By Mike Hixenbaugh
In the dark of night Thursday off the coast of Virginia, a pair of fighter jets clipped wings, forcing one pilot to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean.
More than 100 miles away in Elizabeth City, a pager beeped to life. Bret Fogle sat up, rubbed his eyes and sprang from his bunk.
The Coast Guard rescue swimmer had trained 13 years for this night.
Two F-16C Fighting Falcon jets from the 113th Wing D.C. Air National Guard were on a routine training mission 30 miles off Chincoteague when they connected in midair.
One jet managed to make it back to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland; the other fell like a brick into the sea.
The Coast Guard received an automated distress signal from the pilot’s ejection seat at 10:28 p.m.
Within minutes, Petty Officer 1st Class Fogle and his crewmates were buzzing to the crash site in the cabin of an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter.
The Coast Guard team followed the distress signal toward the downed pilot, who was bobbing on an inflated life raft in the ocean while talking over a radio to two fighter pilots circling in the sky above.
The Jayhawk crew neared the site shortly before midnight and made radio contact with the downed pilot. He lit a handheld flare that could be seen from nearly 2 miles away – a glow so bright that it obstructed the view through the chopper pilot’s night vision goggles.
The downed pilot extinguished the flare as the helicopter moved into place 70 feet above. Fogle strapped himself to a line and was lowered into the water. On a moonless night miles from the coast, it was too dark to see more than a few inches.
Fogle swam and felt his way through the choppy sea. He followed the pilot’s surprisingly calm voice until he reached the raft.
“Hi, I’m Bret with the Coast Guard. I’m going to get you out of here.”
The pilot thanked Fogle, then pointed down to a mangled leg – likely broken during the violent ejection.
The injury meant Fogle would have to strap the pilot onto a litter – a floating backboard – instead of putting him into the basket used in most sea rescues.
To avoid further injuring the leg, Fogle pulled out a switchblade and stabbed four holes in the raft, slowly lowering the pilot into the water as it deflated.
Fogle cut the pilot from his parachute and moved the litter into position behind him. The swimmer strapped the backboard across the pilot’s chest, then dived underwater to secure three other straps across his waist and legs – careful not to put too much pressure on the twisted limb. When he came back up, the pilot was wailing in pain.
“We’re almost there,” Fogle told him. “Stay with me.”
The helicopter crew lowered the line. Fogle attached it to the backboard, then gave the signal to pull him up. After about 25 minutes in the water, the rescue swimmer was lifted back into the chopper.
Fogle removed his goggles and unbuckled his harness, then went to the pilot’s side and began checking his vitals.
At that point, the rescue-swimmer hat comes off, and the EMT hat goes on, Fogle said later. “That’s my job.”
The Coast Guard chopper dropped the pilot off at his Maryland air base before flying back to North Carolina. The wounded pilot was later taken to a medical facility in Bethesda, officials said.
Hours later, at the Coast Guard air base, Fogle and his teammates recalled the story for TV news cameras.
He had slept only a couple of hours since the overnight rescue, but the adrenaline hadn’t worn off for the Coast Guard veteran.
Rescue swimmers train nearly every day for situations like this, but few ever have to put that training to use.
It was, Fogle said, the highlight of his career.