NOAA crew uses ocean science and nautical skill to save downed pilot

The crew of the NOAA research vessel Thomas Jefferson carried out an extraordinary rescue in August of the pilot of a small private plane that ditched in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast during the middle of the night.

After the Cessna 172 Skyhawk lost power shortly after taking off from Bartow Regional Airport in Florida on the night of Aug. 14, its pilot was able to radio his latitude and longitude to the Miami Air Route Traffic Control before his aircraft splashed into the Gulf. The crew of Thomas Jefferson joined the search when it heard an urgent marine broadcast issued by Coast Guard Sector Key West at 2215.

From the plane’s last reported position, the crew of Thomas Jefferson believed they were about 30 nautical miles away. They found the pilot a little more than three hours later — on the ship’s first pass through the area where they had hoped to find him.

Cmdr. Shepard Smith, the master of Thomas Jefferson, on the bridge wing of the NOAA research vessel. Smith is both a scientist and a mariner. He and his crew used their navigation skills and knowledge of ocean currents to calculate the likely position of the downed pilot. They found him on their first pass three hours after the crash almost exactly where their calculations showed he should be, given the wind and currents prevailing at the time. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Lt. Elizabeth Crapo)

“He was a quarter-mile from where we estimated him to be,†said the ship’s master, Cmdr. Shepard Smith.

That achievement is an amazing tale of marine technology, seamanship, initiative, discipline and perhaps a good dose of luck.

In the world of maritime search and rescue, this was more than a bull’s-eye. “I’d say it’s a needle in a haystack to get it on the first approach into the search area,†said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Pat DeQuattro, commander of Sector Key West. “I’d say we were all very fortunate.â€

NOAA operates a fleet of 19 research and survey vessels that are crewed by a combination of NOAA commissioned officers and civilian mariners. Thomas Jefferson is one of the most technologically advanced hydrographic survey ships in the world, according to a NOAA press release. Part of the high-tech gear aboard is an acoustic Doppler current profiler that measures how fast water is moving over the entire column of water. That equipment, skillfully used by the crew of Thomas Jefferson, played a central role in the rescue.

Smith, who is both a mariner and a scientist, knew that his relatively slow vessel would need about three hours to reach the search area. That gave him time to do some artful calculations.

“We took some time during our transit to do some very careful analysis of our Doppler speed log and our GPS position in order to estimate the current that we could use to adjust the starting search position for when we got there,†Smith said.

The ship’s crew estimated the current was moving in the direction of 220° at about half a knot. “That put a central search position about two miles south southwest of the crash site,†Smith said.

The plan was to approach the estimated position of the survivor from the south and follow a line back to the coordinates of the crash site.

Smith posted two lookouts on each bridge wing and one on the bow, each with a radio. Searchlights on the port and starboard sides swept the water. Smith reduced speed to about 8 knots, and kept the bridge quiet, as the vessel made its first approach. One lookout on the port bridge wing heard somebody yelling for help.

At this point, Smith’s shiphandling skills came into play. He did a “crash stop†turning the vessel in the direction of the sound. It’s a maneuver that the 208-foot Thomas Jefferson performs frequently in order to make quick stops to set casts and pick up pod samples.

“If you treat this ship like a hockey skate, and turn really hard, the ship sliding sideways in the water stops much quicker than coming to a full stop,†Smith said.

Shortly after hearing the cries, two separate lookouts spotted the pilot, Jeremy Lukowski, 33, waving a white flight checklist, coated in plastic. His rescue occurred at 0130 on Aug. 15, just three hours and 15 minutes after Thomas Jefferson set out to find him.

Smith credits his entire crew, and science, with the successful rescue.

“If you look at it scientifically, we knew exactly where he went in, and we knew exactly what the water mass and the current was doing — then there really was only one place he could be,†he said. “We happened to estimate that pretty well.â€

The Coast Guard has its own program to calculate drift. Called the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS), the software generates search area predictions for objects missing at sea, incorporating wind, sea and other environmental conditions into its predictions.

But DeQuattro, the Coast Guard captain in Key West, said Thomas Jefferson used its own calculations of drift in this search. He also pointed out that lookouts on the NOAA vessel had the advantage of height compared to the 45-foot response boat the Coast Guard had dispatched, along with a helicopter and a fixed-wing jet aircraft.

The NOAA vessel is also quieter than Coast Guard vessels.

“One advantage we had over the Coast Guard is our ears,†said Smith. “Because we are a quieter ship, what we first observed was him yelling.â€

Smith had another advantage: experience in three major searches for downed airliners. He was involved in the search for TWA Flight 800, which crashed in 1996 off Long Island, N.Y.; in the search for EgyptAir Flight 990, which crashed in 1999 south of Nantucket, Mass.; and in the 1999 search for the small plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., which crashed off Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Good fortune also played a significant role in the most recent search. The pilot was lucky to survive the crash with just minor injuries — a cut lip and bruises — even though his plane had nosed over after hitting the water and subsequently sank.

And if he had to crash, this was the right night to do it. The sea was calm and the water temperature was in the high 80s.

“Search conditions were about optimal,†said DeQuattro.

But as mariners know, the odds of finding one person in the ocean are extremely low.

“First of all, it is extremely difficult to find someone in the water — they are a very small object,†said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Turner, a liaison officer for Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) at the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Search and Rescue in Washington, D.C.

“And someone with dark hair in the water is nearly impossible to find.†In the gulf, “there are a lot of objects that look like a head that is floating,†Turner said.

“At night — as you can imagine — it is even tougher to find someone in the water.â€

Turner, who was a pilot of HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters for the Coast Guard for 12 years, including four years based in Clearwater, Fla., remembers looking at night for a jet skier who got lost in the gulf. The skier had a cell phone and could hear search helicopters nearby, but it still took them quite a while to find him, said Turner.

DeQuattro recalls an aircraft going down in the water at night a year ago, with several survivors. “It was only as the sun came up that we could find them,†he said.

Of course it helps searchers if a survivor has an emergency locator beacon, a flare or strobe lights, or is wearing bright or reflective clothing. Lukowski had none of these aids. So his rescue was largely dependent on the skill of the crew of Thomas Jefferson.

Of the crew of 35, about 20 were working on the search operation at the time the pilot was found. Smith said he preferred not to name the lookout who first heard Lukowski.

“Everybody performed their roles perfectly,†he said. “I would not know where to stop in giving each individual credit.â€

Later that day the crew went back to its regular duties. “For all of us, we’re very proud of having pulled this off — people have just been walking on air ever since,†Smith said.

David A. Tyler

By Professional Mariner Staff