Pacific Rescue, Pacific Loss

  • Published
  • By By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing/Public Affairs

On this Memorial Day, 2019, we remember all those who gave their all in service to our country.  Not all losses occur in wartime, though a number occur as military personnel train to fight.  They are also remembered on this day.

It was a training mission off the Oregon coast for the Redhawk squadron just after the new year began in 1989, some thirty years ago.  It was a Tuesday morning, January 3, 1989 in the last year that the Oregon Air National Guard’s (ORANG) 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (123rd FIS) operated the venerable McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II supersonic jet fighter.  The crew of F-4C Phantom II serial number 63-7676 was pilot 2nd Lt. Michael G. Markstaller, 24, from Portland and weapons system operator 1st Lt. Mark A Baker, 30, of Beaverton.  They launched for a routine training mission with call sign Hairy 02 with another F-4C, Hairy 01, to airspace over the Pacific Ocean about 35 miles west of Tillamook, Oregon.  Basic Fighter Maneuvers were the training objective.  At around 10:30 a.m. something went wrong and the crew of Hairy 02 had to bail out of their jet while 18,000 feet over the Pacific.

Hairy 01 witnessed the ejection and saw two parachutes begin their descent to the cold ocean waters below.  A cloud deck at 15,000 feet however then blocked Hairy 01’s view.  The US Coast Guard Air Station Astoria received word of the downed jet and crew and quickly responded to the situation.  The base was in the midst of a transition to a new rescue helicopter, from the HH-3F Pelican of Vietnam War vintage to the new HH-65A Dolphin.  The new aircraft had some teething problems, however, and the station was only able to generate two aircraft carrying one USCG rescue swimmer each to begin the rescue mission – but one of them developed an engine problem shortly after takeoff and aborted the mission leaving one helo with one swimmer to make the initial rescue effort.

Aboard the HH-65 that did go was then 22-year old Aviation Survival man Petty Officer Third Class, (ASM3) Kelly Mogk, the Coast Guard’s first female rescue swimmer and one of six assigned to the station.  She made it through the grueling Navy rescue swimmer training course in Florida three years before (The Coast Guard set up its own rescue swimmer course afterwards, at Astoria).  And now, she used her training and experience to help an Oregon Airman in distress in her first rescue.

A pair of F-15 Eagle fighters of the 318th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron from McChord AFB, WA, that were training in other airspace nearby moved over and circled overhead above the downed crew trying to gain visual contact in deteriorating weather conditions.  The pilots made contact with a Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet also launched from Astoria and helped bring it and the HH-65 to the scene. 

Coast Guard LCDR Bill Peterson recalled, “The ceiling was about 100-feet and visibility was about a quarter mile, but we had a good location reported from the wingman and we headed there as fast as the aircraft would let us go.  I saw what I thought was smoke off to the right side of the aircraft, so I proceeded about half a mile away.  It turned out to be a whale spouting.  I turned back and dropped a marker.  After we dropped the marker and turned, we were right on top of two rafts.”

The Coast Guard aviators spotted two life rafts, but could only see one of the crew hanging onto the side of his raft.  ASM3 Mogk jumped 15 feet into the frigid North Pacific water (52 degrees) with 16-20 foot seas and made her way to who turned out to be the F-4 pilot, 2nd Lt. Markstaller.  She recalled afterwards, "I was a little nervous before we reached the scene.  But once I was in the water, I relaxed, assessed the situation, and everything I learned in training came back to me."

Mogk saw that Markstaller was conscious: “The first thing I did when I got to the raft was talk to him.  His lips were moving but I couldn’t hear him because of the noise from the helicopter.  He appeared to be suffering from hypothermia because all he could do was follow me with his eyes.” 

In addition to hypothermia Lt. Markstaller had a broken leg, a broken arm and a severely separated shoulder.  He wasn’t in position for extraction as he was tangled in his own parachute lines, and she went to work to remove those in 10-foot ocean swells and 2- to 3-foot waves.  "My first concern was getting him untangled," she said afterwards. "He was tangled up pretty bad in the parachute."  It took her 27 minutes to get him untangled, and Mogk even resorted to taking her gloves off in the cold water in order to work faster.  “At one point halfway through, I reached over and squeezed his hand and he squeezed back.  That was a good sign.  During the whole time I was working on him I kept talking to him to let him know that someone was there.”

After an hour in the water, Markstaller was finally clear, in the hoisting sling and lifted up to the HH-65.  Since he was a large man it took two aviators on the four-person helo, the co-pilot and flight crewman, to get him into the aircraft. The helo took the F-4 pilot back to shore while Mogk treaded water waiting for another USCG helicopter to arrive.

Even though ASM3 Mogk wore a dry suit going into the water, removing her gloves and some worn spots in the suit exposed her to the cold ocean water.  Her hands and feet became numb and she too began to develop hypothermia as she waited for a USCG rescue helicopter from North Bend, Oregon, to reach the scene.  As such she was unable to continue the mission in the water to search for Baker.  The North Bend helicopter arrived, (no rescue swimmer was stationed at North Bend) recovered Mogk and then returned her to Astoria for medical treatment.  She later said “I wish I could have done something more. I wish there could have been more I or anyone could have done.”

Meanwhile, the Astoria-based HH-65 took Lt. Markstaller to Columbia General Hospital in Astoria; given his serious condition he was then airlifted by Life Flight to Emanuel Hospital in Portland.  The HH-65 then returned to the air station to pick up another rescue swimmer to resume the search for Baker.  By the time it arrived on scene, an HC-130P Hercules and HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant,” call sign “Jolly 92,” from the 304th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron of the 939th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group (Air Force Reserve) at Portland Air Base were there.  With eight Pararescue specialists (PJ’s) aboard the two aircraft and a doctor aboard the HC-130, they decided that the 939th would go ahead to look for Baker.  A pair of PJ’s leaped 15 feet into the water and soon found Baker beneath his raft, tangled in his parachute, drogue and raft lines, unconscious. They worked to untangle him from his parachute lines and ten minutes later at 1:45 p.m. he was hoisted aboard the HH-3E helicopter. 

AFRES crewmen initiated efforts to revive Lt. Baker as the HH-3E took him to Columbia General Hospital.  From there he was flown to Portland’s Emanuel Hospital where the medical staff tried all they could to save him after over three hours of exposure in the ocean.  Unfortunately, Lt. Baker passed away during surgery that evening from his injuries and hypothermia.  He gave his life in service to our country and its citizens.  “We have lost a member of our family tonight,” said ORANG Commander Major General Charles Sams at the hospital.

Mark A. Baker was buried at Skyline Memorial Gardens in Portland on January 6, 1989 with full military honors and an F-4 missing man formation.  The number of attendees was large at the cemetery, and even larger at the memorial service: a testament to the regard so many had for this officer, a devoutly religious man, a “kind and genuine human being.“ Col. (later Maj. Gen.) D.E.B. Ward, 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Group Commander who flew regularly with Baker, said “He was one of the very finest airmen and officers in the Oregon Air Guard. His contributions as an instructor weapons system officer and a member of the prestigious William Tell ‘88 Team were evidence of his love for flying and his unit.  His death is a tragic accident and a personal loss for all of us who served with him.”

Lt. Baker was commissioned in 1984 and was a distinguished graduate in navigator training which he completed the same year.  He had more than 700 flying hours in the F-4 and held instructor status.  He was also the youngest officer in the 123rd FIS to serve as a standardization and evaluation officer.  Additionally, he was a civilian commercial pilot and flight instructor with over 4,600 hours in more than 30 different aircraft types.

In March, 1989 Maj. Gen. Sams presented Mrs. Jay Dee Baker, Lt. Baker’s widow, and her children, Christina and Mark, Jr., with five awards her husband earned in his five-plus years of ORANG service, including the Meritorious Service Medal, Oregon Exceptional Service Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal for outstanding performance of flying duties for superior performance in the William Tell competition of October, 1988.  A memorial trust fund for the Baker children was set up for the family by Capt. George Smeraglio. 

A year after the tragedy, Jay Dee Baker reflected on the loss of her husband – “A good friend told me that you don’t get over it, you learn to live with it, and it’s true.”  Lt. Baker’s name is recorded on the memorial tablet at the OreANG memorial garden at Portland Air Base

Michael Markstaller recovered from his multiple injuries after three years. “I have always been grateful to Mark for saving my life as I was unable to reach the ejection handles,” he recalled in a recent conversation.  He regained flying status in the Oregon ANG’s C-26 operational support aircraft and later joined the AF Reserve at Portland, flying rescue HC-130’s and then KC-135 tankers.  About his AFRES service he said “I was proud to go on to serve in the rescue wing involved in my rescue effort.”  He retired after 22 years of military service and still flies as a captain for Alaska Airlines.

Kelly Larson, née Mogk, was awarded the Coast Guard Air Medal for her role in the rescue effort and later in 1989 received an F-4 orientation flight from the 123rd FIS in appreciation for her efforts.  She went on to make a full career in the Coast Guard.  Larson became an officer in 1993, then a Coast Guard helicopter pilot in 1996 before she retired as a Lieutenant Commander in Seattle, WA in December, 2009.   We salute the Coast Guard, Kelly Larson, USCG rescue swimmers, and USAF Pararescuemen who are ready to respond to airmen, mariners and citizens in distress in our coastal waters, so that others might live.

On this Memorial Day, 2019, in the 30th anniversary of this winter rescue in January, 1989, we remember Lt. Mark Baker, and the other Airmen of the Oregon ANG and the World War II era 371st Fighter Group (now designated 142nd Fighter Wing) and 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (now designated 123rd Fighter Squadron) who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to community, state and nation. Freedom isn’t free, and we pay them homage on this day.