It was a proverbial needle in a haystack: Four Philippine fishermen in a small outrigger vessel were adrift in the South China Sea, out of gas, food and water.

But on the second day Navy planes searched for the lost Maria Emelyn II, a P-3 Orion aircraft from Patrol Squadron (VP) Eight found the “Emily.”

“They were very fortunate,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Draeger, a tactical coordinator aboard the P-3 that located the fishermen April 9. “Big ocean, small boat.”

The fishermen, their fuel gone, became stranded on or about March 21. Draeger said they could radio a Philippine coast guard station at Palawan but after repeated unsuccessful attempts to find them, the Philippine government on April 6 asked the U.S. Navy to help.

The next day, VP-8 — a Navy squadron from Brunswick, Maine, in the western Pacific for six months to support the 7th Fleet — launched the first of four P-3 search-and-rescue missions from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Draeger and 10 other P-3 crew members — part of Combat Aircrew Seven — were on the third flight that lifted off midday April 9. Initially, the crew scoured a vast search area determined by the winds and current when the boat went adrift, Draeger said. The fishermen had no navigational aids but radioed the Philippine coast guard their bearings to the sun, he said. “We used that information to try and narrow down their position.”

A small Philippine Islander patrol aircraft, also searching, reported a possible Emily sighting. The coast guard told Draeger and others including aircraft and mission commander Lt. Cmdr. Brad Hickey. The search area shrank drastically — to 1,200 square miles.

It narrowed further when the coast guard radioed the P-3 that the fishermen thought they’d seen an aircraft.

The P-3 retraced its flight. With about an hour of fuel left, the crew spotted an outrigger. One person on the bow, another on the stern and two amidships “frantically” waved signs, he said. The P-3 crew knew it had found the Emily.

The Orion dropped 45-minute marine smoke markers and gave the coast guard station the vessel’s precise coordinates. The Philippine navy’s newest ship, the high-speed BRP General Mariano Alvarez — an ex-USS Cyclone-class vessel provided to the Philippines in April 2004 under the Excess Defense Articles Program — rescued the fishermen the next day, Draeger said.

A 7th Fleet news release said the boat was found about 60 nautical miles north of the Spratly Islands. The P-3 crew members didn’t get to speak to the fishermen, but when the Orion landed at Subic Bay, a Philippine coast guard officer and the Emily’s owner met them to express thanks, Draeger said.

He called the rescue a team effort: The squadron’s combat aircrews compiled 36 flight hours; P-3 maintenance support from Kadena ensured “all the planes launched in a very timely manner ... that they were capable of a long-range, high-endurance mission”; and the Philippine coast guard “was very proactive in relaying every piece of information,” Draeger said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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