Air Station Kodiak Helicopter Pilot Earns Distinguished Flying Cross

The Distinguished Flying Cross is America’s oldest military aviation award and none too easy to earn – it’s only awarded for remarkable acts of heroism.

Hess (left) with Capt. Mark Morin, commanding officer of Air Station Kodiak. ( Phto courtesy of Lauren Steenson, U.S. Coast Guard)
Hess (left) with Capt. Mark Morin, commanding officer of Air Station Kodiak. ( Photo courtesy of Lauren Steenson, U.S. Coast Guard)

South of Cape Cod, Massachusetts one February morning in 2015, a helicopter team from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod hovered above a fishing vessel stranded in nine foot seas and 40 mph winds with conditions worsening.

One of the pilots – now based in Kodiak – won a Distinguished Flying Cross Friday for his efforts that day.

Lieutenant John Hess received his medal before members of Air Station Kodiak and his family in the coast guard base movie theater.

Hess stepped onto the stage and described his experience that day, when the Coast Guard command center in Boston received a distress call from a man and his father caught in a winter storm. The two requested rescue after the ship had lost power and the storm had ripped away at their sails.

Hess named a number of challenges that arose during the mission, including the failure of the primary hoist control unit. The team used a backup hoist instead, the basket of which swung towards the second survivor’s head as the rescue swimmer strove to help him.

Hess described the obstacles that piled up against him and his team.

“First it was lightening, second it was the hoist failure and then it was the swimmer getting electrocuted, and then it was anti-ice failing and then we went home. It’s just like what’s next? It’s like I keep saying, the laws of threes. Things come in threes, but it came in fours of fives for us that day. You know, they all felt like challenges that we had to overcome. We got out there, so we’re at a high. As soon as we felt like we were unstoppable, something knocked us back down,” Hess said.

Hess called the flight mechanic, who operated the hoist, their keystone.

“Without him, we could not have done this mission. He opened the cabin door, his visor froze, his glasses froze, so now he’s down to uncorrected vision looking into the freezing spray. I mean, flight mechanics now… that can’t be easy,” he said.

He said one of the more strenuous moments came after the rescue on the way home.

“With the icing above us, our limited fuel, the inability to break out on an approach, just like Alaska jets coming in here when they have to go around because they can’t see, the ceilings were 100 feet above the runway with less than a quarter mile visibility – so that’s not very far. And all the blowing snow – it would be really hard to see anything. And then everything in the whole entire Cape Code area is covered in three or four feet of snow at this point. Just not a whole lot of landing options at that point. If you can’t land, you run out of gas.”

Hess said, had they failed to land, the backup plan would have meant flying to an island and landing on a beach. The situation never reached that point, and the two fishermen and the team all survived.