The crew of a US Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk rescue helicopter treat survivors from a crash near an oil rig, roughly 40 nautical miles off Lousiana's shore, on Dec. 15, 2022. US Coast Guard photo.
When US Coast Guard Lt. Stephen Ratasky maneuvered his MH-60T Jayhawk rescue helicopter over the oil rig, he could see only a few pieces of wreckage in the water.
It was Thursday, Dec. 15, and he’d been scrambled from New Orleans that morning to search for a missing Rotorcraft Leasing Co. Bell 206-L4 helicopter that had gotten its skids stuck in the rig’s perimeter railing while lifting off before 8:30 a.m., hurling the aircraft into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ratasky made out what looked like the chopper’s tail boom, a damaged rotor, and life jackets. And that was about it, except for the yellow raft bobbing in the distance, roughly 40 nautical miles offshore.
“There's nothing that's gonna get a bunch of people moving than when you hear of a helicopter crash, and there's three survivors in a life raft,” Ratasky, 35, said.
Elite US Coast Guard rescue swimmers reach a life raft containing all three passengers from a downed civilian helicopter, roughly 40 nautical miles off Louisiana's shore in the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Screenshot from a US Coast Guard video.
The mayday came in while Air Station New Orleans was holding an annual safety meeting.
Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Richard “Dicky” Hoefle was the on-duty rescue swimmer, but the crew decided a flipped helicopter near an oil rig needed a second pair of eyes, so they’d dragooned Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Corey Bridges for the mission.
“You hear of a downed helicopter, the first thing you’re thinking of is that in order to survive the helicopter crash, you would first think ‘wow, these unfortunate folks are probably in a pretty bad medical condition,” Ratasky said. “You just don’t really know the status of the survivors.”
When the pilots spotted the raft, Avionics Electrical Technician 2nd Class Jacob Scarborough lowered both elite rescue swimmers into the 2-foot swells. They splashed up to the survivors, and Hoefle later told Coffee or Die that the trio all had “different types of injuries” but were responsive.
The crew used a rescue basket to hoist them into the Jayhawk. Then Hoefle stabbed the raft so it would sink. A floating life raft will trigger other mariners to radio in an alert, “and cause another search and rescue later,” the rescue swimmer explained.
The survivor of a civilian helicopter crash is hoisted into a US Coast Guard helicopter, roughly 40 nautical miles off Louisiana's shore in the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Screenshot from a US Coast Guard video.
The crew transferred the survivors to emergency medical services personnel at Louisiana’s Houma-Terrebonne Airport, and that capped Ratasky’s first helicopter crash rescue.
“You don’t know the status of the scene,” the Raleigh, North Carolina, native said. “Is there a fire? Is there oil, fluids, or any other hazards that are there in the water that we would need to be cognizant of while we’re hoisting? It’s our job as pilots to mitigate that risk and not put our people in a position where they can hurt themselves or further complicate the situation.”
“We’re just really happy with the holidays coming around, these are folks who are obviously more than likely having one of the worst days of their lives and we’re able to pick them up, get them to higher level care and be with their families,” he added. “That’s a big win for us and we’re really happy with the result.”
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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