Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 41 seconds.
The call came into the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, just after 8 p.m. March 2 with details obscured by more than 100 miles of angry, stormy ocean. An offshore fishing trawler named Atlantic Destiny was in distress and her crew of 31 was battling a fire while the vessel was without power or steerage and shipping water.
There initially was no direct line of communication with the stricken vessel, which may have experienced an engine room explosion and was running on emergency backup power. Information relayed from other fishing vessels in the vicinity suggested the situation was dire, but the crew had not yet given up hope they could save her.
“As soon as we hear something like that, we start acting swiftly,” said Capt. Stephen Park, the search-and-rescue (SAR) mission coordinator on the desk that evening. A CC-130H Hercules air navigator by trade, Park had participated in his share of rescue missions and knew each presented unique challenges. But with 31 people to extract, this would be especially challenging. “It was a very large number of people to rescue in a very difficult location.”
On this night, Canadian and American planes and helicopters would be airborne in just over an hour and the Canadian Coast Guard’s Cape Roger would depart from port in Halifax.
Over the next 15 minutes, a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CC-130H Hercules and a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter from 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 14 Wing Greenwood were launched to assist. Coordination immediately began with counterparts at the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Boston, the Canadian Coast Guard, and health and emergency services in Yarmouth.
RCAF search-and-rescue aircraft are on a two-hour posture to respond in the evenings. On this night, Canadian and American planes and helicopters would be airborne in just over an hour and the Canadian Coast Guard’s Cape Roger would depart from port in Halifax.
RCAF Warrant Officer Damien Robison was preparing for a night training exercise with the aircrew of Hercules Rescue 343 when the call came in at 8:14 p.m. After a crew briefing and a check to ensure they had the correct gear on board, Robinson’s CC-130 was airborne.
Meanwhile, Capt. Jeremy Appolloni, commander of Cormorant Rescue 907, had just finished a late dinner with his wife when the Wing operations center rang. Accepting the missions, Appolloni gave word for Wing Ops to fuel up the CH-149 helicopter and notify the rest of his crew. The Cormorant was stripped of all non-essential kit and a couple extra seats for passengers were installed. Minutes later, the helicopter lifted off and followed the Hercules to the Atlantic Destiny.
Call to Cape Cod
With the Canadian aircraft en route to the sinking vessel, U.S. Coast Guard crews began staging assets at Air Station Cape Cod, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) due west of the Atlantic Destiny in Massachusetts. Three MH-60T Jayhawks are stationed at Cape Cod with one on alert and one on standby. The third is usually in down for in-house intermediate level maintenance.
That night, both operational helicopters were out on a routine training flight. They were recalled to base to prepare to assist the outbound Canadian crews, said Lt. Craig Campbell, co-pilot of Jayhawk CG6032. Also aboard were aircraft commander Lt. James “Travis” Christy, flight mechanic Phil Morales and rescue swimmer Adam Via.
“We were originally told that it was on fire and there were up to 30 people on board,” Campbell said. “Obviously that makes things a little complicated. Our helicopter is kind of limited in space. It’s not really set up for that many people. Fortunately, we had a second crew also out doing training that night.”
Campbell’s Jayhawk was accompanied by CG6039, commanded by Lt. Cdr. Brian Kudrle with copilot Cdr. David McCown, flight mechanic Adam Niski and rescue swimmer Clayton Maidlow. Both Jayhawks launched alongside a HC-144 Ocean Sentry. With 200 miles of ocean to cover in winds gusting 55 knots, the crews planned for an hour to 90 minutes on scene to hoist survivors from the sinking fishing vessel.
On the way to the scene, the Jayhawk crews got some information by listening in on radio traffic between the captain of the Atlantic Destiny and the C-130 orbiting above, Campbell said. They knew the vessel was without power or steerage and might still be burning from an engine room explosion and/or fire.
“We kind of had no idea what shape the vessel was in. We were using night vision goggles,” Campbell said. “It definitely seemed dynamic, on our way out. We were probably an hour out when we started hearing communications between them and it sounded like they had not intention of actually evacuating the vessel. As time went on, I think they realized there was just too much water and they made the call to start evacuating people.”
Rescue 343 was the first aircraft to arrive on scene, completing the 200-mile transit from Greenwood to the Atlantic Destiny, about 120 miles off the Nova Scotia coast, in around 40 minutes. The Hercules crew had used the time to prepare gear and walkthrough possible response scenarios. The CC-130 established direct commination with the Atlantic Destiny’s skipper and some of fishing vessels that had been relaying its predicament.
The fire for a time seemed under control, but the 143-foot ship was listing in the 30-foot (9-meter) waves and still taking on water. De-watering pumps, two of which the CC-130H carried as part of its standard kit, were desperately needed.
The crew brought the Hercules down to 300 feet and began the first of several passes over the stricken ship to line up a drop from the rear ramp. But when the rear crew released the first water pump, it caught the gusting 55 knot winds and drifted well behind the vessel, lost into the swelling sea. To reduce the wind’s effect, the Hercules dropped to 150 feet for a non-standard drop. On the third pass, the crew released their last pump, which landed on the ship and was immediately put into action.
Sentry on scene
With the U.S. Coast Guard HC-144B Ocean Sentry maritime surveillance aircraft arriving on station, the CC-130H climbed to 5,000 feet to assume the role of on-scene coordinator, establishing communications with the Sentry and deconflicting the airspace for the CH-149 and two MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters launched from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, 200 miles to the southeast.
Appolloni had been changing altitude repeatedly to “get the best wind,” and Cormorant Rescue 907 covered the 200-mile transit in about 80 minutes. From ongoing communication with the Hercules, the team knew they would have to begin extracting from the ship as soon as possible. They did the math and calculated they needed to hoist two people from the fishing vessel every five minutes. “We figured we had a solid hour on scene in the hover, which pulls a little more torque and uses a bit more fuel,” Appolloni explained.
The Jayhawks each had enough fuel for two hours, so the Cormorant was assigned the first extractions. As the Hercules dropped five-minute flares from 3,500 feet to light the vessel, the Cormorant conducted several dry runs to gauge the wind and the rolling motion of the ship. With the wind blowing from the port side of the Atlantic Destiny, Appolloni maneuvered the CH-149 over the stern, facing into the wind, to best position the hoist to lower his two SAR technicians to the deck.
Though the helicopter’s primary hoist was not working, they set down first SAR technician team lead Sgt. Brad Nisbet and SAR technician Sgt. Fernando Bianco and then the basket with the secondary, outboard hoist.
However, after hoisting six of the trawler’s crew into the Cormorant with three lifts, Appolloni was forced to abort. An indication in the cockpit suggested a possible hydraulic malfunction. “I determined it was the best course of action to leave [the] scene and transit to shore, to Yarmouth,” Appolloni said.
Responding to the Cormorant’s call to abort, the CC-130H crew handed off the scene to the U.S. Coast Guard HC-144B Ocean Sentry and escorted the CH-149 to Yarmouth to ensure the helicopter landed safely. While Hercules refueled, the Cormorant crew grabbed their gear and climbed aboard, anticipating a flight back to Greenwood where a second CH-149 was spooling up to join the rescue.
Jayhawks into position
With 25 people — and the two Canadian SAR techs — still on board the Atlantic Destiny, the U.S. Jayhawks had their work cut out for them. In the worsening weather and without the CC-130, Campbell and the other Jayhawk lost their immediate link to shore-based commanders. The initiative passed to the aircrews on scene.
Having those RCAF personnel on board the stricken ship “was extremely helpful for both of our H-60s,” Campbell said. “Now we had two experienced guys tending trail lines, getting people in the basket; it really sped up our hoisting.”
“We actually were able to talk to them while they were on the vessel,” Campbell continued. “After the Cormorant left scene, we spoke to the SAR techs and they filled us in on how exactly the Cormorant was hoisting, where they thought the biggest snag hazards were, where they thought the most stable position on the boat was.”
Campbell now could clearly see the 30-foot (9-meter) seas battering the powerless Atlantic Destiny, with its 80-foot (24-meter) mast swaying, rising and dropping wildly as the ship rode the waves. He moved in and began hoisting just above the top of the mast.
“Even though the vessel was 140 feet, it really tosses around, and it can also mess with your references when you are trying to hold a hover,” Campbell said. “The mast, being the tallest point, moves the most and that’s always right out your window. So, you’re trying to maintain a stable hover, keep a horizon, but your best reference is moving side to side the whole time.”
“The trouble with that night was the vessel wasn’t able to move, which makes it a lot harder for us because the vessel is less stable and tossed around by the waves more,” Campbell added.
Campbell’s helicopter hoisted eight fishermen while the second Jayhawk pulled 13 on board without incident. Both Jayhawk crews planned from the outset to return survivors to Yarmouth, Nova Svotia, where they would also have a chance to rest and refuel before returning to Cape Cod.
“It was very beneficial that we could just fly to Canada to drop off the survivors,” Campbell said. “It would have been a headwind flight all the way back to Cape Cod and we had used most of our fuel responding and hovering during hoisting.”
At the JRCC, Park was assigning mission instructions to best manage the changing circumstances. The RCC in Boston had handed over tactical control of its aircraft, greatly expanding his options. “It is one of those things we learn,” he said, “but it was my first time tasking the U.S. Coast Guard. Any time my team from the JRCC spoke to [any of them] throughout this entire mission, they were understanding, professional and willing to help.”
That seamless integration had played out over the Atlantic Destiny, where the two MH-60T Jayhawks efficiently hoisted 21 of the crew, one at a time, with the help of the SAR techs. “Our hoists were so much smoother and faster because they were down there running the show,” Campbell acknowledged after the mission.
With the U.S. Coast Guard completing the last hoist, Park re-tasked the Hercules to escort the two helicopters to Yarmouth. The first, carrying eight fishers, arrived as the CC-130H was taxing to takeoff. The Hercules met up with the second, carrying 13, about midway from the scene. “They dumped a lot of heavy gear into the ocean just to take those extra three guys,” Robison noted.
Another CH-149 Cormorant, Rescue 904, meanwhile lifted off from Greenwood and was heading for the ship to retrieve the remaining four crew members and the two SAR techs. After it and the CC-130 were back above the Atlantic Destiny, the helicopter experienced problems with both of its hoists and announced it was unable to lift anyone.
Fortunately, Canadian Coast Guard patrol vessel Cape Roger was nearing the ship. By conserving fuel, the CC-130H crew was able to remain on scene and in contact with the two technicians. Once the Cape Roger arrived, the Hercules descended to a lower altitude and monitored the launch and recovery of a fast rescue craft that plucked the final four crew and two SAR technicians from the Atlantic Destiny, which sank later that morning.
In an effort to prepare for exactly this sort of complex, multi-aircraft, joint international rescue operation, Air Station Cape Cod hosts a CH-149 Cormorant exchange pilot from the Royal Canadian Air Force that regularly flies missions aboard U.S. Jayhawks. SAR assets and personnel also regularly practice join hoisting form boats, rescue swimmer deployment and recovery and SAR tech training, said Cdr. Ian Hurst, chief pilot for USCG Air Station Cape Cod.
“We fly in each other’s aircraft; the rescue swimmers are in the water together; we’re hoisting together, so it really is a phenomenal technique-sharing and builds our joint proficiency,” Hurst said. “We get to learn a lot about their procedures, and they get to learn about our procedures and each fall we try to get together either up in Nova Scotia or in Newfoundland.”
A rescue like the Atlantic Destiny is unusual in its complexity and the number of deployed assets, but the meticulous preparation and constant training by U.S. and Canadian helicopter crews ensured that it was a complete success, Hurst said.
“A case like Atlantic Destiny is pretty unusual in that we had all of those assets on scene at the same time,” Hurst said. “All those folks were able to talk to each other and a lot of the time they weren’t able to talk to the Canadian centers or the air station back home. Our CASA aircraft has some pretty good comms capabilities, so they were able to see the whole picture and pass information back and forth, but really it was up to the on-scene initiative of the crews that are out there, making it happen.”
“I’m not surprised, but it’s a testament to all of our training and working together, the crews being able to work out there together and the two SAR techs that were on the vessel, working with the Coast Guard crews to get the hoisting done while working through some differences in procedure, in really some pretty phenomenally harsh conditions.”