HH-3F Pelican Medium Range Recovery (MRR)
The HH-3F Pelican was acquired by the Coast Guard in November 1967 to extend its offshore helicopter coverage to 300 miles. This aircraft set the standard for helicopters. The medium range, twin engine amphibian carried a sophisticated rotary wing avionics package, cruised at 120 knots, and was capable of reaching 142 knots. It had a normal crew of pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight mechanic, and could carry up to twenty passengers. At least nine USAF surplus CH-3Es and HH-3Es were purchased by the US Coast Guard to supplement their 40 HH-3Fs.
The Coast Guard's HH-3F Pelican was well suited for search and rescue, marine environmental protection, logistic and reconnaissance support, enforcement of laws and treaties, defense readiness and drug interdiction. The size of the aircraft, its navigational and communication equipment, and its range make it an efficient and reliable platform in all types of weather and over most terrain. The aircraft can seat 17 passengers and its side hoist can lift 600 pounds. Key features are its suspension hoist, hydraulically operated eight-foot ramp that may be opened during flight, in the water and on land; computerized navigation system; weather search color radar; and automatic flight control system.
To those who flew the Pelican, it was always a comfort to know that the water landing option existed, and could be trusted when the need arose. One advantage to a twin engine amphibious helicopter is the ability to operate with relative safety in close proximity to the water. During the Argo Merchant grounding and oil spill off Nantucket in December 1976, many of the rescue and recovery missions were predicated on the fact that if the lowering ceilings and dropping temperatures generated airframe icing at normal altitudes, the crews planned to fly just above the water with enough speed and altitude for a safe single engine landing if need be, but also low enough to take advantage of warmer temperatures near the water to stave off icing. While they never did have to resort to the technique, it was an amphibious ace in the hole to avoid running out of ideas and altitude at the same time.
In October 1980, the Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican, the service's medium range helicopter, was the primary rescue vehicle when hundreds of individuals, mostly senior-citizens, were plucked from bobbing lifeboats some 200 miles out in the Gulf of Alaska. This followed a fire on board the cruise ship Prinsendam and was one of the most successful maritime rescues in history.
Water landing rescues were not always possible, of course. At approximately 0400 on Saturday, 12 February 1983, a distress call was sent by the M/V MARINE ELECTRIC and acknowledged by the Coast Guard. An HH-3F helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, NC, piloted by LT Scott Olin, was immediately dispatched by Rescue Coordination Center Portsmouth. By the time the helicopter arrived, however, the ship had sunk, and 34 people were now desperately fighting for their lives in the frigid waters. As theH-3 hovered overhead, a rescue basket was prepared and lowered to the people in the water. Numbed by severe hypothermia, the men were unable to grab the basket and floundered helplessly. LT Olin quickly recognized that these victims could not be rescued with the capabilities at hand and asked RCC Portsmouth to make an immediate call to NAS Oceana to inquire if a Navy helicopter and rescue swimmer might be available to assist. Not normally maintaining a ready helicopter on weekends, the Navy recalled LCDR William Sontag, who quickly rounded up a crew including rescue swimmer Petty Officer James McCann. The Navy H-3 helicopter arrived on scene at 0605, and for over an hour, both aircraft positioned themselves to receive survivors. Petty Officer McCann swam to the point of exhaustion in 40 foot seas in his effort to save as many as he could. Conditions were so severe and the temperatures so cold that sea water on his facemask froze. Although only three persons were recovered alive, Petty Officer McCann was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic efforts. Tragically, a total of 31 crewmen perished.
In the aftermath of the Marine Electric sinking in 1983, the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program was developed. The Congressional Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee convened hearings to question why the worlds premier maritime rescue service was unable to assist people in the water. It became apparent during testimony the existing techniques and equipment were inadequate for rescue in such extreme circumstances as occurred with the MARINE ELECTRIC. Congress, therefore, mandated in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984 that "The Commandant of the Coast Guard shall use such sums as are necessary, from amounts appropriated for the operational maintenance of the Coast Guard, to establish a helicopter rescue swimmer program for the purpose of training selected Coast Guard personnel in rescue swimming skills." This new capability obviated the need for water landings, and the Pelican was subsequently replaced by the non-amphibious HH-60 Jay Hawk. On 29 September 1986 Coast Guard officials signed the contract papers to acquire the H-60 series helicopter to replace the venerable Sikorsky HH-3F Pelicans.
The Coast Guard H-3 Pelican helicopters were retired in the early 1990s. On May 6, 1994 the last Sikorsky HH-3F "Pelican" helicopter was retired from Coast Guard service, marking the end of Coast Guard Aviation's "amphibious era." During its career, the Pelican saved 23,169 lives and assisted 65,377 others. A common phrase associated with the H-3 was, "Only God has saved more lives."
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