Mid-air collisions of small private aircraft off the Atlantic Coast were not unusual summertime incidents. Most of them were small spotter planes, hired to locate large schools of Menhaden, then guide fishing boats to the catch. It was a competitive business in the lower Chesapeake Bay and off the coast of Virginia. It was all about fishing and big money.
I had just left the Cape Knox for home on a late summer afternoon. We were the Bravo-2 standby SAR vessel. As soon as I got home, Carol told me she just got off the phone with the District. We had been recalled. Two of the menhaden spotters had collided fifteen miles off the Virginia Capes a week ago with no survivors. The search had been called off three days ago. But, now someone reported flotsam in the vicinity; we were ordered to get underway and investigate.
I made it back to our Little Creek pier in half an hour. I could hear the quiet rumble of the Knox’s four Cummins engines from the end of the pier, and barely see a shimmering heat wave rising from the funnel. They were ready.
As soon as I stepped aboard the OOD reported, “Cap’n. The ‘312 is ready for sea.” I overheard mild grumbling from some of the crew about false alarms. Nothing plunges crew morale more than being forced to drop dinner, interrupting an already restricted family life for a false alarm. We had had our share of them lately. It was bad enough never knowing on any SAR call if you would be back in three hours or three days.
“Very well, let’s get underway. I turned to Chief Miller, my executive officer and said, “Take her out Chief.” A capable ship handler, he cleared the pier, spun the ship expertly to a northerly heading to enter Lynnhaven Inlet Channel that led into Chesapeake Bay. During the slow transit, I looked over the chart and planned the first leg. As we cleared the #2 Lynnhaven Inlet buoy, I ordered, “Come right to 090 degrees, increase speed to 12 knots.”
Had this not been a rescue mission, it could have been a relaxing summer cruise. Normal SAR missions, almost by definition, didn’t start with this kind of weather. The sky was clear blue, and the hot summer sun was made tolerable by the refreshing breeze created by our 12 knot speed. The prow split the long slow swells as we peacefully made our way in the flat calm sea. Everybody except the engine room gang was on deck, making preparations for the mission.
I looked up from the chart and said, “When Cape Henry Light is abeam, Chief, change course to 105 degrees. That will take us to the crash site.”
“Aye, sir. Course 105.”
“Barker, get this SITREP (situation report) out to the District. SITREP-One: Underway Cape Henry. ETA on scene one hour.” When Cape Henry Light came abeam, Chief Miller changed to the new course and I settled in for the smooth ride and started laying out possible search patterns on the chart.
“Damn, what was that?”
Heads spun toward the sound of the explosion—the sky—and we all knew what it was.
“Cap’n, that jet is in trouble,” the Chief said, as he pointed skyward to two Navy fighter planes heading out to sea. They were probably out of Naval Air Station, (NAS) Oceana. One was losing altitude fast. Suddenly his ejection seat exploded straight up, the powerless plane continued east toward an Atlantic splash down.
His parachute opened like magic. We watched the pilot descend beneath his white chute, framed against the blue sky, his yellow one-man raft, tethered to his ankle, bounced in the air beneath him. He was going to splashdown practically at our feet. Vacationing hundreds who lined the water’s edge at Virginia Beach watched all this unfold.
“Barker, take the helm.” I ordered, “Chief, get the district on the radio and let them know what’s happening. See if we can get Oceana on UHF.” I knew the CG District RCC did not have Ultra High Frequency voice radio, but we did. That could be a good thing. I didn’t need someone 15 miles inland second guessing me now. As the chief managed the radios, I glanced up to see the bailing pilot’s wing man circling. I was sure that he had already reported the incident to his home base.
Meanwhile, the chief struggled to handle two separate conversations, with RCC and Oceana, on two different microphones. He was trying to explain to RCC, that he was not talking about our flotsam search, but a new mission—a man was falling out of the sky! It was just too much. It was turning into an Abbot and Costello routine.
“Chief,” I said, “cut the district off, tell them we’re too busy right now and we’ll explain it all in a few minutes.”
He looked surprised, but breaking into a smile, he said, “CG District Five, this is 95312. You do not understand. We are ceasing all communications this frequency now, explanation will follow. 95312 Out!” He loved it, and so did I.
By now, the pilot had hit the water, deftly gotten into his tiny raft, taken his shoes off, and was swatting at flies as if he were enjoying a relaxing day at the beach. I lined up for the approach. The crew had a ladder over the side, ready to assist. The raft was only 200 yards dead ahead. The wing man made a low fly-by executing an impressive wing roll in salute and headed back to NAS Oceana.
We soon had the Navy rescue helicopter visually and were in direct radio contact. “Coast Guard ‘312, this is Navy Rescue,” the chopper pilot’s voice shook from the helo vibrations. “When you retrieve our man, we recommend you get underway at 5 knots. Clear your after-deck space and I’ll approach from the stern with a sling. Pick-up should be easy.”
“Roger Navy Rescue, I’ll head 270 degrees, 5 knots. ‘312 standing by.”
I met LTJG Joseph Walter, USN, as he scrambled onto the fantail, wet, but seemingly none the worse for wear. We shook hands. “You OK?” I asked.
“Just a little scratch on the chin, I think from a loose buckle when I ejected.”
“Great! What happened?”
“We had barely taken off and I had an explosion and engine flame out at 3000 ft. I tried several restarts, then ejected at 1800. Great to have you guys waiting for me, though.” He laughed.
The pulsating thump of the helo blades was getting closer, the approach looked good, the dangling rescue line moved over the fantail. The crew made sure the static line touched the deck first then moved to assist our new Navy friend into the rescue horse collar. Raising his arms to get the collar in place, he shouted over the noisy chopper, “Hey Captain, did you go to the Coast Guard Academy?”
“Yea, I did.”
“You don’t happen to know Charlie Millradt, do you?”
I couldn’t believe it! “Yeah, I do! Charlie graduated in ’55, two years ahead of me.”
“How about that! Charlie and I went to high school together in Milwaukee. I went to Annapolis, and he went to the Coast Guard Academy.” As Joe was being lifted off the deck, dangling like a puppet on a string he yelled, “If you talk to Charlie, tell him I said you Coast Guard guys are OK. Thanks, Cap’n.”
Fifteen minutes after his flame out over the Atlantic, LTJG Joseph Walter, USN was back in the NAS Oceana operations center having a cup of coffee. I turned to the Chief and said, “OK, Chief. Now, where were we when the Navy so rudely interrupted?”