News Columns & Blogs

One vet’s tale of danger and oil

On a cold December morning in 1973 in a middle-class neighborhood in Santa Rosa, I looked out my window and saw a long line of cars stretching nearly a half-mile waiting to get filled up at a Shell gas station. Most of the cars were idling with clouds of white exhaust floating into the sky.

As a 13-year-old, I asked by father what was going on. He told me that it was the result of war in the Middle East and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries reduced shipments to the United States. Price controls were imposed a few years earlier, which prevented oil companies from increasing the cost of imported crude oil to consumers at the pump. World oil prices went up and oil companies simply stopped selling gas to independent service stations.

This condition caused fuel shortages. As the lines for gas grew longer, the Nixon administration moved to manage the crisis. The sale of gas was banned on Sundays, and motorists could only fill up on odd or even days of the month, according to their license plate numbers.

At the time, the United States imported about 30 percent of its oil from overseas. Little did I know that the importation of oil into the U.S. would play such a crucial part of my life in the future.

Less than a decade later, I found myself in the Middle East as a naval air crewman in the back seat of a SH-2 Seasprite (a ship-based helicopter) patrolling the Strait of Hormuz in the early 1980s.

For much of 1980s, Iran was firing missiles at Iraqi tankers, and Iraq was reciprocating. This was known as the Tanker War. The U.S. Navy played interference to ensure the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. In 1987, the USS Stark was hit by an Exocet missile that killed 37 sailors and wounded 21 others. The Iraqi pilot later claimed that he had mistaken the Stark for an Iranian oil tanker.

In May of 1983, while transiting through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, our crew practiced night landings on the flight deck of the USS Trippe. During one landing, our right-side landing gear retracted in its cowing (an aeronautical term for wheel well), and the helicopter quickly rolled to the right. The fast-moving main rotor blades hit the hard steel of the flight deck, where they disintegrated and flew off in many directions. The shattered blades threatened to find me inside the helicopter at nearly the speed of sound. I feared that was my time to go.

Our helicopter slid down the side of the ship and hit the ocean upside down. The warm water of the Red Sea quickly flowed in. It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing and became more and more disoriented. I kept thinking about my father and how he would feel if he lost his only son. There was no way I was going to leave my dad alone.

In the hello dunker, a training simulator that the Navy utilizes to train helicopter crews for crashes at sea, they teach you to remain strapped into your seat until all motion has stopped. In my desire to get out of our sinking helicopter, I unstrapped early and was immediately swept to the back of the cabin by the incoming water as the aircraft went down. I felt my hands on the crash curtain that covered the entrance to the tail section of the H-2. I knew I was in a lot of trouble. Running out of air, I was close to panic.

At that time, somehow a light came on, either from an MK 25 smoke marker that we carried in a smoke launcher on the side of the helicopter or from some other lighting device. Only God knows for sure.

Like a swimming pool light, it illuminated the entire cabin. I saw the dark void of the cabin door and swam for it. When I was clear of the fuselage, I inflated my life preserver with a CO2 cartridge. It seemed to take an eternity to reach the surface.

When I surfaced, Lt. Cmdr. Chuck Taylor, one of our pilots, was calling out, “Dwight, John!” Tragically, Lt. Dwight Greer was never found. I think about him every day. What a terrible loss for his family and the Navy.

Los at Sea memorial

In my lifetime, we have increased the percentage of imported crude oil and its products from about 10 percent to 60 percent. American lives continue to be put in harm’s way because of this dangerous policy.

On this Memorial Day, let’s remember those who have given their lives for our country. There are a number of events scheduled throughout the Central Coast on Monday. I will remember Dwight at the Lost at Sea memorial service in Cayucos. We will gather at the base of the pier at 3 p.m. and walk together to the end of the pier, where we will drop a wreath in the sea in remembrance of those who never returned.

This week’s forecast

A late-season 997-millibar low-pressure system that produced rain over Northern California on Saturday will move into Nevada this morning. This low-pressure system over Nevada, combined with a 1,034-millibar Eastern Pacific High about 900 miles to the northwest of San Luis Obispo, will produce a steep pressure gradient along the California coast today. This pressure gradient will bring gale- to fresh gale-force (32 to 46 mph) northwesterly winds along the coastline later today.

Temperatures today will range from the high 50s along the northwesterly (Los Osos and Morro Bay) facing beaches, the mid-60s along the southwesterly (Avila Beach and Cayucos) facing beaches and coastal valleys (San Luis Obispo). The interior (Paso Robles) will mostly be in the high-60s.

Rain showers will continue along the central and southern Sierra through the afternoon. Snow levels will range from 4,000 to 5,000 feet north to south this morning.

A 1,005-millibar low-pressure system will move toward Cape Mendocino on Memorial Day, while a weak ridge of high pressure builds in from the west. This condition will finally give relief from the relentlessly strong northwesterly (onshore) winds.

The northwesterly winds will decrease to moderate to fresh (13 to 24 mph) levels Memorial Day. Temperatures will increase to the mid-70s in the North County and the high-60s in the coastal valleys and along many of the southwesterly facing (Avila Beach and Cayucos) beaches.

The associated cold front will move southward down the California coastline and will produce increasing marine low clouds and gentle southerly winds Tuesday. This late-season cold front will pass over the Central Coast on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning with increasing clouds, areas of drizzle and a few light scattered rain showers. Partly cloudy skies are forecast for Wednesday afternoon and night.

Clearing skies and increasing northwesterly winds will develop Thursday through next weekend.

Surf and sea report

Today’s moderate gale- to fresh gale-force (32 mph to 46 mph) northwesterly winds will generate an 8- to 10-foot northwesterly (300-degree deep-water) sea and swell (with a 5- to 14-second period) today, decreasing to 6 to 8 feet (with a 7- to 11-second period) Monday.

A 4- to 5-foot northwesterly (290-degree deep-water) swell (with an 8- to 12-second period) is forecast along our coastline Tuesday, decreasing to 5 to 7 feet (with an 11- to 13-second period) Wednesday.

Increasing northwesterly sea and swell is forecast along our coastline Thursday through Friday.

Arriving from the Southern Hemisphere:

Another long-period Southern Hemisphere (185-degree deep-water) swell is expected to arrive along our coastline Tuesday at 2 to 4 feet (with a 19- to 21-second period), increasing to 3 to 5 feet (with a 17- to 19-second period) on Wednesday.

This swell will gradually decrease Thursday through Friday.

Seawater temperatures will range between 49 and 51 degrees through Monday, increasing Tuesday through Friday.

John Lindsey, media relations representative for PG&E and local weather expert, has lived along the Central Coast for more than 25 years. To subscribe to his daily weather forecast or ask him a question, email him at pgeweather@