Masters of rescue

  • Tethered to a helicopter, a Coast Guard swimmer enrolled at the rescue school in Astoria, Oregon, drops into the Pacific.
  • The Coasties"â„¢ classroom "“ big swells at the mouth of the Columbia River.
  • The Coast Guard"â„¢s HH-60 Jayhawk is the workhorse of big-water rescue. A variant of the Army"â„¢s Black Hawk, the Sikorsky aircraft has a range of more than 450 km.
  • Rescue swimmer Stephen Gonzalez plucked this mannequin from a coastal cliff "“ all part of the training at the Coast Guard"â„¢s Advanced Helicopter Rescue School.
Date:30 April 2009 Tags:, ,

At America’s elite helicopter rescue academy, Coast Guard professionals are put to the test by ocean cliffs, sea caves and a treacherous stretch of coastline known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. PM attends a challenging course at the school of disaster heroes.

I hear the helicopter before i see it. A gentle whir at first, the noise grows to chainsaw strength as the orange-and-white-striped pod hurtles into view and settles into a hover over a paved landing pad just a couple of hundred metres from the Pacific Ocean. Standing in the tall grass at the edge of the clearing, I brace myself against the rotor wash. One foot back, knees bent, head down. Even in my bulky flight suit and visored helmet, the wind whips through me. If I stood up straight, the blast would knock me down.

In seconds, the aircraft – a 20 m HH-60 Jayhawk – has settled gently onto the blacktop. The side door slides open, and the flight mechanic jumps out. At his thumbs up, I run toward the open cab of the helicopter.

The space inside is no bigger than the interior of a sport-utility and stacked with safety equipment: a rescue basket and harnesses used for pulling victims from the water, emergency survival suits and a life raft for the crew.

I hook my helmet into the aircraft’s internal communication system (ICS) – the noise inside is far too loud to hear anyone without it – and buckle myself into the jumpseat. I practice releasing the buckle a few times to be sure I’ll be able to get out quickly if necessary. I’ve been told that you can survive a helicopter crash in water if you hang on tight to something inside the aircraft. Let go, and you become disoriented. The windows have pull tabs that allow you to push them out in an emergency. As I’m studying them, we rise from the field with a barely noticeable shudder and swoop out toward the open ocean.

I’ve come to the Pacific Northwest in late autumn to attend the Coast Guard’s Advanced Helicopter Rescue School in Astoria, Oregon. Members of the armed forces have long been trained to deploy from aircraft to save downed comrades, and occasionally those skills have been applied to civilian rescue. The Coast Guard, however, didn’t have a programme in place until the mid-1980s to allow a specially trained rescuer to leave the helicopter.

By the early 1990s, every helicopter-equipped Coast Guard air station had rescue swimmers on staff, saving dozens of lives a year. A steady supply of new rescue situations, though, highlighted the need for more specialised training, and ultimately helped prompt the creation of the advanced school in 1995.

The one-week course is held eight times a year in the churning swells that form where the Columbia River meets the Pacific at the border of Oregon and Washington state – an area known as the Graveyard of the Pacific for the 2 000 shipwrecks strewn across the ocean floor. The course is timed to take advantage of the most hazardous conditions this region can rile up. Today, the classroom will be an area known as the Middle Grounds, near Cape Disappointment, Washington.

In the Jayhawk with me are two Coast Guard pilots stationed on Cape Cod, two Coast Guard rescue swimmers (one has come from Michigan, the other from Puerto Rico), a young flight mechanic named David Bowers and school instructor Brian Daniels. This week’s 16 students are already full-time professional rescuers. Most are Coasties, though two spots in each class are reserved for Air Force parajumpers or Navy rescue swimmers, who line up for the chance to train at the country’s most intensive helicopter rescue school. In all, half of the students have passed the gruelling physical and mental tests that earn them the right to jump out of aircraft for a living. The other half are helicopter pilots and flight mechanics. They’ve all practised countless airlifts before, and most have helped to save lives in real rescues. This training presents challenges, though, that many have not encountered: bigger waves, colder water, caves, cliffs and unpredictable ocean currents.

It takes only minutes to reach the training site. One of the pilots spots sea lions, and I strain to see them out the window. We’re not much more than a kilometre from shore, but the water is shallow: Every few minutes a 5 m wave breaks, spreading a wall of froth over the ocean.

By the time the pilots pull into a hover, rescue swimmers Michael von Bormann and Stephen Gonzalez are geared up in yellow rescue helmets, fins, masks and snorkels. They’ll take turns playing victim and rescuer today. Gonzalez – the victim – goes down first. “Swimmer ready,” Bowers announces through the ICS as Gonzalez sits with his legs out the open cabin door, his black fins pointing down toward the waves below. Over his orange dry suit, Gonzalez wears a harness that’s clipped into a hook on the end of the helicopter’s external hoist. “Direct deployment of rescue swimmer to surf from 50 ft (15 m),” Bowers says, retracting the hoist cable and easing Gonzalez out the door.

Below us, rotor wash creates a perfect white disc of foamy spray. Gonzalez, spinning slowly as he descends, looks like he’s about to hit the bullseye. The swimmer circles a forearm to the side of his body – the sign for “down”. Now detached from the ICS, Gonzalez must rely on precise hand signals that the flight mechanic can “read” from his kneeling position at the edge of the open aircraft door. Bowers, in turn, feeds the pilots a constant stream of information: “Swimmer going down. Swimmer halfway down. Swimmer at the water.”

Being immersed in these waves can feel like being in a gigantic washing machine. The 160 km/h winds whipped up by the rotors make matters worse. And so, today the crews are practising rescues using a catenary procedure. The swimmer remains attached to the hoist while the flight mechanic pays out enough cable – the stretch is called the catenary – to allow the bird to move to the side of the rescue scene, sparing victim and rescuer dangerous rotor wash.

The manoeuvre requires constant, precise communication between flight mechanic and pilots – and I listen in on all of it through the ICS. The men must synchronise the catenary length with the position of the helicopter. Too much line, and the rescue swimmer and victim in the water could become tangled in the excess, with deadly results. Too little, and they could be sent “waterskiing” – pulled violently along the surface like a skipping stone.

When he reaches the water, Gonzalez detaches from the hoist cable, which Bowers raises back to the chopper. The process is repeated with von Bormann, who will attempt to rescue Gonzalez. Once the two men are in the water, though, the waves pick up. Soon, Gonzalez and von Bormann are buried under a breaking swell more than 6 m high.

It’s only a couple of seconds until they pop up but from my vantage 15 m up in the helicopter, it seems much longer. “Took them a long time to surface on that one, didn’t it?” Daniels says, just moments before another wave breaks over the two tiny yellow dots – all that’s visible of Gonzalez and von Bormann. “Yeah, I didn’t see them for a little bit,” Bowers replies. It’s the mechanic’s job to keep the people in the water in sight but in these conditions, that’s nearly impossible. Another wave pummels the swimmers. “Alrighty, it’s getting to be pretty sporty,” one of the pilots announces.

The conditions seem harrowing but the mood in the aircraft is calm. It takes only a couple of minutes before both swimmers are safely back inside, the only casualty a lost snorkel. Before I ever got in the helicopter I understood the intensive preparation all these men go through to do their jobs. On the first day of the class, I watched Gonzalez, von Bormann and the other swimmers easily pass a timed physical-fitness test comprising sit-ups and push-ups – 50 of each – as well as chin-ups, pull-ups and underwater sprints in a local pool. The pilots fly weekly training missions and regularly practise emergency procedures in a simulator. From the back of the helicopter, though, it becomes clear that pulling off the rescues these men could face at any time demands more than individual physical or technical skill. It requires the ability to make decisions quickly and collaboratively. It requires each member of the four-person crew to remain focused and calm and to communicate clearly in the midst of chaos.

“They’re exposed to extreme situations,” says senior chief Clay Hill, the head of the school and himself a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. “We’re giving them the experience – and the confidence – to face these conditions.” Once they’ve dealt with harrowing scenarios in training, such as a high-seas rescue, dealing with the same circumstances during a real emergency becomes almost automatic, Hill explains.

By the end of a typical five-day course, the students have studied classroom theory and have put theory to the test. They have lifted a victim from rough seas using a rescue basket as well as a harness system. The swimmers have completed drills in caves. They have struggled out from the beach through a kilometre of breaking surf and dangerous riptides. All the students, swimmers as well as flight crews, have been left to float on the open ocean, zipped up in tiny, tentlike, one-man life rafts, simulating the experience of people they may some day be sent to rescue – individuals who may be too sick, too cold or just too scared to help themselves.

It’s the last day of class, and Gonzalez is again sitting at the open doorway of the helicopter, this time above a coastal cliff. Below the helicopter, a plastic dummy affectionately known as SpongeBob hangs precariously from the rock. Gonzalez’s job: rescue the mannequin without detaching himself from the hoist. As Gonzalez is lowered, Bowers again feeds the rest of the crew critical information: “Swimmer going down. Swimmer halfway down.”

Gonzalez finds his footing on the cliff. From the helicopter, the training exercise looks far more dangerous – and impressive – than the water rescue. It’s breezy and we’re only a few metres from unforgiving rock, yet the hover is perfectly still. I’m apparently not the only one who’s impressed: a crowd has gathered on a beach adjacent to the cliff.

As the swimmer manoeuvres toward the mannequin, Bowers feeds the pilots commands to keep the hoist line plumb. If there’s too much of an angle between the belly of the helicopter and the swimmer, he’ll swing like a pendulum when he loses contact with the cliff. “Right 10, right five,” Bowers says. “Easy right and hold, hold.” Keeping his weight on the hoist line, Gonzalez shuffles down-slope until he’s just beneath SpongeBob. Within a few minutes of exiting the helicopter, he has the dummy in a harness that attaches to his own and is ready to be pulled back up.

Secured in a gunner’s belt at the open cabin door, I’ve watched the crowd on the beach grow. It’s too far away to tell if anyone is clapping, but as Gonzalez slides into the helicopter with SpongeBob, I know I want to. “Swimmer and victim are in the cabin,” Bowers announces. And with that, the Jayhawk backs smoothly away from the cliff and swoops up over the rugged Pacific coastline.

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