Retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander honored for 1986 Veterans Day rescue

The call came in early in the morning on Nov. 11, 1986.

A single-engine Cessna 182 that took off from Ann Arbor Airport in Michigan at 6:55 a.m. had crashed in the frigid waters of Lake St. Clair, nestled between Ontario, Canada, and Detroit.

The pilot, William Williams, 49, and his wife, Shelly, 50, were headed to New Haven when the plane's engine started having trouble and ice built up on its wings. William Williams, a University of Michigan physics professor and associate dean for research, radioed an air traffic control center in Cleveland, Ohio, to notify them of the issue and tell them he was turning back toward Ann Arbor.

The Coast Guard got word the plane had crashed at 7:43 a.m., and by 7:54 a.m. a helicopter crew from Air Station Detroit, including pilot Lt. Mark Feldman, co-pilot Lt. Jim Hubbard and flight mechanic Petty Officer Henry Thomas, were headed to the scene.

The navigation system on the Coast Guard HH-52A helicopter they were flying took a long time to come online. It was time they didn't have, so the crew took off before it was up and running.

Up in the air, they faced blowing snow and visibility of less than one mile. The rotor blades on the helicopter, which was not designed to fly in those conditions, iced up. The weather conditions got so bad that Feldman couldn't see out of the front of the helicopter, so he opened the side window to look out.

"The weather was horrendous," Feldman, 61, of Clearwater, Fla., who retired from the Coast Guard in 2003 as a lieutenant commander, said in a phone interview this week. "It was a bad environment for helicopters in those days."

The rescue earned Feldman, a 1979 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy with more than 7,000 helicopter hours during his career, a spot on his alma mater's Wall of Gallantry, which recognizes graduates for significant acts of heroic service. The academy recognized Feldman, and this year's other inductees, Vice Adm. Robert Nelson and retired Lt. Douglas Hlousek, both of whom were awarded the Bronze Star Medal with the Combat "V" device in a ceremony Thursday night.

Awarded Air Medal

Nearly 32 years ago, Feldman's crew was about to suspend the search due to the icy conditions when the flight mechanic said from the back of the aircraft that he spotted something in the water.

News reports from the time said the couple was rescued about 40 minutes after the crash, and that the Coast Guard HH-52A landed in three-foot waves. Today, the Coast Guard's helicopters can't land in water. In the mid-1980s, the Coast Guard introduced rescue swimmers, who are trained to pluck survivors out of the water.

Feldman saw that Thomas, the flight mechanic, was struggling to pull out Williams, who was well over 6 feet tall, and went to the back of the helicopter to help him. They then picked up the wife, who was 20 to 25 yards away in the water.

Seeing the husband wasn't breathing and was white in the face, Feldman performed CPR and directed the co-pilot to fly to the hospital about 8 to 10 miles away. By the time they reached the hospital, Williams had a slight heartbeat but hadn't regained consciousness. He died several hours later from a heart attack, Feldman was told. His wife survived.

Feldman was awarded an Air Medal for the rescue, and the helicopter he flew is now on display at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks.

Feldman said in an interview last week that Thomas and Hubbard, the other two men in the helicopter that day, deserve as much credit as him.

"With the training that we get, mostly anyone can step in and do what we did that day," he said.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Mont Smith, an experienced Coast Guard aviator, has never met Feldman but he thinks his Air Medal could be upgraded to the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded for "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight," or a Meritorious Service Medal with Operational "O" device, awarded for "outstanding meritorious achievement" in an operational setting. Smith, a past president of the Coast Guard Aviation Association, asked the current president to request the Coast Guard review Feldman's case for possible upgrade.

"Just getting to the scene of the crash would've been a herculean effort," Smith said by phone last week.

"I believe he is a very courageous man and I believe he made the correct risk management decision in an attempt to save a victim's life," Smith said. "He is most certainly deserving of being recognized for heroism at the academy."


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