Union Tribune

April 2, 2003

Overboard rescues 'fortunate'
San Diego-based plane is lost, but fliers found quickly


ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION After months of heavy flying and 11 days of combat, this aircraft carrier's good luck ran out early yesterday when a San Diego-based S-3B Viking plane slid off the rain-slick flight deck after landing and plunged into the Persian Gulf.

But all the emergency equipment and procedures worked and the two fliers from Sea Control Squadron 38 were rescued by a helicopter crew and were safely back on the Constellation minutes after ejecting.

It was the first mishap in 7,350 landings on the carrier during this deployment and was the first rescue for the crew from Anti-submarine Warfare Helicopter Squadron 2.

Both squadrons are based at North Island Naval Air Station.

The Viking crew Lt. Benjamin Folkers, the pilot, and Lt. Matthew Wilder, the tactical officer suffered only minor injuries, but were held in the ship's sick bay overnight for observation. Both live in San Diego.

The plane sank into 200-foot-deep waters.

The Constellation quickly resumed flight operations.

"While this is not something that we obviously like to happen, flight operations are ongoing and were continued 11 minutes after" the rescue, said Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello, commander of the Constellation battle group.

"It's regrettable when we lose the airplane," Costello said. "We're very fortunate and happy that the systems performed as they're supposed to perform.

"It's part of what we do out here and the investigation will figure out why it happened," he said.

The Constellation was midway through its nightly flight schedule when the twin-jet Viking landed at 5:10 a.m., on a flight deck wet from drizzle.

As the plane started to taxi forward, it suddenly veered to the left, toppling nose first off the port side of the flight deck. As it broke through the safety net just below the flight deck edge, the two crewmen ejected, shooting out of their doomed plane on columns of rocket fire.

The Viking has what are called zero-zero ejection seats, meaning that the fliers can safely escape at ground level and zero airspeed.

Capt. John Miller, the Constellation's commanding officer, said one of the fliers had "superficial burns" on the shoulder from the ejection seat's rocket motor. He did not say which flier.

As the Viking was landing, an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter was returning to the ship.

Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Kennedy and Lt. Matthew Szoka, the helicopter's pilot and co-pilot, said they saw two explosions from the flight deck and accelerated to get to the ship in case they were needed.

Alerted by the air controller that men were in the water, the helicopter crew found the floating Viking, but did not immediately see the crew.

"Then, one of the pilots came up on guard (emergency) frequency and said, 'Hey, if you can hear me in the helo, I'm right behind you,' " Kennedy said.

Szoka said he hovered at 70 feet while Petty Officer 1st Class Evan Diaz lowered the other crewman, Petty Officer 3rd Class Scott Wickland, into the water on the rescue hoist.

Wickland, 20, said Wilder was in his life raft but Folkers, who appeared to have greater injuries from the ejection, was nearby, kept afloat by the flotation collar on his survival vest.

"They were very happy for me to be there to help them out of the water," Wickland said. "I'm sure anybody would be."

Wickland attached the fliers to the rescue sling one at a time and Diaz hoisted them into the helicopter, which then sped back to the Constellation.

"From the time the survivors went in the water to the time we had both survivors on deck was a total of 17 minutes," Kennedy said.

In another mishap, the military said a Marine AV-8B Harrier jet crashed in a night training mission while trying to land on the Norfolk, Va.-based amphibious assault ship Nassau. The pilot was able to eject and was reported in fair condition after he was rescued from Persian Gulf waters, according to Reuters.