YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- At 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, watchstanders at the U.S. Coast Guard Forces Micronesia/Sector Guam Joint Rescue Sub-Center received a mayday call reporting a vessel taking on water between Rota and Guam. The master stated they had three people aboard, and the vessel was sinking.
The three mariners disappeared in the vast Pacific and U.S. Coast Guard forces were dispatched to search all through the night.
Simultaneously, on the island of Guam, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces were staging for exercise Cope North 23, but when the search and rescue call went out, assets were immediately diverted to assist, including two C-130J Super Hercules aircraft and crews from the 36th Airlift Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan.
At the time, Cope North was in full swing and Yokota crews were readying to employ tactical airlift in support of operations across seven remote islands that would occur over the next three weeks.
“My crew received the notification when we showed to fly our originally tasked mission as part of Cope North,” said Capt. Cedric Parker, 36th AS C-130J pilot and aircraft commander for the search and rescue mission. “Most of the information was coming in real time. Our director of operations made the decision to send us, so we launched and prepared to flex as needed to do everything we could.”
Even with the last-minute mission change, the crew expedited pre-flight operations and took off an hour and a half faster than originally planned for.
“As operators we train constantly to be ready to execute once the call comes in,” said Capt. William Thomas, 36th AS C-130J pilot and aircraft commander for the search and rescue mission. “The crew was notified of the search and rescue mission and everyone was ready to go. Pararescuemen participating in the exercise worked with our loadmaster leadership to procure, rig, and inspect a sea rescue kit in time for takeoff. Trying to find the missing mariners definitely added to the motivation to keep searching over seven hours until we ran out of fuel and were forced to return to Guam.”
According to Parker, the two aircraft were accompanied by a helicopter and flew at an altitude of about 500 feet with the ramps and doors open, so even the loadmasters could help search.
The two crews were able to spot multiple pieces of debris and direct the helicopter to a narrower search and found two survivors from the wreckage.
“It was a very humbling experience for our crew,” Parker continued. “We train to every type of mission the C-130 is capable of executing; to be called up to the plate for a real-world crisis is not something many crews experience. We were fortunate to be in the right place in the right time, but unfortunate that we couldn’t have done more.”
Both mission commanders offered heartfelt condolences to the family of the mariner who was not recovered.
The combined team conducted more than 26 search patterns over more than 96 hours, saturating an area of more than 7,566 square nautical miles.
"Suspending search efforts without locating everyone in a case is never easy, and our condolences go out to the family and friends of the third mariner," said Capt. Nick Simmons, commander, U.S. Coast Guard Forces Micronesia/Sector Guam. "We are fortunate to have such strong local relationships which contributed to the rescue of two of three mariners. We are also extremely grateful again to our local and military partners who've come together a second time in less than a week to search for those missing at sea. We thank the U.S. Pacific Air Forces hosting exercise Cope North for diverting those assets and crews to assist."