2005 Coastguardsman of the Year
Aviation Maintenance Technician Gregory Gibbons
Age 26. Just moved from Alaska to California. He and his wife, Katharine, plan to volunteer for Special Olympics.
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - As a grade-schooler frolicking on a New Jersey beach two decades ago, Gregory Gibbons was mesmerized by a Coast Guard helicopter and boat helping a man in distress. Twenty years later, he would become one of those rescuers. Last December, conning his helicopter's hoist in a frigid storm in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska coast, Gibbons saved six people after another Coast Guard helicopter was swept into the sea while pulling survivors from a grounded freighter. For his actions, Gibbons was named Navy Times' 2005 Coast Guardsman of the Year. Gibbons, an aviation maintenance technician third-class who began duty at Air Station San Francisco in May, took the recognition in stride. He grinned, turned slightly red and said simply, "That's great." Gibbons enlisted in 2000. "I wanted to find out what I wanted to do," he said. At boot camp, he envisioned himself on helicopters doing surf rescues. During an eight- month stint at the Coast Guard LORAN station on Attu, the remotest Aleutian island, there was little to do but work and study, so he got rate-qualified before he left. A flight mechanic by training, Gibbons sharpened his rescue skills in Kodiak, Alaska, which came in handy in December 2004 when he and his crew joined in the rescue of 26 people from a Malaysian freighter that ran aground after its engines died near Unalaska Island. A storm churned the seas as Gibbons, pilot Lt. Tim Eason and co-pilot Lt. Robert Kornexl - deployed on the cutter Alex Haley in the Bering Sea - were told to get their HH-60 Dolphin airborne. In 45-knot winds, Gibbons climbed on the helicopter and reassembled its folded blades. Meanwhile, an HH-60J Jayhawk flew from Kodiak to rescue people from the freighter. When Gibbons' crew arrived, the Jayhawk had picked up 18 people and was carrying six more when a rogue wave hit the ship and sprayed into the air. Gibbons saw "a wall of water" engulf the helicopter, "They'll fly out of that," he thought. He was wrong. But the helicopter crashed. Gibbons dashed into the back of his aircraft, rigged his rescue basket and dangled it outside. He was Eason's "eyes," since the pilot couldn't see the basket. Conditions were "horrific," Eason said. But Gibbons "did an amazing job at cable management and being my eyes below the basket," Eason said. "He put the basket within arm's reach ... an amazing accomplishment." After hoisting the first three Jayhawk crew members, Gibbons maneuvered the basket near the next victim, who was floating listless. "He was not in good shape," Gibbons said. After several tries, the victim landed in the basket and was brought inside the helo. Eason sped off to nearby Dutch Harbor, where he quickly refueled and returned to find that the freighter had broken in two on the shoals. At the bow, they saw the Coast Guard rescue swimmer huddled over the master, with whitewater breaking over them. They battled the wind and sea for 50 minutes. On about the 13th try, Gibbons landed the basket in the right spot and the master, drenched in oil, got aboard the Dolphin. They quickly retrieved the rescue swimmer and headed to Dutch Harbor. "It was time to kiss the ground," Gibbons said. Six others lost in the helicopter crash were never recovered. "I think we did the best we could," he said. With about 400 hours in the air, Gibbons said he's thinking about getting his private pilot's license, and perhaps trying Officer Candidate School. But for now, he's satisfied being a Coast Guard crew man like the one he saw from the beach years ago. "The orange and blue," he said, "I was always drawn to it."