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U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Aircraft Locates Person Lost at Sea Off Hawaii

This inter-agency joint response demonstrated the best America has to offer. It included military, county fire rescue, and volunteer assets – both people and equipment.

It’s more common than some would think, but a simple paddleboarding excursion can often turn tragic. In this case, a lost paddleboarder’s plight cascaded into an inter-agency rescue mission – one with a positive outcome.

On August 5, 2021, about an hour after sunset, the daughter of a paddleboarder contacted emergency services as her mother was overdue off the coast of Maui, Hawaii. It was approximately 2000 and the call went into Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point located on the island of Oahu, some 85 nautical miles to the west. Within minutes, a multi-pronged search-and-rescue (SAR) effort was launched, as Coastguardsmen searched for a 51-year-old woman wearing a blue personal flotation device  on a white paddleboard.

USCG HC-130 circling above victim (Photo courtesy USCG Aux Flotilla 014-01-10)

The moon was just about at its peak darkest that night making sea surface visibility extremely arduous. One hour into the mission the Coast Guard Air Station alerted a Coast Guard Auxiliary team to prepare for a first-light SAR mission; this is standard practice for night and reduced-visibility searches. During the period before sunrise, the Coast Guard maintains a surface search unit in the area to provide confidence to the survivor, and to let them let them know not to give up hope and to indicate that they are actively searching for them – the reality is that it is hoped this will bolster their will to live while they are in such treacherous circumstances.

USCG Auxiliary Pilot Robert Emani (Photo courtesy USCG Aux Flotilla 014-01-10)

Coast Guard Auxiliary Pilot Robert Emami and Aircrewman Eduardo Vitorino (both volunteers) were notified that night. They quickly planned their mission and at 0530 would initiate participation in the search. Their equipment was a Piper PA-32-300 Cherokee Six, a certified USCG Auxiliary facility, that was assigned the tactical callsign AUXAIR5. The men obtained the most recent search pattern coordinates from the Sector Honolulu Command Center (SCC) and uploaded it into the ForeFlight Application on the cockpit iPad. They conducted a pre-mission briefing, a risk management assessment, then departed from Honolulu International Airport (PHNL) at 0625. Their flight took them from Oahu southeast approximately 80 miles, to the west coast of Maui.

At 0650, the On-Scene Commander (OSC), a Coast Guard HC-130H using the callsign RESCUE 1720, radioed AUXAIR5, held a safety briefing, and issued altitude assignments. AUXAIR5 was directed to maintain 1000 feet and RESCUE 1720 would maintain 500 feet. The OSC advised AUXAIR5 to keep a vigilant watch for air traffic, since additional air assets were also located within the area of interest.

Maui County FD approaching the victim (Photo courtesy USCG Aux Flotilla 014-01-10)

At 0710, AUXAIR5 arrived at the start of the assigned search pattern and met moderate to severe turbulence. Although the search area was in the leeward side of the West Maui Mountains, the turbulence at 1000 feet was significant. At the time, they could see the sea surface was choppy with whitecaps. As they turned back on the second leg, air turbulence and sea state improved, and within just a few minutes Aircrewman Eduardo Vitorino observed a paddleboarder, so AUXAIR5 investigated further. A positive identification was made, and Eduardo marked the location on the aircraft’s navigational system. The flight crew contacted the Sector Honolulu Command Center via Marine Band VHF and reported the location of a paddleboarder matching the description of the missing individual. AUXAIR5 commenced circling overhead providing acknowledgement and confidence to the paddleboarder that she would be rescued. They remained circling on-scene and oversaw the arrival of the HC-130, an MD520-N County of Maui Fire and Public Safety helicopter (Maui Air One), and a Coast Guard 45-foot response boat from Station Maui.

AUXAIR5 remained at 1000 feet while the HC-130 circled at 500 feet. Below them, at 0717, Maui Air One arrived on scene and rapidly deployed a Rescue Swimmer. The swimmer contacted the paddleboarder, and a rescue basket was deployed. At 0719, Maui Air One hoisted the victim and swimmer, delivering them to emergency medical services that had been staged on the shoreline.

USCG response boat recovering the board (Photo courtesy USCG Aux Flotilla 014-01-10)

Approximately 0725, AUXAIR5 vectored the Coast Guard response boat to the location to retrieve the paddleboard and paddle. By 0730, AUXAIR5 and RESCUE 1720 departed the scene. AUXAIR5 landed at PHNL at 0821, secured the aircraft and prepared a post-mission report. This inter-agency joint response demonstrated the best America has to offer. It included military, county fire rescue, and volunteer assets – both people and equipment. Most importantly, the simple “float plan” left with the woman’s daughter contained vital information on the paddleboarder, what she was wearing, the color of the paddleboard, and the geographic area where she was. This vital information undoubtedly contributed to saving her life.

For additional information contact: Larry Fletcher – Coast Guard Auxiliary Division Chief of Aviation at larry.fletcher@cgauxnet.us.

Shelomo Alfassa
Shelomo Alfassa is Director of Communications and a homeland security analyst for VIRSIG, LLC. He has worked in Public Safety for 25 years and has served with FEMA on several deployments as Deputy Commander of a national CBRN team (G8 Summit, the Atlanta Olympics, etc.). He is a member of the Government Affairs Committee of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM). He serves on an ASTM International committee on Homeland Security Applications and is a vetted member of the FBI InfraGard program. Alfassa has been a speaker at events such as the N.Y. State Emergency Managers Conference; ISC-EAST; and has appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. He is a Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in Jacksonville, Florida, where he is also a Sector Jacksonville Emergency Operations Center Agency Representative. Alfassa’s education includes a Harvard Business School post-graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business Strategy; a BA in Homeland Security and a Masters in Public Administration. He is the author of the book, “Essays in American Public Safety and Emergency Management.”

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