Normal Mission turns to Rescue
I was an Air National Guard (183rd Military Airlift Squadron) navigator flying a C-124 (I believe it was MAC 30007) from Mildenhall England to Lajes AB, Azores in late 1968 or early 1969. It was the first leg of the trip back to the States from Europe and we were approximately 4 hours en route cruising at about 190 knots when we came within radio contact of Ocean Station Kilo. I contacted Kilo on the normal VHF frequency, they gave me their position and I got a VOR/DME fix from the vessel The radio operator on Kilo asked me for a radio check on UHF (Guard) emergency. I switched to 243.0 Mhz and immediately heard MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. The Ocean Station operator could not hear the MADAY caller at that time but later heard him as his aircraft got closer. I could communicate with the MAYDAY caller but had no way of knowing his location as he was lost and flying blind. It was about 0100 hours local time on a dark night with rain and moderate winds. I believe we were at 8000 ft. MSL with limited visibility
A few minutes later Ocean Station Kilo made contact with the pilot in distress and was able to give us a bearing from the ship to his aircraft. We had to fly back to the Ocean Station and proceed outbound on the radial given us. We learned the distress call was from a pilot ferrying a Mooney from Gander, Newfoundland to the U.K. Apparently his main navigational aid onboard was an ADF and he had been suckered off course by a big thunderstorm off the Azores.
We flew the outbound radial from the Ocean Station while firing flares from the Very pistol position located just left and above the nav station. We were in radio contact with the pilot flying inbound on the same radial. We had him reset his altimeter and we were separated by 1000 ft. (we hoped). It was dark, stormy, with light chop, all the wrong conditions one would hope for in a rescue situation. At some point the pilot of the Mooney saw our flares and landing lights and passed beneath us. We turned to follow him inbound to Ocean Station Kilo. Our airspeed was too high so we had to reduce power, go to full flaps and drop our landing gear in order to stay just above stall. It wasn't enough, so we had to continuously weave from side to side to stay behind the Mooney as our stalling speed was still greater than his cruising speed. He told us what time he had left Gander (I believe it had been 12 to 14 hrs. earlier) and gave us his air speed, fuel consumption, and remaining fuel. He was carrying extra fuel on board but was running low. When I calculated his endurance I realized that he could not possibly reach land which was about 400 miles away. As gently as possible, we informed him that he would have to ditch in the North Atlantic. We had already contacted Air/Sea Rescue at Lajes and they had dispatched a couple of C-130s to try and save the pilot. In the meantime Ocean Station Kilo sent out a flare boat to illuminate a runway in the water where he could ditch. They reported the swells were 15 feet and that ditching would be difficult. We continued to talk with the pilot and tried to keep his spirits up. When he realized that he would have to ditch he broke down and cried. I was aided by 1st Lt. Warren Potts (now deceased) a fellow navigator that I had known since elementary school. Between the two of us, our A/C and co-pilot pilot we gave the Mooney pilot directions and encouragement until he sighted Ocean Station Kilo. The entire process took about two hours and during that time the Air/Sea Rescue C-130 crews arrived on the scene. They relieved us and as we were getting low on fuel we high tailed it to Lajes. We continued to monitor the situation as the Air Sea Rescue guys tried to talk the Mooney pilot down to a safe landing on the water.
The Commander in charge of the Air Sea Rescue team was excellent. He gave the Mooney pilot a lot of information in order to help him ditch. I remember him telling the pilot that a wheels up landing in the Mooney would cause his cockpit door to be inoperable and that he would have to escape thru the passenger door. The C-130s stayed off each wing of the Mooney as it descended toward the artificial runway the flare boat has deployed. The C-130 Commander went thru the letdown check list with the Mooney pilot. The Mooney pilot became very emotional and at the last minute was unable to bring himself to ditch the plane. I heard go around from the Mooney pilot and after several tense minutes the C-130s had him in sight again. The second attempt at ditching was more successful and the pilot ditched the plane in the cold North Atlantic. After ditching, the Mooney remained afloat for a few minutes and the pilot escaped in a dingy. At that point Air Sea Rescue lost him and we shortly lost radio contact with the Air Sea Rescue C-130s and continued our flight to Lajes Air Base. Our crew disembarked, debriefed and made a bee line for the club. We had a few drinks and after a couple of hours the Air Sea Rescue crews came in and joined us. They filled us in on the rest of the story.
The Mooney pilot escaped the ditched plane in a rubber dinghy and was lost into the cold dark North Atlantic night. The Air Sea Rescue boys continued to fly around the ditch site until the Mooney disappear below the surface They continued the search, for what seemed an eternity, and finally decided to abort the mission when, on the last pass, they saw a flicker of light. The Mooney pilot had a flashlight and was spotted by one of the C-130 crews as he signaled from the dark and angry seas. Air Sea Rescue dropped flares and advised Ocean Station Kilo who sent a rescue boat and located the downed pilot. The story seemed to end there and we knew the downed airman was safe so we had another round and called it a night.
About 5 months later our Squadron received a letter from the Mooney pilot. He had been transferred to a Norwegian freighter the next day that was in the area and had heard the radio communications. The freighter dropped him off in Liverpool where he was promptly deported because he had no passport, documentation, or any form of identification. He made his way back to the States and after some research found the address of our Squadron. He wrote us a nice letter, thanked us for saving his life, and vowed not to ferry any more aircraft from Newfoundland to the U.K. unless it had a LORAN set onboard. I flew a lot of missions in a C-124 but none was as memorable as this one.