NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson Rescues Downed Pilot

NOAA Seafaring Technology Aids Efforts to Locate and Rescue Lost Aviator

August 15, 2010

This graphic shows the search plan implemented by the NOAA Ship THOMAS JEFFERSON on 15 Aug 2010.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

While conducting mapping surveys west of Key West, Fla. the evening of August 14, the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson heard a radio report from the U.S. Coast Guard that a small aircraft with one person aboard had crashed in the water about 30 miles away from the vessel. The crew of the Thomas Jefferson immediately contacted the Coast Guard to advise they would help with the search and rescue operation and proceeded to steam toward the reported position. 

The crew, using sophisticated navigation equipment including the ship’s Doppler speed log and GPS positioning equipment, was able to estimate the ocean current and focus their search area around a location approximately two nautical miles south-southwest of the reported crash site.

“We posted extra personnel as lookouts and used our searchlights in a sweeping pattern all while keeping a quiet bridge so we could hear any calls of distress from the pilot,” according to the ship’s Commanding Officer, CDR Shepard Smith.

Shortly after 1:00 a.m. EDT, the ship’s crew heard cries for help off the port (left) side of vessel, immediately brought the ship to an emergency stop and deployed a rescue boat.  “By turning the ship in the direction we originally heard the sound, we were able to locate the person in the water using the searchlight, and guide the rescue boat to pick him up,” added CDR Smith.  The pickup position was about a quarter mile from the ship’s estimated search position. 

The pilot was reported to be in fine shape, except for a cut lip, according to medical personnel from the Thomas Jefferson. He was transferred to a Coast Guard boat that was in the area for a return visit to Key West, where he was met by his anxious father, who had been waiting at the airport to pick him up when the news of the crash reached him.

NOAA Ship THOMAS JEFFERSON on station in northern Gulf of Mexico, July 2010

NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson on station in northern Gulf of Mexico, July 2010

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The Thomas Jefferson is one of the most technologically advanced hydrographic survey vessels in the world, and has been in the Gulf of Mexico since April. Its original mission was to map the seafloor and look for hazards to navigation off the Gulf coast. However, following the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, Thomas Jefferson spent 6 weeks conducting research on submerged oil plumes.

Equipped with high-resolution seafloor echosounders, the 208-ft. Thomas Jefferson and its 36-person crew can map the ocean bottom and identify areas of interest to coastal managers, biologists, geologists and emergency responders.

The vessel is no newcomer to the Gulf region. In 2005, Thomas Jefferson conducted hydrographic surveys to support safe navigation and commerce following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. 

Thomas Jefferson is part of the NOAA fleet of ships and aircraft operated, managed and maintained by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps and civilian wage mariners.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us on Facebook at