Even with night-vision goggles, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Jackson could hardly see a thing as his Jayhawk helicopter hurtled through the darkness, on the way to rescue four stranded fishermen.
The U.S. Coast Guardsman had been dispatched on the sortie at about 5 a.m. Wednesday to hunt for the commercial fishing crew that ran their vessel aground in the Aleutians after the vessel's engine room began taking on water.
The crewmen from the 58-foot Kodiak-based Icy Mist were stuck on Akutan, 766 miles southwest of Anchorage and about 40 miles east of Dutch Harbor. They would ultimately be picked up by helicopter, but only after two attempts by different choppers that might have ended in disaster prompted them to abandon ship by shimmying down a crab pot cable.
But first, Jackson had to navigate his MH-60 Jayhawk the roughly 265 miles from St. Paul Island to the site through heavy, blowing snow and winds blasting at nearly 100 mph.
"The aircraft was literally flying sideways to the target, because the winds were horrific," Jackson said. "It was probably one of most turbulent flights I've had, and I've been flying for 16 years."
The mayday call came in to the Coast Guard at 4:38 a.m., relayed first through the vessel Arctic Fox and then the Northern Glacier because of limited communications in the area.
The Icy Mist was taking on water near Akutan, prompting its crew to intentionally run the vessel aground.
"They'd rather have it on the rocks and maybe save it than it just sink and be gone," Petty Officer Richard Brahm said.
A Coast Guard cutter and helicopters from across the region converged: an HH-65 Dolphin from Dutch Harbor, two Jayhawks from St. Paul Island and the cutter Munro, on patrol in the Bering Sea, were all dispatched to the area.
The first to arrive was the Dolphin, which buzzed in at about 6:45 a.m., said Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios from the command center in Juneau.
With the fishing crew still on the vessel, the chopper positioned itself a few hundred feet overhead and crept next to a cliff hoping to drop a rescue basket, Jackson said. But a burst of wind slammed into it and the helicopter plunged.
"The downdrafts and turbulence coming off the side of this mountain ... made them lose 100 feet of altitude in less than a second," Jackson said.
The Dolphin headed back to Dutch Harbor empty-handed. But at about 9:30 a.m., the two Jayhawks, including Jackson's, arrived. Conditions were slightly better there than on the way, but winds were still blowing at about 50 knots, he said.
Jackson also positioned his aircraft about 200 feet overhead to try dropping his basket. He didn't have much more luck than the Dolphin.
"Same thing happened with us," Jackson said. "Tail rotor kicked out, the aircraft kind of yawed, and then we dropped 100 feet and I pulled (with) everything the engines gave."
It wasn't going to work. The men needed to get off the boat, said Lt. Brad Anderson, operations officer aboard the Munro, which arrived at about 11 a.m.
"As such, the crew lowered a crab pot into the water off the stern of the vessel and they were able to get to the shore by lowering themselves down the line onto the crab pot," said Anderson, reached by satellite phone north of Dutch Harbor Wednesday afternoon. "By and large they shimmied down to one of their own crab pots and walked right up onto the shore."
The crew made its way up a hill, where Jackson's Jayhawk had a more clear shot at scooping them up.
But the winds were still whipping, causing the basket to trail behind the helicopter, he said. The crew weighted it down, to some effect, and was able to start loading the men at about 11 a.m. Twenty-two minutes later, the four men were aboard and on their way to Dutch Harbor, where they were examined but did not report any injuries.
The crew was identified as Dan Oliver, 45; Clint Packer, 43; Kevin Fisner, 36; and Terry Meyer, 29. Their hometowns were not immediately available.
What exactly caused the vessel to take on water was not known. The crew could not be reached in Dutch Harbor, and the vessel's owner did not return messages left at his home seeking comment Wednesday.
The Coast Guard was still deciding what to do with the vessel, which Anderson described as "well-beached" on the island. It did not appear to be leaking anything, Jackson said.
The 58-foot Icy Mist is based in Kodiak and is equipped for crabbing and trawling. The boat has participated in many Alaska fisheries including crab, salmon and herring, state records show.
"It's one of the best maintained in the entire Kodiak fleet," said Marty Owen, the city's harbor master.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589. Daily News reporter Elizabeth Bluemink contributed to this report.