Jagged rocks, rough seas, and thick clouds are just some of the hazards in this part of the world. With over 250 miles of rugged coastline from the Mendocino-Sonoma County line north to the California-Oregon border, the men and women of US Coast Guard Group/Air Station Humboldt Bay provide a vigilant 24×7, 365 watch over the residents and mariners of these waters.
Recently I had the privilege to spend a few days with the maintainers and air crews of the MH-65C Dolphin at the Arcata-Eureka Airport in McKinleyville, CA. With thee MH-65C Dolphins based at the Air Station, with a standard crew of 2 Pilots and a Flight Mechanic on each, and several Coast Guard rescue ships in the area, the Group is able to provide immediate Search and Rescue (SAR) assistance and respond to any maritime emergency in the region; along the coast, well offshore, or even inland.
When the helicopter crew is augmented with a Rescue Swimmer, the Coast Guard is able to provide a unique air asset that is able to provide immediate rescue and medical attention to victims that find themselves in dangerous situations.
As our formation of two orange helicopters flew over the endless Pacific Ocean under a thick low-lying marine layer, my training as a fixed winged airplane pilot had me nervously wondering if we would be able to make it to the distant shoreline should our engine quit. Dressed in a thick blue flight suit, and the only person on board without a bright orange dry suit, I would not last long in the chilly 40 degee Pacific North West water if we were to go down.
But that is exactly the situation that my crew was training for today. Be it from a helicopter crashing into the ocean, a boater being hit with a giant wave and sweeping him into the frigid ocean, or surfer being swept out by a riptide, the crew of the USCG SAR helicopter is able to rescuing a victim from the cold, nearly freezing temperatures of the ocean.
I was aboard “Coast Guard 6569” as we provided air cover for our sister-ship “Coast Guard 6573” and their rescue swimmers. We approached the 47-foot Motor Lifeboat (MLB) that was awaiting our arrival and started a slow orbit. 6573 entered a slow hover and dropped down to 15 feet above the dark green ocean.
With safety as the primary factor, our helicopter would be there to render immediate assistance should the primary training mission turn into an accident and anything happen to the other helicopter or rescue swimmers. And the MLB would be there to back us up. Luckily it was a relatively nice day and somewhat calm seas, but these crews train in all weather because they may be called upon rescuing someone in bad weather.
With the Orange helicopter slowed to a hover at 15 feet above the water, the Pilot ok’s the Flight Mechanic (FM) in the back of 6573 to slide the door of the Dolphin open. The Flight Mechanic is now the eyes of the operation. He clears the area below as the first Rescue Swimmer approaches the door of the helicopter and sits on the ledge. Three taps on the back from the FM, and in a split second, the Swimmer slides out of the door and falls into the ocean below. Thumbs up to let the Aircrew know that he survived the 2 story jump and he starts swimming through the swells to assume his position as the “rescue victim.”
In a matter of minutes, the aircrew is reset to launch another Swimmer into the water to simulate saving the “victim.” Check the winds, enter a stable hover, and keep an eye on the ocean. With the helicopter in a stable hover 15 feet above the undulating ocean, swells can make that jump anywhere from 5-30 feet in a matter of seconds. The FM looks down at the ocean and will time the Swimmer’s jump so as he/she hits the water at the top of the swell instead of the bottom, adding an extra 1-2 stories of free falling and potentially causing a harder fall and injuring the Swimmer.
Once in the water, the Rescue Swimmer swims several yards in the rough, cold sea while being battered by the down wash from the helicopter hovering. Oh, and did I mention there are sharks in the water too? This is not a job for the faint of heart. These swimmers are in top physical condition and continuously train to swim and save lives.
Once the victim, who may be very combative because they are scared, is stabilized, the Rescue Swimmer pulls the victim through the ocean back to the hovering helicopter where the FM has lowered a basket into the water. The Rescue Swimmer gets the victim into the basket and the Flight Mechanic hoists the victim up and into the helicopter. The hoist is then lowered to retrieve the Rescue Swimmer.
This ballet of continues for the rest of the 2 hr flight. Swimmers go in, swimmers come out. We then head to nearby Cresent City airport to stop for a quick lunch and more fuel and head back out to practice these drills some more.
In 2011 Humboldt Bay had 295 SAR Cases resulting in 24 lives being saved. It was the constant training, day and night, that resulted in the 24 lives being saved. The US Coast Guard motto is “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready), and the communities of the Pacific Northwest are very lucky to have the helos of Humboldt Bay watching over them. A very special thanks to Lt JG Andrew Taylor and the men and women of Group/Air Station Humboldt Bay for hosting me during my trip.
The full set of images from this visit can be found HERE