Hess (left) with Capt. Mark Morin, commanding officer of Air Station Kodiak. Lauren Steenson/U.S. Coast Guard
The Distinguished Flying Cross is America’s oldest military aviation award and none too easy to earn – it’s only awarded for remarkable acts of heroism.
Like what happened south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts one February morning in 2015. A little after 8:30am, the same time many of us are getting to work, a helicopter team from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod hovered above a fishing vessel stranded in nine-foot seas and 40 mph winds with conditions worsening.
One of the pilots – now based in Kodiak – won a Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts that day.
Lieutenant John Hess receives his medal before members of Air Station Kodiak and his family in the coast guard base movie theater.
Hess steps onto the stage and describes his experience that day, when the Coast Guard command center in Boston received a distress call from a man and his father caught in a winter storm. The two requested rescue after the ship had lost power and the storm had ripped away at their sails.
Hess names a number of challenges that arose during the mission, including the failure of the primary hoist control unit. The team used a backup hoist instead, the basket of which swung towards the second survivor’s head as the rescue swimmer strove to help him.
“The swimmer was guarding the basket – it was swinging at him and the flight mechanic just couldn’t get it in the water quick enough, so he put his hand up to deflect the basket away from hitting the survivor and he got shocked and feels he was knocked out for a period of about five seconds, and then he came to, he still had a survivor laying across his chest holding onto him, which is pretty cool. We didn’t realize that in the aircraft until he got into the aircraft and was pretty much worthless from that point forward.”
Hess describes the obstacles that piled up against him and his team.
“First it was lightening, second it was the hoist failure and then it was the swimmer getting electrocuted, and then it was anti-ice failing and then we went home. It’s just like what’s next? It’s like I keep saying, the laws of threes. Things come in threes, but it came in fours of fives for us that day. You know, they all felt like challenges that we had to overcome. We got out there, so we’re at a high. As soon as we felt like we were unstoppable, something knocked us back down.”
He says he felt nervous. There were a lot of unknowns.
“Are we gonna make it back? Are we gonna have the weather to land back at home plate? Are we gonna be able to complete the rescue? Just a lot of questions. Honestly, you don’t know the answers until you’re in it. We didn’t know if we were gonna be able to land back home until we were back home. But also a lot of confidence. We had a pretty rock solid crew. If I had to pick, I think I’d pick the same guys to come back out with me.”
Hess calls the flight mechanic, who operated the hoist, their keystone.
“Without him, we could not have done this mission. There, everything was a third. He had third his vision. I’m not kidding. He opened the cabin door, his visor froze, his glasses froze, so now he’s down to uncorrected vision looking into the freezing spray. I mean, flight mechanics now… that can’t be easy.”
He says one of the more strenuous moments came after the rescue on the way home.
“We’re pretty happy, everybody’s chatting,and I had basically to say, hey, we’re not done yet, we’re not on deck yet, we still gotta make it back. We’re only gonna have two chances to land, meaning like doing an approach to an airport. We don’t have a whole lot of opportunity, so we still need to stay focused. We can’t lose our bearing, if you will.”
He says the conditions that day made that last stretch difficult.
“With the icing above us, our limited fuel, the inability to break out on an approach, just like Alaska jets coming in here when they have to go around because they can’t see, the ceilings were 100 feet above the runway with less than a quarter mile visibility – so that’s not very far. And all the blowing snow – it would be really hard to see anything. And then everything in the whole entire Cape Code area is covered in three or four feet of snow at this point. Just not a whole lot of landing options at that point. If you can’t land, you run out of gas.”
Hess says, had they failed to land, the backup plan would have meant flying to an island and landing on a beach. The situation never reached that point, and the two fishermen and the team all survived.
Hess says the rescue swimmer also received a Distinguished Flying Cross, and both Hess’s co-pilot and the flight mechanic received air medals.