ALM Flight 980 Crash and Rescue

CivSEA Project

ALM Flight 980 Crash and Rescue

             On May 2, 1970, John Dullighan, a Boeing Senior Field Service Engineer, was attached to HMM-261 aboard the USS Guadalcanal (LPH-7).  The ship was at anchor in the Port of Vieques on the island of Puerto Rico when a MAYDAY was heard from the cockpit of ALM Flight 980. 

            Shortly before 4:00 p.m. local time, ALM 980—a DC-9 traveling from New York to San Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles with 63 people aboard—was in serious trouble because of deteriorated weather.  Twenty to twenty-five knot winds, nine to ten foot seas, and rain showers that reduced visibility to as little as one mile, had caused ALM 980 to be diverted from San Maarten to St. Croix in the U. S. Virgin Islands.  The DC-9 ran out of fuel 33 miles short of her new destination and, for the first time ever by a commercial jetliner, a water landing was attempted.  The airplane landed hard in the rough seas, broke up, and sank in just a few minutes, but not before many of the passengers and crew had escaped into the water.

   At approximately 4:15 p.m., John departed as an observer aboard one of four Marine Corps CH-46F Sea Knight helicopters.  The flight of four HMM-261 aircraft, plus two more that departed 15 minutes later, flew 50 miles southeast to St. Croix, where they were instructed by the U. S. Coast Guard to stand by at Alexander Hamilton Airport.  The waiting was extremely frustrating for the Marines, as they felt they could have been and should have been searching for survivors.  Regardless of whether the Coast Guard was justified in its decision to conduct the initial phase of search and rescue operation alone, they had jurisdiction.

At 6:10 p.m., the six Marine Corps helicopters were finally asked to help with the completion of the rescue effort, as the three Coast Guard helicopters were now running short of fuel.  By the time John Dullighan reached the crash site, daylight was fading rapidly.  He later recalled the event as one of "murky visibility, anti-collision lights flashing, and real difficulty seeing people in the were afraid to even blink after you spotted someone in the water."  Three people were rescued from a life raft by one of the CH-46s, and another of the helicopters was responsible for the rescue of one unconscious man from the water.  Captain W. R. Logan went down into the water, and used the hoist to sling the unconscious man.  Logan remained in the tumultuous sea in near darkness until the unconscious man was safely aboard and the sling was sent back down for him.  The man was not breathing when he reached the aircraft, but the crew gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage on the way back to the airport. Upon arrival he was still alive, but his condition was unknown. Squadron aircraft continued to search the area until lack of light and fuel forced them to return to St.Croix, some with less than 400 pounds of fuel remaining—about 10 minutes of flying time.

            During the night, USS Guadalcanal steamed over from Vieques and took charge of the rescue operation.  The six CH-46s that spent the night on St. Croix were ready to resume the search at first light, but bad weather delayed their takeoff until 9:45 a.m.  On May 3, 1970, HMM-261 flew 57 sorties totaling 75 hours in the search area, but no additional survivors or bodies were found.  A total of 41 people were rescued by Coast Guard and Marine Corps helicopters, one of whom died within minutes.  Twenty-two people were never found. 

For their selfless actions during the search and rescue operation for the survivors of ALM 980, the Marine Corps aviators and crewmen were awarded Navy Commendation Medals.  John Dullighan was presented a Boeing Rescue Award for his participation, as were the aforementioned Marines.

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(page last revised 08/10/2003 05:01 PM -0400 )