ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam --
The B-52 is world-famous for its long-range capabilities, but during a routine flight near Guam June 25, 2018, crew members with the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron (EBS), stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB), La., and deployed to Andersen AFB here, were tasked with a unique situation: to use their aircraft’s versatility in the search and rescue of a lost local vessel with six passengers onboard.
It was approximately 11 a.m. and Capt. Sean Simpson, 20th EBS aircraft commander, and his crew were airborne over Guam. At this time the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) made a call to the 20th EBS at Andersen AFB requesting assistance locating a historic Pacific Island style canoe that has been missing since June 19.
The canoe sailors were supposed to make a one-day journey from Piagailoe Atoll with minimal provisions. But after they went missing for six days, their families contacted the U.S. Coast Guard for help.
The information was relayed to the crews of the already airborne B-52s. At first, they were surprised.
“This was a unique situation for us,” said Simpson. “It’s not every day the B-52 gets called for a search and rescue.”
Operating under the knowledge that the vessel could be anywhere within a 275 x 230 nautical mile radius southeast of Guam, the crew knew the mission wouldn’t be easy. Even finding a familiar or large missing vessel is a tricky task, and Simpson and his crew didn’t know what this historically-styled canoe looked like.
"We’d never heard of this kind of vessel before,” said Simpson. “We knew this was going to be a challenge.”
However, aid came in the form of a popular culture reference. The canoe just so happened to resemble one helmed by a famous Disney princess.
“We asked for more details about the vessel, and the dispatcher told us 'it's just like the boat from Moana'.”
The reference sailed by Simpson, who’d never seen the film, but it gave the rest of the crew a clear idea of what to look for.
For more than three hours, the crews scoured the ocean for the wayward vessel. At approximately 2:45 p.m., the crew in Raider 11 spotted a small wooden canoe with a white sail and six passengers on board. Somehow, in all that swath of ocean, they had found the small wooden ship.
“We spotted this vessel from about 19,000 feet,” said 1st Lt. Jordan Allen, 20th EBS crew member. “It’s really a small miracle that we were able to see it because there were quite a bit of clouds.”
The B-52 crew members were able to give the Coast Guard the coordinates, who then contacted a nearby civilian ship to voluntarily assist in the recovery.
The local islanders were traveling in a vessel important to their culture and heritage. They didn’t want to leave the canoe, but gratefully accepted food, water, and directions back to land. The mission was successful.
“We were so excited to be able to help,” said Jordan. “This is a highlight of our tour here. It shows the spirit of teamwork we all have. Not just the aircrew, but the Coast Guard and everyone else who was able to help.”
This successful search and rescue mission sits as a capstone on the 20th EBS's deployment, speaking to the spirit of service the squadron has brought to and kept with them in Guam.
"I couldn't be more proud of everyone here for their efforts,” said Lt. Col. Jarred Prier, 20th EBS Director of Operations. “Search and rescue isn't something people typically think of when they talk about the B-52, but our training and adaptability really paid off. Being a part of this successful search and rescue operation speaks to the diversity of our skillset and shows our importance here in the Pacific."