Just a few months ago, on April 22, 1998, a routine check-out flight of an F/A-18C from the USS Independence went wrong. The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Patrick "Voodoo" Voors, experienced a complete systems failure on his aircraft. As the plane went down, he was forced to eject into the open ocean. Miles away and with no catapult operations underway, the ship didn't have a single helicopter in the air on plane guard.
Nonetheless, it took just three minutes for one of the rescue helicopters to takeoff. In the meantime, another of the CVW's F/A-18s was guided to the spot where the plane went down by one of Indy's orbiting E-2C Hawkeyes. Flying fast and low over the sea, the pilot of the F/A-18 found the wreckage of the plane and then, on another pass, he spotted the pilot waving in the water.
The helicopter flew to the scene at top speed, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. George Whitehead of the Indy's HS-14 Chargers. Meanwhile, the other F/A-18 served to lead the way by flying over the downed pilot and wagging its wings as it passed overhead. Just twelve minutes after launch, the helicopter descended and put a rescue diver into the water. The pilot was pulled up and into the helicopter, with the rescue diver coming next. Because of the helicopter crew's fast reaction, no one was injured.
It was just the circumstance the crews train for. Lt. Cmdr. Voors may be a little wetter, but he is alive to accept his induction into the Caterpillar Club, an exclusive society of aviators who've bailed out and parachuted down safely to tell the tale. As for the crew of the helicopter, they've clearly earned their next promotion.