Coast Guard veteran and artist Marshall W. Perrow painted this dramatic representation of the rescue of the sailing vessel GALE RUNNER’s crew and the the operational environment of CGNR 6589 as it maneuvered around the Needles south of La Push. (1)
On 12 February 1997, four Coast Guard helicopters from two different air stations collaborated to conduct a challenging rescue operation focused on two civilians and four Coast Guardsmen. (2)(3) This exhibit is devoted to the world of Coast Guard aviation and the courageous acts of the aircrews on 12 February.
11 February 1997
In the afternoon on 11 February, the oncoming duty aircrews arrived at Air Station Port Angeles and met for a briefing. Here, the crews learned that a night training flight would be conducted that evening to practice boat hoists and rescue swimmer work. On this day, the oncoming flight crew included CDR Paul Langlois and CDR Raymond Miller, the unit’s Executive Officer (XO) and Operations Officer (OPS) respectively. (3)(4)
At the beginning of the evening’s training flight, the aircrew flew CGNR 6589—an HH-65A helicopter—towards Neah Bay at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. CDR Langlois practiced approaches to the water and CDR Miller evaluated the performance of night-vision goggles (NVGs) when employed with CGNR 6589’s newly installed cockpit lighting designed to be compatible with NVG use. (4)
NVG’s significantly enhance the user’s ability to discern poorly illuminated objects at night that would be invisible or indefinite to the naked eye without another type of sensor. They would turn out to be critical in the rescue that took place in the hours following the evening’s training flight. (4)
CGNR 6589 had just recently returned to Air Station Port Angeles from upgrade work in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and this training mission was its first flight since returning to Port Angeles. The aircraft’s upgrade featured extensive modifications to the cockpit instrumentation to replace the original multicolored lighting scheme with blue-green lighting. These changes reduced the offensive blossoming effects created by the original configuration while using NVGs. (3)(4)
By sheer coincidence, CDR Miller was at that time one of the most experienced Coast Guard operators of night-vision devices, having completed a five-year assignment immediately prior to his transfer to Port Angles piloting Coast Guard aircraft on night missions using the same model of NVGs. However, this was CDR Miller’s first time using NVGs in the HH-65A. (4)
The night’s training objectives changed when the helicopter encountered deteriorating weather. The pilots returned to Air Station Port Angeles, dropped off the aircraft’s rescue swimmer, and then took off again for an hour of practice using the NVGs. Following this, the 6589 landed and its crew eventually made their way to duty rooms to sleep for the night. (3)(4)
12 February 1997
As Group Port Angeles and Station Quillayute River handled the initial details of the GALE RUNNER case, CDR Langlois was awakened by the Group Duty Officer and briefed on the details. CDR Langlois directed that the search and rescue alarm be sounded at the air station because the situation sounded urgent. The Group’s watchstanders were unsure if the GALE RUNNER’s distress call might be a hoax since there had been a spate of similar sounding calls over the past week or so that were proven to be hoaxes. After a brief discussion, actions were taken as it it were a legitimate distress. CDR Langlois and his crew prepared to launch and were airborne by 01:23; around that time, the aircrew learned that communications had been lost with the CG 44363 and they felt a greater sense of concern about the situation. (3)(4)
When they conducted a brief before the flight, CDR Langlois opted to have CDR Miller fly in the helicopter’s left seat as co-pilot while he flew as the pilot-in-command in the right seat. CDR Miller would use NVGs and assist CDR Langlois with situational awareness. After takeoff, CDR Miller adjusted the cockpit lighting and tuned the NVGs to optimize their performance in the poor ambient light caused by a lack of cultural lighting along the shoreline, low clouds, patchy fog, and drizzle that would soon increase to heavy squalls. (3)(4)
After turning south towards La Push, past Tatoosh Island, the helicopter’s air data system indicated 60-knot gusts of wind from the southwest. The crew discussed the search plan: should they pursue the sailboat or the motor lifeboat that was unaccounted for? Though they didn’t know it at the time, when they took off in Port Angeles, three of the four crewmen on CG 44363 were already dead. (3)(4)
On-Scene: James Island
Arriving on scene near James Island, the aircrew began searching for CG 44363 with CDR Langlois flying and CDR Miller using NVGs to maintain awareness of the rock features in the area and the elevated power lines between James Island and the mainland. The pilots later recounted that they had never flown in conditions so severe: even at 300 feet of altitude, there was increasing turbulence and the temperature was near-freezing, mixing sleet into the rain squalls. (4)
Despite his concern for the fate of his crew, after it became clear that GALE RUNNER had been dismasted and was drifting rapidly toward the Quillayute Needles, the Officer in Charge of Station Quillayute River directed the 6589 to shift their search south for the sailing vessel GALE RUNNER. (2)(3)(4) Just before departing the immediate vicinity of La Push, the crew of the 6589 observed CG 44393 (the second motor lifeboat) underway off James Island: the lifeboat’s searchlight could be seen pitching rapidly in a near-vertical arc from straight up into the sky to straight down into the wave troughs. (4)
After diverting, 6589 made radio contact with the GALE RUNNER and directed them to shine whatever lights they could toward the helicopter; CDR Miller observed a dim light through his NVGs in the vicinity of the Quillayute Needles, south of La Push. CDR Langlois brought the helicopter closer to the Needles and observed the GALE RUNNER, which was then about 300 yards seaward of the Needles rock formations and being blown directly towards them. Given the vessel’s position upwind of the rock spires and relatively close to them, both pilots agreed that the optimal approach to a hover in the strong and gusty winds and very low visibility would be executed straight into the wind at an angle of descent that would keep the helicopter above the rock formations and the orographic turbulence they would produce. This required flying over the towering Needles using an angle of descent that was steeper than a typical approach to a hover. The ambient light was far too dim for CDR Langlois to execute a visual approach, even with the aid of the helicopter’s nose light, so he and CDR Miller agreed that NVGs would be used by CDR Miller to guide the horizontal path during the descent. (4)(5)
CDR Langlois controlled the helicopter’s speed and angle of descent with the cyclic and collective controls while CDR Miller controlled heading using the independently operated heading control knob (a function of the automatic pilot system) on the lower center navigation console. This resulted in a stable, well-controlled approach to the GALE RUNNER on a southwest course (into the wind) and directly over but well clear of the Needles. However, as the approach progressed CDR Langlois determined that the helicopter was too high and moving too fast to safely arrive in a hover adjacent to the GALE RUNNER—it was about 125 feet above the GALE RUNNER with 60 knots of indicated airspeed—so he executed a go-around maneuver to the right. Turning north, he flew back around to the downwind side of the Needles and set up for another approach. (4)
CDR Miller used his view through the NVGs to further confirm the location of each of the individual rock spires and was able to confidently control the heading per CDR Langlois’ direction to allow a lower glide path on the second approach, which assisted him in safely arriving in a stable hover at the optimal hoist location and at a lower altitude with sufficient obstacle clearance. Given the scale of the the seas below, CDR Langlois told CDR Miller not to let him bring the helicopter lower than 25 feet above the wave tops. (4) In position over the 31-foot sailing vessel (6), CDR Langlois estimated that the waves around the Needles were 30 feet in height and the helicopter’s air data sensor was reporting winds of more than 50 knots from the southwest. (4)
The 6589 attempted several hoists of the survivors, trying to use a trail line controlled by the two persons on board the pitching and rolling sailboat to guide the rescue basket down to the deck or cabin top. Because the high winds caused the basket and trail line to stream aft towards the helicopter’s tail rotor, the trail line deployment was eventually abandoned in favor of basket-only hoists. (3) However, the winds were too strong to control the direct basket delivery on the subsequent attempts made prior to the decision to cease hoisting efforts due to the proximity of the Needles. (4)
During this phase of the rescue, both the sailing vessel and the helicopter were pushed downwind—northeastward—by the buffeting winds, directly towards the Needles. The helicopter was backed slowly toward the rocks at an angle that made it impossible for the pilots to fully scan behind the aircraft, but they received timely information from the flight mechanic, AM3 Neil Amos, and rescue swimmer, ASM1 Charles “Chuck” Carter.
ASM1 Carter was particularly focused on maintaining a diligent lookout aft and his reports proved indispensable once the helicopter got close enough to the Needles that CDR Miller’s view of them was obstructed through his NVGs. (4)
As the hoist attempts progressed, the intense effort required for CDR Langlois to control the aircraft in the buffeting winds with no visual cues other than a highly dynamic view down and to the right caused him to temporarily suffer vertigo. Here again the NVGs were critical, as they allowed CDR Miller to provide subtle cyclic control input based on an adequate outside visual scan through the goggles combined with a “look under” scan of the radar altimeter. This helped CDR Langlois maintain positive control of the aircraft such that the aircrew was able to continue their hoist efforts to the sailboat before it drifted too close and hit the rocks. (3)(4)
The crew eventually deemed the helicopter’s position to be too close to the Needles, notified the GALE RUNNER that they needed to cease hosting efforts and reposition away from the rocks, and advised the two persons on board to go below and prepare for impact. Shortly after passing this instruction, the air crew observed a wave swallow the sailing vessel and surge it into and through the narrow gap between one of the largest Needles (Cakesota) and an adjacent pinnacle. (3)(4)
After the aircrew lost visual contact of the GALE RUNNER, CDR Langlois carefully repositioned the 6589 away from the nearby obstructions and flew sideways to the south (left) until CDR Miller informed him that the aircraft was clear of the southernmost pinnacle. Given the winds and the desire to maintain visual contact with the Needles, CDR Langlois carefully flew the helicopter backwards in the strong headwind and then sideways to the north (right) to arrive at a position downwind (east) of the gap that GALERUNNER had been seen to enter on the seaward (west) side. From this position, CDR Langlois had no difficulty flying visually since the rocks were now off the nose of the helicopter and were adequately illuminated by the helicopter’s lights. (3)(4)
Despite the fact that the GALE RUNNER had been seen by the aircrew to pitch-pole at least once as it was washed through the very narrow gap with craggy rocks on either side, it was soon spotted about a hundred yards on the leeward side of that gap, grounded on a rock ledge about ten feet above the surface of the water. The entire aircrew felt incredibly relieved once they found the sailboat again and saw that its crew was still, unbelievably, alive. The aircrew was unable to complete a hoist before a set of waves washed the GALE RUNNER back into open but calmer water where the prospect of safe hoists was much better than it had been on the windward side. (3)(4)
After re-positioning and completing the rescue checklist once again, the aircrew was able to complete two successful hoists. The first time the rescue basket reached the GALE RUNNER’s deck, Marcia Infante climbed in and the flight mechanic began the hoist. However, because the GALE RUNNER had been dismasted offshore, its deck was strewn with rigging and the rescue basket became momentarily entangled in one of the mast stay cables. (3)(4)
As the sailboat rose and fell in the rolling waves, the hoist cable suddenly took tension before the basket popped free of the obstruction. This violent release of the basket caused it—and the survivor—to sling-shot up and sideways towards the helicopter’s main rotor. After a few dramatic swings, the basket was stabilized and the hoist was completed. (Later inspection at Air Station Port Angeles showed that the strain of the basket getting hung up on the GALE RUNNER’s rigging had damaged the hoist’s structural mounts.) Kenneth Schlag was then hoisted from the deck of the GALE RUNNER without incident, and the 6589 flew the short distance to the ball field at Station Quillayute River. (3)(4)
After delivering the survivors to an ambulance, 6589 got airborne again to search for the CG 44363 near La Push. The first HH-60J helicopter (CGNR 6003) arrived on scene from Air Station Astoria, Oregon, about ten minutes later, at which time 6589 departed for Station Neah Bay to refuel at their fuel-cache equipped helicopter pad. (2)(3)(4)
After re-fueling, 6589 returned to the scene with the intention of continuing with their search and rescue mission. However, given the presence on-scene of HH-60s 6003 and 6013 from Air Station Astoria along with 6585 from Air Station Port Angeles, and given the more stable performance of the HH-60s in the turbulence around James Island, CDR Langlois and his crew landed at Station Quillayute River. There they assisted the Search And Rescue Mission Coordinator and On-Scene Commander in managing the ongoing aviation efforts. ASM1 Carter and AM3 Amos later briefed the Clallam County high angle rescue team on safety procedures in preparation for their airlift by 6013 to James Island to recover the only survivor from CG 44363, SA Benjamin Wingo. (3)(4). These and many more activities continued until 1100 that morning, by which time the tragic fate of CG 44363 and three of its crew had been confirmed … and the rescue of three persons had been effected.
After the 6589 left the vicinity of the Needles with the two survivors, the GALE RUNNER continued to drift south and east towards Second Beach, south of La Push. At some point following the rescue, the sailing vessel washed ashore and remained there until salvaged several days later. (2)(3)
It is difficult to fully appreciate the intense mental and physical effort required of the entire aircrew during the rescue. In particular, AM3 Amos and CDR Langlois had to physically wrestle with the controls of the aircraft and hoist, the windblown basket and cable, and the extreme environmental conditions, all while making do with limited visual cues and under the mounting pressure of the looming Needles. (3)(4)
For their efforts aboard 6589, CDR Langlois, CDR Miller, and flight mechanic AM3 Neil Amos were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is the highest aviation award given during peacetime. CGNR 6589’s rescue swimmer, ASM1 Charles “Chuck” Carter, received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal. (3)
CGNR 6003’s pilot, CDR Michael Neussl, earned the Coast Guard Commendation Medal and the rest of his flight crew—LT Michael Trimpet, AM2 Richard Vanlandingham, and ASM2 James Lyon—received Coast Guard Achievement Medals. (3)
First flown by the Coast Guard in 1985, the Aérospatiale HH-65A, or “Dolphin”, is a short-range helicopter designed to travel 150 nautical miles, hover and hoist for 30 minutes, and then return after hoisting three adult survivors. At acquisition, the Dolphin cost roughly $3,000,000. It can cruise at 125 knots over a range of about 350 nautical miles. (3)(8)
The Dolphin airframe is 38 feet in length and has limited cabin space for survivors and crew. In 1997, Air Station Port Angeles had three HH-65A helicopters. (3)(8)
Sikorsky’s HH-60J “Jayhawk” helicopter is the Coast Guard’s medium-range recovery platform, and was first introduced in 1991. In contrast to the Dolphin’s limited range, the Jayhawk can travel 300 miles, hover and hoist for 45 minutes, and then return after hoisting six adult survivors. (3)(9)
Jayhawk’s are 64′ long and cruise at 140 knots for up to 700 nautical miles. (3)(9)
In 1997, Air Station Astoria, Oregon, was the closest Coast Guard facility to Station Quillayute River that had larger HH-60s. (3)(9)
(1) Perrow, Marshall W. Rescue of Crew of Gale Runner Feb 12 ’97 La Push, WA. 1998, U.S. Coast Guard.
(2) CDR Hasselbalch, James M. Investigation into the Capsizing and Subsequent Loss of MLB 44363 and the Death of Three Coast Guard Members That Occurred at Coast Guard Station Quillayute River on 12 FEB 1997. March, 1997 (including reviews by RADM J. David Spade and ADM Robert E. Kramek).
(3) Noble, Dennis L. The Rescue of the Gale Runner. University Press of Florida, 2002.
(4) Interviews with CGNR 6589 aircrew.
(5) Rau, Weldon W. “Washington Coastal Geography Between the Hoh and Quillayute Rivers.” Washington Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geology and Earth Resources, Bulletin no. 72, 1980, https://www.dnr.wa.gov/publications/ger_b72_wa_coast_geol.pdf
(6) Thompson, Evan. “Clinton Man Buys Property, Finds Maritime History Stashed in Barn.” South Whidbey Record, 21 Dec. 2016, https://www.southwhidbeyrecord.com/news/clinton-man-buys-property-finds-maritime-history-stashed-in-barn/
(7) “Shoreline Photo Viewer.” Department of Ecology, State of Washington, fortress.wa.gov/ecy/shorephotoviewer/Map/ShorelinePhotoViewer
(8) “MH-65 Short Range Recovery Helicopter.” U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate, www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Acquisitions-CG-9/Programs/Air-Programs/SRR-MH-65/
(9) “MH-60T Medium Range Recovery Helicopter.” U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate, www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Acquisitions-CG-9/Programs/Air-Programs/MRR-MH-60T/MRR-MH-60/
cover: U.S. Coast Guard photo