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 lastditch 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 boatand to himselfbut 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 playedout 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 withthe 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 H60. 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 threequarters 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 minutesfor "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 movingthe 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 selfcontrol. 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 cableit'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 nervousmore than nervousbut 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 thumbsup.
"Deploying the swimmer," Teddy said. "Swimmer going down."
Mike swung out the door as Teddy reeled out the line. It looked goodhe 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, holdthe 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."