On Nov. 11, 1986, Lt. Mark Feldman and his comrades conducted a rescue mission on Lake St. Clair to recover two plane crash survivors. Feldman received an Air Medal, which was later upgraded to the Distinguished Flying Cross, for his quick-thinking and attempts to resuscitate one of the passengers.
For Lt. Mark Feldman, being stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Detroit meant being prepared for the unexpected. The station overlooks more than 1,100 miles of shoreline, and the area is known for receiving heavy lake-effect snow, which can endanger boats and planes.
On Nov. 11, 1986, the station got word that a single-engine Cessna 182 plane had crashed into the waters of Lake St. Clair. The plane had taken off from Ann Arbor Airport in Michigan, piloted by William Williams and his wife, Shelly. The couple was flying to New Haven, Ohio, when the plane’s engine started having trouble and ice began forming on its wings. Williams had turned the plane around, intending to return to Ann Arbor, but the ice became too cumbersome. Continued engine issues caused the plane to crash.
Feldman, co-pilot Lt. Jim Hubbard and flight mechanic Petty Officer Henry Thomas immediately prepared for rescue, but encountered harsh weather conditions. Ice had accumulated on the windows of their helicopter, forcing Feldman to utilize the side windows in the search. “Flying in those conditions, 300-foot overcast ceiling, blowing snow and a mile of visibility, is a big challenge even in daylight,” said Coast Guard Veteran Mont Smith in an interview with The Maritime Executive. “I flew in Antarctica, and I can attest to the fact that in these conditions there is no visible horizon and one loses all depth perception. The tendency is to fly into the water.”
Despite the severity of the weather, the team was able to reach the crash zone. When Feldman’s flight mechanic spotted Williams and his wife, Feldman landed in waves to retrieve them. According to Feldman’s Air Medal citation for the event, “Realizing that [Williams] was severely hypothermic and unconscious, Lieutenant Feldman turned control of the helicopter over to the co-pilot and quickly moved aft to assist the air crewman with the recovery. After [Williams] was brought safely aboard, Lieutenant Feldman immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) while the air crewman assisted the co-pilot with a second platform pickup [for his wife Shelly].” Upon retrieving Shelly, Feldman directed the co-pilot to fly to the hospital about 8 to 10 miles away and to continue trying to revive Williams.
For his bravery and actions during the rescue, Feldman’s Air Medal was later upgraded to a Distinguished Flying Cross. The helicopter he flew is now on display at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. In November 2018, Feldman was inducted into the Coast Guard Academy’s Hall of Heroes.
“I think what stood out most to me is that we were put in very unusual circumstances,” Feldman later stated in an interview. “I, as the aircraft commander, had to leave the cockpit to help pull the professor in and start CPR, while the other two crew members rescued his wife and flew to the hospital. Not what we were trained for, but we successfully completed the mission.” Feldman also contends that his comrades, Thomas and Hubbard, deserve as much credit as him. “With the training that we get, mostly anyone can step in and do what we did that day.”