SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
On July 2, a U.S. Army Utility Helicopter-60 from the 1-228 Aviation Battalion at Soto Cano Air Base was dispatched to the Caribbean Sea to help locate two Americans, one Canadian and six Hondurans, which had last been seen June 30.
"We flew in a snake pattern for nearly seven hours and covered more than 450 miles searching for them the first day, but to no avail," said Chief Warrant Officer-3 Jay Hanshaw, 1-228 AB pilot. "The second day we could see the water currents shifting west as we flew in the grid and after hours of searching we received a call from the U.S. Coast Guard to examine a small vessel more closely."
With less than an hour and half left to search for the vessel before the U.S. forces would conclude the search the boat was spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard's HC-130 Hercules.
At around 8:30 a.m. the aircrew reached the coordinates and could see the passengers were frantically twirling their shirts over their heads, waving their arms and hoping they were about to be rescued.
"The people on the boat were found more than 30 miles outside of the search grid and were being pulled into a current created by a storm off the coast of Belize," said Hanshaw.
The aircrew of 1-228 would then hover over the drifting boat and prepare to hoist a medic out of the aircraft.
"We were hovering about 50 feet above the boat when I was hoisted from the helicopter on a rescue seat," said U.S. Army Sgt. Travis Mayo, a 1-228 AB flight medic. "The rotor of the aircraft was pelting us with water and swaying me and the boat from side to side. It even pushed the boat forward as if it were turned on."
The rescue seat used was about 35 inches high and had two-12 inch by three inch collapsible seats, with two retention straps inside of a bright orange bag connected at the top.
In order to not capsize the boat and cause further injury Hanshaw decided to gain another 30 feet in altitude and help stop the boat from drifting even further away.
"We have protocols for just about every scenario, but we had to figure out the best strategy to save the passengers because we knew they would be weak and dehydrated," said Hanshaw.
Mayo accessed the injuries of the nine crew members and sent the injured and weakest up first. The passengers hadn't eaten in days and were only able to drink rain water, which they caught inside of their ice chest.
"One of the females had hurt her wrist a week prior, so I examined her splint before securing her on the rescue seat and then I sat on the other seat," said Mayo. "She was scared and I wanted to ensure she was going to make it to the aircraft."
Mayo, physically exhausted, would be hoisted back and forth from the helicopter to the vessel another three times, before they decided to try a different plan.
Trying to use pin-point accuracy to place Mayo into the boat, it began to tax him physically, so the aircrew came up with a strategy to lower him into the Caribbean Sea and have him swim a few meters to the boat. This helped loosen the strain of the water pounding the vessel and its crew.
"I was then able to load the last six people onto the rescue seat two at a time," said Mayo.
During the nearly two hour rescue, the aircraft flew to the island of Roatan and landed with less than 30 minutes of fuel remaining.
This wasn't Hanshaw's first rescue, while deployed to Afghanistan; he flew a solo Blackhawk into a hot landing zone to save the lives of two U.S. Marines. After a narrow escape, where an AK-47 ripped through the side cockpit door, striking the ballistic cover of his helmet and imbedding shrapnel into his cheek, Hanshaw would vacate the area and receive the Army's Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery.
"Daily training ensures our aircrew members maintain the highest levels of proficiency and readiness for real world events, although you may never know when you will use this training, it's times like this you're glad you have it," said Hanshaw.