Surrounded by debris, 850 miles from land, a merchant mariner floats and waits.
In December 1994, after years spent flying first for the US Army and then the US Coast Guard (USCG), Chris Baur was working as a criminal investigator for the US Customs Service (now US Customs and Border Protection). His experience as a dual-rated pilot proved useful in his work in covert operations targeting criminal cartels. He played different roles, sometimes selling aircraft, brokering the movement of narcotics, or uncovering financial fraud.
But he was also Capt. Baur of the US Air Force New York Air National Guard, so when he had a few free days that December, he went to Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base on Long Island, New York, to fly some night-vision goggle work in the HH-60. Little did he know he’d end up taking part in a historic mission that would test the limits of man and machine in one of the longest rescue operations ever recorded.
The Salvador Allende
On the afternoon of Thursday, Dec. 8, shortly after landing at the base, Baur was approached by the supervisor of flying. “Hey, I’ve got the Coast Guard on the phone. You guys speak the same language; why don’t you talk to him?”
The voice on the phone, that of a chief Baur knew from District One, the USCG’s mid-Atlantic region, relayed grim details: the Ukrainian-flagged Salvador Allende, a cargo carrier with a Merchant Marine crew of 33, was transiting from Freeport, Texas, to Helsinki, Finland, with a load of rice. Heavy seas had caused a critical shift in its cargo, destabilizing the vessel. With a 45-degree list to port, the deck awash in waves and taking progressively larger rolls, the Allende’s captain gave the order to abandon ship and began transmitting an SOS. Rescuers received the first distress calls at 9:30 pm. By early next morning, the ship had sunk.
The Allende’s last known position was about 850 miles southeast of Nova Scotia. The Coast Guard had launched a rescue mission, but those ships were still too far away.
“We don’t really have anything that can reach it,” finished the chief. “But you guys can refuel in flight.” Meaning: you have the range to reach this vessel.
Initially, there was to be no rescue. Then it was to be a search, and then Baur found himself being asked to fly on the mission. There’d been some intense deliberation at higher levels. Baur, accustomed to the Coast Guard’s rapid response posture and their ability to be “wheels in the well in seven minutes,” felt differently about the Air Force’s rescue planning protocols. He hastily packed an AWOL bag with a couple of flight suits and a toilet kit and then called his mother to say goodbye.
“Hey, Mom. Listen, I’m going out on a rescue,” he said, providing her with the location of any important papers she might need.
“You’ve never called me before with anything like this.” His mother sounded worried.
“I’m just being honest with you. This is different from other rescues,” said Baur.
“Well, if the weather’s bad, just don’t fly.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. I won’t.”
When Baur arrived at the squadron, they didn’t meet and brief as usual. He was met in the parking lot and helped into his survival gear, after which he climbed into the left seat of one of two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, their engines running. “I plugged my helmet in and asked where we were headed. The response I heard back was ‘Royal Canadian Air Force Base Shearwater in Halifax, and we got you a sandwich from the deli.’”
Baur would be copiloting for Lt. Col. Ed Fleming. Tech. Sgt. James “Doc” Dougherty, the crew’s pararescueman (PJ), and Senior Master Sgt. Rich Davin, their flight engineer, were preparing Jolly 14 for flight. Piloting the other Pave Hawk, Jolly 08, was Capt. Graham Buschor and his crew: Maj. Gene Sengstacken, Tech. Sgt. John Krulder, and Tech Sgt. William Moore.
Several hours later, Baur was at a Halifax Holiday Inn, where he met the “Yankees” (Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452), who would be their refueling escorts in the morning. “Do me a favor,” Baur asked a Marine pilot. “I’m gonna be up on 5696,” referring to HF 5696 MHz, the Coast Guard search-and-rescue (SAR) frequency where Baur planned to keep his radio guard and position reporting. “Monitor that for me. If I go in, get visual—and I guess tell my ex-wife the check’s gonna be late this month.”
“It certainly played through my mind about who was gonna come get me, if anybody,” says Baur. “I put stock in the Marines. I knew that if they were on the same frequency, they’d know where we were in case nobody else did.”
That night, the phone in Baur’s hotel room rang off the hook. If it wasn’t the mission planning cell with updates, it was the people he worked for at Customs asking him where he was and what he was doing. “What if something happens to you?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Baur reassured them. “It’s all gonna come together. It’ll be fine. See you bright and early Monday.”
When Baur’s phone rang at 3:30 am on Saturday, Dec. 10, it was the clerk at the hotel front desk. “The RCAF bus is outside waiting for you.”
How could that be? “What do you mean the bus is waiting for me? The launch window isn’t until—.”
“Oh no,” she interrupted. “The launch window has been moved up.” How the hell does a hotel clerk know when a mission time has been moved up? Baur hung up and put on his flight suit. As he was ready to leave the room, he saw his AWOL bag on the bed. He froze in the open doorway: Do I take the bag with me because I’m not coming back, or do I leave the bag here because I am coming back? If I leave the bag here and I don’t come back, that means one of my friends will have to deal with it. Finally, he decided, **** it, I’m gonna come back. He closed the door and headed out.
The crew received their mission briefing at Base Shearwater where the planning cell had worked through the night to orchestrate a rescue plan. Guidance was firm: the helicopter was not a search asset but a rescue platform. The HH-60 crews were prohibited from going beyond the turnaround time, refueling at night, or using their night-vision goggles (NVG). They were to fly to a set of coordinates where they could expect to find the Salvador Allende survivors in white wooden lifeboats and join the crews of an RCAF CP-140 Aurora and a Coast Guard HC-130 from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, already on scene.
Baur had enough time to eat lukewarm scrambled eggs during the brief before the crews were dropped off at their aircraft. They started up, taxied, and took off into a snowstorm. It was 90 minutes before sunrise.
Visibility was terrible. They couldn’t see anything through the clouds and snow, so Baur “painted” the coastline with the Pave Hawk’s radar before deciding to extend and lock the refueling probe into position, recommending the same for wingman Buschor. “There’s nothing in the manual that says you can’t fly with it extended,” says Baur. “If you get low on fuel but suddenly you can’t get the probe extended, it’s close to impossible to refuel because of the proximity of the rotor blades to the refueling hose.”
On they flew, now with a roaring 70 kt. tailwind. The blade-deicing system was working on Baur’s aircraft but failed on Buschor’s, posing an extra challenge. They began accumulating ice and climbed above the weather. Sometime after sunrise, a Marine KC-130 arrived for the first of many refueling operations. Once at the survivor extraction point, they needed to descend again, immediately reaccumulating ice. At their request, the Marines scouted ahead and discovered an opening in the cloud deck. “It reminded me of the Millennium Falcon, the way that KC-130 dove down through the hole in the clouds with the hoses out,” says Baur. “We dove in after and followed them through.”
But below, the weather was treacherous. The ceiling was low, ragged, and overcast with poor visibility and rain. They encountered massive, 30 ft. sea swells, and the wind was a strong 50 kt. More bad news: Baur radioed the Aurora pilot already on scene but was told the crew had no knowledge of where the Ukrainians were waiting in their lifeboats.
Drawing on his past Coast Guard experience, Baur recommended working a parallel search. “We were observing a fuel slick and debris. My plan was to create a creeping line search on both sides of the debris and fly up the current.” The Marines were willing to join and search with them until they went bingo fuel—meaning they’d reached their minimum fuel levels and had to return to base.
Gradually, they noticed the debris field was changing. They were seeing parts of a ship: wooden pallets, furniture, and paper. The wind was strong, but the current was consistent; deep blue water from the Gulf Stream, snaked with tendrils of whitecaps and surf. This gave them a clear direction to search, but it was well past the turnaround time. By 12:30 pm, they’d already searched hundreds of miles beyond the extraction point.
“We decided to continue searching, even if it meant disobeying orders. We’d been told not to search and to turn around no later than 12:30 local, but we made an ethical choice to continue in order to save human lives,” says Baur.
Just as they were getting light on fuel again, Rich Davin, Baur’s flight engineer, called out. “Hey, there’s some debris over there waving at us!”
“And that’s when we saw this guy, waving his arm like he’s hailing a cab in Manhattan, not in a debris field in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Baur. “His name was Alexander Taranov. That was the first time we met. I would come to know him better.”
From the Pave Hawk’s right seat, Fleming controlled the hoist while Baur monitored the aircraft torque, engine RPM, sea state, and radios from the left seat. Suddenly, Fleming entered into a hover in the trough between the 30 ft. swells. “The next thing I know, Doc was jumping out of the aircraft and swimming toward Taranov,” says Baur.
While Fleming was focused on holding the hover, Baur watched “a wave like in the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0 coming right at us.” Backing up Fleming, Baur verbalized the threat and pulled up sharply on the collective. They departed the hover, orbiting to a safe distance while observing the PJ and the survivor until Doc signaled for the hoist and watched as Doc helped Taranov into the hoist. Doc would then wait below to be hoisted by Davin.
“Hey, there’s sharks in the water! They’re eating the Ukrainians,” radioed Krulder, the wingman’s flight engineer. “They’re treating them like a buffet line.” Baur cut Fleming’s radio, sparing him the details as he worked. The Allende survivors had lashed themselves together using ropes or belts. As one shark came up for a strike, it would pull the others under. Then a body part would bob to the surface. There wasn’t much left.
With everyone safely back in the aircraft, Baur asked Davin to put a headset on Taranov so he could talk to him. “I wanted to find out more about who was with him, how many survivors there were, and if we were searching in the right area. Part of me didn’t want to tell Taranov about the sharks,” says Baur. “We would find out later, through a translator, that Taranov had had his own encounter and didn’t want to tell us about the sharks.”
Another quick discussion ensued: Should they put Doc back in the water to gather any remains? Absolutely not, they decided. It made no sense. Baur agreed and radioed one of the nearby searching ships, rolling and listing in the heavy seas. As the captain of that ship struggled to keep his vessel upright, members of his crew were casting over hooks and lines in an effort to gather the bobbing remains. “I thought that was probably the best solution,” says Baur. “I didn’t feel comfortable putting Doc in the water again.”
Taranov, 36, had survived in the cold North Atlantic seas for nearly two days wearing only a cloth coverall, two woolen sweaters, and an orange life jacket, sustaining himself with two cans of 7UP that had floated near enough to grab. His eyes were swollen shut from the sea and fuel. “He said he knew the Americans would come, and he never gave up the will to survive. Taranov was thrilled to be in that aircraft.”
Meanwhile, it was time for a rendezvous with another tanker, an MC-130 from Patrick Air Force Base, and another refueling. “The good news is that we now had a full bag of gas,” says Baur. “The bad news is that once we’d finished, the pilot radioed that he was bingo fuel, abruptly sucking up his hoses and leaving us in the middle of the Atlantic.” They were maybe 800 miles out to sea with four hours and 20 minutes of fuel and hundreds of miles from the original pickup location. They required a lot more fuel to get back to Halifax, and they had but a single HF radio link to civilization.
Baur got on 5696 and radioed the Marine he’d spoken to back in Halifax. “I need you, and I need you now. Given our position, we’ll need more tankers and fuel to reach Halifax.” Time passed. There was another discussion: should the Pave Hawks remain there as the on-scene commander, or head north to Halifax with Taranov, who needed medical care? He was hypothermic after being in the ocean for two days. An HC-130 crew from Baur’s squadron were on their way, eventually reaching the 60s and providing them with fuel and support before the sun went down. Then, the previous MC-130 tanker returned. “I thought you guys were bingo fuel,” radioed Baur.
“Oh, we figured out we had more fuel, so we want to search for the rafts for survivors,” replied the pilot. Time passed. The crews meticulously searched each of the bobbing, empty black life rafts deployed by the various fixed-wing rescue assets over the past few days.
“You know, there’s no gold nugget out here,” Baur radioed back. “We got one guy in need of medical attention. The other bodies we saw were consumed by sharks; they’re, uh … deceased. There are no more survivors; it’s time to go.”
Baur was adamant on that point. He knew they couldn’t stay out indefinitely. They still had to reach Halifax from the middle of the Atlantic. “This wasn’t some refueling exercise we were doing off the coast of Long Island.” They needed four tankers because the tankers needed fuel to get to them, plus fuel to give them fuel, and fuel to get themselves back to base. The mission would require 10 mid-air refueling operations for the Pave Hawks.
Finally, everyone agreed. It was time to head back. Once again, the MC-130 declared bingo fuel and departed. The 60 crews had benefited from a tremendous tailwind coming to the search, which meant flying into a vicious headwind while returning to Halifax.
At twilight, a second Marine KC-130 joined the HC-130 on Baur’s wing. Freshly fueled with just enough to reach Halifax, Baur decided to take a break and asked Fleming to fly. He’d had nothing to eat or drink since departing Halifax that morning. “I remember opening up this amazing RCAF box lunch containing a bottle of orange juice. As I drank it, I could suddenly see in high-def color. My vision had slowly pixilated into a monochromatic noise.”
Baur hadn’t realized how much the flight had depleted his blood-sugar levels. In addition, he’d been manually flying for 12 hours weighted down with his survival suit and gear in a helicopter the Army had designed for two-hour missions that lacked both automation and comfort. He donned his NVG and took control of the aircraft again.
Betting the Farm
They were 327 miles from Halifax when a storm hit them like a brick wall. They switched to IMC and broke formation. The Pave Hawks were picking up ice again. Baur’s 60 had a blade-deicing system, but it often failed, as it did now. He remembered an old deicing tactic from his Coast Guard days: fly close to the water’s surface and use the salt spray to combat the ice. “We were getting pounded,” Baur says. “There were times when I was moving up and down at something like 500 ft. a minute. I tried to climb, but that didn’t work. We were all over the place.”
Buschor radioed. “Hey, Chris. What’s your heading?”
“It really depends on when you ask,” Baur replied. The nose of the aircraft was shifting wildly, 45 degrees to either side of the direction of flight in the extreme turbulence. In the right seat, Fleming was struggling to don his NVG. “Can’t you hold this thing steady?”
As they flew, Baur recalls that his ground speed and the chance of reaching Halifax, Sable Island, or an offshore rig had now evaporated. They’d need another refuel. “I flew for another hour in that weather, conditions in which it was impossible to conduct a rendezvous and mid-air refueling.”
When Taranov wasn’t busy dry heaving, the turbulence was bouncing him hard between the deck and the overhead of the cabin. This poor guy survived a shipwreck, and now I’m gonna pulverize him in the back of the helicopter, thought Baur. At some point, Davin took a cargo strap and lashed Taranov to the deck. Baur would later find the back of his helmet covered with dozens of dents, the result of repeatedly slamming into the circuit-breaker panel directly behind his head.
Baur asked the KC-130s to scout another rendezvous area. They radioed back: “Hey, we just broke out. We’re at 25,000 ft.” To meet for refueling, both HH-60s and the tanker needed to find one another, homing in on radio transmissions and visually acquiring one another using NVG. “Two more things we’d been ordered not to do,” says Baur, remembering the brief. “Don’t refuel at night, and don’t wear NVG to refuel.”
“We can’t climb to 25,000,” Baur responded, fighting the storm for directional control. While his adrenaline was fading, his body continued operating on muscle memory. He recalls a number of thoughts: How much pounding can this aircraft take? At what point will the rotor blades just come off? “The experience was surreal.”
He flew for another hour on goggles, peering beneath the cutaways to the instruments. It required all of his mental acuity to keep the aircraft upright, and that became his only goal. “I didn’t touch the cyclic, and I was careful with the collective input. I didn’t want to overly stress the aircraft or encounter negative-G’s. I was just gonna ride this thing out like a cork. We continued ahead, determined to see who would win: us or the North Atlantic.
The Marines radioed an hour later: “Hey, we’re between layers at 6,000 ft.”
Alright, this is where we bet the farm, thought Baur. Performing a refueling rendezvous at night is challenging. They had to climb into the icing, find clear air to shed ice from the rotors, and find the tankers. A lack of moonlight reduced the goggles’ capability, but they desperately needed the fuel.
Leaving the marginal safety of the salt-laden air near the water, both helicopters punched into the belly of the storm, shrouded in ice and punished by turbulence. They climbed toward the break between the cloud layers, hoping to shed the ice and locate the tankers.
“Ultimately, we were able to rendezvous and refuel. And it was at that point we realized we were almost home free. Nothing was going to stand in our way of accomplishing the mission and delivering the survivor to safety.”
Eventually, they left the storm. Baur remembers flipping his goggles up so he could see the lights of Halifax. “My eyes were watery, not because I was crying but because they just burned so bad.” When the lights became more prominent, Davin brought Taranov forward to show him. “The emotion of it was incredible,” says Baur. “We felt like astronauts returning from space.”
As they approached, Taranov spoke. “America?”
“No,” corrected Davin. “Canada.”
Taranov seemed perplexed. “But you’re American? Why would Americans come all the way to middle of ocean to rescue me and take me to Canada?”
Finally, Baur landed. It had been over 16 hours since they took off from Halifax. “I felt like we had endured pure hell and fury but we’d accomplished the mission: that others may live. We pulled together and worked as a team to achieve the impossible, never losing focus, while successfully identifying and defeating the obstacles and challenges we encountered.”
Once the medical team had taken Taranov away for medical care, the crews had run their checklists and shut the aircraft down, Baur realized he had two new problems. One, he hadn’t been able to relieve himself for 16 hours. And two, he couldn’t stand on his legs or put weight on them.
The crew that met the aircraft helped him remove his gear and get out of his seat, but when they tried to use the door’s emergency jettison, the mechanism failed. “It’s a good thing we didn’t have to ditch,” says Baur, “because I probably wouldn’t have gotten out.”
Returning to his hotel room, Baur saw his AWOL bag sitting on the bed waiting for him, as if nothing in the world had changed. The pararescuemen took him out for dinner. “I remember falling asleep while eating pizza. The PJs helped me back to my room, where I passed out. I was wiped.”
Another Allende survivor, the second mate, had been picked up by the Japanese cargo ship Torungen on Dec. 10. While the air search was officially suspended Monday due to poor visibility, 10 commercial vessels continued their search into the night without success. The bodies of seven Merchant Marines were recovered. The remaining 24 were never found.
Taranov, with the help of a Reader’s Digest reporter, wrote letters (see image at right) to the crews of both Pave Hawks, thanking them for “risking your own lives to save mine.” He and Baur were briefly reunited before Taranov’s return to Ukraine.
In the months to come, the Pave Hawk crews were told they’d been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission. But Baur remembers someone pulling them aside as they were preparing to receive the medals. “The Pentagon decided that since the mission was flown in peace time, they couldn’t award a DFC to the crews,” he says. But they had to pin something on the crews; families and other loved ones had gathered to watch. Baur doesn’t recall what medal it was. “They just clipped it on. ‘HC-130 crews flew with minimal rest in bad weather to support some helicopters.’ That was the award narrative.”
In 1998, the crews were presented with the Medal for Valor from the state of New York. Two years later, the Air Force unceremoniously issued the crews boxes with Air Medals inside.
Baur went on to fly the HC-130 in the same squadron and retired in 2007 after 26 years of military service. He later became a senior captain at a major US airline and the president of Hughes Aerospace Corp., one of the largest air navigation services providers, recognized for pioneering NextGen satellite navigation with the FAA and ICAO worldwide.
A dual-rated ATP, Baur continues to fly helicopters, turboprops, and jet airliners today. He is recognized as a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and holds a BS from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, an MBA from Brown University, and an MBA from IE Business School in Madrid, Spain.