A father in his 70s and his adult son are recovering from a nightmare Sunday afternoon when their single-engine Cessna stalled and they were forced to make an emergency crash-landing into the Ocean about 30 miles south of Big Sur.
U.S. Coast Guard Pilot Chris Courtney and his crew of three, based at the Air Station near San Francisco International Airport, were sent on that rescue mission. They were joined by another helicopter crew from Los Angeles and rescue boat crews from stations in Monterey and Morro Bay.
Courtney told NBC Bay Area on Monday that in his 14 years of piloting, he has only faced one other downed aircraft situation like the one on Sunday off the Monterey County coast, and that one didn’t end well.
Sunday's wasn’t easy either – Courtney says a matter of minutes made the difference between life and death.
“We did a direct hoist, with a quick stop recovery of a 77-year old man, pulled him up and went down and got his son," Courtney said. "We pulled him up as well and just as we pulled him off the aircraft, it rolled over to left and sank just shortly thereafter. If we’d been there any later, it’s very possible that those two would’ve died last night.”
The dramatic rescue of father-and-son was Courtney’s third consecutive rescue mission on Sunday. His crew was called back to the Air Station for a quick fuel refill before drawing up a plan of attack, and flying 45 minutes south to make the rescue – and timing was critical. They were running out of fuel.
“We had literally less than three minutes to get this done," he said, "and we were able to save those guys and get them back to airport so your adrenaline’s definitely kicking in.”
Also in this case, Courtney said the victims helped save their own lives by equipping their aircraft with something known as a 406 Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB, which acts like a GPS.
“So when they ditched aircraft they were able to send a signal out to a satellite. That signal basically goes to a rescue coordination center. It lets rescue authorities know who owns that particular beacon, the aircraft, a phone number to call, and confirm there’s an aircraft or vessel in distress,” Courtney added. “It’s extremely important. It saves so much time. It’s your best chance to surviving if you are on a vessel in distress.”
After the rescue, father and son were taken to Paso Robles, where they declined medical attention.