What made you want to join the US Coast Guard?
I grew up in San Diego, California, and it began after my dad took a trip up the central Californian coastline, I think to Morro Bay. I was a high schooler at the time and trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I graduated. He came back and said: “I just saw these really cool Coast Guard boats that were operating in the surf and they could get knocked down and roll in the surf and re-right themselves. You should check out the Coast Guard. It looks pretty awesome.” So, since I had a swimming background and was a water polo player, it seemed like a very cool adventurous thing to do and that was what sparked the idea. I looked into it as I was graduating high school and enlisted shortly after that.
Your dad was inspired by the work of small boats and the surfmen, but you started your career in the US Coast Guard as a rescue swimmer. Why did you choose this area of operations instead?
I remember when I was in basic training – our eight-week boot camp – they had given us a piece of paper, it was probably for our ‘dream sheet’, i.e. where you want to go when you graduate from basic training. There was a box that said: ‘Are you interested in the surfmen program?’, which is working from the motor lifeboats. I said that it seemed very interesting and I would love to check that out. Below that, it said: ‘Are you interested in the rescue swimmer program?’, and I also checked that box because of my background. When I graduated boot camp, I went to the motor lifeboat school and that was really, really cool. If I had stuck with it, I would have eventually become a surfman and a boat driver. But I think my desire to go into aviation was just a little bit greater.
You then transitioned from being a rescue swimmer to an MH-65 pilot. Why did you make that change and was it particularly difficult because flying missions is a very different aspect of the work?
Originally, when I enlisted, I went to the National Motor Lifeboat School in Cape Disappointment, Washington, where they also have the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School. Once there, I put my name on the on the list to become a rescue swimmer and I was picked up and went through the program. I was a rescue swimmer for at least eight years. It was very rewarding when you deploy from a helicopter, rescue somebody and bring them back to land safely. I was at about my 10-year mark with the Coast Guard when I thought that I was ready to have some increased responsibility. I was already a private pilot before I joined up and I always entertained the idea of being a military pilot. I was out on a long search and rescue (SAR) case one night, and I mentioned my ambition to the crew, the two pilots up front encouraged me to follow the path. You have to be working towards a college degree or have a certificate at the time of application, which I was pretty close to having. So, I applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS) with the intent of going to flight school and, luckily, I got picked up on my first attempt and then, once I graduated, immediately got selected for Naval Flight School.
I was at about my 10-year mark with the Coast Guard when I thought that I was ready to have some increased responsibility
You got your Private Pilot’s License at a young age. Have you always been interested in aviation?
I used to work with a guy who was a private pilot with an instrument rating. He talked me into it. He said that I could go up on a discovery flight right out of the local airport. It was going to be $50 and I could see if I liked it. So we went, and I hopped in a little Cessna 172. The flight instructor let me take off and attempt a landing and do all the basic stuff. Just like most folks who get a little taste of aviation, I was hooked after that. I was 17–18 years old at the time and, thankfully, my dad helped me get through the program and pay for the flight lessons.
Having been a rescue swimmer before being a pilot must give you a wider perspective of both roles. Do you miss any aspects of your former position?
There are certainly differences between each position. Being a rescue swimmer was an absolutely great job. As it’s a very small community with fewer than 300 rescue swimmers actively serving in the Coast Guard right now, you end up becoming part of this brotherhood/sisterhood. That made it really hard to leave: everybody gets along, you all have common interests with each other and everybody’s in that job for the same reason – wanting to help people. Fortunately, I’m still in Coast Guard and still in aviation, so, it’s not too different now that I’m a pilot. One of the things that I miss probably the most is working more closely with the people in the rescue swimmer shop and having the opportunity to deploy out from a helicopter to go do those really, really cool things like water rescues or even medevacs from land. As a pilot, it feels a little different – we have a bit more responsibility, especially as an aircraft commander, when you are responsible for the safety of the entire crew and the aircraft.
The American coast is full of international shipping, fishing and tourism. How do you ensure a safe and efficient rescue when there are communication barriers?
When I was in Air Station Cape Cod along the eastern coast of the USA, where there is some international shipping, transport and the like, we could fly up to 250 miles offshore to conduct a medevac of somebody from an international crew and bring them back to the USA for medical care. However, during my stint, everybody that we picked up was English speaking, so that made it a little bit easier.
But when I was in Air Station New Orleans, where it’s much more international, we would often respond to the commercial fishing fleets if they had issues. Our calls ranged from your mom-and-pop boaters, the oil rigs, and the cruise ships as well. Some of the more challenging cases were probably the commercial fishing folks because they come from all walks of life. There is also a large population of Vietnamese fishermen down there and I remember one case where we could not communicate with them over the radio because of the language barrier. I was a rescue swimmer at the time, and we were able to gather through Coast Guard Sector New Orleans – who are the ones on the radio communicating and coordinating the SAR cases – that there was somebody who was injured with a possible broken leg.
The international sign for help is pretty easy to understand, and there have been multiple other cases where rescue swimmers have been deployed to a non-English speaking crew without a problem
Sometimes that’s all the information that we need: just where they’re at and the chief complaint, and then we can start moving. Where it becomes challenging is when we can’t communicate clearly the hoist briefing to a fishing vessel captain – the rundown of safety measures for when we’re going to lower our rescue swimmer attached to the hook: please do not attach the hook to any part of the vessel; and lower and stow your antennas, your booms, your flagstaffs, and your rigging. But at the same time, the international sign for help is pretty easy to understand, and there have been multiple other cases where rescue swimmers have been deployed to a non-English speaking crew without a problem. When we lower a rescue swimmer and a rescue device, generally you don’t need too much communication – it’s going to be loud anyway. We can be direct and get people into the rescue devices usually using hand motions. Coast Guard Sector have a response department filled with radios where they’re monitoring radio traffic and essentially standing by for calls for help, and they sometimes have colleagues who can speak multiple different languages to help talk with the folks that are that are calling for help.
The US Coast Guard also responds to emergencies inland. How do coastal sea rescues compare with river, lake or other rescue situations?
In the Coast Guard, we excel in maritime SAR, offshore, over the oceans or the Gulf of Mexico or the Great Lakes. As the Coast Guard continues to evolve, we’ve found ourselves responding to inland SAR – units are flying inland to support mountain rescues. There was a case out where the aircrew launched and they picked up a injured firefighter who was helping to stop fires. They had to pull into a really high hover and deploy the rescue swimmer through tall trees. That’s something that we don’t routinely train for. We do have the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, which helps teach some of these important skill sets. There, folks are learning cave rescues, cliff rescues, and now they have a new program for urban SAR where they’re deploying rescue swimmers to mock buildings and so they can simulate pulling people out of windows or from rooftops.
I’ve been stationed more in the southeast of the USA where it’s generally flat, so what I have found particularly challenging is some of the river hoisting. At Air Station Savannah, Georgia, we are probably 30 miles inland from the Atlantic coastline. Between solid ground and the shoreline is all of this marsh, rivers and waterways, and the tides there are fairly strong. Two tides per day that would drop out, maybe a six-foot difference, something significant. It was always challenging because we would hoist with our training vessels in those rivers and we’d have wind going in one direction and when we deploy a rescue swimmer or our mock dummy to rescue, they would float in the other direction. You find yourself in a backing-down hover, trying to execute these hoist evolutions. It’s not like the open ocean, where you generally have wind in one direction and the swell in the same direction. These rivers make it a lot more difficult because the turns, tides and winds are not always in our favor.
Rescues are often required due to adverse weather and poor sailing conditions. What kind of equipment do you have that helps you cope with limited visibility or windy and rough seas?
I fly the MH-65E and, for adverse weather / low-visibility type operations, we have a really solid ground/sea mapping radar that is also our weather radar. A lot of units have these low-visibility, low-level routes that we can either get out to the ocean from or get back into the air station. So, in a situation where there was a SAR case offshore, and the visibility was poor with low ceilings, we’d use our ground mapping radar to map our route, making sure we’re not flying over any land. We usually have all of our hazards and obstacles marked out as well on there and we practice these routes.
In a situation where there was a SAR case offshore, and the visibility was poor with low ceilings, we’d use our ground mapping radar to map our route, making sure we’re not flying over any land
We also have the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors – not every aircraft has them, but those are great tools as well because, again, in adverse weather or degraded visibility we use that function to pick up heat signatures in the water and locate folks, if needed.
Our avionics also help, in high sea states or reduced visibility and hover operations – we also have special hover modes on our helicopter. Those are really, really helpful. We have a radar altitude hover mode where it will hold whatever altitude from 10 to 8,000 feet. And we also have a barometric pressure altitude hold, which is really cool. In the case of high sea states, it’s probably preferred to use the barometric altitude hold instead of a radar altitude hold because with the radar altitude, the swells are coming and going and, as that happens, the aircraft senses it and it’ll descend and climb and descend, which is not desirable in all cases. But the barometric pressure altitude hold is awesome because it’s just going to maintain that steady altitude regardless of the swells below us. It’s also useful for conducting hoists to large vessels like shipping containers or cruise ships, because we’ll move in a direction over the vessel and then back away. When you have your hover altitude set at 100ft, for example, you don’t want to climb to 100ft plus the height of the ship when you move over that vessel, as would happen with the radar hold.
For personal safety, we have flight gear requirements that we have to adhere to. So, when the water’s cold or the air temperature’s cold, we wear dry suits.
You’ve mentioned the marshes and trees, and the rigging on boats; do flora, fauna and human constructions often pose hazards to rescue missions?
Any of the inland rescues could be challenging having to avoid trees, but in the maritime environment I have not encountered too many issues with regard to plant life, like seaweed entanglement, but it certainly could pose a hazard. There is one example, though, that has to do with the marsh, the wetland environment along the eastern coast. Recreational boaters sometimes don’t pay attention to the tide and it will drop out and they’ll end up in the marsh surrounded by wetlands, grasses and mud. When that happens, our waterborne vessels can’t get to them because you’d need a very shallow draft boat to get in there. So they end up calling the Coast Guard, asking for helicopter support.
Out on the ocean, where there aren’t flora, fauna or human constructions, a significant hazard can be during a high swell with peaks and troughs. It’s a drill between the pilot who’s flying and the flight mechanic (our hoist operator) in the back. The flight mechanic can either extend or retract the cable in order to meet the changing swells. What we try to keep away from is paying out too much cable, especially with the rescue swimmer and survivor in the water. What could happen, if there was breaking surf in in the swells, is that all that cable could get wrapped around the rescue swimmer or the survivor, which is undesirable. So the flight mechanic has to manage that cable and make sure that they have the right amount out. If it’s really bad, the pilot probably can manipulate the collective to either descend or climb with the swells too. So it could be the flight mechanic managing the cable, the pilot managing their altitude, or a combination of both. Before getting into a situation like that, though, we would use our crew resource management in order to discuss the situation and make sure that everybody’s on the same page, so there wouldn’t be any surprises.
What is the most difficult sort of rescue that you have had to perform?
One of the more challenging ones that I had was when we were in Air Station New Orleans. There was a nasty storm kicking through the Gulf of Mexico. It’s usually fairly calm out there. A shrimp boat captain had decided that he wanted to drop anchor and, instead of allowing his crew to do it because it was a risky maneuver, he said he was going to do this as he didn’t want to put his crew at risk. When he was dropping anchor, it was paying out through a porthole on the starboard bow side and I think he accidentally stepped into the bite of the chain. It grabbed his leg and pulled his entire body up to that porthole and amputated his leg. Adding an extra awful dimension was that the captain was the only English-speaking crew member; the rest of his crew were Spanish speaking. Coast Guard Sector was busy translating, trying to figure out what was going on, while the shrimp boat captain remained at the bow of the boat. We got on scene probably two hours later, after all the information was relayed.
The boat being at anchor makes it challenging as it was dead in the water, and then the crew never had an opportunity to lower any of the booms, flags or rigging. This gave us only a little window on the back of the vessel to lower myself and the rescue litter down onto. When I got deployed to the boat and walked to the bow, I found him lying there and realized that his crew had put on some makeshift tourniquets to control the bleeding. I had my own medical tourniquet that I applied in their place. Then his crew members and I carried him – a fairly large guy – to the rear of the vessel on the stern so we could prepare the rescue litter device and hoist him back up into the helicopter.
There were so many challenges with that rescue: the strong winds and gusts; higher than normal sea state with pretty large swells; the vessel being at anchor and dead in the water; and the vessel with all of its gear and everything deployed providing a small window to hoist from
There were so many challenges with that rescue: the strong winds and gusts; higher than normal sea state with pretty large swells; the vessel being at anchor and dead in the water; and the vessel with all of its gear and everything deployed providing a small window to hoist from. Luckily, we got the captain safely off and took him to hospital. Those are the cases that make you and the entire crew work. The pilot had to maintain a very steady hover over this pitching vessel, and at a higher than normal altitude because of all the rigging. The flight mechanic had to be really aware of his cable management. We conned the flying pilot into a safe position so we could make it through that short little gap in the back of the boat. And then my job was making sure that the patient was safe in the rescue device and managing the litter – deployment and then recovery and then managing the trail line that was attached to it so we could keep the patient from not swaying too much.
You get called out for a variety of rescue missions. Do you prepare aircraft equipment and configuration based on that information or is the aircraft just ready to go for any situation?
We have a B0 (bravo zero) status and what that means is that when we’re in that status as an aircraft or as a crew, we have a 30-minute launch window. We keep our aircraft in a ready state, so every air station has a standard SAR configuration. If it’s a SAR mission unit, the aircraft will probably be fueled to a certain level; for example, 1,600lbs of fuel is probably a standard fuel load for most MH-65E aircraft. And then, on that aircraft, we have our standard rescue device, our rescue basket, the quick strop and our rescue sling, the rescue swimmer life raft, our normal crew life raft and then various other small requisite SAR-type components. So, if a call comes in and Sector says they have a request for a medevac or something a little bit abnormal, like a vessel taking on water, then as a crew, we have to think maybe we need to add a couple of things. If it’s a request for a medevac, we need to know if the patient is ambulatory, and if not, do we need a rescue litter? Our Coast Guard MH-60T, the Jayhawk, flies around with a rescue litter and a dewatering pump all the time as part of their standard configuration, but for us in the MH-65E, we’re weight limited and so have to make a decision to take those items for special cases.
America has a wide geography, and the US Coast Guard has stations all around it. How do you train for the different postings, and is there any environment or location that presents unique challenges for you or does everyone get the same training regardless of locale?
There is a baseline standard required training. These are usually conducted in the waters around that unit, whether it be the Great Lakes, the rivers, or the ocean in most cases. Each unit is a little bit different, so, on top of that, we have standardized procedures for a lot of unique rescues, such as cliff rescues. The units that have the opportunity to do cliff rescues will support a training program where they have to meet a number of required vertical-surface deployments and recoveries of the rescue swimmer. Air stations like Traverse City or Detroit have standardized rescue procedures with training plans to include rescue swimmer and device deployments to and recoveries from the ice. It’s up to those units to put them in their training plan and execute those on a routine basis.
As mentioned, what is a little newer is urban and inland SAR. As a Coast Guard, we find ourselves deploying in these environments a bit more frequently now. If there is an inland case that requires some help, they now call the Coast Guard because we’re good at hoisting. We’re still trying to figure out standardized procedures for that, but we do have a tactics, techniques and procedures booklet that goes through a lot of these items with best recommended practices, including swift water rescue, mountain flying, and urban SAR.
We have a tactics, techniques and procedures booklet that goes through a lot of these items with best recommended practices, including swift water rescue, mountain flying, and urban SAR
We do not contract out our training as we do it all in house. Sometimes there’ll be partnerships with the Department of Defense where we’ll share some hoisting practices and over-water procedures. The US Coast Guard also has a unique relationship with the Canadian Coast Guard. From time to time on the northwest coast, the Canadian Coast Guard will come down and we would share best practices and how to operate in the maritime environment. It is really cool because they bring down their large AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant helicopters, the big yellow ones.
You and your colleagues create and host the Flight Suit Friday podcast, where you discuss maritime SAR. Are there any aspects of SAR that you feel are underserved and need even more coverage?
The Flight Suit Friday podcast is great – we talk about a lot of Coast Guard SAR and best practices, and it’s a good outlet to share stories and spread messages. One thing that I think the podcast would benefit from is having conversations with different countries’ coast guards, militaries and civilian SAR groups, where we could have discussions with them about what their safety programs look like, how they conduct crew resource management, and what their best practices are for some of these challenging hoisting environments. Because, right now, we do tend to kind of stay within our circle. There have been some great interviews where the hosts have reached out and had these discussions with other folks, but I think we could really benefit from just maybe getting some other experiences out there.