A heavy lift

Members aboard Coast Guard Cutter Harry Claiborne lift remains of the Navy aircraft onto the buoy deck. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Members aboard Coast Guard Cutter Harry Claiborne lift remains of the Navy aircraft onto the buoy deck. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

This story originally appeared at Coast Guard Heartland.

On May 1, Coast Guard aircrews took to the sky to search for two downed U.S. Navy pilots whose plane had crashed somewhere off the coast of Corpus Christi, Texas. Fortunately, a rescue helicopter crew found and rescued them. Both men were later released from Spohn Shoreline Memorial Hospital where they were treated for minor injuries.

But what happened to their plane? Someone needed to recover it.

Weighing in at around 4,500 pounds, the T-34C Turbo Mentor is no light piece of work. Add on water weight and any sand or rocks it may have picked up from where it eventually landed in the Gulf of Mexico and we’re talking one heavy lift. This being the case, the Navy called for the heaviest lifter the Coast Guard had in the area. They got the Coast Guard Cutter Harry Claiborne.

“We got word from district that we were on the list for this thing and I was kind of excited,” said Chief Warrant Officer Paul Zado, commanding officer of the Claiborne. “I love working buoys, but being able to help out with something like this – it would be something we’ve never done before. It was something new and different.”

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Claiborne, a 175-foot coastal buoy tender, was the obvious choice. Not only can it lift up to 20,000 pounds with its crane, it was conveniently homeported in Galveston, Texas. The nearest Navy boat with similar capabilities could only be found as close as Norfolk, Virginia.

Before the Claiborne arrived, Navy divers were busy welding enough of the plane back together for fewer extractions, making the Claiborne’s job easier. With such professional assistance, the crew had little to no problem hoisting the remains to their deck.

“It wasn’t hard at all,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Chadd Bond, deck supervisor for the hoisting evolution. “The Navy divers really set us up.”

“It took us longer to transit to Corpus after picking up the plane than it did to actually raise the thing,” said Zado.

Possibly due to the impact or from sitting underwater for almost a month, what the Claiborne crew brought to the surface didn’t look quite like what they were expecting.

“It was a lot of wire, cables and twisted metal,” said Bond. “It didn’t really look like an airplane at that point.”

The remains of the T-34 were taken back to Corpus Christi and handed off to Navy personnel for further examination.

“It was a great opportunity for us to work with the Navy in an operation that’s unique all by itself,” said Zado. “And at the end of the day, everybody lived, nobody got hurt.”

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