Never again: Night helicopter rescue

Looking for a flash of light

November 1, 2013

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After an uneventful day without the usual activity of helicopter tours, photo flights, and TV news flights, I was preparing to turn in for the night when my beeper started to chirp. I was working for a Part 135 helicopter operator at Miami’s Opa Locka Airport. I couldn’t imagine who would need a helicopter at 11 p.m. I called the number; on the other end was a distraught father. His father and his son—grandfather and grandson—had gone fishing from Naples, Florida, earlier that day and never returned. They apparently had no way to call for help. The man said he had contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, but was told a search would not be launched until the next day. He asked if I would be willing to fly to Naples and search for them.

I quoted the hourly rate for the Bell 206L-1 Long Ranger helicopter, estimated the roundtrip flight time from Opa Locka to Naples Municipal Airport, and tacked on another hour of search time. The man agreed to the cost and asked me to come as soon as possible.

Adrenaline pumping, I was airborne soon after receiving the call. It didn’t occur to me that I would be attempting the rescue in a standard executive-configured helicopter with emergency pop-out floats, single pilot (no dual controls), at night, over the Gulf of Mexico, with no searchlight, and no rescue hoist.

The Florida Everglades at night can be a foreboding place, mostly uninhabited with hardly a spec of ground illumination. I flew along Interstate 75, also known as “Alligator Alley.” The few vehicle lights and occasional rest areas gave me enough visual reference to get across safely. After landing at Naples, I had a brief meeting with the distraught father and decided on a plan of action. I put the worried man in the rear passenger area of the helicopter. Did I actually think I was going to find them over the Gulf of Mexico at night, and how were they going to board the helicopter?

The lights of the city of Naples did not extend very far offshore, so there must have been some form of lunar illumination to give me a scant horizon. I dimmed the cockpit instrument lights. After about 20 minutes and only a few miles offshore, I thought I spotted a flash of light. I headed in that direction and was soon sure that I was seeing a dim, frantically flashing light. I descended and made a low pass and confirmed that we had found our stranded boaters.

The outboard motor’s cover had been removed and set aside. The grand-father apparently had tried to repair the engine. So now what? I circled for a few moments and decided to try to hover over the small boat for a rescue. It was quite windy, and the gulf was very choppy.

I turned into the wind, which was blowing in from the northwest. That set me up looking away from the glow of the city lights, which would have given me a horizon. With only the landing light for visual reference, I slowly approached the boat and tried to get a skid over its stern, but the boat was pitching up and down too much. I was afraid that it would make contact with the helicopter.

It didn’t occur to me to remove one of the doors, so with the father holding the door open I reentered a hover into the wind. I slowly slid sideways as close as safely possible to the stern. I told the father to signal to them that they would have to jump in the water and swim to the helicopter.

It must have been terribly frightening for them—a jet helicopter right overhead, close to the water, the downwash creating a very disturbed sea surface, the roar of the engine and blast of the rotor blades. Once in position I told the father via intercom to give the signal to swim over one at a time. I lifted and lowered the helicopter in rhythm with the passing swells in an effort to keep the skid as close as possible to the water without getting swamped by a wave. A hoist would have been handy right about now.

I kept the rotor disc away and not right over the small boat, so they had about a 20-foot swim. As the first one was climbing aboard, the sudden weight on the skid tube moved the helicopter around a bit. I instructed the two in the back to signal the second person to jump in and swim toward the skid. I lost sight of the swimmer as he approached the helicopter, but soon felt the weight on the skid confirming that he was boarding. As soon as the door was secure, I turned downwind and headed back to Naples Airport. With the tailwind we were back on the ground in minutes.

After landing and shutting down, I collected the payment for the flight and was rewarded with a very generous tip and profuse thanks. Apparently the next day the Coast Guard contacted the man who reported his family missing to follow up on the situation. He must have told them that he hired a helicopter company to try to find his family, because someone from the Coast Guard called asking for details of the event.

Never again will I go off and perform a rescue like this, but instead will make every effort to get a properly equipped public service helicopter involved from the start. They would probably have a two-man crew with night vision, searchlight, and rescue hoist capabilities.

Jean Paul Robinson of Miami, Florida, provides pilot services for helicopter operators in North and South America, and has logged more than 9,800 hours in rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.