By Martha LaGuardia-Kotite
Night fell just northwest of Sitka, Alaska, leaving Jim Blades and his six-year-old son, Clint, to fight for their lives aboard their 26-foot wooden trawler, Bluebird. An unexpected weather system, which entered Sitka Sound from the Gulf of Alaska, was cause for their battle. the incoming storm on 10 December 1987 was unforecasted, and its ferocity was hard to describe.
Second Class Aviation Survivalman Jeff Tunks, a rescue swimmer assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, unknowingly readied for what would become for him, and the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program, an evening of historic renown. He ran into the hangar and quickly put on his dry suit topped by an inflatable vest, which contained a knife, flares and strobe lights. He tightened his mask and snorkel. He grabbed his swimming fins and anti-exposure coveralls, extra survival bags, and made his way out toward the flight line to join the “controlled chaos” surrounding the HH–3F Pelican helicopter, tail number CG 1486. Men scurried about the flight line preparing the craft for the search and rescue.
For a brief moment, Tunks looked up at the moonless sky. It was blanketed by thick cloud cover, and his face was pelted with bullets of ice. The downpour also blistered the tarmac. He questioned his first rescue mission, “Is this for real? Why me?”
Tunks was assigned to the Alaskan air station immediately after graduating from the rescue swimmer school in Pensacola one year earlier. Rescue swimmers had not had a major case at the unit during that time, or in the entire Coast Guard for that matter. This would be his first one; a feeling of apprehension flooded his mind.
He was confident in the team of pilots and aircrew that would join him on this mission. What he feared most was his own failure. “It’s not easy to be brave all the time; your first instinct is to survive,” said Tunks.
At 31 years old, Tunks was in extremely good shape. He was five feet ten inches tall, 170 pounds and handsome, respected and affectionately known as a “Grandpa” to the other swimmers, who were mostly in their early 20s. Tunks carried a full head of sandy blond hair and a ready smile to match his friendly, jovial manner.
He willingly joined the rescue swimmer community during its infancy as a way of remaining in the Coast Guard. As an ASM his choices were: change his job; be released from the Coast Guard; or become a swimmer. Before making the lateral change into the program, Tunks had worked as a flight mechanic, repairing gear and emergency equipment for aircrews.
To qualify as a swimmer he had to first graduate from the four-week rescue swimmer course at NAS Pensacola. Tunks knew that men attending the course were coming back unqualified. It was a brutal program of instruction. Regarding the course he said, “They can’t kill me. How bad could it be?”
For Tunks, completing the course was a matter of fighting for his survival. He had a wife and one-year-old son to provide for back home. This was not just a job but also his profession, and he needed to succeed.
Luckily for Tunks, he had always been a runner. From this sport he had developed a strong lung capacity and endurance. “I was not a swimmer any more than when I was water skiing, and I had to get the rope to get back up.” Every day of the course he dreaded going to the pool where men were routinely pushed beyond their limits and even feared for their lives. He lived by what others who passed the course told him, “If you don’t quit, you’ll make it.” Of the 35 men in his class, 12 finished.
As natural as the change was for the Coast Guard’s echelon, the development of and the acceptance in the field of the rescue swimmer program was slow. Sometimes it was viewed as unnecessary. Many aviators did not want the swimmers around, much less in their aircraft.
By 1987, when Tunks was assigned to Sitka, standard procedures at that time deployed swimmers only as a last resort and only into known training scenarios, which often were not like real-life conditions. The program was still being developed and the skill of the swimmers still being tested.
“I did feel discriminated against—it was a difficult time with a lot of unknowns,” reflected Tunks, who was a distinguished and respected role model for the profession. “The program was being resisted with as much force as was being used to push it through.”
This issue was not on Tunks’ mind as he leaped into the cabin of the helicopter to join the rest of the experienced aviators. “It was my first time in the fire, and I was hoping to get back alive.”
A weather system had developed hurricaneforce winds and 40-foot seas from its journey eastward across the vast stretches of the cold North Pacific Ocean before entering the Gulf of Alaska. By the time it approached Sitka Sound, located on the eastern shoreline of the gulf, it raised havoc with anything in its way. It descended down the side of Cape Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano that soared to 3,200 feet above the town of Sitka.
The cape and a myriad of small islands provided modest protection for Sitka, located on Baranof Island. Saint Lazaria Island, a bird sanctuary nestled just below the cape, was surrounded by prime fishing grounds for fishermen and the wildlife that venture there.
In an extraordinary ambush, the storm approached the Blades, who, unaware, had settled down for the night aboard the anchored Bluebird.
Around 1500 that afternoon, the father and son had completed a profitable king salmon fishing trip aboard the blue-and-white painted boat. Still 12 miles from home, the winter sun set early bringing a consuming darkness between Bluebird, a nearby reef, Vitskari Rocks, and the warmth and comfort of the fisherman’s home. Jim decided to anchor near Saint Lazaria Island on the leeward side of the prevailing winds. He sensed the waters could get a little choppy during the night.
He radioed his wife, Jill, who was home caring for Kurt, their three-year-old son. “We had talked and he mentioned he was gonna stay back behind the island . . . He said the weather was marginal, which meant it was gonna blow a little bit and he was going to probably be awake half
the night watching the anchor,” said Jill. “We said good night and I turned off the radio.” Jill then climbed up the ladder to the loft bed where Kurt was drawing pictures before going to sleep.
The Blades usually moored their boat to the one-room float house. Fishing was a primary source of income for them. Jim and Clint were underway a lot together, which enabled Clint to become a capable boat crew member. He could steer a course, help with the trawler’s hydraulic gear, and call Dad over when there was a fish too big to haul up himself.
Unknowingly, they were in the storm’s track. Jim had missed an emergency weather update of an incoming, fast-moving gale crossing the Gulf of Alaska.
Earlier that evening, a few miles to the east, Jeff Tunks had worked inside an aircraft hangar at Coast Guard Air Station Sitka. He was on call as the duty swimmer. Having completed a routine training flight that evening with the on-call pilots and aircrew, he followed procedures and prepped the helicopter for any future mission they might be called upon to perform.
Tired and hungry from a busy day of practice hoists and aerial exercises, Tunks walked over to the galley just after 1800. After eating a significantly overcooked hamburger, he returned to the hangar. As he walked down the hallway, he heard the rata-tat of the wind and rain pelting the windows and realized the weather was fast deteriorating.
By then, the gale’s winds had started to accelerate down the leeward side of Cape Edgecumbe toward Bluebird, which was on top of an already big swell. It “came out of the west pretty hard . . . That’s where I got in trouble,” said a softspoken Jim who had been icing their catch in the fish hold. “The wind set me in right towards the beach with very little warning. Just one cat’s-paw and the next thing you know it’s blowing 40 then 70 and snowing.”
Seeking shelter from the “storm of unforecast ferocity,” Jim started Bluebird’s engine and put it in gear. He attempted to stop the anchor from dragging. Then he set Bluebird on a course, hopeful it would lead them to deeper water. Limited by the darkness and heavy, snow-laden gusting winds and mushrooming seas, Jim was lost. Without radar, the best he could do was direct the beam from his spotlight into the snowpacked, watery darkness encircling them. He hoped it would illuminate a safe passage.
Clint, who was on a bunk in the fo’c’sle, remembered feeling a large wave lift the entire boat then forcefully drop it. “I heard this huge crunch, and Dad got me out of the bow right away and put me in the cabin,” said Clint. “I remember, real vividly, Dad going up to the bow and shining the light down in the water and then running back into the cabin to try and back off the rock. Another wave picked us up and the back end slammed into another rock. He basically picked another direction, and went for it. This happened to be the right way.”
“We couldn’t see anything but snow,” said Clint. “Gusts of wind came from the wrong direction. Within minutes waves and winds started rising from the northerly direction . . . It got so rough, so fast.”
Suddenly, a car horn hooked up as the bilge alarm blared, announcing to Jim that they were taking on water below decks. “That was pretty annoying so I ripped the wires off of that!” Jim said. With that silenced, he ran to the bridge and made a desperate radio call for help on Channel 16, the emergency VHF marine distress frequency.
Fearfully Jim reported to the Coast Guard that Vitskari Rocks had holed Bluebird. He erred in giving his location. The boat was actually a few miles away from where he had reported. He was disoriented by the darkness and heavy snow. The storm was worsening.
Back at the small, red cedar float house, a sudden gust of wind had violently spun it around and drew the shore cables tight with a jolt. The strength of the winds loudly smacked water against Jill’s front door. Alarmed by the unwelcome movement of her home, Jill recalled her reaction. First, she wondered if her husband and son were OK. “I tried to get Jim on the radio. He wasn’t on Channel 70, so I turned it to Channel 16 because I thought, ‘Boy, if he’s in trouble, he’d be talking on that.’” On the distress channel, she overheard Jim talking to Coast Guard Air Station Sitka. Then she guessed that he must really be in dire straits. While she listened, the Coast Guard asked Jim if there was any way to contact his wife. Jill immediately interrupted them, “I’m here, listening in.” Jim cautioned, “You better get off the radio, honey, it’s a distress frequency.”
Air Station Sitka received Blades’ Mayday at 1936, four hours after sunset. The watch stander immediately sounded the search and rescue (SAR) alarm. Following its jolting blare was an emergency announcement over loudspeakers broadcasting throughout the air station and hangar, “Now, vessel in distress at Viscary [sic] Rocks, taking on water, rescue swimmer provide.”
The pipe was unusual. The call was for a rescue swimmer to go on the mission too. The swimmer program was still in its infancy. The use of a swimmer was rare, at the pilot’s discretion, and even if they were airborne, rarely were they called into action.
Tunks knew this was a prime fishing ground and guessed it was a fishing boat in distress. He quickly made his way out to the helicopter where men were preparing to put the amphibious helicopter on the flight line.
Lieutenant Commander John B. Whiddon, the duty aircraft commander, rushed to the operations center to get the updated information on the situation. Whiddon, a 13-year veteran and distinguished Coast Guard Aviator, was known for his 1980 Gulf of Alaska case, where he helped hoist many people from the fireengulfed cruise ship Prinsendam. For his aviator’s skill and courage, he was awarded the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross. Whiddon spoke with a heavy English accent, having emigrated as a young man from England to the United States.
Reviewing the information the SAR desk had received, Whiddon decided to launch immediately. Current weather conditions at the field were snow showers and 20-knot winds with gusts to 40 knots.”There were no indications of any pending bad weather,” recalled Whiddon.
Lieutenant G. B. Breithaupt, the co-pilot, was very experienced and known to have a good sense of humor. Less than a month prior, though, he had to turn his helicopter back from a sinking fishing vessel case because of dangerous weather conditions. The only thing located after the storm passed was a hatch from the vessel. This loss affected not only the townspeople of Sitka but also the Coast Guard community living there.
AD1 Carl E. Saylor, a seasoned flight mechanic, was in charge of operating the hoist and troubleshooting any mechanical problems during the flight. He was a tall, lanky fellow standing over six feet. He flew on the Prinsendam cruise ship fire mission and was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his gallant efforts hoisting survivors from lifeboats to the Coast Guard helicopter.
AT3 Mark A. Milne, the avionics technician, was responsible for plotting their course and maintaining communication with the air station. He was five feet nine inches tall. A rather quiet guy, he loved to work out and lift weights.
Whiddon buckled into the pilot’s right seat of the 10-ton aircraft with his co-pilot and crew. “As we were just turning the helo up, a really strong gust of wind knocked it sideways, 30 degrees to the right. The first time that had happened in my career. That was our first indication that there were going to be problems, and it just proceeded to get worse from there,” said Whiddon.
Seventeen minutes after the Mayday call the helicopter was airborne. “As we lifted off, it was like we were flying into nothing it was so dark,” recalled Tunks. “It was all stick and rudder.” With no road or lights to follow, the helicopter’s spotlight illuminated the waters below as the only road map.
The intensity of the storm had magnified. “The helicopter was immediately hit with heavy snow and tossed by severe turbulence,” wrote Whiddon in his case summary. They descended from 700 feet to 500 feet to shed snow that had been collecting on the sponsons and windshield. “The windows were obscured by snow build-up, and ice started to accumulate on the airframe necessitating a lower than desired search altitude to avoid further icing,” declared Whiddon.
Adding to the dangerous flight conditions, mountains were on either side of the helicopter’s flight path into Sitka Sound. The sound “is still relatively wide, but we had no forward visibility, only the water below us, two hundred fifty to three hundred feet below,” said Whiddon.
“The Coast Guard couldn’t find us,” said Clint of what seemed like a long time waiting for rescue.
Finding Bluebird was indeed a complicated matter for the Coast Guardsmen. They communicated with each other by using the helicopter’s internal communication system (ICS) wired into headsets in their helmets. As they flew toward a repeatedly reported inaccurate position, the pilots were forced to fly at low altitudes; the radar returns illuminated on the scope were so intense that they could not distinguish land from water, and they were limited in the use of LORAN.
Ramping up the fear factor another notch, Whiddon and Breithaupt had to carefully guide the nose of the aircraft down to prevent it from getting pushed up too high by the powerful winds trying to force it into a dangerous, out of control condition.
Lieutenant Breithaupt contacted Bluebird’s captain on Channel 16 and asked him to provide a long countdown. Using this tracking equipment, the radio signal received would register a direction relative to the helicopter’s position.
Jim provided the countdown, backward from ten to one, a technique used to keep him from speaking too fast into the microphone: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one . . .”
The pilots instructed Jim to prepare to be hoisted off.
Earlier, Jim had donned his survival suit. He placed Clint in a sleeping-bag-style suit on the floor of the cabin where he fell asleep, comforted by the warmth. He was too young to be fearful of the dangers just outside the cabin door.
Jim realized the dangerous situation they were in, though, and planned to clip Clint onto the front of his own survival suit in order to hold them together, hands-free, when it became time to evacuate.
Unfortunately though, Jim was unable to zip his suit up entirely to keep him warm. The repair shop had removed the toggle from the zipper. Without this device, Jim was helpless. Jim didn’t let his son know how much he feared for their lives. He remained outwardly calm, aware that his son watched him closely. They were ready to be rescued and anxiously awaited the arrival of the helicopter.
Jill Blades, who had listened on the distress frequency to her husband’s conversations with the Coast Guard, switched her radio to a routine channel. She called her friends and neighbors Bob and Laura Hubbard. Jill explained that Jim and Clint were in trouble. She begged them to start the Sitka Trinity Baptist Church prayer chain. Pray for her family and the rescuers she pleaded before tuning back to the emergency marine channel. Scared and nervous she listened, not quite aware, yet, of how bad things were for her husband and son as well as the Coast Guard rescuers.
Lieutenant Commander Whiddon, with Milne providing navigational and communications assistance, decided to fly toward the Cape Edgecumbe Light. From this point, they could fly along the shoreline toward Saint Lazaria Island where they knew the helicopter would be in the neighborhood of the 26-foot vessel’s reported position.
Briethaupt, Saylor and Tunks painstakingly looked out the aircraft’s windows into the snowstorm hoping to see a glow from Bluebird’s mast-head light. “I tried to use night vision goggles, but with the flood hovers and searchlight on, reflecting off the snow, the goggles did not work,” Saylor wrote in his case summary.
In an effort to help the rescuers locate him, Jim turned off all his boat’s lights and pointed his powerful battery-powered spotlight into the darkness. He directed it forward then backward hoping to point it in the approaching helicopter’s position.
As the helicopter neared St. Lazaria Island, Saylor spotted the intermittent light at the aircrew’s two o’clock position. The pilots were able to use the radar, which had cleared, to fly toward the light, a blip on the radar. Navigating within a mile of the light, Whiddon made a slow, right, 360-degree turn, to descend to 300 feet. He would make a straight, precision approach to a hover. During the turn, the wind blew the helicopter six miles to the south causing the crew to lose sight of the light. They had been blown completely off course!
Realizing what had happened, the pilots adjusted their course to head back to Lazaria in time for Saylor to regain sight of the light.
The storm unleashed a fresh gust of wind, forcing frigid waters up onto the decks of Bluebird, which had already taken on an ample amount. Seeing the demise of his boat, Jim feared they had little time left afloat and called out to the rescuers over the radio, “I’m going to be in the water pretty quick. Where are you guys at?”
Jill, who had maintained a vigil next to the radio, was terrified. “At one point I overheard Jim say that the decks were awash with water, they were sinking. That really freaked me out. My little baby was out there,” Jill said in anguish.
Jim counted down from ten again over the radio. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five . . .” According to Saylor, the signal was not strong enough to get an accurate direction of where it was coming from.
To improve their visibility, Whiddon and Breithaupt descended to 300 feet and again commenced a precision approach less than a mile from the sinking boat in an effort to descend and fly into a hover.
When they were hovering above Bluebird, the situation became dire. The winds were rushing down the side of Cape Edgecumbe faster than an Amtrak train to join seas exceeding 40 feet in height.
“The pilots noticed that at 60 knots, the indicated airspeed, the helicopter wasn’t making any headway but was actually being blown away from the boat,” noted Whiddon in his summary.
“The pilots used their flight instruments to adjust but the altitude was still varying from fifty to one hundred feet . . . and I could see, looking at the water, we were flying backwards,” wrote Saylor.
Whiddon carefully inched the helicopter forward into another hover above Bluebird. “The aircraft was crabbing about thirty degrees—we got up to the boat in about a forty foot hover,” stated Saylor. “The survivor told us he was taking on water and did not have much time left.” It was then they learned that Jim was accompanied by his six-year-old son.
Saylor and Milne provided positioning information to Whiddon over the ICS while looking out the aircraft’s cabin door. They planned to lower the rescue basket to Bluebird’s stern hoping that Jim and Clint could climb into it.
After three to four attempts, the rescuers realized that the limited deck space on the small boat was not enough to enable the father and son to be safely hoisted. All they needed was a clear three-foot-by-four-foot area to place the basket. The wildly pitching hull, the boat’s rigging, and the gear on deck created dangerous interference.
“We were standing mid-boat, waiting for the basket,” said Clint. “We’d have to go whichever direction the basket went.”
Some of the helicopter’s aerial maneuvers above Bluebird became close calls. Bluebird’s mast almost impaled the body of the aircraft. It was unpredictable, swatting back and forth near the hovering frame positioned less than the height of a child’s step stool above the masthead.
Saylor hand signaled for the skipper to come up on his radio located in the wheelhouse. Breithaupt spoke with Jim and convinced him to get into the water with his son. It was the only way to save them, he advised.
“Dad picked me up and strapped me in facing forward,” said Clint. With Clint secured to his chest, Jim moved to the stern of the boat and gave instructions to his son. Clint had, up to this point, remained calm.
“Dad shouted, ‘We’re going to go over the side.’ I got scared. I tried to hold on to the side of the boat I was so scared!” recalled Clint. They surrendered their fate to the snow-filled, turbulent waters with the rescuers hovering above when they jumped off Bluebird’s stern.
Despite numerous attempts by the Coast Guard team to get the basket close to the survivors, the Blades were not able to distance themselves from the sinking boat, making the pickup impossible.
During one of these attempts, the winds forced the helicopter back-ward into a descent. All the instrument gauges went red. “I felt the helicopter rise and start to shudder,” said Tunks. “You could hear the pilots yell ‘Full power! Full power! Full power!’”
Whiddon had felt the helicopter violently pitch 25 degrees nose up. “The winds just picked us up, and we were going backward and descending completely out of control at sixty miles per hour,” recounted Whiddon. “Greg, the co-pilot, and I, looked at each other and just knew we were going to crash. I thought, well this is it, we knew we were going into the water.”
Whiddon and Breithaupt pulled maximum power (122 percent torque) using the collective and cyclic in full up positions, but the helicopter continued to back down and descend.
Whiddon felt the aura of someone’s presence standing behind him. He assumed it was Saylor conducting a safety check of the helicopter, required every 30 minutes. Knowing they were about to ditch, “I turned back to yell at him to sit down, get strapped in,” Whiddon re-called. Looking for him Whiddon discovered that Saylor was in his seat. “Right then the descent stopped, our backward motion stopped. We were fifteen to twenty degrees nose up, fifteen feet above the water and the helicopter’s tail was just a few feet from hitting it!”
When the pilots pulled power again to regain control of the craft, the helicopter engines were over torque. Miraculously they were still airborne. Whiddon credited this miracle to the intangible feeling that remained with him. Something else was in the mix; he could not explain it.
Tunks, who had witnessed the wave tops and sea foam up close from just outside the cabin door, was thinking, “Let’s not do that again,” as they repositioned for another attempt to send the rescue basket down to the survivors.
Whiddon was one of the best pilots Tunks had ever flown with. Yet, Tunks was aware that this case was a little too much for the pilot. Whiddon reported, “The pilots nearly lost aircraft control three additional times during the rescue attempts as these extreme gusts tossed the helicopter about like a paper airplane.”
A mere 10 minutes had passed since the helicopter had arrived on scene when Bluebird rolled over and sank stern first. Fortunately, this loss provided more room to try and hoist the father and son without the basket getting caught in the boat’s rigging. Jim and his son were under increasing duress. “They became too incapacitated to help themselves,” noted Whiddon. “They just got too cold.” By now, Jim’s hands were disabled. He couldn’t hold his son to his chest. The clips were the only reason Clint was still there. He began to wonder if they would survive.
In an unprecedented moment, considering the weather and conditions they were in, Whiddon turned to Jeff Tunks for help. “The only way we will be able to rescue these guys is if you go in the water. Are you willing to do it?”
“Yes sir. OK, let’s do it,” Tunks responded without hesitation. This is insane, thought Tunks. He knew he just had to do what he could do even if he was uncertain of the outcome. He hoped it would be a good one. “It’s not easy to be brave all the time; your first instinct is to survive.”
“Up until this moment, no one in the Coast Guard had ventured into conditions as fierce as these for any rescue or even a training exercise,” Whiddon said.
Following procedures to lower Tunks down to the turbulent seas, the helicopter was repositioned in a 60-foot hover above the Blades. In the rear cabin, Milne and Saylor prepared Tunks to be lowered by a horse-collar-style sling.
Tunks descended into the relative darkness and observed close at hand the environs. The magnitude of the rushing seas and winds punishing him were illuminated by the helicopter’s dual hover lights mounted on its undercarriage and its nose-mounted searchlight.
He reached the water’s surface and prepared to release himself from the cable. “Unfortunately the moment his feet hit the water we got dragged backwards again!” recounted Whiddon. Tunks was able to free himself from the sling after being dragged back the length of a football field attached to the helicopter.
Whiddon and Breithaupt recovered the aircraft from the treacherous moment again by using all the power they could demand from the engines. Breithaupt continually called out what the pilot called in his report the “drastic changes in altitude (25 to 100 feet) and attitude (from 20 degrees nose up to 10 degrees nose down and 20 degree rolls of either wing down)” to help a fatigued Whiddon counter them with his skilled hands. He also helped Whiddon by assisting on the controls.
Milne was able to keep the Blades in sight and assisted Saylor in conning the aircraft into position for another attempt to hoist once the pilots recovered.
Tunks was in no position to help Jim and Clint. He had recognized that “it was better to be out of the sling than attached.” Three pool lengths separated him from the father and son. The radio he would use to communicate with the helicopter was not operating properly in these conditions.
“Of course he was on the other side of 40 foot waves, in the dark. He had absolutely no idea where they were, he didn’t know how to reach them, and he couldn’t yell for them because it was too loud out there to be heard,” remembered Whiddon.
In an effort to help, “Dad would wave his arms to catch the spot-light’s beam on his survival suit’s reflective tape,” said Clint. “So I raised my arms too. I could see the chopper, looked like a big dome or theater above us . . . the lights blaring right above us . . . really an amazing thing.”
With the nose light off to the right illuminating Tunks, Whiddon looked for and spotted the Blades. Unwittingly he had grabbed the light’s directional controller and swung it straight ahead to spot them. “Somehow Jeff knew to follow that beam of light. He just followed that beam of light and it took him right to the Blades,” Whiddon said.
Tunks swam up to Jim and his son, guided by their reflective tape. Father and son did not realize Tunks was in the water until he was right next to them. “Dad asked, ‘Are you going to get us out of here?’” said Clint. Tunks, despite the fact that this was his first rescue replied, “We do this shit all the time!” Jim laughed through chattering teeth.
Tunks himself was the father of a three-year-old son. “He looked at me and shouted, ‘We’ve got to get you out of here!’” said Clint.
Tunks noticed Jim was suffering from the cold. He was floating lower in the water than his survival suit was designed to do. Clint, who was chilled too, was calm. He trusted his dad had everything under control.
Tunks focused instinctively on what he had to do. He worked with fierce determination, matched by his pumping adrenaline, to save them. Tunks reached across Jim’s shoulders and swam with the Blades into a hoisting position. He gave Saylor a wave with his chemical light, signaling they were ready for the basket.
Saylor lowered the rescue basket again and again only to miserably watch it be consumed by a wave one moment and then shoot out the backside of the wave as it rolled past. Tunks, unable to maneuver the Blades toward the basket, recalled, “You could hear the strain on the helo’s engines as the plane was buffeted around by the winds.”
After another 10 minutes of precision effort, five attempts by the pilots, Milne, and Saylor to deliver the basket, Whiddon started to give up. “What do you think about giving them the life raft?” he queried over ICS. He predicted Tunks and the Blades could ride out the gale inside the raft.
Breithaupt, Milne and Saylor were silent. “All right, we’ll give it one more try,” Whiddon remarked.
With the helicopter repositioned, Saylor inserted the basket in the water close to Tunks while simultaneously giving positioning instructions to Whiddon. Tunks grabbed the basket. In one swift motion, he rolled the Blades inside seconds before the seas swept it away.
Ready. Tunks gave Milne the thumbs-up sign to start the hoist. “I noticed Milne was not taking the load,” said Tunks. “He wanted me to go up with them. There was no room and too much weight on the hoist.” It was also not the way they had trained. Tunks pushed the basket away.
The pilots “used the entire range of all flight controls just to maintain a hover.”
Now, safely deposited in the helicopter’s cabin Jim and his son got out of the rescue basket with assistance from Saylor and Milne. Clint noticed the life raft. He confessed, “I was glad to be in the chopper.”
Tunks rode out the waves below. Moving into position to retrieve Tunks, the team tried with great difficulty to position the basket close to him. On the second attempt, Tunks pulled himself inside.
Yet, Tunks’ recovery was even more difficult than the Blades’. Suddenly, the helicopter was lifed
by the winds and shuddered as it was propelled back at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour, against the demands of the pilots who countered with full power on the controls. Saylor released more cable but the helicopter was moving too fast.
Tunks gripped tightly onto the sides of the steel basket as it surged. “I was hit with a freight train—a really hard wave.” Its wall of water knocked the air out of his lungs. He was stunned.
Now 50 feet out in front of the helicopter he witnessed it veer out of control and descend toward the water.
Inside the craf, “Whiddon had the nose of the helicopter down ten degrees and was pulling maximum torque, he could not stop the helicopter’s rearward movement as ASM2 Tunks impacted the waves ahead of the helicopter.”
“We had to pull all the power we could to keep from crashing,” said Whiddon. As forces careened them backward, Tunks was hit by a 30-foot wave. The helicopter’s hoist cable dragged him at high speed through the wave, slamming his back into the rear of the basket. Without delay or time to think about his pain, a third wave attacked him with equal punishment, tearing away his face mask and snorkel.
The pilots and aircrew had noticed the explosions of white water as the waves collided against Tunks. Whiddon heard yelling from the back of the cabin, “We’ve killed him, we’ve killed him!”
The pilots and aircrew had noticed the explosions of white water as the waves collided against Tunks. Whiddon heard yelling from the back of the cabin, “We’ve killed him, we’ve killed him!” Whiddon said, “That was the one and only time I ever heard anyone say that to me. The only time anyone ever had to say that.”
As the gust subsided, Whiddon regained control of the helicopter. Milne and Saylor did all they could to quickly hoist Tunks to safety.
As the basket was pulled free of the water, Tunks swung dangerously from side to side almost hitting the helicopter. “Only by Herculean efforts were they able to bring the basket into the helicopter,” wrote Whiddon.
Once inside the safety of the cabin, Tunks fell out of the rescue basket onto the deck and vomited, twice. “I could still taste that overcooked burger I ate before the mission,” Tunks said. “Everything came out of me, seawater, nerves, everything.”
The pilots, unable to see their surroundings and flying on instruments, navigated the battered helicopter back to Air Station Sitka. They were on deck within 10 minutes. “The helicopter was out of service for seven days due to the overtorqued transmission, the overstressed hoist and wrinkles on the skin of the tail pylon,” Whiddon reported in his case summary.
Talking about the ordeal, Tunks admitted that he dug in so hard on the basket he bruised his fingertips. His back was also bruised and red hives broke out all over his body, which a doctor later identified as adrenaline induced. “It was an unbelievable, euphoric feeling of achievement. I loved seeing everybody smiling when we got back,” Tunks said.
Whiddon, who has since retired from the Coast Guard and lives in Kodiak, Alaska, wrote that Bluebird rescue was the most difficult and demanding case he had been involved with in over 12 years of Coast Guard Aviation. Of the men he flew with that night, he said, “The performance of the entire crew was, without exception, truly super and most certainly deserving of recognition at the highest level for the courage, skill and professionalism displayed.” Regarding Jeff Tunks’ actions that night, “It was a superb example of what the rescue swimmer could be and turned out to be. Tunks is just remarkable!”
Each of the Coast Guardsmen was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Tunks was the first Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer to be awarded this medal. The five-man crew received the 1987 National Naval Helicopter Association Award, the Association of Naval Aviation Outstanding Achievement Award, and
Tunks was selected as co-winner of the Coast Guard Foundation Admiral Chester R. Bender Award for Heroism. The governor of Alaska, Steve Cowper, presented the state’s highest honor, the Medal of Heroism, to the five Coast Guardsmen. This medal had only been presented 13 other times since its establishment by law in 1965. The governor wrote to Jeff Tunks in January of 1988:
“It sounded like a pretty harrowing experience in those weather conditions, but I’m proud to see that you stuck with it and saved Jim Blades and his son. I also noted that you used the occasion to test your equipment to the max. Genuine heroes are hard to find these days but I think you and other members of the crew qualify. On behalf of all Alaskans, I’m honored to have you in Alaska and thank you for a job well done.”
Whiddon believes that he was helped that night. “The presence kinda never went away. I became a born-again Christian a couple of years ago—I’m convinced I knew what it was. I didn’t know it at the time but the Blades were very religious Christians, they had activated their prayer chain.”
Lieutenant Breithaupt retired from the Coast Guard and flew for a commercial airline. Petty Officer Carl Saylor has retired from the Coast Guard.
Petty Officer Mark Milne left the Coast Guard after completing his tour in Sitka.
For Senior Chief Petty Officer Jeff Tunks, who retired in 2007 after serving at Air Station Mobile in Alabama, “I think I was the fortunate one—I used to feel lucky, now I feel blessed.”
From that day on, when Whiddon put his stamp of approval on the rescue swimmer program, it just took off. “This mission showed we were here to stay. It grounded the program and showed that we could make a difference.”
Jim and Jill Blades still live in Sitka, though they no longer live in the float house. In a 1987 letter to the aircrew Jill Blades wrote, “You have made this a very special Christmas for our family in the thankfulness of the opportunity to keep our family whole. Can one ever casually thank another for risking his life for you? I’m afraid I cannot. But that remembrance will ever be with me.”
Clint Blades is married and lives in Sitka. He remembers Carl Saylor taking him out of the helicopter when they landed. “I kept going up and up and up! I should have died that day,” said Clint. “I believe everything I do in my life has meaning. I remember it pretty vividly—I get a lump in my throat.”
Many nonbelievers became believers—within the Coast Guard, among the helicopter rescue swimmers, and in their own personal lives.
This article is an excerpt adapted from So Others May Live, author Martha LaGuardia-Kotite’s four time award-winning book on the history of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program. More information can be found on her website, marthakotite.com.