Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Wreck of the Selendang Ayu, December 2004

Flight 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.

On December 6, 100 miles northwest of Dutch Harbor, the ship’s engine shut down, the result of cracked rings in cylinder number three. As the ship’s engineers worked unsuccessfully to get the engine going again, the weather deteriorated, towing attempts by the Coast Guard and a commercial tug failed, and the ship drifted southeast toward Unalaska Island. By the morning of December 8, the ship was five miles from shore in a 60 knot northwest wind and 30 foot seas. The Coast Guard launched two Kodiak based H60s Jayhawks from Cold Bay to get the crew off.
Selendang Ayu drift route

Selendang Ayu aground on Unalaska Island

When the helicopters arrived, they found the sailors disorganized, panicked, and not at all sure they wanted to be hoisted into a howling winter storm off a ship that was not yet sinking. Perhaps not fully appreciating the situation, several got into the basket with their suitcases. By 3 p.m. however, with the ship now less than a mile from shore, the two H60s had each rescued nine sailors.

The 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.

In sea and wind conditions far outside the Coast Guard’s usual parameters, the Alex Haley launched its own H65 Dolphin to fly backup.

At 5 p.m., with daylight fading, the ship grounded on a reef a thousand feet from the breakers at Skan Bay.

Brian 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.”

Co-pilot 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.

The 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.

A 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!”

Alarms 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.

The 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.

Watson’s attempt to fly had helped however, and the helicopter hit the water at somewhere between a crash and a landing.

Years 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?”

As 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.

Neel 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.

Just 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.

On 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 airframe.

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.


Coast Guard helicopter CG 6020 on the beach
at Skan Bay, Unalaska Island, December 2004


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 Aviation Personnel

The Edge of Survival, 2010, by Spike Walker

Interview with Brian Lickfield, November 2021