Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tales of the Copter: Last Man on the Ocean Express

Another story from The God Machine:

Commander John M. Lewis of the U.S. Coast Guard got the distress call at 8:00 p.m. on April 15, 1976, while at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.

Ocean Express had been under tow when a gale came up but one of the tugs had been disabled, the others had released their lines under command from the barge, and now the rig was listing and about to sink.

Ocean Express was a “jackup” rig, meaning that it had three giant steel legs, something like crane booms (illustration, USCG investigative report).


The 312-foot-long legs had been raised from the sea floor and now towered high over the rig. These towers would loom in the darkness, like claws, for any aircraft attempting to get close.

Lewis flew his Sikorsky HH-52, a single-engine helicopter optimized for open-water rescue, to the site 40 miles east of the Gulf Coast. Here's what it looks like in floating mode (Photo, Wikimedia Commons):

Just one man, Pete Vandicraft, the Barge Mover, was still on board.

Lewis made slow orbits  in the darkness, calculating his odds of getting in and out. Then he made two attempts to get a rescue basket within Vandicraft’s reach, each time having to dodge the three legs, which shifted as the rig slowly rolled over to a 45-degree angle. Salt spray from the storm waves blew into the helicopter. Capt. H.B. Thorsen, piloting another USCG helicopter, turned on his spotlight.

Lewis’s helicopter went out of sight in the spray and Thorsen thought the ocean had claimed it. The odds of survival were slim; this was an extraordinarily hazardous situation given the steelwork, turbulence from the gale, and a constantly tilting reference frame.

The scene may have called to mind the legendary credo of the United States Life-Saving Service, in the days of wooden lifeboats: “The regulations say you have to go out; they don’t say you have to come back.”

But Lewis's HH-52 appeared out of the spray like a surfacing submarine. Witnesses said they had never seen anything like it. On his third attempt, Lewis came away with Vandicraft in the rescue basket.
In departing Lewis used his controls like so: he pulled the collective lever up to gain altitude, he pushed the anti-torque pedals to maintain his direction as the main rotor dug in, and he nudged the cyclic stick to move horizontally away from the wreck.
“Piece of cake,” as pilots like to say. The rig sank thirty seconds later.

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