A Day in the Life of Air Rescue

By Lieutenant Commander Shoki Inoue, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force

I am in the cockpit of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Shin Meiwa rescue plane, the US-IA amphibian 9077, and am attempting to rescue two injured crew members on a fishing boat located 400 miles south of Iwo Jima and 300 miles north of Guam on the open sea. The crew members—aged 51 and 17 years—have had their eyes and throats burned by ammonia gas, which escaped during a fire on board fishing boat No.8, Toyokuni Maru. The two patients were transferred to the fishery guard ship Fuji Maru, which was heading for Iwo Jima at a speed of ten knots.

When a US-IA rescue operation is ordered, the overall command of the mission is under the Commander, Fleet Air Force. A coordinator for a Sea Rescue District is a Commander, Fleet Air Wing, in charge of the accident area, but the actual rescue operation is commanded by the Commander, Fleet Air Wing 31. This rescue mission is being coordinated by the Commander, Fleet Air Wing 4. To support the mission, a P-3C Orion based at Atsugi has flown ahead of the US-1A to gather and report information on the weather, the scene of the accident, and the sea state.

Once contact has been made with the Fuji Maru and a communication line has been set with the Iwo Jima tower, the P-3C Orion relays its information on the weather and the trawler's exact location. Present conditions make landing the US-1A very difficult. In addition, the Fuji Maru reports that high waves have prevented her from launching her lifeboat.

We drop a smoke marker near the Fuji Maru and begin examining the sea surface at an altitude of 800 feet and a speed of 150 knots. We first survey landing direction: The wind is blowing from 010 degrees, and the velocity is 25 knots; waves are 2.5 meters at the highest, with an average of 2 meters; and wave length is 30 meters. Next, we survey the swells: They come from 080 degrees, with the highest being 4.6 meters, average 3.4 meters, and length 160 meters.

To be safe, I recheck the landing direction at a 270-foot altitude. The results are almost the same as the first time, so I decide to land. Lighter weight helps landing, so I dump 400 liters of methanol water engine washer as well as lessen the fuel to the minimum for a return flight to Iwo Jima. The dump lowers the aircraft's weight to 35.4 tons. We are ready to land.

The approach pattern is the same as an ordinary landing except for a longer final leg. The final leg altitude is 330 feet, and the pitch angle is 0 degrees. At 200 feet, I change the angle to 4 degrees, then at 100 feet to 6.5 degrees, and descend to 50-feet altitude. At this point, the lightened US-1A's airspeed is 48 knots. At an altitude of 50 feet, I search for a suitable landing spot. No matter how rough the sea is, there are always some quiet spots. I can only see high waves-one after another—but finally, flying at a low altitude, I find a relatively quiet area behind a big wave.

Aiming at that spot, we drop down, 40 feet, 30, 20, 10, touchdown! We fit in the pocket perfectly. Not much shock. I shut off number one and four engines, and the plane stops. The next instant, we were struck by a wave's tremendous impact, but the plane is not damaged.

The 400-ton fishing boat is rolling just 200 meters ahead, but the rough seas have prohibited the crew from launching a lifeboat. Our rescue crew members, however, have been trained for a day like this. They prepare a lifeline launcher at the after deck as they board our rescue boat and depart for the trawler. After launching, our rescue boat is soon hidden behind one large wave, only to reappear the next instant on the top of another. The rescue boat can only travel at less than one-third of its normal speed; it makes little progress and drifts like a leaf. I worry that the boat will be capsized by the wind and waves, but it reaches the ship somehow.

The two injured crew members are then transferred from the ship onto the rescue boat. The patient who has been blinded is unable 'to move without assistance; the other manages to walk. This is the first time a life-raft from a US-1A has been used for this kind of evacuation, and we watch the five people on the boat slowly return to the plane. Again and again, they disappear and then reappear in the waves, until the boat finally arrives. Even then, we have a hard time attaching the boat, because we are both rolling heavily. The crew shows their well-trained skills and places the patients into the plane.

However, the rescue boat has to make another round trip to return the attendant to the trawler. Meanwhile, the plane is being tossed by the waves, and we desperately try to keep the plane level and steady on the sea's surface. Even from the high cockpit of US-1A, the rescue boat disappears again amongst the waves. The trawler pitches and rolls repeatedly, and the waves around the ship are frothing white. The rescue boat finally returns; the crew boards; and the boat is secured in the plane.

Takeoff must be executed as carefully as the landing. Damage is often caused by the impact of waves and water entering engines: Usually, every three minutes or so, a small wave occurs among larger waves. However, this rule does not seem to apply today, possibly because the swells and the wind are crossing at right angles, and there are no patterns to the waves. Consequently, after starting the outboard engines, I set the flaps at 50 degrees, turn the boundary layer control (BLC) engine to normal position, and ready the plane for takeoff.

After 20 seconds, I still can not find a quiet spot. While waiting, there is the danger of the main engine and BLC engine losing power for takeoff because of salt-water spray ingestion. (US-1A has a 5th engine to blow air over the hull bottom to reduce friction.) We continue to wait until a quiet spot comes back. After a large wave, we see a small one, and with all engines at maximum power, we attempt to take off. If the plane does not dive into the wave during the initial four or five seconds, we will be all right. We have done it!

It takes 16 seconds for the aircraft to get from full power to an airborne state. It is the first time I can feel relief since I received the order for the rescue operation six hours ago. We check the airplane—no problems. How wonderful it is to be in the air!

Next, we will land at Iwo lima, refuel the plane, and go home to Atsugi. In the plane, the medical team administers first aid treatment with the assistance of the crew. Both patients are soon out of the critical stage and will recover. After ten hours, we have completed our mission. I am proud of our performance!

Commander Inoue is a pilot with Air Rescue Squadron 71, JMSDF. 

 

 
 

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