Mechanics on Coast Guard helicopters, the people who hang out the door and run
the rescue hoist, wear a gunner’s harness to keep from falling out, with a
buckle that, depending on which way you put the harness on, can be released with
either hand. The Coast Guard doesn’t care which way a mechanic puts the harness
on, but Brian Lickfield put his on the same way for every flight for 17 years, against
the day when that might matter and his hand would hit the release without
thinking, and he would swim away from a sinking helicopter, and live.
Eastern Bering Sea
In December 2004, the 738 foot freighter Selendang Ayu was carrying 66,400 tons of soybeans across the Bering Sea on a great circle route from Seattle to Xiamen, China. Commanded by a 52 year old Indian national named Kailash Singh, the ship had 26 officers and men.
|Selendang Ayu drift route
|Selendang Ayu aground on Unalaska Island
first helicopter, CG number 6020, lowered its nine its sailors to the cutter Alex
Haley, which was standing by a mile away. The other H60 CG number 6021 flew to
a rendezvous point on Unalaska Island, transferred its passengers to the first
helicopter, and flew to Cold Bay, where it was grounded with mechanical
problems. The first H60 then flew Dutch Harbor, unloaded the rescued sailors, refueled,
and flew back to get the ship’s eight remaining crewmembers.
sea and wind conditions far outside the Coast Guard’s usual parameters, the
Alex Haley launched its own H65 Dolphin to fly backup.
5 p.m., with daylight fading, the ship grounded on a reef a thousand feet from
the breakers at Skan Bay.
Lickfield, the Flight Mechanic on the returning H60, would later tell a
reporter, “I flew for sixteen years before this happened, and that was the
worst conditions I've ever seen. It was just crazy- snowing, blizzard
conditions and thirty, forty foot seas.”
Doug Watson, sitting in the right seat, held the helicopter above the port side
of the ship’s bow, but as Lickfield lowered the hoist, blue bolts of static
electricity generated by the rotors arced from the basket to the ship. The
terrified sailors refused to get into the basket.
rescue swimmer, Aaron Bean, went down to straighten things out. Gesturing, cajoling,
and tossing suitcases aside, Bean had just put the seventh man in the basket when,
pilot Dave Neel saw a wave larger than any wave he had ever seen coming out of
the darkness. He took the controls from Watson and pulled the machine up as
fast as he could make it go.
hundred feet above the ship’s deck cranes, Lickfield had just pulled the
seventh sailor into the cabin when the wave struck the side of the ship, transferred
its mass and energy vertically, and engulfed the helicopter in sea water. The
windshield went white with sea foam and Lickfield hollered “We’ve got water in
the cabin sir! Up! Up! Up!”
sounded and red lights came on and the engines spooled down with the
diminishing whine of a train whistle going away. Watson pushed the nose down to
fly out of the problem, but there was no power to fly anywhere. The helicopter fell.
torque in the main rotor spun the airframe counterclockwise, slamming the tail into
the side of the ship, immediately followed by the main rotor blades, which shattered
on the ship’s rail. Rescue swimmer Bean and Captain Singh, the last sailor on
the ship, crouched as pieces of steel ricocheted around them.
attempt to fly had helped however, and the helicopter hit the water at somewhere
between a crash and a landing.
later Lickfield would tell an interviewer, “You never think there’s really
going to be a situation where you just crash in a helicopter… but you better
hope it's really a crash because I'm leaving. Right?”
the fuselage rolled over and the cabin filled with water, Lickfield grabbed the
edge of the door, instinctively hit the release on the right side of the
gunners belt he had put on the same way every time for 17 years, pulled himself
though the door, and swam for the surface.
and Watson swam out of the cockpit and the H65 flying backup hoisted them and
Lickfield and a crewman from the ship, who came up with the hoist cable wrapped
around his neck, unconscious but alive. The other six sailors were never found.
The H65 flew the survivors to Dutch Harbor.
after 7 p.m., the Selendang Ayu split in half, with Aaron Bean and Captain
Singh still standing on the bow. At 8:30 p.m. the H65 returned and hoisted them
off the wreck.
the Dutch Harbor tarmac that night, as Lickfield walked away from the H65 that
had pulled him out of the water, he saw the CG number on its side, number 6513,
and realized it was the same helicopter he had qualified in as a flight
mechanic, in 1992. It had been rebuilt at least once, but it was the same
Selendang Ayu aground and broken in half
at Skan Bay, Unalaska Island, December 2004
Over the next few weeks, the ship broke up, spilling its cargo of soybeans and 440,000 gallons of fuel oil into the sea, prompting an expensive cleanup operation. The ship’s surviving crew went back to India and the Philippines and China and the Coast Guard people who rescued them went back to work. The rescue remains one of the most logistically complicated operations the Coast Guard ever attempted.
National Transportation Safety Board Selendang
Ayu Marine Accident Brief, September 2006
Selendang Ayu Incident: After Action Review
USCG MSA Anchorage 7/31/2005
Underwater Egress Handbook for U.S. Coast Guard
The Edge of Survival, 2010, by Spike Walker
Interview with Brian Lickfield, November 2021