By Lt. j.g. Samuel Bowen
VP-16 Public Affairs
In a span of nine days, the "War Eagles" of Patrol Squadron (VP) 16 assisted in two search and rescue (SAR) efforts that rescued a total of nine individuals in distress at sea.
The first mission took place July 14 during a crew training flight along the east coast of Florida. While enroute to the operating area, the crew was monitoring maritime radio frequencies, which is a standard practice for the squadron.
The sensor two acoustic operator of the flight, AWO3 Alisa Popok, heard a distress call over the radio and repeated the call to the rest of the crew. The radio call consisted of the Coast Guard Sector Charleston providing coordinates of a reported vessel taking on water near the Isle of Palms, S. C. and a request for assistance from any asset.
The crew immediately changed their intended course and increased speed toward the reported location. Within 15 minutes, the VP-16 P-8A was orbiting overhead and utilized the aircraft's turret to visually identify a capsized 25-foot vessel. Three adult males were spotted with life preservers, sitting on top of the upturned vessel. The War Eagle crew remained in constant communication with the Coast Guard and reported all information to aid in the rescue effort.
About 15 minutes later, a Coast Guard helicopter arrived and deployed a rescue swimmer. Simultaneously, a sea tow had also heard the distress call and traveled to the capsized vessel. By the time the rescue swimmer was on scene with the three boaters, the sea tow arrived and the boaters were safely brought aboard. When the VP-16 crew confirmed their rescue and no further assistance was needed, the crew continued on their original training mission.
Just eight days later, on July 22, a VP-16 aircrew again arrived first on the scene of a SAR effort while on a reposition flight returning from a Career Orientation Training event for Midshipmen in Norfolk, Va. Just prior to landing from the training event, Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Geer, sitting Co-Tactical Coordinator for the flight, and upgrading Tactical Coordinator Lt. j.g. Caroline Shea heard a distress call on maritime radio frequencies. The call consisted of a tugboat reporting their vessel on fire off the coast of St. Augustine.
The crew immediately informed the tower of their intention to wave off the landing and respond to the vessel's call. In transit to the St. Augustine coast, the VP-16 crew again heard the distressed tugboat crew of six report that the flames had become too great and they would have to abandon ship. Within 15 minutes of the initial distress call, the P-8A located the tugboat and orbited the position. As flames engulfed the tugboat, a life raft was observed safely floating away from harm containing all six crewmembers. While the tugboat crew attempted to attach a line to a barge the tugboat had been towing, the VP-16 crew remained in communication with the Coast Guard, passing the location and situational updates.
About 25 minutes after the P-8A arrived on station, a Coast Guard rescue helicopter arrived. Shortly after the Coast Guard, a civilian fishing vessel arrived to assist with the effort and began helping the tugboat crew aboard their vessel. As the VP-16 crew approached minimum fuel, a VP-30 aircraft had also responded to the calls still being transmitted over Maritime Channel 16. When the VP-30 aircraft arrived on station and no further assistance was needed from the VP-16 crew, the War Eagles returned to NAS Jacksonville.
Coincidentally, Lt. j.g. Caroline Shea, along with AWO3 Popok, was aboard both SAR missions conducted by the squadron.
She explained, "It was exciting to see that any event, regardless of the initial mission intended, can result in a real world scenario to assist with the saving of lives in distress."
While both missions consisted of the War Eagles of VP-16 conducting crew training flights, the practice of monitoring numerous radio frequencies and the quick reaction of the crews led to the successful rescue of nine individuals in distress at sea. AWO3 Popok, who had heard the initial call on July 14, described both missions as, "one of the most emotional experiences, seeing and hearing people in distress and helping those individuals make it back to their families was very rewarding."