in the Coast Guard, some at sea, some in offices, most flying, I noted many times that rescuers often did not meet the rescued and, in many cases, had little ‘feedback.’ Yes, there were occasional nice notes, but sometimes little else. In our case,l eventually learned the Trimaran had been towed to safety with all occupants surviving their ordeal at sea. From a then-and-now-vantage, both navigation and communication should be mentioned with a glance back in history. During my service,we flew with evolutions of technology in some of those areas. Both navigating and communicating were far superior than original pioneers endured with open cockpits, paper charts and few, if any, ways of communicating. With today’s electronics and satellites, aircraft can do things and go places in conditions beyond our capability not that many years ago.

The Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus(Always Ready). I’ll leave it at that except for an addendum showing and listing the aircraft during my time at the San Francisco Coast Guard Air Station.