Notable Coast Guard veteran and artist Marshall W. Perrow painted this dramatic representation of the rescue of the sailing vessel GALE RUNNER’s crew. This image depicts the heroic airmanship displayed by the pilots of CGNR 6589 as they 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 an unimaginable rescue operation involving 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. (3)
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. While these officers did not usually stand duty, they were fully-qualified and highly experienced in their craft. (3)
The night’s training mission was conducted on HH-65A 6589 which had just recently returned to the Air Station from upgrade work in Elizabeth City, NC. Part of the aircraft improvements included cockpit lighting modifications that allowed the pilots to dim the instrumentation to accommodate their highly light-sensitive night vision goggles (NVGs). (3)
Night vision goggles provide excellent sensing in darkness, but give the user a very limited field of view with poor peripheral vision and depth perception. On top of this, the entire field of view is a greenish hue. (3)
The night’s training objectives changed when the helicopter encountered poor visibility. The flight’s rescue swimmer was dropped off at the Air Station and then 6589 took off again for an hour of practice using the NVGs. CDR Langlois was less familiar using NVGs, but was greatly assisted by CDR Miller’s expertise in their use. (3)
12 February 1997
As Group Port Angeles and Station Quillayute River handled the initial details of the GALE RUNNER case, the 6589 crew was readied to launch and assist. When they briefed for the flight, CDR Langlois opted to have NVG-expert 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 used the transit time to acclimate to the visual distortions of his NVGs. (3)
After turning south past Tatoosh Island, the crew encountered stiff 60 knot gusts of wind and discussed the search plan. Should they pursue the sailboat or the motor lifeboat that was missing? 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)
On-Scene: James Island
Arriving on scene near James Island, the aircrew began searching for CG 44363 with CDR Langlois still flying and CDR Miller still using NVGs to maintain awareness of the cliffs and rock features in the area. After a few minutes the Officer in Charge of Station Quillayute River called 6589 and directed them to shift their search south for the sailing vessel GALE RUNNER. (2)(3)
Soon after diverting, 6589 observed a dim light in the vicinity of The Needles, south of La Push and arrived in the vicinity of the GALE RUNNER. Because of the vessel’s position among the rock spires, the pilots of 6589 needed to fly among the towering Needles- some as tall as 190 feet- to make an approach for hoisting off the GALE RUNNER. CDR Langlois controlled the helicopter’s descent and CDR Miller controlled its heading to ensure it avoided the rocks and stayed pointed into the wind. (3)
After several approaches, the 6589 attempted a basket hoist of the survivors using a trail line to guide the device down to the vessel. Because of the high winds, the trail line deployment was eventually abandoned in favor of a basket-only delivery. (3)
Throughout the hoist attempts, 6589 had to back itself into position and ended up dangerously close to a rock pinnacle directly behind it and extended high up into the night sky. Though CDR Langlois temporarily suffered vertigo, CDR Miller helped him maintain control of the aircraft and avoid the towering rock. (3)
Despite the incredible flying, the hoisting attempts were unsuccessful and the aircrew had to take a moment to recollect themselves. Because of the extreme environmental limitations, the pilots were afraid that they would be unable to affect a rescue and would have to watch the GALE RUNNER’s crew perish. The pilots advised the GALE RUNNER’s crew to go below and prepare for impact with the rocks. (3)
The sailboat eventually came to rest on a rock ledge ahead of some of the rocks, but wave action began pushing it towards a gap between some of the pinnacles. Watching from the above, the crew of 6589 saw the GALE RUNNER wash through the gap in the rocks and pitch-poled to a ledge on the other side. On the new ledge, the sailboat rested on its side until another wave series hit it. (3)
The next wave series washed the GALE RUNNER back into the roiling ocean, but pushed it farther to the shoreward side of The Needles where it was safer and easier for the 6589 to make an approach. The pilots tried again. (3)
From this new angle, the aircrew was able to complete the hoist after a just few minutes, though the stress of the evolution damaged the hoist’s mounting hardware such that it had to be replaced. (3)
After landing at Station Quillayute River’s ball field to deliver the survivors to an ambulance, 6589 left for Station Neah Bay to refuel at a helicopter pad there. (2)(3)
Until nearly 11:00 that morning, 6589, 6585 (also from Air Station Port Angeles), and HH-60’s 6003 and 6013 from Air Station Astoria, Oregon flew search patterns, assisted with communications, and transported rescuers and victims back and forth from James Island. (2)(3)
For their heroics, the pilots and flight mechanic, AM3 Neil Amos, of 6589 were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is the highest aviation award given during peacetime. 6589’s rescue swimmer, ASM1 Charles Carter, received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal. (3)
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)(4)
The Dolphin is a relatively small airframe at 38 feet in length and has limited cabin space for survivors and crew. A seat is provided in the aft cabin for the flight mechanic, but a rescue swimmer must sit on a padded cushion. (3)(4)
In 1997, Air Station Port Angeles had three HH-65A helicopters. (3)(4)
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)(5)
Jayhawk’s are 64′ long and cruise at 140 knots for up to 700 nautical miles. (3)(5)
In 1997, Air Station Astoria, Oregon was the closest Coast Guard facility to Station Quillayute River that had larger HH-60s. (3)(5)
(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) “MH-65 Short Range Recovery Helicopter.” U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate, http://www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Acquisitions-CG-9/Programs/Air-Programs/SRR-MH-65/.
(5) “MH-60T Medium Range Recovery Helicopter.” U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate, http://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