By Patrick Spiteri
The following is a write-up of an accident that happened over the Atlantic Ocean in 1984.
Mayday Mayday Mayday N5488R N5488R N5488R,
over the Atlantic 9000 feet, transit Azores to
St. John's, position unknown, two souls on board, heading West at 140 kts, lost all navigation aids,
running low on fuel, Mayday Mayday Mayday.
During our visit to the Malta International
Airshow many of the crew members of the Aurora were
busy talking to all the aviation enthusiasts that lingered around the aircraft. Of the many discussions
that the Maltese people had to offer was one of great interest to the Aurora community. A fellow by
the name of Michael Galea occupied the attention of most of us with a most interesting story of his
survival of a ditching in the Atlantic Ocean. He earned our attention by starting off with.....
......an Aurora saved my life, and I owe a lot to your community and your professional airmen.
It was 0100 Zulu on the 23 October 1984 that
Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) New York advised
RCC Halifax that a DHC 4 Caribou-type aircraft, call sign N5488R, was overdue for communications
with New York Oceanic controllers. Quick response by RCC Halifax acquired a datum for the
missing aircraft which was transmitting on HF frequencies. Moncton Flight Service Station was in
contact with N5488R and advised him to transmit on the standard frequency of 121.5 to ease the
search. 413 Search and Rescue Squadron from Summerside, was tasked and immediately briefed on
the situation. The aircraft commander of the stand-by crew was Captain Jim Caffray, who was one of
the original Buffalo pilots in the CF. He prepared his crew and took-off in the early hours of that
morning heading East at 7000 feet. His intentions were to climb to a suitable altitude after coastal
crossing and try to pick up any transmissions from N5488R. The air navigator was Captain Dennis
Johnson who, in addition to his normal duties, kept himself busy with both radio and radar searches.
Surprisingly, within minutes of coastal crossing they picked up good transmissions from the lost
Caribou aircraft. It was now 0645 Zulu. Fuel shortage was the main concern and it was ascertained
that destination was well out of reach for the Caribou crew. Direction Finding equipment on the
Buffalo indicated the troubled aircraft to be to the left of their present position. Maximum power was
now the only means of intercepting the Caribou's track. The captain of the Caribou was William
Mckay, who was described as being calm and professional throughout. He advised the Buffalo crew
that they had been flying on one engine since 0522 Zulu to conserve fuel but were now on their last
tank and were preparing the aircraft and crew for a controlled ditching.
William McKay and Michael Galea had been flying
together for quite some time and Michael had
earned a lot of respect for William's impressive flying career. William, often known as Bill, wanted to
fly with no one other than Michael on this particular long trip from Malta to California. After several
enroute stops the leg from the Azores to St. John's Newfoundland was the next to be challenged.
Little did Michael know that this was to be the turning point of his life. The weather was not helping
in the 'decision making' aspect that pilots are so well paid for! The weather was less than ideal with
high winds and convective systems to the North West of the Azores. The decision to go was made
influenced by the fact that Bill's daughter had been shot in an accident in the United States and he
was extremely eager to return home. The flight plan was filed and a departure was scheduled for
RCC Halifax was continuously being updated
with the progress of the Caribou. Captain Walley
MacKay, the centres' controller, decided to reposition a Labrador helicopter from 103 Rescue Unit
to St. John's Newfoundland. He also requested support from CFB Greenwood to have an Aurora
assist in the search. A crew that was preparing for another operational flight was retasked and
launched at 0610 Zulu.
During a lengthy conversation on VHF radios,
Captain Jim Caffrey covered all aspects of the
ditching procedures used for the Buffalo, assisting the Caribou crew in the ditch setup since the two
aircraft are very similar in performance and characteristics. Strong communications and good DF
signals, with visual weather pattern information from the Caribou crew indicated that the two aircraft
were now fairly close to each other with 1000 feet vertical separation. Unable to continue any further
on their fuel load Bill decided it was time to ditch the aircraft! The last transmission was made and a
'Good Luck' was sent by the Buffalo crew.
During the dark descent to the water things
did not go as planned, as multiple failures complicated
the setting-up of the aircraft. A main strapping holding the extra fuel drums broke during the descent
causing multiple breaks in the fuselage. A main line from the plumbing system made it's way to the
cockpit at an extreme force penetrating the pilots seat from behind. Bill was severely injured as the
line came to rest through his lower torso, but he insisted on continuing the ditch as Michael finished
the final stages of the check list. Nearing the final moments of flight, Bill ordered Michael Galea to
strap himself to the rear of the aircraft with a life raft attached to his arm. Seconds later the aircraft
hit the surface of the water, bounced into the dark night and split in half sending the nose of the
Caribou to the bottom of the ocean. Michael was thrown clear of the aircraft in the cold salty waters
of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Buffalo just broke out of the cloud base
to see the navigation lights of the Caribou only a few
hundred yards away to the right. Seconds later they disappeared into the dark night. Captain Jim
Caffrey made a hard right turn and marked the spot with a smoke marker. The time now was 0707
Zulu at position 4242 North 05547 West.
RCC now reverted from a search and navigation
mission to a rescue mission. Captain Wally
MacKay requested a surface plot from RCC New York of all shipping vessels in the area of the
ditching. A broadcast was also put out on the standard SAR frequencies. A Labrador helicopter was
launched from CFB Summerside to proceed to Sydney N.S. for refuelling and to stand-by for further
taskings. The Buffalo continued to search the area until the Aurora arrived. Coordinated operations
between the two aircraft continued until the Buffalo was required to leave due to their fuel situation.
Captain Jim Caffrey decided to proceed to Sydney to refuel and await further instruction for a
possible top cover tasking for the Labrador helicopter. The Aurora crew continued the search under
the direction of the crew commander, Captain Podrez and the tactical navigator, Major Don Jones.
It was still dark with fog conditions laying
at a 100 feet above the surface of the water. Michael
remembers regaining consciousness and realizing that he was no longer in the warm conditions of the
Caribou cockpit. The life raft was no where to been seen. There were a lot of pieces floating around
and surprisingly everything had traces of white paint - a result of the extra gallons of touch-up paint
coming open on impact. A money pouch carried to cover fuel and other expenses ripped apart and
ended up scattering $50 bills all over. By instinct Michael grabbed one and put it in his pocket. His
struggle to survive was severely hampered by the deep cut in the back of his head and the broken
ribs. The pain was unbearable. As he bobbed in a high sea state, he felt a sharp tug at his wrist and
within seconds his life raft appeared fully inflated nearby. Fortunately the tug was strong enough to
activate the inflating mechanism. Michael cannot recall how he ended up in the liferaft as he was in
so much pain and too tired to even pull himself in. This is not how he wanted to spend his birthday!
Major Jones, now the On-Scene Commander, set
up a rotation for the observers on the Aurora. The
radar was to be used on a 'continuous all around' policy with all returns to be investigated. The
Forward Looking Infra Red system was deemed useless due to the high moisture content in the air.
The aircraft was equipped with a Survival Kit Air Dropable (SKAD) which could be used if any
survivors were spotted in the water without a life raft. Sergeant Ken Bedford was at his station
searching in the dark seas for anything that would be worth noting to aid in the rescue of a fellow
aviator. The Aurora was in the immediate area where the ditching took place so the crew put in an
extra effort to comb the area. Multiple para-flares were dropped and the aircraft's landing lights
were also put to use to search the area. All ears were tuned on to the SAR frequencies hoping to hear
a distress message from the downed aircraft that they could DF. Or maybe even see a signal flare.
The crews efforts were severely hampered by low clouds, fog and darkness. At 1001 Zulu Sergeant
Bedford depressed the On-Top button and reported seeing a faint light going down the left side of the
aircraft about one quarter of a mile away. The position was put into the navigation systems and a
revisit revealed a life raft with a survivor on board. - Michael Galea.
The freighter vessel TFL Enterprise responded
to the broadcast put out earlier and was already on
scene responding to the distress message. The Aurora crew contacted the surface vessel, which was
only 4.2 nm away and vectored it to the position of the life raft. RCC Halifax was given an update of
the findings and advised that they were going to continue with the search for the other crew member
while assisting the TFL Enterprise with the recovering of the survivor. Once in the immediate
vicinity, members of the TFL Enterprise attempted to pick up Michael with one of their lifeboats.
Unfortunately the propeller on the boat failed to operate properly and the crew was forced to row to
the survivor delaying the process considerably. Several members of the crew pulled Michael out of
the life raft onto their boat. They then punctured the life raft and sank it as per the instructions given
to them by the Aurora crew. This is usually done to avoid misleading information of other life rafts in
the area. At 1128 Zulu Michael was on board the TFL Enterprise and was taken to the ship's hospital
room below deck for treatment. The TFL Enterprise crew was in constant contact with the Aurora for
instructions. They were instructed to use an HF frequency to contact the Victoria General Hospital
and speak directly with a doctor for medical advice. The vessel was tasked to investigate other
objects in the area which turned out to be empty fuel tanks and other debris.
The Labrador helicopter was tasked to depart
Sydney, refuel on the oil rig Rowan Gorilla then
proceed to the ditch area to hoist the survivor, while the Buffalo out of Sydney was to carry out top
cover duties for the Labrador. The Aurora aircraft continued search operations until fuel conditions
dictated the off station time. The relief aircraft was briefed over VHF radios and the transit to
Greenwood, after a very rewarding mission, was initiated at 1315 Zulu.
The Labrador helicopter, call sign Rescue 311,
proceeded to the TFL Enterprise to hoist the survivor
then continue to Halifax. Captain Steve Teatro along with his copilot Captain Scott Miller, Flight
Engineer Master Corporal Brian Whitehead and two SAR Techs flew the long awaited leg from the
oil rig to the surface vessel that was attending to the Caribou pilot. Upon arrival at 1445 Zulu,
Captain Teatro circled the vessel several times in an attempt to select the best spot to lower the
Lead SAR Tech, Sergeant Ted Miller. The winged walkway that extended off the side of the bridge
was selected as the ideal spot for the hoisting. As the helicopter was being positioned the Flight
Engineer and Lead SAR Tech were preparing for the hoist. The intercom was disconnected and the
lowering began. Due to the sea state and unstable conditions the task of keeping the helicopter
stable was extremely challenging, in fact during the first hoisting attempt the rotor blades of the
Labrador contacted and severed the vessels HF antenna in two. The next approach was successful
and Sergeant Miller was escorted to the ships infirmary where Michael Galea lay. The second SAR
Tech to be lowered was Master Corporal Mike Maltais. This was his first operational recovery over
water. The crew commander decided that it would be best if they lowered him at the bow of the
vessel. This was carried out leaving Master Corporal Maltais with an obstacle course to challenge
while carrying a stokers litter to the ship's infirmary. Michael was prepared for the hoist, which was
to take place in the aft of the freighter ship putting the Labrador in the downwash and exhaust,
forcing the crew to test their skills to the max! A successful hoist was carried out and the Labrador
proceeded enroute to Halifax via the oil rig Sedco 709, for their final refuel for the day.
Michael Galea thought he had a rough day up
to this point and was now in safe hands on his way to
Halifax. After refuelling the aircraft and considering the fact that there was no top cover, since the
Buffalo had to return to Sydney for fuel, Captain Teatro decided to proceed to Halifax because of the
severity of the patients condition. The air power unit was not functioning properly so a battery start
was required. This was successful but an indication of a battery temperature condition illuminated.
Maintaining a steady temperature and knowing the cause the crew continued enroute. Approaching
100 miles from land a massive malfunction of the hydraulic boost system occupied the attention of the
crew. Captain Teatro, while dealing with the situation, instructed the crew to prepare for a possible
ditching and to set a life raft by the side exit of the helicopter. A Mayday was transmitted and
assistance from a nearby Aurora vectored them to East Jeddore N.S., the closest point of land. The
Buffalo crew heard the Mayday call and immediately got airborne despite the fuel bowser breaking
down next to the aircraft. Fortunately the Labrador made it safely to a ball field were it settled and
awaited a Sea King helicopter to transport Michael Galea to Halifax. Aid from the Buffalo allowed
the Sea King to find the downed Labrador in minimum time and within 30 minutes the patient was on
his way to Halifax. Michael Galea was sure that within a few minutes he would be resting in the
Victoria General Hospital, yet another problem arose. The Sea King aircraft is too heavy to land on
the helicopter pad at the hospital and the fog in Halifax did not allow for a field landing, thus the crew
recovered in CFB Shearwater and Michael was transported by ambulance.
The search continued for the other pilot. The next morning at 0105 Zulu the case was closed.
Michael Galea recovered in Halifax and after
a short stay in Canada returned to Malta. As far as he
was concerned, and to please his family, his flying career was over. Michael's only memorabilia of
the whole ordeal is his admiration for the courage and dedication shown by the rescue personnel and
the $50 note that he picked up while laying in the cold waters of the Atlantic. During his return to
Malta the note was stolen from him while seeking change from a bystander!
I promised Michael that I would look into the
incident and acquire some information for him upon my
return to Canada. It took 10 months of work to track down documentation and all those involved in
the saving of his life. Now completing my research one can see the rewarding effect of our existence -
the Canadian Forces. Michael Galea expressed his deepest regards to all those members involved in
the search and rescue efforts of that night of the 23 October 1984.
Note - Patrick Spiteri is currently
flighting A-320's for Air Canada. N5488R (DHC-4A) was built by
DeHavilland serial number 216 and delivered to the Zambian Air Force in June, 1965. At the time of
accident N5488R was owned by New Cal Aviation Inc.
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