Cutter Sebago Practices Plane Rescue In Gulf
Speed Is Essential
Methods Used Have Saved Lives In Atlantic Ocean
by ED LEE
Press Register Staff Reporter
A plane, with 20 passengers aboard, developed engine trouble over the Gulf of Mexico the other night and it was necessary to ditch the aircraft, but by using a standard set of rules, all lives were saved. This incident was a practice exercise for the men of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Sebago and the actual crash landing at sea was only simulated.
The next time, however, it could be for real, and expdrience gained during recent practice may save countless lives.
The ditching exercise was the climax of two weeks active duty training for 50 Coast Guard reservists from the Great Lakes area. The practice, conducted some 100 miles south of Mobile, with the aid of a Coast Guard plane out of Biloxi, was described as "very successful" by Cmdr. Harry Frazer, commander of the Sebago.
All men aboard the cutter, regulars and reservists, on duty from the vessel's bow to the fantail, had a part in the practice ditching held at night under instrument conditions. Following is the way the exercise occurred as newmen flown to the ship from Mobile, attempted to follow the complex details.
Cmdr. Frazer and his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd M. Logan, explained prior to the blasting of a distress call over the radio, that the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Marine Corps and commercial airlines recently adopted a standard set of rules known as "Aircraft Emergency Procedures Over Water." These were the rules to be followed during the night.
Suddenly, while men of the cutter were going about their regular tasks aboard ship, the radio tuned to the distress frequency, picked up a loud: "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday," which is the voice SOS signal.
The call was answered by radiomen of the Sebago and the exercise was underway. It was soon learned that the aircraft was en route to New Orleans from Tamps, had "lost and engine," fuel was running low, and it was believed necessary to land at sea. The plane was lost and had only 30 minutes fuel.
At a signal, crewmen pushed to their combat stations. Cmdr. Frazer too his position on the cutter's bridge and Cmdr. Logan donned a radio head set and started operations fro the vessel's comat information center, known as CIC. The CIC area is located directly behind the bridge and is wequipped with modern radar, loran, radio tansmitters and receivers, charts and all types of navigation equipment. Telephones to all parts of the cutter are connected with CIC.
In a matter of seconds, men began trying to locate the disabled aircraft that was lost. By having the pilot change course and fly of given headings, the men behind the radar soon had the plane located and radioed the positio to the pilot. Then the weather conditions were radioed: "visibility 500 feet, wind 45 miles, seas four feet . . . . "
Cmdr. Frazer was then on the radio from the bridge discussing the situation with the pilot. The cutter's commander outlined a ditching plan and asked the pilot what he wished to do. The final decision on a ditching is up to the pilot.
The pilot saw the position he was in. Fuel running out, one engine gone, impossible to reach land, and a ship on the surface to aid him if he went down at sea. The pilot agreed to ditch at the location recommended by the Coast Guard and the standard set of rules were set in operation. Cmdr. Frazer then turned the radio back to Cmdr. Locan in CIC.
Only a few seconds had exapsed. A quick calculation in CIC revealed that the aircraft had enough gasoline to follow at 28-mile established ditching routine. The pilot had already been directed to follow an automatic radio signal being sent out by the cutter. He was flying toward the ship.
From CIC, the pilot was given the exact location where he would be directed to go down. A large chart already had the plane's proposed route drawn and the man on the radar was watching to see that the aircraft followed given direction. When the plane moved off course, the heading was corrected.
As the plane was to pass overhead, a flare was shot into the air for the pilot to check his position and reassure himself that the men directing him to radio and rader were doing a good job. The cutter was over the proposed ditching site with the disabled plane overhead. The pilot is told he will be directed over a rectangular course of 28 miles, with two four mile leges and two 10 miles legs.
As the aircraft proceedes on a heading given, a signal from CIC over the telephone starts men on the cutter's fantail dropping floating lights into the water to mark a runway for the ditching plane to follow.
Ship Stands By
The runway, known as a sea lane, is 7,500 feet long. The cutter is moving at 15 knots and one floating light is ordered dropped very 15 seconds, thus spacing the floating lights at 125 yards with 21 being dropped.
With the sea lane completed the cutter turns to port and comes to rest with the sea lane a few hundred yards off the bow. Men are in life boats, ready to rush to the plane the instant it hits the water. Other men are in rubber exposure suits, with a life jacket attached to a long rope, ready to go over the side and pick up survivors. Nets are on deck, ready to be thrown over the rail so that survivors can climb aboard. Powerful searchlights are stabbing through the night toward the ditching area.
While this has been going on, the pilot had been flying at 6,000 feet and as he passed over the cutter he was told to drop to 2,000 feet and follow a heading of so many degrees for four miles and then to drop to 1,500.
As his flight is followed on the radar and plotted on a large chart, the pilot is directed to make a left turn and drop to 1,000 feet and follow a heading of so many degrees for ten miles, then another left turn, drop to 800 feet and go four miles.
A third left turn is directed. The plane is on the final, or ditching leg of the rectangle, which is 10 miles long. The pilot is told to be ready to ditch in "five minutes (he's covering two miles per minute), four minutes, three minutes, two minutes, you are one minute from ditching and following the beam nicely."
Passengers on the plane have been prepared for the crash landing as the floating lights come into view of the plane. The aircraft should hit the water at an almost stalling speed of 120 knots. During the practice, however, the pilot pulled back on the stick and climbed back up to 2,000 feet, dropping a large life raft over the lfoating lights of the sea lane.
Flares LIght Sky
Just before the plane was to have ditched, men of the Sebago began shooting giant flares and five-inch star shells into the sky. The entire section of the gulf around the sea lane was lighted up like day by the many flares slowing floating from the sky.
At the moment the plane simulated hitting the water, the life boats pulled away from the cutter. The Sebago began slowling moving into the area where passengers could have easily been picked up by the boats, by the men in the rubber suits, or they could have grabbed the cargo nets dangling over the side of the cutter.
Soon one life boat returned with the rubber raft dropped from the plane and the practice was over.
Just 24 minutes from the time the first "Mayday" signal ws received frm the plane, the ditching had taken place and all persons aboard were reported aboard.
It was pointed out that when an airplane, not equipped to land on water ditches, it usually sinks after about 60 seconds. Therefore speed is essential and the amount of speed determines the number of lives saved, Cmdr. Frazer pointed out.
While in the practive the other night the plane had enough fuel to travel the 28-mile established route that is recommended for night ditches, such is not always the case. When for some reason the aircraft cannont stay in the air this long (it usually takes 14 minutes to cover the 28 miles), the routine can be changed. Sometimes the plane may be located, fly over the ship, circle as the sea lane is being lighted and then go down almost immediately.
Following the practice exercise, Cmdr. Frazer told newmen that the "effectiveness of the procedures and training has been proved in four ditchings in the Atlantic alongside Coast Guard vessels." he said nearly 100 persons have been rescued without a fatality of a serious injury.
One was a radar-controlled night ditching of a transport aircraft with two eingines inoperative. Cmdr. Frazer said the ditching ws successfully accomlished under instrument conditions in very rough seas and winds of gale force.
Reprinted from The Mobile Press Register, August 26, 1956. © The Mobile Press Register.