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On a Dark and Cloudy Night

by Ray Copin, CG Aviator 744

This is a story about an unusual search and rescue flight in the mid 1960’s. The aircraft was an HC-130B Lockheed Hercules. The CG air station, at San Francisco International Airport, was situated on the Bay east of the main San Francisco runway (28-10).

At that time at San Francisco, we flew three different models of aircraft: the HC-130B, the Grumman amphibian Albatross (HU-16/SA-16) and the Sikorsky amphibious helicopter (HH52A). I was a rated aircraft commander in all and flew various missions in each during my three-year assignment at that air station.

The station included an aircraft ramp into a lagoon connected to the Bay, a large hangar, a building with offices, and another with basic accommodations for ready crews. In those days, the Coast Guard was short of pilots, so we rotated each day on a one-in-three basis. This meant that
one of three days we were at the air station for a 24-hour ready crew stint ready to launch in any of the three models of aircraft depending on the day or night mission.

On one of the other three days, we were on ‘standby’ for twenty-four hours required to keep the air station informed of our whereabouts so we could be telephoned to come in if necessary. We didn’t have cell phones nor
pagers then. During regular business weekday hours on our ‘standby’ day and also on the third of the three days, we were at the air station for various duties and training. Only on Saturday, Sunday, and national holidays, barring a recall alert, we could enjoy being home for the day and
night. When on duty at the air station, we slept with flight gear close to our bunk for rapid access and dressing. At one end of that building, on a second floor, we had a coffee bar positioned at a large window facing across the runway toward the San Francisco terminal.

On June 22, 1965, approaching midnight, I had just begun what I hoped would be a night of sleep when an alarm loudly announced, “Possible SOS, launch the ready C-130.” I donned my flight suit and trotted to the operations center. Crewman were already boarding the ready C-130 to prepare for flight. I quickly learned a commercial airliner inbound from Hawaii had radioed seeing intermittent flashing lights from the ocean about 300 miles from San Francisco. With pre-takeoff checks complete and using a rescue call sign (CG Rescue 1350), we then took off about midnight, climbed and headed west toward the reported site of the lights.

Approaching the area of the report, we descended through a cloud layer and, indeed, saw flashing lights from the surface. In those days, navigation was not as precise as it is today, but it was close enough for us to find the lights. We also could tell from our instruments the wind of 35-40 miles per hour would be pushing ocean waves. With no communication with whatever the flashing light source, first we had to mark the location with a candle-like float (drift signal of which we carried several of different sizes). We circled once at low altitude, opened the rear ramp, and prepared for a drop of a drift signal. As we came around into the wind, flying at 300 feet above the water at 150 knots (170 mph) headed toward the “lights,” I called “drop, drop, drop.” Away went a fifteen-minute drift signal. We flew in total darkness, on instruments and under clouds, no moon to help.

As we passed where the flashing lights were expected, nothing was seen by either those of us up front or crew in the back. I added power and pulled up, turning downwind. I climbed to 1,500 feet just under the cloud layer to drop a parachute flare. I flew downwind for a few minutes, then turned upwind. I was able to see the small light from our drift signal and said, “Drop, drop.” Parachute flare away, I pulled power, nosed over, and descended in a tear drop maneuver to see the surface under the glow of the flare. A parachute flare would be very bright during its descent for about three minutes before hitting the water and going dark. We leveled off at 500 feet near the flare glow. No luck seeing the flashing lights.

As we passed our initial drift signal, none of us saw anything helpful to identify the source of the flashing lights. So, again, I added power, pulled up and circled at 300 feet to place a longer lasting drift signal in the water near our first one. We came around into the wind and could see our first marker and, once again, I called “drop, drop.” The crew aft called out “drop away,” and, instantly, we were enveloped in a very bright light silently all around us. Again, add power, pull back, get outta there! We climbed back to 1,500 feet to try another parachute flare. While maneuvering, communication with our crewman at the open ramp explained the bright light (which went dark during our climb out).

Instead of dropping a longer lasting marker, he misunderstood and pushed out another parachute flare instead of a forty-five-minute drift signal. That flare had lighted up our world. The intended forty-five-minute marker was a Mark 6 drift signal. The flare was a Mark 6 parachute flare. As we maneuvered for another parachute drop, this time again from 1,500 feet, I had a lump in my throat wondering if we may have just dropped a parachute flare at low altitude on or into a darkened ship. I flew a few minutes more downwind before turning upwind hoping for a better chance of identifying the source of the originally reported flashing lights under our flare.

“Drop, drop.” As soon as I heard “drop away,” I pushed over the nose, pulled power, and circled again to get under our parachute flare. This time, identification success! There in the glow of our flare was a large sailboat with no sails flying. Later we learned the boat was a Trimaran headed to British Columbia from Hawaii that, in the waves, was starting to come apart. Hence, an intent to signal SOS resulted in just lights flashing because of the motion of the boat tossing in the waves. The occupants of the boat were not answering our calls on various international frequencies, and we did not drop a radio, believing there would be little chance of recovery by the boat.

We radioed our situation to the San Francisco CG Rescue Coordination Center. A C-130 was dispatched to relieve us, and a Coast Guard Cutter was ordered to depart San Francisco to assist the sailboat. We dropped a series of forty-five-minute drift signals near the Trimaran and circled the boat’s position. I turned the controls over to my copilot. He took over and reversed the orbit so he could see our drift signal lights in the water. I enjoyed a break as night faded into a gray morning under the clouds.

Abruptly, my co-pilot announced he had lost sight of the sailboat. Crew aft also had lost sight of the boat in the waves. We could see white caps on the waves. I took control and circled into the wind. I flew at 500 feet and began a square search pattern. A couple of minutes this way, then a turn to the right for a couple of minutes, then another turn and another. Today’s navigation would have made this easy but then, it was all timing. I remember thinking, “did the boat sink?” Thankfully, after a few search ‘legs,’ a lookout in the back exclaimed “There it is!” As I turned the aircraft, I too, saw the boat. It looked in gray daylight as it had earlier in the dark under our flare. We’re still with them. Whew!

Shortly after that, our relief aircraft and buddies arrived to take over the orbit awaiting the surface Cutter. It was much lighter by then. We flew back to San Francisco. After landing, we were debriefed and went home to sleep. Just another day at work having logged another 9.7 hours of flight time on a SAR case, mostly at night.