Officials believe copter mayday call likely a hoax

Posted Aug. 08, 2010, at 12:04 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.

EASTPORT, Maine — “Helicopter going down. Helicopter going down. Mayday. Mayday.”

When the two separate calls came in Saturday night to U.S. Coast Guard Station Eastport on Channel 16, the radio frequency used for international hailing and distress, crews sprung into action.

But after several hours of searching along the dark Bay of Fundy and the St. Croix River on Saturday night and then again at dawn Sunday, no one had located any signs of a helicopter in distress. The search was officially suspended at 10:25 a.m. Sunday.

“We never found anything at all — no debris or anything,” Petty Officer Cameron McCabe said Sunday morning. “We really don’t have any evidence that there was any kind of problem.”

The Coast Guard is now treating the distress calls as an uncorrelated mayday, he said.

Although it is not uncommon for the federal agency to receive hoax distress calls purporting to be from sinking ships, it is highly unusual to have false alert calls about helicopters, said Paul Painter, search and rescue controller from the Coast Guard station in South Portland.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Canadian air agency monitor air traffic more closely than is the case for boating activity, he said, so the Coast Guard was able to determine Saturday night that there were no reports of missing aircraft from the U.S. or from Canada.

Officials also checked with area hospitals to see whether they had requested LifeFlight helicopters, but that was not the case.

“There are no reports of people missing, either,” Painter said.

Searchers from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Border Patrol initially used a 25-foot RBS Response Boat to do a “track line” search from Eastport to Calais along the St. Croix River on Saturday evening until almost midnight. Coast Guard officials had determined that the distress call originated somewhere in this area, although the caller had given no location.

“We had limited visibility at first, and later in the evening we ended up having to use illumination flares,” McCabe said.

When the search was resumed at dawn by boat and aircraft, the Coast Guard was aided by searchers from Canada, he said.

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