The Distress Phase: Coast Guard Rescuers Rush to Downed Chopper

November 1, 2022Noelle Wiehe
Two crew members who survived a helicopter crash into the Gulf of Mexico on a flight bound for Abbeville, Louisiana, wade through debris and jet fuel on Oct. 26, 2022, 20 nautical miles from Morgan City. Screenshot from Coast Guard video.

Two crew members who survived a helicopter crash into the Gulf of Mexico on a flight bound for Abbeville, Louisiana, wade through debris and jet fuel on Oct. 26, 2022, 20 nautical miles from Morgan City. Screenshot from Coast Guard video.

When US Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Sean DiGeorge heard a Westwind Helicopters flight was 20 minutes overdue from an oil rig off Louisiana, his Eighth District command center team in New Orleans went into “the distress phase.”

It was around 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, when the Bell 407 helicopter vanished about 20 nautical miles off Vermillion Parish, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was bound for Abbeville, but watchstanders began to fear it had plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico, DiGeorge told Coffee or Die Magazine.

DiGeorge diverted an MH-60T Jayhawk rescue helicopter crew doing night training to search for the missing aircraft. They were soon joined by an Aviation Training Center Mobile HC-144B Ocean Sentry medium-range surveillance aircraft from Alabama.

Officials also broadcast an urgent alert to mariners at sea to help locate the lost helicopter.

Coast Guard helicopter

The US Coast Guard's MH-60T is an all-weather, medium-range helicopter that's built for search and rescue missions. It's similar to the Navy MH-60R and MH-60S Seahawk, with its basic roots in the Army H-60 Blackhawk. US Coast Guard photo.

Roughly 15 minutes later, a crew boat — the Captain Ron — departed a Gulf rig, bound for the Louisiana coast. Mariners on board soon spotted a life raft carried along with wreckage slick with fuel. And upon the raft were two men.

Nearby was the missing Bell, flipped upside down.

Flying fast to them were Lt. Jordan Fonville and Lt. Cmdr. Georg Thomas, the MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter pilots.

They spotted a flashing beacon from the flipped chopper and a spotlight beamed across the wreck by Captain Ron’s crew.

“I believe I have the Captain Ron in sight,” Fonville told his team.

Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer

US Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, greets an Angel of the Battlefield award recipient, US Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Richard Hoefle, during the 2018 Armed Services YMCA Angels of the Battlefield Awards Gala in Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 2, 2018. Hoefle saved the life of a critically injured mariner while serving as the duty rescue swimming aboard a Coast Guard helicopter, swimming through heavy seas to hoist himself up nearly three meters onto the damaged vessel. He then treated the severely injured crew member with improvised tools while waiting nearly two hours for the rescue helicopter to return. US Army photo.

His flight mechanic, Aviation Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Dalton Goetsch, lowered an elite rescue swimmer, Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle, who appreciated Captain Ron’s pillar of light.

“It made a real difference,” Fonville said. “It's nighttime. There's no illumination because the moon didn't come up until after sunrise. The swimmer [Hoefle] didn't have much to go off of, and when the Captain Ron provided that spotlight, Hoefle was able to do his job that much better.”

Goetsch lowered a basket. Hoefle waded through the fuel and loaded into it the two survivors from the downed helicopter, which is registered to Texas-based Gulf Helicopters.

Then Goetschhe hoisted Hoefle into the Jayhawk. But now there was another problem.

Coast Guard Upside Down Helicopter

Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans rescue swimmer Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle wades through fuel and debris off Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico on Oct. 26, 2022. He rescued two of three crew members from a downed helicopter. Screenshot from US Coast Guard video.

Fonville’s aircraft was running out of fuel.

To get the two survivors to the University Medical Center New Orleans for treatment, the Jayhawk needed to land in Houma, about 40 nautical miles southeast of the Crescent City.

Then the crew handed off the patients to Coast Guard pilots Andrew Connell and Cmdr. Scott Koser, who choppered them to the hospital.

“That cut down significant time getting those two critically injured individuals to the hospital,” DiGeorge told Coffee or Die.

Coast Guard Storm Avoidance Training

The US Coast Guard cutter Moray conducts storm avoidance operations with sister cutters Heron and Tarpon, Aug. 2, 2020, off Jacksonville, Florida. US Coast Guard photo.

After the rescue, Westwind Helicopters Inc. told watchstanders there should’ve been a third crew member on board the crashed aircraft.

The Coast Guard cutter Moray and a 45-foot response boat-medium from Coast Guard Station Grand Isle sailed to the location of the wreck.

DiGeorge said the boat crew found the missing person “still in the cockpit, unfortunately deceased.”

The accident remains under investigation.

Westwind Helicopters didn't return a Coffee or Die Magazine request for comment

Read Next: Phantom Soldiers, Haunted Ships, and Spooky Old Forts: A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to the US Military

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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