NORFOLK, Va. — The way Bryan Daniels tells it, he and his crew aboard the Joyce D didn't do anything special Wednesday afternoon. They were just in the right place at the right time when a Navy jet crashed 45 miles off the Virginia coast, leaving its pilot adrift and critically injured.
The fishermen never saw or heard the crash — the first sign of trouble came when two other jets kept buzzing them, Daniels said in messages faxed via satellite from aboard his ship, which is still at sea.
Daniels raised them on the radio. A jet was down, a survivor in the water — would he steam 2 miles west and check it out?
They spotted the tail section of the F/A-18 Super Hornet in the water and used it to guide themselves to the pilot. They came up to him and threw a life ring and rope, but the pilot couldn't grab it.
"Help me!" he cried.
He was having trouble breathing. Daniels worried the Joyce D might roll over him.
They tried again with the life ring and had him almost to the boat when Navy helicopters with rescue swimmers arrived.
"We hated to turn him loose, but they could handle it better," Daniels said. "I was sure glad. I won't forget the look in his eyes."
The aviator, whose name has not been released, spent about 15 minutes in the water before he was taken aboard a helicopter and flown to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, said Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for Naval Air Force Atlantic.
While the pilot was still listed in critical condition Thursday afternoon, "we're optimistic about his recovery," Kafka said.
The cause of the crash is under investigation. The pilot, from Strike Fighter Squadron 143, had taken off from Oceana Naval Air Station at 1:50 p.m. on a training mission.
The Daniels family has made its living through fishing for at least four generations, said Bryan's father, Henry Daniels of Belhaven, N.C.
The elder Daniels, 76, stopped going to sea in 1993 but remembers what it's like to be out there with fighter jets screaming across the sky.
"We've had them to fly over a couple hundred feet over top of us when they're practicing, but when one consistently buzzes over top of you, you know something ain't right," he said.
His 51-year-old son is not in contact very often because cellphone service is cut off about 20 miles offshore, Henry Daniels said. They communicate sporadically by fax machine. Late Wednesday, his son sent one.
"If you get a fax in the middle of the night, right off the bat you think something's wrong," Henry Daniels said. "I think this is the first time we've faxed him in the last couple of months."
Daniels is proud of his son and says he would have expected him to do exactly what he did.
"He's a good boy, but most all them boys out there are conscientious," Daniels said. "I don't think any man out there wouldn't have done the same thing."
After the excitement, the crew of the Joyce D continued on their way, Henry Daniels said — heading to New Jersey in search of bass and flounder.