Kodiak-based Coast Guard pilot recognized on 2 continents for exceptional airmanship

What does it take to be an exceptional helicopter pilot? According to the Order of the Daedalians exceptional airmanship, leadership, risk management and situational awareness are key characteristics.

The four fishermen from the Moonlight Maid, rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter crew from Air Station Kodiak Sept. 20, 2012, would likely agree.

In October, Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen was awarded the Exceptional Pilot Award for 2012 by the Order of the Daedalians in San Diego and was further recognized by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators in London with the Master’s Medal for his efforts to rescue the Moonlight Maid crew.

The Rescue

Fishing vessel Moonlight Maid at the Seward harbor in 2011. Photo courtesy Marcel Sloover.

Fishing vessel Moonlight Maid at the Seward harbor in 2011. Photo courtesy Marcel Sloover.

The night of Sept. 20, Jansen and his crew were called on to find and rescue four mariners. They arrived at the last known position of the Moonlight Maid, a 110-foot wooden-hulled fishing boat originally commissioned as a Navy subchaser in 1942, in the Gulf of Alaska northeast of Kodiak Island, in torrential rain. A single flashlight strobe was seen bobbing in the waves.

Jansen marked the position and established two-way radio communications with the crewmembers in the life raft. He executed a precision instrument approach to the water, established a stable hover 50 feet over the survivors and above the 20-foot seas. He had to take control of the hoists when the right-seat pilot became disoriented from the rain and strobe reflection off the water.

“It can happen to anyone. We call it visual illusions” said Jansen. “The rain and the various light sources cause disorientation so I took the controls and my co-pilot provided me with altitude reports to make sure we were in the right spot as we proceeded to conduct hoists and track the life raft’s drift.”

Jansen briefed all aspects of the non-standard left-seat hoist, identified safety concerns and the potential hypothermic conditions of the people in the water.

The raft of the Moonlight Maid with four mariners aboard as seen on FLIR by the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew Sep. 20, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Air Station Kodiak.

The raft of the Moonlight Maid with four mariners aboard as seen on FLIR by the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew Sep. 20, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Air Station Kodiak.

Then, with the guidance of the flight mechanic and rescue swimmer, he maintained the hover, safely executed four hoists from the left seat and saved the survivors. At times waves were so large the rescue swimmer in the water was unable to see the life raft and Jansen had to point the way with the helicopter’s search light, increasing the potential for disorientation. The flight mechanic, unable to see the water, guided the rescue basket by feel alone. Using excellent communication and coordinated actions the crew brought all four men safely aboard.

With all hoists complete the crew departed the scene for the mainland. Initially the command center watchstanders directed the aircrew to land in Homer, but before them stood the Kenai Mountain Range. Jansen attempted to clear the peaks but the helicopter began to ice up and they did not have enough fuel to fly around the range. Seward was much closer, but the airport was closed due to flooding and with the road washed out no emergency vehicles could reach the aircraft. Jansen communicated with the rescue swimmer and once they determined there were no injuries among the Moonlight Maid crew they made a safe landing in Seward.

“We arrived safely and all huddled up around Denny’s space heater in the local hangar at 3 a.m.,” said Jansen. “In the morning we had breakfast with the Moonlight Maid crew and swapped stories. That was a rare treat. So often we land and the crews depart with a thank you or without a word at all and we never see them again.”

Jansen and the crew of rescue 6006 are commended for their actions, which are in keeping with the highest traditions and standards of the Coast Guard. They continue their duties and have gone on to conduct other missions and rescues in the year since the Moonlight Maid case.

The Awards 

Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen and his wife Ellie with the Order of the Daedalians trophy. Photo courtesy Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen.

Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen and his wife Ellie with the Order of the Daedalians trophy. Photo courtesy Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen.

The Daedalian trophy is presented annually to a pilot selected by each military service, including the Coast Guard. Selection is based on exceptional deeds performed to assure mission success, acts of valor as an aviator, or an extraordinary display of courage or leadership in the air in support of air operations.

The Order of Daedalians honors all WWI aviators commissioned as officers and rated as military pilots no later than Nov. 11, 1918. It perpetuates their names as the first to fly our country’s airplanes in time of war. The order’s membership of military pilots, with its worldwide network of Daedalian Flights and its comprehensive awards program, supports the military services and other aerospace activities. The awards and scholarship programs of the order and foundation encourage patriotism, integrity and good character in our nation’s youth, military careers as commissioned pilots, safety of flight, and excellence in the performance of military duties.

“Some of these men and women have been flying longer than I have been alive and it was such an opportunity to build partnerships with them and talk about the parallels and contrasts between different services and organizations. We are all in the same business of flight,” Jansen said. 

The Master's Medal presented by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. Photo courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen.

The Master’s Medal presented by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. Photo courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen.

The Master’s Medal was presented by the guild guests of honor Prince Andrew and former Navy officer and astronaut James Arthur (Jim) Lovell, who headed the crew of Apollo 13 to safety after an in-space explosion led to his famous report, “Houston, we have a problem.” The awards for courage, achievement and highest standards of airmanship are regarded among the world’s premier aviation accolades.

Before the guild was established in 1929, the future status of air pilots and air navigators was in doubt. The small group of commercial pilots who formed the guild was responsible for ensuring that their successors enjoyed professional status, and one of the guild’s objectives has been to foster and improve that standing. From the beginning the guild was modeled on the lines of the old city guilds and livery companies of the United Kingdom and its constitution and by-laws reflect that foundation, although its activities and work is very much contemporary. The guild became a Livery Company of the City of London in 1956, a rarely bestowed mark of distinction. This was a great factor in increasing not only the influence of the guild, the 81st livery company to be formed in 800 years, but of the entire profession of pilots and navigators in the United Kingdom and overseas. 

Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen presents former astronaut Jim Lovell with a patch from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. Photo courtesy Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen.

Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen presents former astronaut Jim Lovell with a patch from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. Photo courtesy Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Jansen.

“Aviation bridges the borders of countries through flight and we all speak the same language,” said Jansen. “It was a real honor to represent the Coast Guard and the United States in front of the guild and Jim Lovell, a pioneer in aviation. I only wish my whole crew could have come because it was not my achievement alone. We all worked together to conduct that rescue.”

Reflection

The training and communication of the Coast Guard crew on the Moonlight Maid case was essential. The harsh weather coupled with lack of daylight and the threat of hypothermia setting in among the Moonlight Maid crew increased the challenge and risks of the rescue.

The Coast Guard trains for rescues of crews from life rafts by helicopter. The procedures are very specific. In general the pilot in the right seat, the side with the open cabin door, conducts the hoist. They hover with the life raft between the two and three o’clock positions and the left seat pilot monitors the action. In this case, with a heaving ocean, driving rain, a 300-foot cloud ceiling and the drift of the life raft, the crew found the safest place to put the life raft was at the 10 o’clock position.

“We found the safest position to conduct the hoists was a non-standard configuration,” said Jansen. “What was most important was ensuring the whole crew understood and signed off on the plan before we took action.” 

Lt. Cmdr. Vince Jansen and Lt. Mark Heussner, both MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilots at Air Station Kodiak, describe the operations and procedures used aboard the Jayhawk to the crew of the fishing vessel Tuxedni and senior members of Trident Seafoods at Hangar 3 at Air Station Kodiak June 12, 2013, in Kodiak, Alaska. Just prior to visiting the air station, the Tuxedni crew was award Gold Life Saving Medals for their role saving the lives of five crewmen from the fishing vessel Heritage Jan. 25, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers.

Lt. Cmdr. Vince Jansen and Lt. Mark Heussner, both MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilots at Air Station Kodiak, describe the operations and procedures used aboard the Jayhawk to the crew of the fishing vessel Tuxedni and senior members of Trident Seafoods at Hangar 3 at Air Station Kodiak June 12, 2013, in Kodiak, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers.

The Coast Guard has procedures but also emphasizes making on-site decisions. In this case a decision had to be made to use a non-standard configuration. What made that possible and successful can be summed up in the commandant’s principles for the mastery of craft: proficiency, leadership, discipline, initiative and adherence to high standards.

“The hardest part was getting on the same page as a crew when you’ve never read that page before. You have to know when you are departing what is standard to get the mission done,” said Jansen. “This case is a good example. We departed standard policy after having a team discussion and completing a thorough assessment of the situation. The crew coordinated to do the mission safely and return to our standard policy and procedures as soon as possible.”

 This case serves as a shining example of the Coast Guard’s ability to adapt and overcome to achieve the mission and work as a team.

“If any of us had failed at our job we would all have failed,” said Jansen.

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