On a pitch-black January morning, U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. (retired) Brian Wetzler sat in the right seat of an Airbus MH-65 Dolphin, and began running pre-flight checks ahead of a trip over the Louisiana Bayou.
Wetzler was pilot-in-command of a crew asked to investigate a suspected oil spill near New Orleans. He carried with him a co-pilot — who in this case, contrary to protocol, was the senior officer — as well as a flight mechanic and two camera operators.
In hindsight, the mission had all kinds of red flags.
To start with, the flight had been delayed multiple times — from mid-afternoon, when the initial call came in, to shortly after midnight. The infrared camera equipment used to detect the spill was untested; they had no idea if it would even work.
And crucially, the Dolphin’s torque meters — two digital vertical diodes that indicated the torque delivered by both engines — malfunctioned prior to launch, then appeared to fix themselves.
“I hope some of you are having that really, really, cold chill go down your spine about taking this aircraft at this time of night, under these conditions,” said Wetzler, speaking to fellow pilots in a recent webinar hosted by Helicopter Association International (HAI).
“You’re absolutely right.”
They decided to launch the mission anyway, heading south from New Orleans toward their target.
As they flew, the colour of the terrain shifted beneath them. A dense fog bank emerged below the aircraft.
Wetzler had never seen anything like it in his 15 years and 3,200 flight hours as a search-and-rescue pilot.
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He surrendered the controls to his co-pilot and they slowed the aircraft to about 90 knots, so they could pull open a side door for the camera operators to shoot through.
The camera operators tethered themselves to the aircraft with gunners’ belts so they could lean out and shoot directly down at the terrain, Wetzler said.
They searched the fog bank for evidence of the leak, apparently with no success.
Then, the torque meter malfunctioned again. The flight crew ran through a series of checks: Airspeed was fine; the altitude was solid. There were no indications anything was wrong, apart from the torque meter problem.
“The engines are solid. The perceived power is solid — no noise, no change in sound of the engines,” Wetzler said, recalling the scene.
Still, Wetzler decided to call off the mission and return to home base. As he began to explain the situation, his co-pilot interrupted with a terse announcement.
“There goes number one.”
Wetzler assumed he meant they’d lost an engine. His eyes darted to the torque meter. The door was still open, with the camera operators still on gunners’ belts, he said.
Before he could process what was happening, the windscreen went white. He thought they’d inadvertently flown into clouds.
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The altimeter dropped to zero, and boom — the airframe hit the ground.
“It was a violent, jerking, throwing-forward motion,” Wetzler said. “Tumultuous, like caught in a wave and getting rolled.”
He thought: Holy crap. We actually hit the Earth.
“It’s an amazing sensation,” he said. “This really was about as close as you can come to dying in this kind of aircraft mishap and surviving it.”
The violent motion stopped, and the wrecked airframe sat on its left side in the swamp. Wetzler went into rescue mode.
He released his five-point harness and fell across the cockpit, on top of his co-pilot.
Wetzler’s left leg was caught and he couldn’t wrench it free, he said. He braced his right foot and pushed with all his strength.
His left leg got free, minus a chunk of skin and other tissue that stayed behind.
“That was OK with me,” he said.
The water around him was shallow enough to stand in. His co-pilot emerged, having used a HEED breathing apparatus while underwater.
“Oh my gosh, we crashed,” the co-pilot said, per Wetzler’s recollection.
“Yes, we did. We crashed.”
Wetzler used a knife to cut a set of parachute lines that that tethered his co-pilot to the wreckage, and they searched the cabin for other survivors.
Their flight mechanic emerged and said he was OK.
As the mechanic sloshed around in the cabin, Wetzler saw the remaining members of the party walking through the fog, toward the aircraft.
On impact, their gunners’ belts had failed at the D-ring, Wetzler said.
“They were launched out of the aircraft, through the open door, at about 90-plus knots and basically landed full speed in the swamp, and both lived to tell about it,” he added.
“In fact, they lived it well enough to be able to get up, find each other and walk towards the aircraft.”
With all parties accounted for, they retrieved a life raft and a set of super-heavy-duty flight suits from the aircraft, then climbed into the raft — wary of alligators they believed were nearby.
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It was still pitch dark. They couldn’t assess their injuries, because in low light they couldn’t tell the difference between “mud, blood and water,” Wetzler said.
He strongly believed his left arm was broken, or seriously damaged in some other way. But adrenaline was pumping. He used the arm as best he could.
“We did find out that we were generally OK,” Wetzler said. “And this is when we started to assess the situation overall.”
The Coast Guard flight crew was confident other SAR personnel would locate them. It was only a matter of time.
By then, the helicopter’s emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) was active. They had plenty of flares, and they were prepared to use them, Wetzler said.
Soon, they heard another Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin speeding toward them. It circled above the fog layer, but couldn’t see them. A rescue boat was also deployed but never made it to the scene.
“We started to worry about them,” said Wetzler, referring to the second helicopter crew. “Because we knew we were okay.”
Then, according to Wetzler’s cinematic retelling, they saw a big light cutting through the fog. A man on a civilian boat appeared and pulled up next to the life raft.
“We’re here to get y’all,” the boat operator said, per Wetzler’s account.
“We looked at each other in amazement, and we all climbed aboard this airboat,” Wetzler said. “It was a rather surreal experience, to say the least.”
It was also instructive. Wetzler shared a series of lessons to the pilot audience from HAI:
Aspire to be the 10 percent. This refers to a Princeton University study that showed about 10 percent of people apply the proper training in the event of a disruptive emergency. “I should have been, as a mission commander, far more skeptical, far more outspoken about the nature of this mission, about the nature of the politics involved, if you can call it that — but I was not,” Wetzler said. “I went along with the flow.”
Machines don’t fix themselves. Wetzler sees the torque meter incident as his largest specific misjudgment in the entire operation. “I should have said, ‘That’s it. We’re done.’ But I did not.”
Most emergencies won’t kill you; they’ll convince you to kill yourself. In other words, the chaos of an emergency often causes pilots to improvise in dangerous ways instead of relying on their training.
Do your primary job. “The only thing you should be doing is flying that plane,” Wetzler said. “A great EP [emergency procedure] is wonderful, but if you execute a perfect EP and hit the ground, inverted, then you really didn’t do a good job.”