To. Lt. Craig D. Neubecker, it was all just part of the job. Neubecker, who attended Cowley during the 1988-89 academic year, was the co-pilot aboard CG6031, an HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter called upon to rescue the crew of the sinking cruise ship Sea Breeze I on Dec. 17, 2000. The ship was taking on water 225 nautical miles northeast of Virginia Beach, Va.
Although Neubecker, a United States Coast Guard helicopter pilot, and fellow officers rescue thousands of people annually, this mission was unusual, to say the least. The Sea Breeze I had no passengers on board, but did have a crew of 34, most of whom could not speak English. It was going down in 30- to 50-foot seas and winds in excess of 75 knots. The ship was listing 20 degrees to starboard and in danger of sinking at any moment.
Neubecker, 32, the son of Esther and Whitey Neubecker of Winfield and a 1988 graduate of Central High School in Burden, navigated the more than 250 nautical miles to the scene solely by instruments and weather radar. The crew departed Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., and battled severe turbulence, wind shear, lightning, heavy rain, and zero visibility.
For their extraordinary efforts, the crew was honored at a ceremony April 27 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. as the Aviation Week and Space Technology Aviation Operations Laureates. The award was presented to the crew for the most outstanding operational use of aviation during the year. A highlight of the evening was meeting Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin and being inducted into the museum’s Hall of Fame.
The crew also was honored by the American Helicopter Society at its annual forum May 10 in Washington. Neubecker and crew were awarded the Fredrick L. Feinberg Award for the year’s most outstanding achievement in helicopter flight. The crew also received the Air Medal by the Coast Guard. It is the second-highest flying award in the U.S. military, second only to the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Tiger Alumni News asked Neubecker about the rescue, which gained national attention. Following is a synopsis of what he had to say.
Alumni News: What were you thinking when you got the call to rescue the cruise ship?
Neubecker: "When the actual call came in, I was talking to my wife Kimberly on the phone. She had called to see if I would like her to bring me lunch since I was on duty. The alarm went off, and I immediately told her I had to go because we had a mission. When we heard that there were 34 people more than 200 miles off shore in need of rescue, we all knew it was going to be a very tough mission, as a severe storm had just passed over the Air Station a couple of hours earlier headed out to sea in their direction. . . . Once we had their location, and had checked the radar, our worst fears were confirmed, as severe hurricane-like weather was directly between them and us. I said a prayer before we took off that the Lord would guard us and guide us and to allow us to rescue those who had called upon us."
Alumni News: Describe the scene when you reached the cruise ship? What were the weather conditions like and the mood of the 34-man crew?
Neubecker: "Probably the easiest way to describe the conditions is to reference the movie "The Perfect Storm." Although the movie doesn’t use the right rescue terminology, it did a great job of capturing the essence of what it is like to be out in those types of weather conditions. Getting to and from the ship was probably the hardest part of the mission. We had to use our helicopter’s radar to navigate our way through the weaker parts of the storm, which still left us flying through winds gusting more than 75 knots, which is equal to hurricane strength, not to mention the wind shear, rain, fog, lightning and turbulence that made some of the crew members on the second helicopter vomit. Several times the turbulence and wind shear forced us dangerously close to the sea below with its 30-50 ft. waves, and we feared a lightning strike, which could short out our avionics. That would have left us completely blind as the visibility was zero, and we were relying totally on our radar and GPS (Global Positioning System) to get us there.
Once there, it was kind of surreal. . . It looked like something out of a movie, but it was not, you are there. Neubecker's helicopter can be seen perilessly close to the bow of the Sea Breeze I. "Needless to say, the crew aboard the ship was in a panic, and when we did lower our rescue swimmer to begin the rescue, they immediately mobbed him in their panic. He had to literally fight them off, and even had to disarm some of them who were brandishing knives to make sure that they were at the head of the rescue line. Part of this problem was that they were a multi-national crew, and most didn’t even speak English, so they had broken themselves down into little clicks of different nationalities, all ready to fight the other nationalities for the right to be rescued first. Our rescue swimmer, Darren Reeves, handled the situation expertly. He disarmed them, and sent the ones with the weapons to the back of the line, making sure that the ones who cooperated were hoisted to safety first. He then loaded them two at a time into the rescue basket for hoisting up to the helicopter.
We usually only hoist one at a time, but we were afraid the ship was going to sink, so he sent up two at a time. Meanwhile, we had our hands full flying the helicopter as the winds and the waves pounded both the ship and the helicopter, and made it almost impossible for us to keep station over the ship. The waves were so high that they at times splashed the helicopter. "In all this chaos, we just made it our goal to stuff as many as we could into the helicopter. Never did we dream it would be 26; we were just trying to get 17, or half of the crew, so the second helicopter could get the rest. The inside of the helicopter is only about the size of a minivan or a Sport Utility Vehicle, and only has seats for eight in back, and two in the cockpit. But with our crew, we ended up with 30 in the helicopter, which turned out to be a record. It made for a very uncomfortable trip back, but they were just happy to be alive, and so were we, as the ship sank shortly after the rescue."
Alumni News: At any time did you think that this would be a doomed mission, especially after cramming 26 of the 34 into your helicopter?
Neubecker: "I never thought that it was a doomed mission because of my faith in God. I knew that God would look out for us, and that the crew of that ship was praying to be rescued, and that God was going to use us as the answer to their prayers. . . Once we got going, we were so busy flying, navigating and communicating that we didn’t have time to be scared. We all breathed a big sigh of relief when we landed, however, and I thanked God for getting us through it."
Alumni News: Do you and your crew consider yourselves heroes?
Neubecker: "No, I don’t consider myself a hero, as we were just doing our job, just like thousands of men and women in the Coast Guard uniform do every day. We just did it under some unusual conditions that got us lots of attention. The Coast Guard rescues more than 4,000 people a year, but you don’t hear about most of those rescues unless someone famous is involved, like when JFK Jr. was killed in his plane crash. And yes, the Coast Guard does mount that large of a search for every plane that goes down in the sea. You just heard about that one because he was famous. Although we are a little embarrassed that this rescue has gotten us so much attention, the positive side of it is that it lets the American people see what we do for them, and hopefully that will translate into Congressional funding so we can continue to do our job."
Alumni News: What are the names of your three other crewmates and where are they from?
Neubecker: "Lieutenant Dan Molthen was the other pilot, and he is from Maryland. Aviation Survival Technician First Class Darren Reeves was our rescue swimmer, and he is from Oklahoma. And Aviation Maintenance Technician Second Class Lorne Green was our flight mechanic and he is from Virginia."
Alumni News: After graduating from Kansas State in May 1993, what did you do?
Neubecker: "I began helicopter flight training for the U.S. Army, and flew Huey and Black Hawk helicopters for the Army for five years before transferring to the Coast Guard in July 1998. I left the Army because the Coast Guard offered the chance to have a real impact saving lives and doing missions every day, whereas in the Army, we usually only got to train for war, and flew significantly less than we do in the Coast Guard."
Alumni News: How do the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 make you feel, not only as a citizen of the U.S., but as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard?
Neubecker: "I was in our Operations Center preparing for a flight and they were watching it on TV after the first plane hit. I thought that it was just a civil plane that had accidentally been flown into the World Trade Center Tower, as the Empire State Building has been flown into twice, albeit by much smaller aircraft. I was then shocked when I saw live, a second plane, obviously fly directly into the second tower on purpose. The TV commentators didn’t even realize it had happened at first, but we immediately realized that it was a terrorist attack. "My blood boiled as I envisioned all those Americans who must have perished, and my rage increased when the Pentagon was attacked and I watched in horror as the towers collapsed. This was a deliberate act of war . . . this generation’s Pearl Harbor.
As a member of the Coast Guard, I am accustomed to being able to respond to those in need and help. But as I watched this tragedy unfold, I felt an overwhelming feeling of helplessness knowing that there was nothing that I could do to help. "We are now launching Operation Noble Eagle, which is the homeland defense of the United States. It will involve much tighter security of our borders and patrols of our nation’s coasts. While this mission is very important in preventing further terrorist attacks, a part of me wishes that I was still in the Army putting some of that wartime training to use. I would love to be the pilot flying the mission to punish whoever is responsible for the attack. Rest assured that we will bring them to justice, and they will pay for the blood of those American heroes who have died. "If there is anything good to come out of this tragedy, it is watching how the nation is once again coming together as One Nation Under God. I never thought I would see the day that such an attack could occur, but I also never thought that I would see the day when Congress would put politics aside, and stand arm in arm and sing "God Bless America," and stand firmly behind our president."
Cowley experience a positive one
Neubecker said he enjoyed Cowley very much, even though it was a short stay. "In hindsight, I wish that I had done the full two years there, but I left after a year when I was offered an ROTC scholarship at Kansas State," he said. "I had planned on going to KU or KSU all along, but my girlfriend Marci was still in high school at Central, so being young and in love, I figured that I would go to Cowley for a year, then she would graduate, and we would get married and then go to KU or KSU together." But the relationship didn’t work out, and Neubecker left Cowley early. "I really liked Cowley, and made lots of great friends," he said. "More importantly, the quality of instructors at Cowley were superior to most of those at KSU, where you usually only got a graduate teaching assistant for an instructor.
At Cowley, I was involved in the Act One drama club, and was the president of the Campus Christian Fellowship." One of Neubecker’s most memorable events at Cowley was when he saved the life of his drafting instructor Charles Hungerford. "He was choking between classes, so I did the Heimlich maneuver on him and yelled for an ambulance," Neubecker said. "A big piece of apple came out just before the ambulance arrived. Sadly, I have heard that Mr. Hungerford has now since passed on. He was a very good man and a fine instructor." Neubecker, whose brother Scott joined the Navy and is now serving aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz as an aircraft refueling chief, said he gets home once or twice a year. He visited Cowley in late summer. "I am constantly amazed at how much Cowley has grown," he said. "I lived in the ‘new dorm’ before it had a name, and now there are a bunch of new dorms, buildings, auditoriums, and no Tiger Hall."