Hawai'i sailors help rescue downed B-1 bomber crew
By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer
The sailors of the Pearl Harbor-based destroyer USS Russell pulled off the first sea rescue of the war on terrorism yesterday, plucking the crew of a downed B-1 bomber on a mission to Afghanistan out of the warm, dark waters of the Indian Ocean.
Lt. Dan Manetzke is the skipper of the rescue boat.
The U.S. Air Force bomber went down about 60 miles north of Diego Garcia. It was the first time one of the supersonic bombers crashed on a combat mission.
The pilot, co-pilot and two crew ejected at 15,000 feet and parachuted toward the sea.
The Russell's Chief Warrant Officer Gil Kualii of the Big Island, and Petty Officer Third Class Tui Kalapa of Wai'anae, an engineer, helped bring the 505-foot destroyer up to full speed as it turned toward the crash area.
Kualii and Kalapa are among a only a handful of Hawai'i men in the Russell's crew of 332.
"But we are all 'ohana," Miranda said. "We're all from Hawai'i."
The Russell, a Navy P-3 Orion from Patrol Squadron Four at Kaneohe Marine Base Hawaii, and an Air Force KC-10 flying tanker also helped save the downed airmen.
The Russell lost radar contact with the bomber at 9:30 p.m. local time and got a signal from an emergency beacon, Miranda said.
"We immediately came to full power and approached the area where the aircraft came down, about 50 miles away from where we were."
The Russell arrived about two hours later, but couldn't get close to the airmen in the shallow water. "We had to go about six miles with our small boats to get to these guys," Miranda said.
"About a mile away, we saw their strobe lights flashing in the water," Miranda said.
Three of the crew members were found in life rafts.
But the fourth man, the co-pilot, was nowhere in sight. He'd lost his life raft as he parachuted and was supported only by his life jacket. His strobe light was jammed under his gear, out of reach.
Finally he was able to fire off a flare into the night sky and was spotted nearly a mile away.
Lt. Dan Manetzke, the Russell's weapons officer and the skipper of the rescue boat, put a swimmer in the water to help the co-pilot, and had all four on board by 11:50 p.m.
Four hours later, the four were safely back at Diego Garcia after being transferred to a tugboat.
In a satellite telephone call from aboard the Russell to reporters at the Pentagon, the pilot of the bomber described ejecting from the aircraft as "the most violent thing I've ever felt."
"We're all bruised up and have some cuts, but we're doing pretty well," Capt. William Steele said.
Steele said the aircraft began having mechanical problems about 100 miles out of Diego Garcia, which the United States is using as a base for B-1B and B-52 bombers flying combat missions over Afghanistan.
"There were multiple aircraft system malfunctions, which made it impossible to fly the aircraft," he said.
The crew turned the plane around and struggled for 15 minutes to get back to Diego Garcia for an emergency landing before making the decision to bail out, Steele said.
During the two hours the crew was in the water, there was no evident threat of sharks or bad weather, Steele said.
"The water was warm," he said. "It was actually kind of comfortable."
But the sight of the Russell's rescue boat was welcome.
"They were just as happy to see us as we were to see them," Manetzke, the small-boat commander, said during yesterday's call.
Steele promptly corrected the lieutenant. "We were much happier to see them," he said.
Manetzke's wife, Terry, used the satellite hook-up to Hawai'i yesterday to tell her husband "from all the families we are so proud of you for everything you guys have done, and I love you and miss you."
"I can say ditto to that," her husband said, after a pause.
Kualii wished his wife, Jennifer, a happy 16th anniversary tomorrow. "It's a long time to be away from family and friends, but I feel fortunate to be out here," he said.
The Russell left Pearl Harbor Oct. 25 and is scheduled back April 18.
"Merry Christmas," Kualii said.
Reach Walter Wright at email@example.com or 525-8054.