Amazing Aviation Tales: Miracle in the North Sea, Part 2

[When we left off, Keeney and his wingman had just arrived at the last known location of the downed pilot in the North Sea …]

Keeney knew it would be difficult to find the downed pilot amid the 12-foot swells below, and he didn’t realize yet that the pilot wasn’t in his life raft, making for an even smaller target. A stiff wind whipped up white caps on the waves that masked smaller floating objects, including those of human size, and made it difficult to pick out even larger objects.

Keeney told his wingman to stay at a high altitude to conserve fuel, and then dove to less than one thousand feet above the water to search for a tiny fleck bobbing in the sea. It was akin to standing on a tile floor covered with ground pepper and looking down for a broken piece of lead from a mechanical pencil that had fallen into the fray.

And although no one knew it, things were getting worse by the minute for the downed pilot. The force of the ejection had ripped away his flight boots and the rubber “booties” that were part of his Anti-Exposure Suit, and 50-degree water was wicking its way up the suit’s flannel liner. He was rapidly losing feeling.

Despite the odds against finding the pilot, Keeney had one thing going for him – the weather was unusually clear that day. Also lucky for the downed pilot, Keeney’s call sign (nickname) was “Keeneyes,” a reference to both his last name and his unusually good eyesight. As he searched, a tiny dot suddenly jumped out from the sea foam and white caps, and when he flew closer, he realized he was looking at the pilot. But he also realized that he didn’t see a raft, and he feared the pilot was already dead. But, unwilling to leave behind a fellow airman no matter his fate, Keeney and his wingman kept a visual on the dot, and within a few minutes, he U.K. controllers had vectored a C-130 overhead, followed by a rescue helicopter, which plucked the pilot to safety using a parajumper lowered on a sling. [Click here to read more about parajumpers]

Many things went wrong that day for the downed pilot, but just enough things went right to keep him from becoming another accident statistic. From the F-5 pilots who stayed with him long enough for the U.K. controllers to pinpoint his position to Keeney for declaring an emergency takeoff that let him and his wingman arrive at the scene quickly for continuity to the helicopter crew that eventually pulled the pilot from the waters, there are plenty of heroes in this story. But one has to also wonder if the downed pilot didn’t also have a guardian angel that day, someone somehow tapping Keeney on the shoulder and guiding his eyes to the lone speck that mattered most among the mosaic sea below. Clearly he did, but we cannot forget the skills of those involved. Both Keeney and one of the Aggressors had learned search and rescue procedures from previous A-7 Sandy assignments in Southeast Asia, and the U.K. radar controllers were highly proficient in giving precision vectors that sent the flow of aircraft to the pilot.

And what happened to the reporter who had just witnessed probably one of the most amazing stories in his life? Keeneyes confiscated all of the reporter’s film to use in the upcoming accident board, and, being very cooperative, he never filed a story on the event.