As the basket was lowered a fifth time to pick up the two remaining men, a huge wave hit the awash stern of the Terry T knocking the last two crewmen–the master and the engineer–into the water downwind of the helicopter and the ship. With the lives of the two crewmen suddenly threatened by the turbulent seas and the ship drifting down upon them…
Manchester Evening Herald, June 22, 1981
At 3:40 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 26, 1980, Coast Guard HH-3F helicopter CG-1484 launched in response to a vessel in distress. Assigned to Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., and crewed by Lt.j.g. John Currier, Lt.j.g. Robert Abair, Petty Officer 1st Class David Seavey and Petty Officer 2nd Class Gordon Warren, the helicopter deployed in response to the 110-foot fishing vessel Terry T, out of New Bedford, with 10 men aboard. The scallop trawler was 80 miles southeast of Nantucket in 30-foot seas, blowing snow and 60-knot winds gusting to 80 knots. The Terry T reported “four feet of water in the engine room” and requested dewatering pumps to help control the flooding.
That weekend, a coastal storm had wreaked havoc when high winds and heavy seas lashed the Massachusetts coastline, damaging scores of small craft. The 31-year-old skipper, Roland Farland, said the Terry T was watertight when it was checked about 10 p.m., Saturday night as it rode out the severe coastal storm 70 miles east-southeast of Nantucket. However, when he checked the boat again shortly after midnight, water was flooding the engine room. Farland recounted, “We got three pumps going but we couldn’t contend with the water.”
In the interim, the Terry T had been in frequent radio contact with the Coast Guard through the Nantucket Lightship and, by 3:30 a.m., had informed the Coast Guard it would have to abandon ship.
Currier, the most junior aircraft commander in the unit, noted he “got stuck” with duty because there was a wardroom party that evening. It turned into a busy night. The CG-1484 aircrew had already flown on several search and rescue (SAR) cases that evening including evacuating Coast Guard members from the Buzzards Bay Entrance Lighthouse due to structural concerns caused by the heavy weather. Currier described their return to base from that case: “We went back into the air station and I remember shooting the instrument approach at 120 knots indicated airspeed and doing less than 20 knots over the ground.” Currier added,
We came in, landed and taxied into the lee of the hanger to shut the rotor head down and those guys were taking care of the post-flight and my wife was at the wardroom party. So when we got back to the wardroom at about eight o’clock at night, she said ‘You’re not going out again are you?’ and I said ‘No way–nobody’s out there.’
Just after 3:30 in the morning the aircrew was awakened by Rescue Coordination Center–Boston saying there was a scalloper taking on water and unable to control flooding about 80 miles southeast of Nantucket. The aircrew described it as an interesting launch because it was still blowing 60 knots, which exceeded the main rotor start limit, so the duty crew dragged the helicopter about halfway out of the hangar to start the turbine engines and engage the rotor system. They did this because rotors are flexible and droop down under their own weight when a helicopter starts up. Strong winds can cause the blades to flap up and down when they operate at slow revolutions causing serious damage to the tail boom or fuselage.
CG-1484 took off and flew toward the scalloper’s last known position about 15 miles east of the Nantucket Lightship. Currier flew under instrument flight rules in dense clouds with limited to zero visibility, navigating only by reference to the cockpit instruments. The aircraft experienced severe turbulence and Currier later recalled, “The crew was holding on for dear life.”
At 4:54 a.m., CG-1484 was approaching the Terry T’s last known position P. Currier described the situation as “Pitch black except for the lightning and there was sleet–so we were concerned about icing.”
Helicopter pilots avoid icing at all costs. When ice forms on rotor blades, they lose their ability to provide lift, and the aircraft can no longer maintain flight. As CG-1484 approached the vessel, the aircrew radioed Terry T’s captain, Roland Farland, to confirm he needed dewatering pumps. He reported that the fishing boat had lost steering and “was at the mercy of the 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds.” Farland came on the radio a few minutes later and said “We got a fire in the engine room, we can’t control it, and I want everybody off. There are 10 of us.”
As the water level rose within the fishing vessel, it produced short circuits that caused spontaneous fires in the boat’s electrical system. Farland said the crew used up four fire extinguishers and had nothing left to fight the fires. Then radio contact was lost.
From their transit altitude, the aircrew performed an instrument approach to the water astern of Terry T. The crew used a precision approach to a coupled hover, an autopilot maneuver that transitions the helicopter from forward flight in the clouds down to an automatic hover at 50 feet visual with the water. This maneuver can be disorienting in the clouds at night, particularly when low over the water with little room for error. It is critical that both pilots continuously scan and interpret the flight instruments to confirm the autopilot is flying the correct profile. This maneuver was described as “dicey” due to the HH-3F’s notoriously unreliable Doppler radar. The aircrew finally made visual contact with the trawler’s glow as the helicopter descended below 150 feet.
Currier described the impossible situation:
"When we arrived in a hover, we turned on the floodlights and neither myself, nor the co-pilot, nor the flight mechanic thought we could do it. The tops were blowing off the waves and going over the boat and the boat was dead in the water so it was in the trough, so it was rolling more than rail-to-rail – it was getting green water over each rail as it rolled."
With the helicopter pointing into the strong westerly winds, Currier recounted that Terry T’s “bow was pointed to the right [the aircraft’s 3 o’clock position], so I had no place to go to hoist.”
Seavey had similar sentiments: “This case was the only time that I had thoughts that I might not be able to complete the hoists [due to] the combination of high winds, 50 to 60 knots or so, and 25 to 30 foot seas.”
The aircrew was also concerned with the extreme pitch and roll of the fishing vessel and the height of the rigging and other obstacles, so they initially requested that the Terry T crew disembark the vessel to their life raft. However, when the fishermen inflated the raft, it blew overboard. After careful assessment, the aircrew decided that hoisting from about 40 feet above the highest waves to an area just aft of the pilothouse was their best chance for success.
With no suitable hover reference, Currier was guided only by Seavey’s voice as the hoist operator. Initial attempts did not go well. The pilot is typically unable to see the hoist area (below and aft of the pilot seat) and must fly based on the flight mechanic’s conning commands. This can be very challenging when the sole hover reference is a raging and turbulent sea of 30-to 35-foot waves. The crew was convinced that a trail line hoist was the right tool for the situation as it would allow the helicopter to hoist from a position offset 30 to 40 feet from the boat so the bobbing fishing vessel could serve as a hover reference.
A trail line is a 105-foot piece of polypropylene line with a 300-pound weak link at one end and a weight bag at the other. The weight bag end of the trail line is paid out below the helicopter and delivered vertically to the persons in distress; however, seasoned flight mechanics can literally cast the weight bag to a target. The weak link is then attached to the hoist hook and the helicopter backs away until the pilot can see the hoisting area. The people in distress can then pull the basket to their location, creating a hypotenuse or diagonal – as opposed to a purely vertical delivery.
This was great in theory, but not in practice. Seavey remembered, “The high winds caused the trail line delivery, even with the heavy weather weight bags [25 pounds] to sail aft and twice get fouled in the rigging. We backed off, discussed the situation and decided to try using the Danforth anchor, which worked.”
Uniquely able to land on water, the HH-3F kit included a Danforth anchor (similar to a small recreational boating anchor) with a half-inch line. The aircrew used this as an improvised trail line and it worked perfectly, with one exception that would trigger problems later in the rescue.
Currier could now use the fishing vessel’s radio antenna and momentary glimpses of the superstructure for visual reference. Seavey conducted four hoists with assistance from Warren, lifting Terry T’s crewmembers in the basket two-at-a-time. This was unusual, but necessary due to fuel concerns, the need to hoist everyone before the trawler sank and the difficulty of landing the basket on the vessel.
Abair added, “While a series of 10 one-man-hoist evolutions could have been successful, it would have more than doubled the difficulty of the rescue and would have likely resulted in loss of life.”
Between hoists, Warren moved survivors aft in the cabin and provided them blankets. Seavey gratefully described Warren’s efforts: “He assisted me during the hoists, was helping out without having to be told what I needed. He anticipated what I needed. He was the extra set of hands getting the rescue basket into the cabin and then clearly directed the survivors to the back of the cabin.”
Throughout the harrowing rescue, Abair served at the safety pilot. As a direct commission aviator and former Marine Corps pilot, Abair continuously scanned instruments to ensure the HH-3 was operating normally and the flight instruments to ensure safe altitude and wave clearance–occasionally coming on the controls to assist. He conveyed critical information effectively in a very dynamic environment without interfering with Seavey’s conning commands. The crew later commended his masterful job.
As the basket was lowered a fifth time to pick up the two remaining men, a huge wave hit the flooded stern of the Terry T. The wave knocked the men – brothers and master and the engineer, Roland and Brian Farland – into the water downwind of the helicopter and the scalloper.
“I had one hand on the basket and one hand on my brother,” Farland said. With the turbulent seas threatening the two crew, and the ship drifting down upon them, Currier had to reposition the HH-3F over the two men with only conning commands from Seavey to guide him. With Seavey’s instructions, Currier demonstrated extreme skill and daring and maneuvered the basket into a position in the water so the two men could literally fall into it, and then lift them to safety, or so they thought.
At that point, the stern of the boat began to sink. Seavey had the basket and two men about two-thirds of the way from the boat deck to the helicopter. Suddenly, he realized, without the aircrew’s knowledge the fisherman had tied the trail line to the pilothouse rail. The helicopter was tied to the boat by the anchor line.
Seavey shouted, “We’re tied to the boat, we have problems here.” Currier and Abair assessed the sea state then carefully descended from their hoisting altitude between 40 and 25 feet creating slack in the trail line and allowing Seavey and Warren to bring the basket into the door. At 25 feet, Seavey witnessed wave tops level with the helicopter on either side of him. At once, Seavey cut the anchor line with a knife and immediately conned, “Up, up, up,” for the helicopter to climb.
After completing the hoists, it took about five minutes to secure the cabin. Warren assisted the captain and crew to the rear of the cabin and secured the basket, while Seavey secured the hoist, shut the cabin door and reported the cabin secured and ready for forward flight. Its decks awash with seawater, the scalloper was foundering as CG-1484 circled overhead. The flight mechanic and avionics technician administered first aid to the injured crew on the way home landing at 6:52 a.m. Throughout the mission, Currier and his crew showed exemplary skill and courage. Currier stated, “We got them off and got back. The helicopter was pretty beat up–they actually had to change the tail rotor because of overstresses.”
“It was pretty hairy,” said Roland Farland. He went on, “I just have to highly commend the Coast Guard for doing such a terrific job.” “It was blowing good,” said the New Bedford man, continuing, “seas were 30 feet and winds were blowing 60 to 65 miles.”
In a post-mission interview, Currier shared, “Visibility was about half a mile and it took us five hoists to get the 10 people off the boat. We had to hover over it for about an hour. The problem with a situation like that is that you have no point of reference. All you can see is the boat and water, and they are both in motion. You try to keep the helicopter as a stable platform, but it’s hard. I’ve been here three years and those were the worst conditions I’ve seen.”
Thirty-five years later, an older and wiser Vice Adm. John Currier reflected on that night, “This was not a solo pilot operation. This was a reflection of an incredibly talented flight mechanic and a solid co-pilot. Actually, I think that was my co-pilot’s first rescue mission after transitioning from the Marine Corps to the Coast Guard, and I think it was a heck of an eye-opener for him.” Currier added,
In the Coast Guard, we have some of the best rotary-and fixed-wing pilots there are. I can say that as the old Coast Guard aviator, but I’ve been around long enough in civil and military aviation to say our people are among the very best. They are challenged on a daily basis with missions that would be a big deal in other services. For us, they’re how we do business–night, offshore, poor visibility, terrible weather. It’s always single-ship, and it’s always single-crew. It requires skill, proficiency and individual initiative.
For this impossible rescue, Currier earned the Harmon International Aviation Trophy–the only Coast Guard aviator to earn this distinction. The Harmon Trophy is given for the most outstanding international aviation achievement in the preceding year, with the art of flying receiving first consideration. Currier joined other honorees such as Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Howard Hughes, Buzz Aldrin, and Amelia Earhart.
On June 21, 1991, 11 years after the rescue mission, Vice President Dan Quayle presented the Harmon Trophy to Currier at the Old Executive Building across from the White House. Currier’s name is inscribed on the six-foot-tall trophy displayed in a glass enclosure at the National Air and Space Museum. Interestingly, Currier was not originally notified about his selection for the award, which has historically been presented by the president. The 1981 Reagan assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr., wreaked havoc on the president’s schedule and the award presentation was overlooked. Six years after Currier’s selection, his parents visited the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, saw his name engraved on the Harmon Trophy exhibit and asked him about it. It took another four years of action by headquarters and the Coast Guard Aviation Association before Currier officially received the award.
Currier and Seavey both earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, while Abair and Warren earned the Coast Guard Commendation Medal with the Operational Distinguishing Device in a ceremony at Air Station Cape Cod. CG-1484’s aircrew collectively earned the American Helicopter Society (now the Vertical Flight Society) Frederick Feinberg Award–presented to the pilot or crew of a vertical flight aircraft that demonstrated outstanding skill or achievement during the preceding 18 months.
Retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier passed away March 1, 2020, from natural causes at his home in Traverse City, Mich. His ashes were interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in September 2021. He is recognized as the “Godfather of the Coast Guard’s modern HH-60 helicopter program” and received numerous commendations for flying and rescue work over his 38-year Coast Guard career. He held assignments as an aviator at Air Stations Cape Cod, Sitka, Alaska, Traverse City, Detroit, Astoria, Ore., and Miami. He held many senior leadership positions, including Chief of Operations and Chief of Staff for the Pacific Area, Commander of the Thirteenth District in the Pacific Northwest, Coast Guard Chief of Staff and finally Vice Commandant, the service’s second in command.
From 2008 to 2012, just prior to his tenure as vice commandant, the Coast Guard Aviation community experienced a horrendous series of aircraft mishaps that took the lives of 18 Coast Guard air crewmembers. This dilemma weighed heavily on Admiral Currier, but he was the right man, in the right place, at the right time when the service needed him most. The service was searching for a solution. Long fatigued and exasperated from attending memorial services, hearing eulogies and listening to the hymn “Amazing Grace,” he instituted a new focus on cockpit leadership, proficiency, risk management and a “back to basics” approach when it came to tactics, techniques and procedures. He did this through structured fleet-wide operational risk assessment and corrective actions that yielded a remarkable improvement in aviation professionalism and safety. These efforts added to his already robust Coast Guard aviation legacy.
The men listed below were rescued from the Terry T–four of the survivors were from the same family.
Roland Farland (Captain)
Elmer Beckman (Mate)
Brian Farland (Engineer)
John Santos (Cook)
Donald Capps (Deckhand)
George Altman (Deckhand)
Ronald Charpentier (Deckhand)
Stephen Farland (Deckhand)
Peter Farland (Deckhand)
George Johnston (Deckhand)