On the morning of November 1, 1979, the Burmah Agate, inbound to Galveston Bay with a full load of fuel, collided with the outbound freighter Mimosa just outside the entrance to the Galveston Bay Entrance Channel. The Mimosa struck the Burmah Agate on its starboard side, tearing an 8 foot (2.4 m) by 15 foot (4.6 m) hole near Cargo Tank No. 5, and setting off an explosion that ignited the leaking oil. The tanker foundered, while the freighter remained under way, slowly circling about a dropped anchor.
LT J.C. Cobb, LTJG Christopher Kilgore, and AE2 Thomas Wynn were the assigned ready HH-52A aircrew at Coast Guard Air Station Houston, Texas and were due to be relieved at 0800 hours. They were awakened at 05:00 hours on Thursday, November 1, 1979 by a call on the Search and Rescue Telephone (SARTEL) from the Eighth Coast Guard District Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in New Orleans.
Cobb, the Senior Duty Officer, quickly proceeded to the air station operations center for a briefing. RCC reported a ship collision and a tanker on fire off the Galveston Sea Buoy. The announcement was made, “Put the ready helo on the line!” Kilgore met Wynn in the hangar bay as hangar doors opened and HH-52A 1426 was pushed back and spotted on the ramp. and Kilgore started the helicopter’s engine as soon as the aircraft cleared the hangar. Cobb arrived shortly thereafter. The run-up was complete, and rotor engagement quickly followed.
Although the reported position of the collision was almost 40 miles distant, the crew could observe from the ramp a glow on the horizon. As they lifted off at approximately 5:07 hours, a warning light indicated that the radar altimeter (RADALT) had failed. This would normally be a “downing” discrepancy for night flight over water, but both pilots agreed that lives were at stake and mission urgency dictated that they continue to the scene. Dawn would soon occur and they judged they would have daylight when on scene. In reality the fire would have created plenty of light on scene.
At 1426 they arrived on scene approximately 23 minutes later, flying at an airspeed of 95 knots with a 10 knot tailwind component. It was now 5:30 hours. The scene was dramatic. The tanker Burmah Agate was an inferno, fully engulfed, as was much of the water around it for a considerable distance, particularly aft of the vessel. Billowing clouds of impenetrable black smoke obscured much of the ship. Nearby, the freighter Mimosa was aflame as well.
Approaching the Burmah Agate, there seemed to be little that could be done, as it appeared unlikely that there would be any survivors still on board. The aircrew intended to pass from the stern, along the port side (windward and least involved), searching the vessel and the water. As the helicopter neared, and just after deploying the DMB, one of the forward tanks exploded. The fireball towered above them they were still at an altitude of 200 feet above the water. Suddenly, flying along the side of the vessel did not seem like such a good idea to the aircrew.
At that moment AE2 Wynn informed the pilots that he had two crewmen in sight in the air castle. Instantly after the command to rig the basket was given, the pilots heard “basket’s out the door,” followed by vectors. The helicopter slid into position at the same moment the basket reached the two survivors. The heat was intense and the air extremely turbulent. It was clear that the aircraft commander was not going to be able to hold a position this close to the vessel, but much to the pilots’ surprise they heard the hoist operator report, “two persons in the basket; basket coming up.” After only a brief moment in position, the helicopter slid off to the left, clear of the vessel and the towering flames.
With the two survivors on board, attention turned to Mimosa. The fire on that vessel was spreading from the forward area aft, toward the superstructure. All of the crew appeared to be crowded onto the port bridge wing. Over the next several minutes, 1426 hoisted 10 crew members in three hoists. Although the fire danger was not as immediate as on the Burmah Agate, the hoists became difficult nonetheless. When the basket was lowered, the ship’s crewmembers were all clamoring to get into it. All were grabbing for the basket at once. To make matters worse, the ship was underway, but without command of the rudder it was doing a constant 360 degree turn. Because of weight and wind, the helicopter could not follow the ship around. The situation was further complicated by the masts, wires, antennae and other gear above the bridge, necessitating a high hoist. The pilots allowed the ship to turn under them and passed control of the helo back and forth, depending on who had a visual reference on the ship at the time.
With 12 survivors now on board, space in the cabin was severely limited. The pilots decided to take them to a nearby manned oil platform and return to get others. Moving away from Mimosa, the pilots suddenly discovered that they had been receiving the benefit of updrafts on the windward side of the vessel, as well as the rising currents of air from the fire below. As the helicopter slid off to the side, the “bottom fell out.” A short breathless moment later, the blades bit into clean air as the pilots gained translational lift * in the descent, leveled off and flew away.
1426 returned to Mimosa twice, hoisting 6 survivors, then 4 more, for a total of 22 before reaching a critical fuel state. A second helicopter rescued five others from Mimosa propeller is an exciting story by itself. The entire operation, including containment and recovery of the spilled crude, would continue for months.
- *Note: Only an aviator with helicopter experience could appreciate the difficulty of remaining stationary into the wind while hovering out of ground effect and hoisting 10 more persons aboard under conditions of heavy smoke and multiple explosions. The helicopter’s ability to hover out of ground effect (in this case twenty-five feet above a stationary surface, was limited by it gross weight. It was calculated that the helicopter likely departed CGAS Houston with a typical ready fuel load of a full main tank (1200 pounds) and a conservative operational weight of 7900 pounds with three crewmen. The T-58 engine on the H-52 burned 500 pounds of fuel an hour; you could set your watch by it. Deducting 250 pounds of fuel burned en route, CG1426 likely weighed 7650 pounds before the Burmah Agate hoists. Adding back 340 pounds (2 crewmen at 170 pounds each) she weighed almost 8,000 pounds before hovering to pick up 10 more survivors (10 X 170 = 1700 pounds), so her total HOGE weight would have been 9690 pounds (less 20 minutes of fuel = 167 pounds in a hover). Her final weight was 9523 pounds as she transitioned to forward flight. This was 1223 pounds in excess of her maximum operational weight of 8300 pounds! And, her pilots made a pinnacle approach to an oil platform scant minutes later to offload survivors!!!!