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Remembering Air Station Cape Cod's only fatal helicopter crash

By DOUG FRASER | Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. | Published: February 14, 2019

JOINT BASE CAPE COD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — It will be 40 years to the day Monday that Yvonne Kaehler opened the door of the Mashpee home she shared with her husband, Bruce, to find the chaplain and base commander waiting on her doorstep.

"Of course you know what's going to happen when the chaplain's standing there," Kaehler said.

Bruce Kaehler was a rescue swimmer who had been in the Coast Guard for about nine years. Rescue swimmers are a tough breed. They leave the relative safety and warmth of a hovering helicopter to plunge, feet first, into the water, sometimes in towering seas far from shore, with little more than a drysuit, flippers and mask to rescue those in distress.

"He loved helping people," said Kaehler's sister, Mary Beth Kaehler Solano.

Kaehler and three other crew members would never return from a rescue mission that took place the night of Feb. 17, 1979, and into the next morning. Coast Guard helicopter 1432 was 180 miles southeast of Cape Cod, trying to lift an injured crewman off a Japanese fishing vessel, when it inexplicably dropped into the sea and flipped over.

"We're going down," the sole surviving crew member, Mark Torr, recalled Lt. Cmdr. James Stiles saying in an interview with the Times in 1999.

Torr was unable to make the ceremony Wednesday commemorating Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod's only fatal crash, but relatives of other crew members and 14 or more who worked at the air station 40 years ago were in the audience as current Coast Guard personnel assembled in the hangar under the long arching blades of an HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter.

"We are all humbled and honored by your presence," the air station's commanding officer, Capt. Scott Langum, told family, friends and shipmates of Torrs, Stiles, Kaehler, John Tait and Canadian Forces Capt. George Burge. "We want you to know that your sacrifice, your service and your loss has not been forgotten."

"It's our duty, it's this pact we have with the American public," said Rear Adm. Andrew Tiongson, commander of the 1st Coast Guard District.

Langum said it was snowing, with 30 knot winds and waves in excess of 20 feet, when the helicopter crew made its third attempt to find the fishing vessel in the early morning hours.

"You have more technology in your cellphone than we had in those helicopters," said former Coast Guard pilot Larry Post, who flew fixed-wing aircraft such as the old Grumman HU-16 Albatross.

"That is probably the most dangerous flying of any in the military," Post said of hovering close to a stricken vessel, 50 to 75 feet above an angry sea, with blinding snow and wind, waves passing close below and the red mast light of the vessel dancing up and down, side to side in front of you.

"It takes all of your skill just to keep it hovering," Post said.

Stiles had plenty of skill. A 13-year veteran at age 33, he had earned the Coast Guard's Distinguished Flying Cross and been named Helicopter Pilot of the Year. But the helicopter inexplicably lost power and then flipped in heavy seas. Torr, who was nearest the door, was able to make it out. Clinging to the nose of the overturned helicopter, he miraculously was able to drop onto the deck of the Japanese vessel. The bodies of Stiles, Tait and Burge were found the first day. But the search for Kaehler continued for an agonizing three days.

Solano, 62, was at a friend's house in Fort Collins, Colorado, when she received a phone call from home that her big brother was missing at sea. He was such an excellent swimmer that the family believed he might have survived.

"My mom, dad and sister came out here," she recalled. "When they found him, they brought his body back."

Standing in the hangar, looking at the Coast Guard blue uniforms and the aircraft, stirred tears.

"I remember all of this. It brings back those moments like it was yesterday," she said.

Yvonne Kaehler was from Michigan. She was 25 and for three days she listened to hourly reports from search-and-rescue personnel. She said the Coast Guard took care of her, that she was never alone during those dark days.

"They never let me feel as if I wasn't a part of them, and 40 years later they still make me feel I'm part of the Coast Guard family," she said.

Solano found the ceremony Wednesday very moving.

"It's good to know we've all gone on with our lives," she said. "But it's good to know that there are still people who care and that good things have come out of this, like changes in safety."

Langum said the crash of CG1432 helped lead to procedures and technology to help guide helicopter crews out of a craft when it overturns in a ditching situation.

Yvonne Kaehler said she hoped the memorial ceremony impressed upon the younger enlisted men and women and officers that they are in a service that cares, where nobody is left behind.

"That's probably the biggest reason why I come out to these, to let people know the Coast Guard cares, that they're not going to be forgotten no matter what happens," she said.

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©2019 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
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