Missing Mariners Located by a KC-135 Tanker Thanks to Huge S.O.S. Written on the Beach

An Australian Army ARH Tiger helicopter lands on Pikelot Island in Micronesia. The SOS message of the stricken sailors can be seen on the beach. (Photo: Australian Defence Force)

The three men went missing in Micronesia, prompting a joint U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Air Force and Australian Defence Force rescue mission.

On July 29, 2020, three men were sailing aboard a 23-foot skiff from Pulawat to Pulap atolls in Micronesia, a quick 21 nm trip, but they ran out of fuel and drifted off course, reaching Pikelot, about 118 nm west of where they departed from. After they went missing, on July 31 Joint Rescue Sub-Center (JRSC) Guam was notified and activated naval vessels and a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H from Air Station Barbers Point (Hawaii).

In addition, on August 1, the JRSC requested also the assistance of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the U.S. Air Force 506th Air Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron from Andersen Air Force Base (Guam), currently constituted by aircraft and crews of the 203rd Air Refueling Squadron, Hawaii Air National Guard (ANG), and 171st Air Refueling Wing, Pennsylvania ANG.

The ADF responded with the HMAS Canberra (L02), which was conducting a Regional Presence Deployment as part of Task Group 635.3. The ship was already returning to Australia while the rest of the Task Group was enroute to Hawaii for the Rim of the Pacific 2020 exercise, better known as RIMPAC 2020, the world’s largest international maritime exercise held every two years.

The four Tigers ARH (Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter) from the Army’s 1st Aviation Regiment and the single MRH-90 “Taipan” helicopter from the Navy’s No. 808 Squadron embarked on the Canberra were launched to join the search.

The KC-135 Stratotanker acted as an unusual Search And Rescue asset and on August 2, after three hours into their mission flying at about 1,500 ft, the tanker crew was the first to spot the three man thanks to a big S.O.S. signal created on the island using palm leaves.

“We were toward the end of our search pattern,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen, the KC-135 pilot. “We turned to avoid some rain showers and that’s when we looked down and saw an island, so we decide to check it out and that’s when we saw SOS and a boat right next to it on the beach. From there we called in the Australian Navy because they had two helicopters nearby that could assist and land on the island.”

A Tiger ARH from the HMAS Canberra was used in an unusual role to deliver food and water to the stranded mariners, confirming their identities and checking they had no major injuries while keeping their distance because of COVID19. “After discussions between the responding partners it was decided the safest course of action for both the response agencies’ crews and the mariners was to limit exposure to one another due to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a Coast Guard statement said.


Meanwhile, the HC-130 airdropped a message informing them the FSS Independence, a Micronesian patrol vessel, was enroute to their position and a radio to communicate with the rescuers. Shortly after midnight on August 3, the ship arrived on scene and rescued the three men.

U.S Coast Guard Capt. Christopher Chase, commander of Coast Guard Sector Guam, said in statement: “Partnerships, this is what made this search and rescue case successful. Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save three members of our community and bring them back home to their families.”

What may have looked like a scene taken straight from a film, with the three men lost on a remote island using whatever they could find to prepare a big S.O.S. message on the beach, hoping for someone to see it, may have significantly contributed to their rescue.

According to news agencies, this isn’t the first time missing people in Micronesia are located thanks to huge letters traced in the sand, as it reportedly happened at least twice in recent years.

Interestingly, in June 2018, also a B-52 had carried out a Search And Rescue mission. A Stratofortress crew from the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, and deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam located the lost crew of an open ocean Polynesian-style canoe after they were missing at sea for six days.

The eight-engine, long range B-52H bomber joined the search responding to a call from the Coast Guard for assistance on June 25, 2018.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.