US Navy helicopter rescues civilians after plane crash

An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter embarked on the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) rescued two civilians after their private plane crashed several miles off the coast of Dominica, September 28.

The civilians, coming from French Guadelupe and Antigua, sustained minor injuries and were transported by helicopter to Wasp where they received immediate medical attention.

“We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” said Wasp Commanding Officer Capt. Andrew Smith. “The teamwork demonstrated shows how everything on the ship comes together – from the engineers in the plant, to the medical staff, the watchstanders in the Combat Information Center, the air traffic control center, the bridge, the flight deck crews, to the helicopter crew. We all worked together to help these two gentlemen.”

Wasp has been transiting the Caribbean Sea since September 4 as part of first-response humanitarian aid efforts after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria swept through the area. When the mid-afternoon distress call was received, Wasp ordered one of the helicopters rendering aid on the island of Dominica back to the ship for refueling and a swift departure to the estimated coordinates of the crash scene.

“We learned about the downed aircraft, we were passed a location, and as soon as we were fueled we took off and started transiting at max speed,” said HSC-22 pilot Lt. Paul Nelson, who flew the helicopter to the stranded passengers’ coordinates. “We got on station and started searching. For about an hour and a half we were seeing bits of debris and weren’t sure if it was from the aircraft, but some pieces seemed to match the description.”

It was while hovering 70 feet above a piece of debris that by a stroke of luck, Nelson’s fellow pilot Lt. Christina Lanouette initially spotted the survivors clinging to a yellow flotation device.

“We approached the two survivors, which was difficult because it was a high sea state day, and visibility was low, and picking people out of the water was going to be difficult,” said Nelson. “The fact that we saw them was a miracle, because it was not a good day to find people.”

After positioning themselves above the survivors, the search and rescue swimmer Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Andy Blessing was hoisted 70 feet into the water, swam to the two survivors, and quickly investigated for injuries. Once the passengers were cleared for rescue, they were hoisted up and into the helicopter one at a time by Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Nicholas Glass, using a rescue basket – a metal-framed device specifically designed for water rescues. The team then returned to Wasp at max speed.

“The rescue we had today was a great example of why training is important,” said Nelson. “Every time we practice SAR, we try to put ourselves in the mindset of, ‘What if this training were real?’ because you know that if it happens in real life, you’re not going to have the luxury of sitting and thinking things through in a comfortable environment. When someone is in the water, there is a ticking clock, and the sooner you can get there and effectively make the rescue, the more likely it is you’re going to save a life.”

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