It was a very close call for two pilots from the Marine Corp Air Station Beaufort today. Two F/A-18 Hornets went down about 40 miles off the Hilton Head coast around 8:40am this morning. Just before noon, Coast Guard members were coming out to say congratulations to the four men who brought the two downed pilots to safety. It was far from the average day for US Coast Guard Air Station Savannah.
"We all think about it all the time," said rescue swimmer ASTC Dave Toppi. "Beaufort is just up the road, so we know it's always a possibility." This possibility became a reality when the call came in this morning. "We had two downed F/A-18 Hornets and survivors in the water," recalled Toppi.
Within minutes, Coast Guard Crews were in the air ready for a rescue mission.
"We didn't initially see them because seas were choppy, probably three, four foot," said pilot LCDR Kevin Nash.
"I saw smoke and began to vector the pilots toward the smoke," said Toppi.
With the rescue victim in sight, they lowered the chopper down to 15 feet above water so the rescue diver could make his move. "I was able to swim over, talk to the first pilot, ask him if he was doing okay, inspect that his parachute had disconnected and see that he was in good condition," said Toppi. "He was very coherent, he seemed good to go. I hooked into him, gave the ready-for-pickup signal," he continued, describing what's known as a double-Airman lift in which both swimmer and pilot were taken aboard the aircraft. "The helicopter moved in, the hoist rope came down, hooked into the hoist, and up we went."
The Coast Guard helicopter hovered over, lifting the pilot and diver to safety. In the meantime, they saw the second pilot approximately a mile away. He released his green water dye pack, making him easier to spot. Within 17 minutes of the Coast Guard's arrival on scene, both pilots were safely in the helicopter.
"I was surprised how good of condition they were in after ejecting from an aircraft," said Toppi. And don't ask this crew if they're heroes. They say it's all in a days work. "I don't know about heroic. I'm glad and fortunate that I could help somebody today."
"This was exciting," added Nash. "It was good to be able to save one of our own."