A Rescue at Sea

LCDR Tom Graziano, Mepham '77

We moved to Hawaii this past May and in six short months joined my new Squadron (HSL-37), made Aircraft Commander in the SH-60B Helicopter, welcomed my second daughter, Lauren Elise, into the world on 28 August, and took over as Officer in Charge of Det Four, comprised of 2 SH-60B helos and 21 personnel (12 maintenance and 9 aircrew).

What a whirlwind! We deployed 25 November on USS Reuben James (FFG-57) for a 6 month deployment to the Persian Gulf. We are enroute as I type and should arrive 3 January. It's amazing having e-mail on the ship. Home seems closer somehow as I miss my 3 girls horribly.

If you wonder how your tax dollars are spent by us military gents, read the following story and feel free to print in alumni newsletter:

On 28 November 1997, the USS Reuben James (FFG-57) was on PIM enroute its Westpac Deployment when it was tasked with an emergency sar/medevac assignment. About 1200 miles to the north lie the USNS Victorious, a civilian research vessel, and one of its crewman had developed a critical imbalance in blood sugar and glucose levels which had been deemed life threatening. Without hospital level care, this crewmember would not survive.

Travelling through sea state four weather, the Mighty Reuben James put all other priorities aside and steamed north at maximum speed, coordinating two unreps with USNS Walter S. Deihl and USNS Pecos, respectively, to complete the entire evolution in a safe, efficient manner. Onboard Reuben James, already staged and prepared to answer any tasking, was Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (Light) Thirty-Seven, Detachment FOUR with two SH-60B LAMPS MKIII Helicopters, Easyrider 66 and Easyrider 67.

The day prior to the planned rendezvous with the USNS Victorious, a non-air capable ship, high sea states indicated that a Helicopter transfer of the patient would be imminent. At the time, USNS Victorious was reporting sea state 4-6 and winds gusting near 50 knots. The Air Department and Reuben James' leadership gathered detailed information from the Victorious concerning available assets, weather forecasts, and ship's profile for hover transfer. The difficulty lie with the fact that the vessel was a T-AGOS class of the SWATH design, a civilian ship used by the Navy for the SURTASS collection mission. It had very little deck space available and large whip antennaes plus an 83 foot main mast antenna surrounding a small area designated for the hover transfer. With this information at hand, the Reuben James' Air Department conducted a risk management session.

Detachment FOUR air crew, consisting of OIC LCDR Tom Graziano, LT Rick Hughes, LT Jeff Buringa, LT Doug Edge, LTJG Jason Owens, LTJG Rich Weeden, AW3 Matt McOmber, AW3 Dominic Bernardy, and AW3 Aaron Cook, gathered to assess possible hazards during every aspect of the mission and discussed the measures necessary to ensure safety.

During the early morning hours of 30 November, the mission air crew conducted a thorough preflight inspection of their rescue equipment and Easyrider 67, briefed the flight, and then departed the USS Reuben James just prior to sunrise. LCDR Tom Graziano (Helicopter Aircraft Commander), LTJG Rich Weeden (Helicopter Second Pilot), AW3 Matt McOmber and AW3 Dominic Bernardy (Search and Rescue Aircrewmen) flew the short distance to the Victorious and prepared for the rescue. The USS Reuben James then steamed ahead to take station as a search and rescue platform, should assistance be needed during the hover transfer evolution.

The Victorious steamed ahead at eight knots with winds in excess of 30 knots out ninety degrees from the ship's port side. These factors gave LCDR Graziano, in the right pilot's seat, and Petty Officers McOmber and Bernardy, from the rescue station, the best view of the 20 by 25 foot transfer spot from which the hoists were conducted. Following practice approaches over the spot, the air crew of Easyrider 67 agreed that the mission could be safely conducted. The next approach terminated with Petty Officer Bernardy verbally directing LCDR Graziano into a hover 85 feet above the transfer spot.

Once stabilized over the spot, Petty Officers Bernardy and McOmber prepared for the hoist. Strong winds and 41 foot whip antennas in the vicinity of the transfer area made necessary the use of a trail line to stabilize personnel and objects being hoisted. After lowering the trail line to the deck crew of the Victorious, Petty Officer McOmber strapped in and prepared himself to follow the line down 85 feet to the ship. McOmber then established communications with the helicopter via his PRC125 on 282.8 SAR frequency and called for Petty Officer Bernardy to lower the rescue litter. After the litter was lowered, AW3 McOmber went inside to secure the patient while LCDR Graziano departed the hover, circled the Victorious, and awaited the call from McOmber to return for the pick-up.

Approximately twenty minutes later, Petty Officer McOmber returned topside and called for the aircraft to return. Again, LCDR Graziano maneuvered into the wind and shot a visual approach to the transfer spot under the direction of Petty Officer Bernardy while LTJG Weeden maintained a strict safety watch over aircraft engine instruments, separation from whip antennaes, and hover altitude deviations. The signal to lower the hoist was given and, shortly there after, the litter and patient were hoisted safely and strapped securely into the aircraft, a very difficult task which AW3 Bernardy made look routine. The final hoist brought Petty Officer McOmber back into the aircraft. Final security checks were performed and Easyrider 67 departed the Victorious and returned home to the USS Reuben James.

Onboard the Reuben James, LT Denis Ashley, MC, stabilized the patient with two IV's and prepared him for helicopter medevac to Midway Island. "Doc" Ashley, AW3 Bernardy and the patient were then flown by LCDR Graziano and LTJG Weeden over nearly 200 open ocean miles to Midway Island where, later that evening, an Air Force C-141 transport jet transported him safely to Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii.

The combined resources of many services, commands, ships, aircraft and personnel worked to perfection in saving this individual's life and returning him home safely where he was reunited with his family for the Holiday Season. COMSEVENTHFLT, COMDESRON FIVE, Commanding Officer Reuben James, and the Master of USNS Victorious were just a few of the individuals who applauded this remarkable accomplishment.

Exerpts from an e-mail message, December 7, 1997