The US Coast Guard (USCG) has a deserved reputation for having highly skilled helicopter crews. This is a result of a wealth of experience and constant training. Graduate-level training is conducted at the service’s Advanced Helicopter Rescue School (AHRS). The course was begun in 1996 for USCG rescue swimmers and has evolved into a school for all members of helicopter crews.
The instructors come from the standardisation office of the USCG Aviation Training Center located in Mobile, Alabama, and consist of MH-65 (Dolphin) and MH-60 (Jayhawk) pilots, flight mechanics, and rescue swimmers. The actual course is held in and around the Astoria, Oregon, USCG Air Station. This location was chosen because it consistently has the rough seas the school needs to conduct the training.
Each class is five days long. There are eight classes taught each year, four in the late fall and four in late winter. Each class has 16 students – four pilots, four flight mechanics and eight rescue swimmers. The course uses an MH-60 based at Air Station Astoria and an MH-65 from another air station.
“One of our major training goals is to emphasise crew co-ordination,” explained Chief Dan Coleman, an AHRS flight mechanic (FM) instructor. “Crew co-ordination is essential for mission success. Each person on the crew has a role and input into how a mission will be accomplished. We want them to learn to trust each other and feel free to speak up if an issue arises during the training evolutions and real rescues when they return to their unit. It is important for every crew member to participate in developing the rescue plan and not have one person dominate the decision-making process.”
Each morning of the class is used to talk about the evolutions that will be flown later in the day with all the possible difficulties the students might encounter. Once they are flying, the instructors will perform the first evolution to show the students what it looks like. Then, the student will take over and perform the evolution. They start in smaller seas and work up to bigger waves and breaking surf.
The instructors let the rescue swimmer students know on the first day that this will be one of the most physically demanding schools they have ever attended. They are going to be deployed into very heavy seas again and again. The water temperature is very cold and they are wearing dry suits, which make swimming difficult. By the end of the week, they are very tired.
The first evolution is the surf swim from shore to give the rescue swimmer exposure and confidence working in heavy seas. They may have never worked in large waves like these. They learn the techniques for swimming in heavy surf and how to tow a victim through the water in these conditions. It also gives the students exposure to swimming in a dry suit in cold water, which they may never have done if they come from an air station in a warmer climate.
The rescue swimmers will be picked up by the helicopter and moved into the waves just outside the surf. There, the rescue swimmers will take turns being the rescuer and victim for hoist evolutions. The FM is taught to watch the wave sets and anticipate how they will impact the people in the water. That is one of the biggest challenges for the students, reacting to what hasn’t happened yet by anticipating the wave action. It is a very dynamic, three dimensional environment. The FM also has to monitor the rescue swimmer to makes sure they aren’t getting tired or beaten up by the waves and might need to come back up into the helicopter and re-evaluate the rescue plan.
“When the student pilots start getting into larger seas, it is important they learn how to manage their hover height,” stated Lt Damon Thornton, an MH-60 AHRS instructor pilot. “The radar altimeter is not a good tool in heavy seas because they will yo-yo up and down as the waves pass under the aircraft. So, we have tell them to use more of a visual scan to maintain the proper height as well as depend on their flight mechanic to guide them. That is a big adjustment for many pilots.”
The pilots begin to learn how to evaluate the waves, which often come in sets. They figure out the time interval between waves to determine if there is time to insert or extract the rescue swimmer between waves. They may have to wait until an entire set goes by because the interval is too short to work with.
For vertical surface rescues, the FM role is to place the rescue swimmer on the cliff and then position the helicopter closer to the vertical surface so there is tension on the hoist cable ,which will keep the rescue swimmer in contact with the surface and he can then just walk to the victim. The rescue swimmer is positioned below the victim and the FM then uses very small movements of the cable to lift the swimmer to the victim. The goal of this evolution to is teach the FM how to make very small helicopter and hoist cable movements to accomplish the rescue. The FM also has to keep the helicopter main and tail rotors clear of obstacles at the same time.
The key element here is that the helicopter is used to move the rescue swimmer along the cliff both vertically and horizontally. The rescue swimmer is not moving themselves. The swimmer is keeping positive contact with his feet on the surface, sitting back in his harness, and using hand signals to the flight mechanic to tell the helicopter where he wants to be moved. The swimmer is never off the hoist cable and uses the rescue strop to secure the victim to him/herself.
In this section of the class, the pilots are taught how to analyse the winds and how they will be affected by the terrain. They also discuss some lessons learned from past vertical rescues that went wrong. They learn how to use their instruments to determine the wind patterns and how to develop safe exit routes in case of an engine failure or other mechanical issues. They fly by the cliff at a specific airspeed and altitude and see how the aircraft reacts. Power management is very important during these evolutions, especially for the MH-65.
Caves and rafts
The final major event for the rescue swimmers is the cave and wet rock exercises. These evolutions don’t involve the helicopter. This gets rescue swimmers in a cave so they can see how the water moves and how to navigate inside caves safely. The wet rock exercise involves the rescue swimmer learning how to reach a victim stranded on a rock surrounded by water and being swept by waves. It teaches them how to use waves to help them climb a rock outcropping and how the waves act around a solid obstacle.
The last day involves the entire crew being put in a raft as if their helicopter has ditched in a heavy sea environment. They learn about how to use the raft and the survival equipment. While this is annual mandatory training at every air station, it is often done in a pool, not heavy seas in cold water, which is much more realistic. The pilot and FM students are also hoisted up and down into the water to give them a better idea of what the rescue swimmer goes through.
Every morning of the class, the instructors will critique the previous day’s flights. They have an audio/visual department at the Aviation Training Center that will come out to the school and video tape every training evolution. Each helicopter also has a video camera located on the hoist that looks down and also records the audio conversations among the crew. They use these recordings to debrief every mission and to show the students how they are progressing from day to day.
At the conclusion of every week of class, the instructors sit down and do what they call a ‘hot wash’. They review the comments and critiques from the students and talk about what they, as instructors, did right and wrong. They can change things quickly based on this review, even as soon as the class that will be taught the next week. The students also fill out electronic surveys when they return to their home station, which are collated and used to change the course to make sure it is meeting the student’s needs.
This course is considered one of the best of its kind found anywhere. Some classes have slots allotted for US Navy rescue swimmers; US Air Force pararescuemen have also attended. The Royal Canadian Air Force has brought helicopters and crews to the course several times. This type of standardised training for hazardous rescue situations is part of why the US Coast Guard helicopter rescue crews are among the best in the world.