“The thing is, helicopters are different from airplanes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if it is not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter. This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why, in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to.”
–Harry Reasoner, newscaster
“If you want to hear a story about someone who really pulled some crazy shit, I should tell you about this fishing boat captain my father knew,” Andy said. He dabbed at the trim of the long liner, the Sea Smoke, with a paintbrush. The water inside Crescent Harbor was calm, the wind ruffling the reflections of the boats. The air smelled of gas and oil and the fresh sharp scent of brine.
While Andy painted, his fellow crewman Bill sat on the side of the boat, smoking. Bill was staring out through the tangle of masts toward the twelve-foot breaker of moss-covered rocks and the fogbound peaks of Sugarloaf and Bear.
The buzz of a float plane cut through the quiet evening. Bill lifted his head to follow its invisible progress through the low clouds. “You want to talk crazy, we should be talking about those bush pilots,” he said. “Who flies in this stuff? Can’t see a damn thing.”
“This skipper gives the bush pilots a run for their money,” Andy said. “He’d sail through anything, this guy. It could be blowing forty, fifty knots, and it wouldn’t faze him. And this was a while ago, back in the sixties, when you didn’t have all this fancy equipment, and you couldn’t call in the Coast Guard to pull your sorry ass out of the water if you were going down.” He gestured with the paintbrush across the water to where the Coast Guard station was housed on the tip of Japonski Island.
“When he wasn’t fishing, this skipper ran fresh fruit and vegetables to the towns up along the Inside Passage to make some money in the off-season. One trip, not long out of Vancouver, the weather turned funny. It was the kind of afternoon you just know a bad one’s coming—kind of like today. Anyway, the skipper could have pulled into a cove and sheltered through the bad weather, but he decided to keep going. He didn’t want his produce to go bad, and he was loaded down with stuff. He had potatoes, onions, squash, apples, everything you can think of, crammed into every square inch of space. So he sailed right into that storm. Turned out it was a doozy.”
The float plane had landed, and it was quiet but for the strange, high-pitched squeak of the roosting eagles and the slap of a fish jumping and falling back into the water.
“The wind started gusting pretty strong, blowing the tops off the swells, and then the water started breaking over the bow. Well, that just happened to be where they had stored the squash, so with every wave a few dozen squash got washed out into the sound until the waves were filled with these squash. The crew is worried about making it through because the boat is near to rolling the rails, but this skipper, you know what he’s doing? He’s yelling at the crew to pick up the goddamn squashes. It’s blowing near seventy, and they’re chasing squashes—leaning out over the rails with fishnets, scooping them up and dumping them below. And you know what? They got every goddamned squash and got through the storm too. What do you think of that?”
“I think you missed a spot.” Bill pointed to a place on the boat’s trim with the end of his cigarette. Then he flicked the dangling ash into the water.
Andy went over the spot with his brush. “You don’t think that’s the craziest thing you ever heard?”
“I guess I heard crazier.” Bill shrugged. “Seems like most guys around here have some story. Bound to happen if you spend enough time on the water… or enough time in Alaska.”
The boats in Crescent Harbor bore names like Stormy Sea, Lady Luck, Safe Harbor, Home Shore, Endurance, By the Grace of God, suggesting that the men who sailed on these boats were aware of the edge of uncertainty on which they lived.
“Hey, Walt, you almost done messing with that engine?” Bill called out.
Andy paused, brush in the air, waiting for the reply, but Walt either didn’t hear or didn’t answer.
“It’s time to go,” Bill said.
“No argument here.”
The harbor was deserted. Earlier in the day there had been several commercial fishing boat crews working to get ready for the season. They were easily recognizable in rubber boots, thick workingman’s pants, and battered baseball caps. But half an hour ago, the last crew had turned off their Allman Brothers tape and headed to the P Bar for a beer.
The pleasure boaters, dressed in khakis and old sweaters, had left hours earlier. They had stowed their poles and tossed the unused bait—the tiny herring lying shoulder to shoulder in their Styrofoam beds—and had gone home early, shaking their heads over the chop out in the gulf. Even the traffic on Lincoln Street had fallen off, with the hum of a passing car infrequently breaking the silence.
Walt emerged from the cabin, his hands dark with grease from the engine. He was attempting to clean them with a gray rag.
“So you guys ready to go?” Walt said.
Bill and Andy were silent.
“Okay, I get the message. Just let me pack up.” Walt disappeared back into the cabin. Andy bent to close the paint can and started cleaning the brush. Bill emptied his mug of coffee into the water and set it back inside the boat. The sound of footsteps made him glance up, and he watched idly as a man dressed in sneakers, jeans, and a T-shirt, walked down the dock.
As the man passed by, he said a friendly hello. Bill nodded and stubbed his cigarette out on the planks of the dock. When he looked up again, at first he couldn’t see where the man had gone. Then he spotted him jumping into a thirty-foot Bayliner a few slips down.
“Hey,” Bill said. “Hey, there’s some guy getting in Tom Leland’s boat.”
“What?” Andy wiped the damp brush on the leg of his pants and moved over to where Bill was sitting.
“Some stranger’s in Tom’s boat. Look at that, he’s going into the cabin.”
“Huh,” Andy said.
Walt emerged from the cabin. “You guys ready?”
“Somebody’s on Tom’s boat,” Andy told him.
“Oh yeah?” Walt said. “How about that? And I didn’t believe him.”
“Tom was talking about it last night at the P Bar. Said he sold his boat. Claimed he sold it to some chump who bought it for twice what it was worth. Guess this must be the chump.”
“You don’t think he’s fixing to go out, do you?” Bill asked.
They heard the engine start up, roaring to life.
“Maybe he’s just checking his new property,” Andy suggested.
The stranger reappeared, climbed back out on the dock, and started uncleating the lines.
“Maybe not,” Bill said. “Looks to me like he’s getting ready to go out.”
They all glanced up at the low clouds, and a smattering of raindrops hit the deck.
“Somebody better talk to him.” Walt waited a moment before saying, “All right, fine. I’ll do it.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, strolled down the dock, and stopped by Tom’s boat.
The other men weren’t near enough to hear what was said, but as they watched, they saw the stranger turn around. Walt pointed out to sea, and the man smiled and nodded. Walt said something else, and the man nodded again and said something in response. Then he bent to uncleat the last rope. Walt shook his head and started to walk back.
When he came up to where Andy and Bill were waiting on the dock, he stopped and turned to watch as the stranger climbed back into the boat and disappeared into the cabin.
“Guess he’s going,” Bill said.
“Yep. Said he wanted to go for a sail. See the sunset.”
“Sunset?” Andy echoed. “Even if you could see it through those clouds, sun’s not going to set till eight-thirty, nine o’clock.”
“I told him that.”
“Didn’t you point out those clouds?” Bill said. “Does he know what they could turn into in a few hours?”
“Told him that.”
“And the wind, did you tell him that when the flags are waving like that, they’re trying to tell you to stay home?”
“Yep. Told him that too. Told him he could listen to the radio if he didn’t believe me. But—” Walt broke off when they saw the Bayliner start to reverse out of the slip.
“There he goes,” Walt said as the three stood and watched the stranger steer away from the dock and glide out past the breakwater.
“Think we should do something?” Andy said.
“You got something in mind?”
“Maybe he didn’t realize how bad it can get, and how fast.”
“I told him,” Walt said.
“He pretty much told me to mind my own business. He was real nice about it, though.”
“What do you mean, real nice about it?”
“He said, ‘Thanks for the advice, sir.’ Then he went on doin’ what he was doin’.”
“Huh,” Andy said. “Guess we did what we could.”
“He might be fine. Especially if he sticks to the Inside Passage.”
“He might,” Walt allowed. “He also might get himself killed.”
“Who knows,” Bill said. “He might have some luck. The way the weather is around here, maybe we’ll be wrong, it’ll clear, and he’ll get a nice sunset after all. You never know.”
Once he was beyond the breakwater at Crescent Harbor, the man steered his new boat to starboard, idling along the slow speed channel. As he passed the lighthouse, the boat rocked in the swells that rolled in from the ocean. Whitecaps bloomed at the peaks of the waves farther out to sea.
At his back, the town of Sitka looked ghostly, the steeple of the old Russian Orthodox church and the stately façade of the Pioneers’ Home receding into the fog. The clouds stuck like a wad of cotton between the mountains and the water where the buildings clung to the thin edge of coast.
From his vantage point on the boat, the man could almost see to the end of the road to the north. It only stretched seven miles in either direction where it ended abruptly, Western hemlock and Sitka spruce rising suddenly from the hillside as if the road crew had left work one day and forgotten to return. If you wanted to get anywhere from Sitka, you needed a boat or a plane.
As the stranger headed out to sea, he rounded Japonski, a small island about a mile long, connected to the town by O’Connell Bridge. It housed three vital parts of the city: the hospital, the airport, and the Coast Guard station. The stranger glanced over as he passed by the Coast Guard’s squat manila hangar, perched on the northern tip of the island. Then he pushed the throttle forward and the bow of the Bayliner lifted out of the water as it accelerated away, toward the open ocean.
The hangar that the stranger passed housed three H-60 Jayhawk helicopters. With those three aircraft, Air Station Sitka was responsible for the expanse of shoreline stretching from the Canadian border to the northern village of Yakutat, a span of twelve thousand tidal miles of mountainous terrain. It also presented some of the most difficult flying a Coast Guard pilot would ever see.
The weather in Southeast Alaska was famously changeable and powerful. Storms coming up from the south had thousands of miles of ocean to gather force. Occasionally, violent bursts of wind would flatten a whole mountainside of trees. Icing conditions—deadly to aircraft—were worse in the clean Alaskan air, and visibility was often nonexistent, especially in winter when it was dark twenty hours a day. No one but the Coast Guard flew after dark.
In the Lower Forty-eight, the Coast Guard’s mission was restricted to emergencies over water, but in Sitka the air station did double duty, also covering all inland emergencies: lost hikers, stranded hunters, anyone injured or sick in any of the hundreds of remote villages that lined the Inside Passage. Sitka itself was remote enough to be considered an overseas posting, and to qualify for the assignment, a pilot needed at least one tour of duty—four years of flying.
But in other ways, the air station was like any other in the country. The helos were manned around the clock, with a four-man duty crew always on base and ready to go out. Semper paratus was the official motto of the Coast Guard; it meant “Always ready,” but being “always ready” meant a lot of waiting.
That evening two members of the four man duty crew—Teddy McDonald and Dave Lazure—were passing the time after dinner shooting pool. Teddy was losing, and now he started goofing, threading his stick behind his back to line up a shot. He was only five-foot-six, so he had to stretch up on his toes to manage it. He pulled back smoothly, but as he shot, the stick went wild and smacked the side of the cue ball. The cue ball careened off the bumper and into the four ball, which spun sideways into the corner pocket.
“Yes!” Teddy pumped his fists over his head. “I can’t lose.”
“Well, yes, actually, you can,” Dave said. “I’m solids.”
Teddy froze, his fists still in the air. “Oh.” He dropped his hands. “Right. I forgot.”
Struggling to hold back a smile, Dave moved around the table to line up his next shot. He bent over so his face was eye-level with the felt. Then he straightened, took a few steps back for a better view, and stood combing his moustache with his fingers while he studied the table.
Teddy positioned himself behind Dave to mimic him, raising his own hand to stroke his smooth upper lip and drawing a guffaw from Mike Hoffman, who was standing against the wall watching the game.
Teddy loved any audience, but his clowning was intended for the fourth person in the room—Ellie Somers. Ellie sat in one of the oversized leather recliners, trying to listen to the weather report on the radio, but Teddy, as usual, had managed to distract her, and she was shielding her face with one hand to keep Dave from seeing her silent laughter.
Outside the wind blew the rain up against the window. It sounded like handfuls of sand thrown against the glass.
“What are you hearing on the radio?” Dave asked, and Ellie tried to compose herself to answer.
“Oh, the same,” she said, though she hadn’t heard the last report.
“This squall sure blew in fast.”
“I could have told you it would,” Mike said.
They all ignored him.
“You’d think that there’d be someone stupid enough to get caught out in it.” Picking up the cube of blue chalk, Teddy ground it on his cue.
Dave wrinkled his nose in distaste. “What’s wrong with you? We’re here to get people out of trouble, not wish them into it.”
“Excuse me, Lieutenant,” Teddy said. “But I think that you feel exactly the same, you just won’t admit it.”
“You’re disgusting,” Dave responded.
“Somers?” Teddy appealed to Ellie. “Make him admit it.”
She raised her arms over her head in a lazy stretch and shook her head. “No can do, Teddy.”
“You could if you wanted to.”
“Maybe,” Ellie shrugged, “but I’m with Dave on this one. Sorry.”
Teddy clutched at his heart. “Traitor. Turncoat. Two-timer. I can’t believe you’re agreeing with him.”
“How can I not?” She smiled. “He’s got a point—you are kinda disgusting. I mean, have you gotten a good whiff of your locker recently?”
Teddy grinned back. “Hey, but it’s just gettin’ good.”
“Is there anything either of you wouldn’t turn into a joke?” Dave wondered.
Teddy and Ellie looked at each other.
“No,” they said at the same time.
“For Christ’s sake,” Dave said, but this time he couldn’t hide the twitch of a smile. He tried to cover it by snapping, “Take your shot already, Teddy.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get your panties in a bunch.” Teddy crouched in front of the table to line up his shot.
The door to the lounge opened and the CO, Commander Traub, stuck his head in. Teddy stopped just as he was drawing back the cue and straightened, Dave swung around on his heel, Mike pushed off the wall, and Ellie got up out of her chair.
“Good, you’re all here,” Commander Traub said, glancing around. Usually the enlisted officers, Teddy and Mike, would be in the crew’s lounge, but he had asked them all to gather in the ward room—the officer’s lounge—so he could talk to them together.
Traub stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. “That reporter who’s doing the feature is here.”
He looked at Ellie when he said it, but Teddy set aside his cue and dusted his hands against his chest, leaving streaks of light blue chalk on his flight suit. “Wants to talk to me, I imagine. I’m ready for the spotlight, Skipper. I won’t deny my public.”
Traub glanced over and said, “Be quiet, McDonald,” then turned back to Ellie. “I don’t know why I’m letting this go through after the last one. This time I don’t want to be reading your little jokes about how, for practice, you fly blindfolded, or that if people aren’t grateful enough when you rescue them, you toss them back in.”
“That was pretty good, wasn’t it?” Ellie said.
"The thing about throwing them back in, that part was me. I came up with that one, sir,” Teddy said.
“All right, enough. Haven’t I requested that you both be a little more professional?”
Traub wasn’t only talking about their jokes; it was also a veiled reference to Teddy and Ellie’s unusual friendship. It wasn’t unheard of for officers and enlisted men to go fishing together, maybe have a beer—especially if they flew together—but there was usually a reserve, an acknowledgment of the barrier between them. However, Teddy had some trouble with the formality of rank to begin with, and Ellie didn’t make any effort to maintain the distinction between officers and enlisted.
They’d hit it off the first week Teddy arrived. That was almost a year ago now, and although Traub occasionally mentioned something about their conduct, he mostly let it slide. Before Teddy came, Ellie had not been settling in well. On the surface she seemed to get along with her fellow officers, but they were almost all married with families, and she had made no real friends among them. In Traub’s estimation, she had been disturbingly isolated. Teddy’s arrival had changed all that.
“Lieutenant Lazure, will you try to keep these two in order?” Traub said to Dave.
“I’ll try, sir. I can’t say that I generally have much luck.”
Dave had arrived a few months after Teddy, and he had become the incongruous third in a strange threesome. He had a high sense of propriety and responsibility, so his friendship with the other two was puzzled over. However, he did try to maintain a semblance of rank, and he usually managed to keep the other two from stepping too far over the line. For instance, Teddy never actually dared to use either Dave’s or Ellie’s first names, though he often called Dave “Lazure” instead of “Lieutenant Lazure,” and Ellie was almost always just “Somers.”
Traub said, “This reporter requested that he be able to speak to you all together while you were on duty, and I don’t see the harm in it. I want everyone to help Lieutenant Commander Somers out.”
“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Teddy sighed.
“He wants to talk to you too,” Traub assured him.
“Really?” Teddy perked up, looking hopeful.
“He wants to know what it’s like to fly with Somers.”
Teddy’s face was a comic picture of disappointment, but he recovered quickly. “That’s an easy question to answer. Terrifying.”
Traub pointed a stern finger at him. “None of that.”
“You mean none of the truth,” Dave muttered.
“How are all three of you on duty together, tonight of all nights? Did you rig the duty roster or something?” Traub said.
“Don’t you believe in fate, sir?” Teddy asked.
“Then someone up there doesn’t like me. At any rate, I think I’ve made myself clear. I’ll go bring him in.”
When the door shut behind the CO there was a moment of silence. Ellie sat back down by the radio, but she could feel Dave’s stare without even looking. She tried ignoring it, but finally she turned and demanded, “What?”
“I was just wondering, why do you think this reporter wants to talk to you specifically?” Dave said.
Of course Ellie knew why, but it galled her—both the reason, and the fact that Dave felt the need to bring it up. Most of the time Dave’s tirades didn’t bother her… with the exception of this one subject: the special treatment she got because she was a woman. It was like getting a finger in the ribs in the exact place she’d been poked a million times before. It didn’t hurt so much the first time or the second, but after the millionth it was sore as hell. If she’d thought about it she might have figured out that it had more to do with Dave than with her. They were the same age, had been in the service the same amount of time, and Ellie was a lieutenant commander while Dave was still a lieutenant. Dave was looking for excuses of his own, but all Ellie heard was the challenge to her ability, that old refrain she had been hearing ever since she could remember. She didn’t show that it affected her; instead she did what she always did—she made a joke of it.
She said with a grin, “It’s obvious why. ’Cause I can fly circles around all you boys.”
Dave snorted. “Right.”
“You think I can’t? You don’t want me to bring up what happened when we went down to Mobile for training last year, do you?”
“I didn’t say I was better,” he admitted, and Ellie felt a tinge of remorse for mentioning what she knew must be a painful subject. Dave had panicked during a test in the flight simulator. His confidence in his skills had suffered a blow, and he hadn’t yet recovered.
However, Ellie didn’t feel sorry for long because Dave said, “There’s one man on this base that makes us all look like rookies. He’s what I consider a real pilot, and don’t pretend you don’t know who I’m talking about.”
Ellie glared at him. This was one thing she had trouble making a joke about. The base was too small, she thought. You couldn’t leave behind your mistakes. However, even if she couldn’t joke about it, at least she didn’t have to show Dave that he had scored a hit. She merely acknowledged, “I know who you’re referring to.”
“I don’t know,” Mike put in. They all looked at him, and there was a short silence before Dave answered.
“Sam’s the best. Sam Pantano.”
“Shame on you,” Teddy said. “You know better than to say that name.”
Dave defended himself, saying, “I don’t believe in coddling people’s feelings. I tell it like it is.”
“Like it is?” Ellie said. “Give me a break. The truth is that your hero, Sam, hasn’t got any guts. He’s a textbook pilot.”
“He’s got the Distinguished Flying Cross,” Dave countered. “Where’s yours? Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot. They don’t give those out just because you happen to be a woman, do they?”
“Low blow,” Teddy said, wincing in exaggerated pain.
But Ellie knew Dave had a point. They wouldn’t show any favoritism in giving that medal out. It was the highest honor a Coast Guard pilot could be awarded. That’s why she wanted it. If anything would prove that she was just as good as the boys, getting the DFC would do it.
“It’s only a matter of time, Davey.” She knew he hated it when she called him Davey. “I should have had it already for a couple of missions. The only reason I don’t have one is that the stiffs up top love good little boys like Sam—sooo serious, sooo dedicated. Who do what they’re told.”
“No wonder they haven’t given it to you,” Teddy said. “You’re not too good with that last part.”
“Maybe you just haven’t earned it,” Dave suggested. “Ever think of that?”
She had thought of it, but she wasn’t about to admit it. “Then why is this reporter coming across the country to talk to me?”
“You’re right,” Dave said. “As far as that reporter’s concerned, you are the best pilot. The best female pilot.” He didn’t need to add that there wasn’t a large supply to choose from.
Ellie gave him the finger and turned away, as if she were listening to the radio.
“You’re pissed off because you know I’m right.”
Ellie ignored him, but Teddy jumped into the fray. “Poor baby, nobody recognizes your genius and all because you have a—”
The door opened and Traub said, “Mr. Whalen, come in and meet the crew.”
The reporter stepped into the room behind Traub. They sized him up. The reporter wore new hiking boots, faded jeans, and a North Face jacket that cost as much as they made in a week. He reminded them of a world where you had more clothing choices than a flight suit, where work was done behind a desk, and where the biggest risk you took on a regular day was deciding whether to switch phone companies.
As they studied him, the reporter stared back. He saw two men with pool cues. One looked like a young Mickey Rooney. The other had a bushy moustache and lantern jaw and was good-looking in the style of a seventies’ movie star. There was a husky, corn-fed kid with a blond crew cut against the wall, and then, in the armchair beyond the pool table, the only woman. He had expected a stern, masculine woman, square-faced, short-haired, and thin-lipped to match the fact that she had what was usually a man’s job. She wasn’t very feminine in the sense that she wore no makeup and her shoulder length hair was raked back in a ponytail that looked a bit limp and greasy, but she had a wide heart-shaped face, and her features were almost delicate—an impression strengthened by the contrast between her dark hair and pale skin. However, there was nothing delicate about the broad grin he’d glimpsed briefly as he entered the room.
Traub made the introductions, pointing them out as he named them. “This is Petty Officer McDonald. He’s a flight mechanic. And this here is Lieutenant Lazure, pilot. Over against the wall is a new addition to the team, Petty Officer Hoffman. He’s a rescue swimmer. And finally, Lieutenant Commander Somers, pilot.” He paused. “Well…” he clapped his hands together. “I guess I’ll leave you all to talk. Let me know if you need anything else.”
As he was leaving, Traub glanced at Ellie sitting by the radio, still listening to the broadcast. He frowned, caught her eye, and drew a finger across his throat. Reluctantly, she reached over and turned the radio off. Traub nodded approval and closed the door behind him.
The reporter fit his hands casually in his pockets and looked around the room. He had ten years of hard-core news reporting behind him, and even some wartime coverage. It was only recently he’d switched to magazines. He was getting more money, but he’d found that feature writing bored him. He missed the rush of the on-the-scene news, the deadlines, the immediacy of tragedy. Now he was doing feel-good fluff about some woman pilot out in the Middle of Nowhere, Alaska, who, it looked like, spent most of her time sitting around.
“You guys play a lot of pool?” he asked.
Teddy answered him, confessing, “I’m thinking of switching over to the professional circuit.”
Dave explained. “We do a lot of waiting to get called out.”
“How about you?” Whalen asked Ellie. “Do you play?”
“Only for money,” Ellie said. “I’m not going to strike it rich in this job, so I need to supplement my income somehow.”
“She could retire on the money she’s won from me,” Teddy said.
“I’ve beaten her,” Dave told the reporter.
“Yeah, like once,” Teddy added.
“Three times,” Dave corrected.
“Out of how many?” Teddy asked.
Dave didn’t answer.
“And you?” the reporter asked Mike, who stood silent against the wall.
“I just got transferred,” Mike said. “But I could probably beat them if I wanted to.”
“Oh really?” Teddy turned to look at him. “Is that why you’ve been here a month and haven’t asked for winners? Because you didn’t want to embarrass us? Do you want to humiliate him, or should I?” Teddy asked Dave.
“I’ll flip you for it,” Dave said.
“What about me?” Ellie demanded.
“You only play for money, remember?” Teddy said.
“I sometimes make an exception when there’s an opportunity for extreme embarrassment.”
“I’ll take you all on,” Mike said.
“There we go.” Teddy clapped in appreciation. “Those are the qualities we like in a rescue swimmer.”
“And what are those?” Whalen asked dutifully, taking out his notepad.
“A little bit of bravery and a big serving of stupidity,” Teddy replied.
“Stupidity?” Whalen said. “Why stupidity? Where does that get you?”
“Dead,” Dave interrupted. “Don’t listen to Teddy. He likes to run off at the mouth.”
The reporter was interested in this line of discussion. “Does that happen often?” he ventured. “I mean do you lose a lot of people in your line of work?”
“More than we’d like,” Dave answered evasively.
The reporter tried again. “One is more than anyone would like,” he pointed out, trying to elicit more information.
But Dave simply said, “Exactly.”
Whalen figured he wasn’t getting much out of the guy with the moustache. He turned to the new kid. “Have you been on an S.A.R.?” When he asked the question, he spelled out the three letters that stood for “search and rescue.”
“You don’t spell it out. You say ‘SAR,’ like it’s a word,” Mike told him. “And no, not yet. There’ve been a few calls, but they’ve mostly been medevacs. We also had to deliver some pumps to a fishing boat that’d grounded, causing flooding in the ship’s lazarette, but you don’t need a rescue swimmer for any of those.”
“So do you think you’ll be going out tonight?”
All four looked toward the window, the rain still beating against the glass. He’d asked the question that had been on all their minds since the storm blew in.
“Maybe,” Mike said.
“And when you get called out, do you ever think that this time might be the time that you don’t come back?”
There was another uncomfortable silence, but Ellie saved them this time. She said, “Doesn’t make a difference. You have to go out…”
The other three joined in to finish the sentence with her, “…but you don’t have to come back.” They all shared grins, even Dave.
“Sort of a motto,” Dave said. “Unofficial, of course.”
“Sounds more like a death wish than a motto,” Whalen observed. “What actually happens when you get called out? I mean, how do you know that there’s an emergency?”
The reporter was looking at Ellie, hoping she would answer, but it was Dave who spoke again.
“Well, the distress call comes into the command center in Juneau, and they check the position. If it’s in our area, they call our operations center and—”
They heard the click of the speaker systems switching on. Their ears had become so attuned that they were all moving toward the door before the first rising note of the whoopee. Just as the first wail was dying away, the announcement came over the intercom, “Put the ready helo on the line. Put the ready helo on the line.”
“That’s how,” Teddy said over his shoulder as he headed out.
“Wait, where…” but they were out of the room before the reporter could finish his question, and not one of them, despite their unofficial motto, considered the possibility they might not come back.
“Mayday, Mayday.” The stranger who had set out so confidently, gripped the handset of the VHF radio in one hand while he struggled to hold the Bayliner steady into the waves with the other. The bow of the boat was lifted by one of the mountainous breakers, and he laid on the power, the engine revving to climb the steep wall of water. The rain was slashing against the glass, and the blackness was so complete it was like trying to see through a blindfold. The wind was howling down over the tops of the waves, and the waves themselves, rolling on without end, were like the heavy crash of thunder. He found that his imagination hadn’t come close to preparing him for the sensation of plunging through a storm at sea. The sheer raging power of the elements was so fierce he found it hard to believe they were merely indifferent. The wind and water had a viciousness that seemed personal.
He had tuned the radio to channel 16, and he spoke again into the handset, “Mayday, Mayday. This is the Black Rose, requesting assistance from any possible source. Mayday. Mayday.”
And then, miraculously, he heard a voice respond.
“This is the U.S. Coast Guard. What is your exact position and the nature of your distress? Over.”
His fist loosened and he almost dropped the radio. He took a better grip, and keyed the handset to talk. “I am taking on water, and with both bilge pumps running, I’m still losing ground. My location is approximately thirty miles north of Sitka, about five miles offshore. That is not an exact position.”
That was another unforeseen difficulty. He hadn’t done much sailing on his own, and what he’d thought was a navigation system had turned out to be a depth radar, or “fishfinder.” He was approximating the distance by calculating the speed and the time, but that didn’t take into account the current.
“How many people on board, and do you have survival suits or a life raft? Over.”
“One person. I’m alone. I have a survival suit, and…” he glanced over his shoulder to double check if there was an inflatable raft, and as people are apt to do, turned the wheel just slightly as he turned his head. When the next wave hit, the water caught the bow of the boat and tossed it sideways. The revving motor only made it worse, and suddenly the boat was broadside to the wave. He lost his grip on the wheel and went tumbling to the other side of the cabin, smashing into the ceiling as the wave rocked the Bayliner, nearly rolling it, but the boat bobbed up through the water, and the man was dumped on the floor of the cabin.
It was with a sense of relief that he picked himself up and reached again for the wheel—until he realized that he had kept his grip on the handset of the radio, the severed cord now dangling uselessly.
As the duty crew hurried down the path to the locker room to change into their aircrew dry coveralls, or ADCs, Ellie dropped back behind the others. Then she called to Teddy. She had to call twice before he stopped and waited for her, shifting from one foot to the other impatiently.
When she caught up with him, she draped an arm around his shoulder, as much to slow him down as to give her an excuse to talk quietly in his ear.
“I want you to do me a favor. I want you to use that silver tongue of yours tonight for a good cause.”
“You’ve finally realized that I’m the man for you,” he said, snaking his arm around her waist. “I knew you were saving the best for last.”
With her free hand, she peeled his arm away. “Not quite, Romeo. On the flight out I want you to chat up Mikey there.”
“Sorry, he’s not my type.”
“I want you to distract him, dummy. Like, you know when the doctor gives you a shot?”
“I hate shots.”
“Right, so the doctor starts asking you about what you did last night, or where you took your last vacation, to get your mind off the fact he’s about to stick a huge needle in your arm.”
“Or the fact that for the first time you’re about to leap into the ocean to save some stranger in the middle of a bitch of a storm,” Teddy added.
“I knew you were smarter than you look.”
“Yes, ma’am. I can do that,” he agreed. “But where did this soft side come from? What happened to the hardass I know and love? You sweet on this kid or something? Does he bring out the maternal side you’ve been repressing?”
“Shut up,” she said, a little too sharply. She knew Teddy was just kidding, but she found it hard to take, even from him. Either she was accused of being a “hardass” or she was teased for acting “maternal”— she was always either too much like a man, or too much of a woman.
“It’s just that it’s a tough night for his first time,” she explained more mildly. “I thought he might need some help.”
“Are we talking about the same kid? The one with the big mouth? The way he talks, he could rescue a whole cruise liner.”
“Sure, he talks a big game,” Ellie said. “But that’s what makes me nervous.”
“I don’t want my pilot nervous. Don’t you worry. I’ll keep him entertained with the stories of your discarded boyfriends.”
“You try that, and you’ll be joining him in the water.”
“Don’t mean to hurry you,” Dave called from the doorway of the hangar. “Anytime you’re ready.”
Ellie and Teddy both quickened their pace.
When they were finished changing into their ADCs, they hurried over to the operations center where they were briefed on the mission. The briefings at Air Station Sitka were often long, compared to other postings. At air stations in the Lower Forty-eight all the crew needed was a run-down on the nature of the distress, the coordinates, and whether or not the victim was in the water. At Sitka, since they were responsible for missions over land as well as emergencies over water, the flying was often more complicated. Combine the mountainous terrain with a hundred-foot ceiling and bad icing conditions—a familiar scenario in the area, especially in winter—and they would have to circumnavigate, sometimes doubling the mileage. The ops center was where they would plan the route.
This time the flight planning was comparatively easy; it was a straight shot up the coast. However, the crew soon discovered that nothing else about it was easy. They didn’t have exact coordinates, and the information was minimal. Radio contact had been broken off abruptly, but the command center at Juneau hadn’t gotten any notice of EPIRB—the emergency signal that was triggered by a boat’s sinking. They didn’t know if they would be looking for a boat or a man in the water… or if there was even anything to find.
Twenty-three minutes after the alarm sounded, Ellie eased the H-60 off the tarmac. She pulled the collective up, which changed the pitch on the blades of the rotor and lifted the helo. While still on the ground, they had run through the preflight checklist, but now that she was in the air, Ellie tested the controls in a low hover. With her feet, she pressed first the left, then the right pedal, and the nose of the helo swung slightly in one direction, then the other. Then she put a feather light pressure on the cyclic, testing left, right, and forward. The helo moved left, right, then forward.
“Everything looks good,” Ellie announced.
“So let’s go,” Dave said.
“Your wish, my command.” She eased forward on the cyclic and lifted the collective, and the helo moved into the wind, the rain hammering on the windshield. In seconds they were over the water, the waves running hard toward shore.
Ellie couldn’t hear Teddy or Mike over the internal communications system, and from that she knew Teddy must have switched to conference 2 on the ICS so that he and Mike could chat without disturbing Ellie and Dave as they flew. Teddy was probably talking Mike’s ear off, Ellie thought. Mike wouldn’t have a moment’s peace to think about anything.
With that problem solved, Ellie turned her attention to flying. From the moment they lifted off, she felt like a fish thrown back into water. As she turned north and the crosswind made the helo yaw right, she adjusted with the left pedal. When she banked back into the wind, she had to ease up on the collective to lessen the pitch of the blades, but she did it automatically, almost as if she felt the stiff wind on her own arms. It was as natural to her as walking. That level of unconscious ability was called “feel,” and even Dave would have admitted that Ellie had it.
At a cruising speed of 150 miles per hour, even with a headwind, it took less than twenty minutes to reach the approximate position of the boat. If they’d had a specific position, they would have instituted a Victor Sierra search, flying radials out from a specific point in a clover-leaf pattern. A VS search was designed for smaller search areas in which there was a high probability of finding the target, but since the position they had received was an approximation, they decided on a grid pattern search instead.
As they started flying the grid, Dave asked, “Everything ready back there in case we find him? You put the chem sticks on the basket so you’ll be able to see it? It’s black as pitch out there.”
“I know it,” Teddy acknowledged. “Summertime, six hours of dark out of twenty-four, and this is when we get called out.”
“But we have the night-vision goggles,” Mike said.
“Yes, but those only enhance ambient light,” Dave explained. “If there’s no light to enhance, then there’s only so much they can do. There’s nothing light in an Alaska night. Doesn’t get much blacker than here.”
“I knew that,” Mike replied. He had known how the goggles worked; he had simply forgotten. Not having flown at night in Alaska, he’d had no reason to remember. “So how are we gonna find the guy?”
“He might still be with the boat,” Ellie offered. “If he’s not with the boat, we’ll just have to hope he’s got a survival suit with lots of reflective tape. Then we’ll have a decent chance of spotting him. If I were floating around at sea, I’d want to be mummified in the stuff.”
“Even so, we’ll need some serious luck as well if we’re going to find him,” Teddy said.
They all quieted for a few minutes then and concentrated on the water below. They were just able to make out the whitecaps of the waves, peaking and curling before collapsing back into the sea.
“Those swells look like they’re a decent size,” Mike said after a while. “What would you say, thirty, forty feet?”
“About that,” Teddy agreed.
As they looked down, each wave seemed to be climbing successively higher, as if rising up to claim them from where they hovered in the sky. At that second, they were all considering the possibility that Mike would have to go down into that heaving ocean. Ellie was thinking that it was a hell of a night to send down a rookie, Dave was wondering if they might lose Mike as well as the survivor, and Teddy was trying to think of something to say to distract Mike from the sight.
Mike stared out the window. Finally he sat back in his seat. “Damn,” he said, “I wish one of you guys had told me to bring my surfboard.”
There was a moment of surprised silence before they all laughed.
“I’m surrounded by comedians,” Dave groaned.
“This is a kid after my own heart,” Teddy said.
“I think he’ll do just fine,” Ellie added.
What they didn’t know was that even as Mike joked, he was thinking to himself, “Please don’t let us find him.”
The man blinked and rubbed his eyes with one fist. They felt hot and dry in their sockets from peering through the windshield into the night, trying to see the waves before they lifted and tossed the small boat like a cork. It had been hours since he had called in the Mayday, but he suspected he knew what the problem was. They couldn’t find him. He had probably been off on his estimate of his location, and the storm wasn’t slackening. If anything, it was worse, and he was almost out of gas. No gas, no power. Before, when he had been tossed broadside, he had been able to wrestle the boat back into position. Without power he wouldn’t be able to keep the bow into the waves. One really big one, and the Bayliner would roll, fill with water, and founder.
In the last few hours, he hadn’t left the wheel for fear of that one big breaker, but with the gas running out, he figured it was time for last-ditch measures. He waited for a swell to go by before he let go of the wheel, jumped down the few steps into the cabin, and started searching.
Without someone to hold her straight into the waves, the Bayliner turned slowly. The next rush of water hit, and the boat was slammed sideways. He was knocked down, and as he landed, he felt a sharp pain in his side; the corner of a countertop had struck him in the ribs.
When he scrambled back to his feet, he was careful to hold on as he worked his way around the cabin, searching the cupboards and the storage space beneath the seats. He managed to stay upright when the next wave hit, but the third one threw him, and this time he struck his head. Blackness hovered at the edge of his vision and he was dizzy enough that he had to stay down for a moment. Then, when he got up, he felt a dangerous weakness in his knees.
He was worried about the damage to the boat—and to himself—but he kept looking. One more wave and a bruised elbow, and he found it: a flare gun with four spare charges.
Four charges, four chances.
After several intense and empty hours of searching, Ellie was the most played-out of the four. The entire time she’d been tracking the grid, she’d had to battle the wind. It buffeted the helo like it was a kite on the end of a string, and not 22,000 pounds of machine, fuel, and equipment. But at least Ellie had something to struggle with—the others were exhausted from sheer inactivity. They’d spent the time staring out the windows, their eyes straining uselessly against the black carpet of ocean.
They should have had the help of a second helo, but ten minutes after the second crew had taken off, they had been diverted to a medevac mission. A man in the small village of Angoon had an acute appendicitis, and he needed to be transported to the nearest hospital for emergency surgery. The third helo was in the middle of a six hundred hour overhaul, its guts scattered on the floor of the hangar. There was a cutter steaming its way up from the south, but it would be several hours before it reached the area.
They didn’t speak much in the cabin of the H-60. There was the occasional “Is that something?” Then Ellie would swing down closer, but there was only more empty ocean. Finally Dave voiced the worry that was in the back of all their minds. He said, “We’re approaching bingo fuel. Soon we’ll be low enough we’ll have to think about heading back.”
“We have time to go a little longer,” Ellie said. “We have at least three-quarters of an hour.”
“That would be cutting it close,” Dave replied. “That would almost put us into mama’s time.” In calculating bingo fuel, Dave considered the number of miles as well as how the wind would affect the helo, and then he threw in fifteen or twenty extra minutes—for “mama.”
“We have time. We can go a little longer,” Ellie insisted.
“Going longer might not be the issue,” Teddy said. “We might have flown right over him and not even seen him.”
“And maybe we haven’t,” Ellie countered.
No one voiced that other possibility: that they might be searching for a body and not a survivor.
“Do we really have time?” Teddy asked. On the ground he was Ellie’s firm ally, but in the helo he tended to side with Dave’s caution.
“We have some,” Dave said. “But it’s not infinite. At some point soon we’ll need to assess…” he broke off abruptly, saying, “Did anyone see that?”
Ellie jumped on it. “See what?”
“I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Like a flash of light. It was probably lightning, but I thought it might have been…”
“… a flare,” Teddy finished. “I think I might have seen something too.”
“Where?” Ellie demanded.
“West of us. Farther out to sea.”
Ellie banked the helo, and they flew for a few tense minutes, scanning the dark, heaving ocean below.
Ellie started to wonder whether she was headed in the right direction.
The others must have been thinking the same because Dave said, “I don’t know, Ellie. Maybe—”
“What?” Ellie said.
“Hold on a second.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve got something on the radar,” he told her.
The boat, when they finally found it, was dead in the water, broadside to the waves. Teddy switched on the Nitesun. It was their most powerful searchlight, but against the expanse of the ocean, it looked no bigger than the beam of a flashlight.
“He’s getting pounded,” Teddy said.
“If he’s there,” Dave replied, but at that moment a man in a survival suit appeared on the deck.
“Do we try to retrieve him from the deck, or do we want him in the water?” As Ellie posed the question, they all saw him raise his hand in a salute. He was looking up at the helicopter, so he didn’t see the curl of the wave. As soon as it started swelling under the boat, he turned to grab onto something, but it was too late. The wave broke over the boat, and when it bobbed back up from beneath the water the deck was bare.
“Where’d he go?” Ellie said.
Teddy swept the light over the ocean, finding nothing. “Come on, come on,” he muttered, circling the empty boat.
“Wait, there,” Mike said. “Back up. Yes, there.”
“Good eyes,” Teddy praised him.
“I can be ready to go down in three minutes,” Mike said.
“What do you think, Teddy?” Ellie asked for Teddy’s assessment because he was the one who would be responsible for getting Mike back in the aircraft.
“This guy hasn’t been in the water long. Let’s see if we can put the basket down near him, and maybe he can climb in himself.”
“I’m ready to go in,” Mike reported.
“I know you are, but if we can get him in without your going down, it will also be quicker.”
“We’ll try that first,” Ellie determined, ending the argument.
They ran through the hoist checklist, and then they were ready to go into the hover. Hovering over the ocean at night during a storm was the hardest maneuver a pilot could attempt. The wind battered the helo, and it took a complicated dance with both hands and feet to maintain position. The greatest danger was that a hard gust would force the nose up and the tail down. With its belly presented to the wind, the helo would be driven back, possibly burying the tail rotor in a wave. If that happened, they’d be in need of rescue as well.
The wind wasn’t the only difficulty. With a sideways driving rain and the running waves, it was difficult to judge what was moving—the water, the rain, or the aircraft. A pilot sometimes experienced “the leans”—a three dimensional version of a common sensation. Anyone who has ever been stopped in a car and had the sudden feeling they were moving backward when, in fact, the vehicle next to theirs was moving forward, has experienced a form of the leans.
Teddy dropped several magnesium flares to help assess the drift and provide reference points in the black expanse of ocean. As the flares hit the salt water, they ignited, casting a pale yellow glow as Ellie made her approach and established a hover above the survivor.
From there, she depended on Teddy to be her eyes. She couldn’t see beneath the helo to maneuver, so it was Teddy’s job as the flight mechanic to talk her into position. It was a job that seemed simple, but which carried with it incredible responsibility and required steely self-control. No matter how tense or dangerous a SAR got, the flight mechanic needed to keep his voice calm and even. Not only could excitement, tension, or panic interfere with the flight mechanic’s ability to direct the pilot, it could also affect the pilot’s flying. With just a voice in their ear to go by, tone and inflection took on supreme importance to the person at the controls. Teddy might act like a clown on the ground, but once he was in the air he was known around the air station as the flight mech with a voice you could fall asleep to.
“Easy right,” Teddy said. “A little more… good. We’re above him, but bring it forward ten to allow for the wind drift. Hold, hold, hold. Ready to hoist.”
“Begin the hoist,” Ellie replied.
“Basket’s going out the door… basket’s going down.”
But it didn’t go down. Below the helo the wind caught it and sent it twisting back toward the tail rotor. Teddy brought the basket back up and tried again. This time, just before it reached the water, it was caught by the wind driving over the top of a huge swell. The basket tossed violently at the end of the cable, sweeping aft once again. Teddy was forced to reel it in again. And again. And again. Finally Teddy said, “I’m worried about the cable—it’s really chafing on the rails. I think I might have a better chance from a lower hover. Can we try that?”
“Mike, would you keep an eye on that altimeter for me?” Ellie said as she brought the helo down.
“Okay, ma’am. I think that’s enough,” Mike called from the back. “That last wave just about broke over the wheels.”
Teddy sent the basket down once more, and this time it landed in the water only fifteen feet away from the survivor, on the uphill side of a rising wave. The man struck out swimming. From the helo Teddy could see him cutting through the water and simultaneously rising with the swell, so he seemed to be swimming toward the belly of the helo.
At the hoist controls, Teddy was making sure that, as the wave lifted the basket, he retracted the line so there wouldn’t be too much slack. If a man was caught in a loop, the cable could slice right through him.
The survivor reached the basket as the wave crested. With the spotlight trained on him, Teddy could see him grab it and pull himself inside.
“He’s in,” Teddy said, but even as he spoke, the wave broke. When the survivor surfaced, he was still in the basket, but the basket itself had been wrenched off the line. The hook was now swinging loose over the water.
Teddy bit his tongue on the curse.
“Are you bringing him up?” Dave asked.
“The basket’s come loose from the cable,” Teddy said.
There was a grim silence inside the helo.
Then Mike spoke. “Send me down. I’m ready.” He gestured at his gear, but he also meant something else. Before, he’d been nervous—more than nervous—but as he’d watched Teddy lower the basket to the man in the water, he had started to feel like a player who’d been benched on the sideline. He started thinking that this was, after all, what he had trained for. This was what it was all about, and SARs like this didn’t come along very often. Coasties sometimes waited years for a mission like this.
“How are we doing for fuel?” Ellie asked.
“We’re low,” Dave said. “But we can stretch it out a little longer, I think.”
“Send me down,” Mike repeated.
“What do you say, Teddy?” Ellie said.
Teddy glanced down at the water and then back at Mike. “We can try it.”
Mike already had his dry suit on, and now he slipped into his fins, hood, mask, snorkel, and gloves.
Teddy brought the cable back up, attached it to Mike’s harness, and then directed Ellie, repositioning the helo. “Forward fifty… forward ten… hold… hold.”
Mike stood in the doorway.
“Left five… hold…hold.”
Teddy signaled Mike with three taps on the chest, and Mike responded with a thumbs-up.
“Deploying the swimmer,” Teddy said. “Swimmer going down.”
Mike swung out the door as Teddy reeled out the line. It looked good—he was headed right for a trough close to the man in the water… and then the line jerked to a halt. Mike found himself dangling between helicopter and water. He craned his head back to look up, but he couldn’t see Teddy in the doorway.
“Hold, hold, hold—the cable’s birdcaged,” Teddy called. This was the situation Teddy had been afraid of when he saw the cable rubbing the rails. Birdcaging occurred when the cable frayed, and the frayed portion was wound back into the drum, disturbing the alignment. But, though Teddy had been worried, he could never have foreseen that this would happen with Mike dangling from the line.
“Could anything else go wrong?” Dave exclaimed.
“Is Mike in the water?” Ellie asked, almost at the same time.
Teddy replied to Ellie’s question. “No, ma’am. Not yet.”
Underneath the helo, the wind gusted and blew Mike sideways. He was caught in a wild pendulum swing, a wall of water rushing toward him. The view from above had been deceiving. Looking down on the waves, he hadn’t been able to judge their true size. Now he was staring straight into one, and it was about to swamp him.
At that moment, Teddy sheared the hoist cable and Mike fell almost gently into the water that boiled around his legs. He was lifted with the wave, and as he reached the peak, he dove to avoid the blowing chop.
“I sheared the hoist and Mike’s in the water,” Teddy reported calmly. “His location is only about twenty feet away from the survivor. It shouldn’t take long for Mike to reach him.”
“We can’t get them up without the hoist,” Dave pointed out. “We’re going to have to leave them for the next team to pick up."
“No.” Ellie’s answer was immediate and uncompromising.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” Dave said.
“I’m not leaving Mike down there alone. Not in that mess. Not on his first trip.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Dave told her.
“He’s right, ma’am. I don’t see that there’s anything we can do,” Teddy agreed. “We’re out of it. Game over.”
Ellie laughed, and the sound of it sent a shiver of unease through the two men. “Now there’s where you’re both wrong,” she said. “It’s not even close to over. In fact, this is where it gets interesting.”