The Sikorsky Humanitarian Service Award is presented annually to the person or crew that best demonstrates the value of rotorcraft to society by saving lives, protecting property and aiding those in distress, either through a specific mission or over a period of time. The 2010 recipient of the award is the crew of U.S. Coast Guard CGNR 6033, based at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla.
On the evening of Sept. 7, 2008, in the midst of Hurricane Ike, the crew found itself in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, picking up a group of the British territory’s officials for a flight to the island of Grand Turk to survey the damage caused by the storm. The MH-60 Jayhawk had lifted off just after sunset when pilot Lt. Cmdr. Mark Turner and copilot Lt. j.g. Daniel Cathell received a message from a Coast Guard Falcon Jet operating near the Bahamas, which had responded to a distress call from a fishing boat. According to the vessel’s crew, the boat would not last the night. Turner immediately circled back to the airport, unloaded the passengers and headed to the boat’s location. Along the way, the helicopter battled wind gusts of up to 70 knots as it flew through rain squalls in the deepening night. “The Falcon jet had dropped a flare in the water close to the position of the boat, and it was the first thing that we saw with our night vision goggles when we were about five miles away,” Turner told AIN.
“We actually swung around the boat on the way out to come back into the wind,” said Turner. “By the time we turned around we’d been pushed probably three miles beyond the boat just from the winds.” As the helicopter returned back to the boat, the crew surveyed the situation. The 63-foot western-rigged fishing boat, which had four people, was festooned with obstructions, including several A-frame supports, and was pitching and rolling in swells that nearly stood the vessel on end.
As they transitioned into a hover near the boat, the crew discussed the rescue options. Despite his preference to hoist directly from the vessel, Turner realized that its violent motion and obstructions could prove dangerous, so they decided to lower rescue swimmer AST3 John Geskus into the water and have the fishing boat crew jump into the water one by one to be rescued. Geskus would swim to them, attach himself to them, then flight mechanic AMT3 Jason Menezes would hoist them into the helicopter.
The first lift took nearly 30 minutes as the churning seas stripped off one of Geskus’s Scuba booties along with his fin as he struggled to reach the fisherman. In the cockpit, Turner considered the three fishermen remaining and began to worry about his fuel status. With copilot Cathell monitoring the wave sets and issuing guidance to Turner and Menezes, the second fisherman was quickly lifted on board. During the third hoist, the combination of wind and waves forced the MH-60 back over the fishing boat’s rigging. Cathell, who had a clear view of the gyrating boat, grabbed the controls and prevented Geskus and the fisherman, who were dangling from the hoist, from becoming entangled. Soon the last of the fishermen was safely onboard and the Jayhawk headed back to Providenciales as Geskus provided medical assistance.
Throughout the rescue operation, Turner noticed the boat’s rolling grew slower and slower as if it were filling up with water. “The next day we went looking for it along the island of Great Inagua and nobody’s seen it or reported it since, so I’m pretty sure it went down that night,” said Turner, who described the rescue as the toughest and most challenging he’s ever experienced.
Speaking for his crew, Turner was humbled to have been singled out for the award. “I was kind of surprised when we got it, and it’s quite an honor to be in the same category as some of the past years’ recipients, he said.
“I know [Igor] Sikorsky really wanted to invent the helicopter to save peoples’ lives, and for us to be able to use that and save peoples’ lives is probably the biggest honor. Our crew brought four people back who basically said they weren’t going to live through the night. We shook their hands that night, and they were very excited to still be alive and that’s the biggest pat on the back I think our crew can get.” o