A rescue swimmer jumping from a helicopter to make a life saving rescue is often the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of Coast Guard aviation. What is missing from that picture is the hard work and efforts that happen behind the scenes to aid the mission of saving lives.
Coast Guard avionics electrical technicians are the unsung heroes of life saving at air stations nationwide. When an aircraft has an electrical mishap, AETs are on the task and at their best!
According to their job description, AETs maintain, repair and inspect avionics systems that perform communications, navigation, collision avoidance, target acquisition and automatic flight-control functions.
“Basically, we are the go-to-guys when it comes to anything that revolves around electronics in an airframe,” said Chief Petty Officer Jorge Colonnieves, AET shop supervisor at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater.
In addition, they inspect and maintain aircraft batteries, power generators and conversion and distribution systems. AETs also perform ground handling, aviation administrative duties and fill aircrew positions such as navigator, flight mechanic, radio operator and sensor systems operator.
In an AET’s world, the only thing routine is – change.
“Each day is different, which is one of the high points of my job,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony West, a three-year AET at Air Station Clearwater. “Any given day there could be several airframes in our hangar, all in need of different maintenance.”
As with all technology these days, updates are needed as more advanced versions develop.
“Knowing how to maintain and stay up-to-date with current technology is one of the biggest challenges in the AET field,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Marcotte, a 15-year AET veteran at the air station.
One of most recent changes at Air Station Clearwater is the transition from HH-60 Jayhawk J model to MH-60 Jayhawk T model. Air Station Clearwater is the last air station to have both ‘J’ and ‘T’ models in service.
“It’s like going from an old analog flip cell phone to a smart phone,” said Colonnieves. “The upgrade to the T model helps improve search and rescue missions greatly.”
Crews can now use a Forward-Looking Infrared Imaging system that display photos on several liquid crystal display screens in the back and in the front of the Jayhawk to better locate objects in the water. The compact, multi-sensor system with dual infra-red capable cameras has analog and digital interfaces, a multi target auto tracker, zooming capabilities and a laser. The laser can be used to ‘paint’ the target and generate a global position with distance in relation to the aircraft. This information can be passed to an operation center to better manage rescue and law enforcement assets.
“The ability to capture color pictures and video from multiple cameras provides a view for the pilots the older helicopters couldn’t do,” said Marcotte. “The aircrew can track a person in the water and find a range to the victim, mark the latitude and longitude and fly directly to them saving precious rescue time.”
Using the new screens, pilots can also access nearby airport and hospital information. The software automatically calculates how much time they have to complete each part of the rescue – and still have enough fuel to return to base.
In addition, every time even the slightest change is made to an airframe, AETs are tasked with maintaining the equipment and it’s paramount they know what they are doing.
“We take great care in ensuring all systems work as advertised,” said Colonnieves.
To make sure AETs are current with maintenance practices and procedures air stations nationwide are constantly hosting onsite training and sending their AETs to schools so they stay up-to-date with the most recent technological advances.
“I would recommend anyone interested in this field to have a firm grasp of basic electronics,” said West. “Even though the Coast Guard trains you very well, a basic understanding of electronics will grant a huge advantage during school and training.”
Using their technical knowledge, Coast Guard AETs perform a service that is cherished by the crewmembers who depend on them.
“Their knowledge of the system is really impressive,” said Lt. Chelsea Kalil, MH-60 Jayhawk pilot at the air station. “When you’re in their air and doing the mission, confidence in your equipment is vital and I feel safe knowing my crew and I are capable performing the mission at hand because of them.”
In direct contrast to their service brethren in other branches of the military, Coast Guard AETs fix the airframes they also fly on.
“We are in the unique position to be both fixers and flyers, and it’s definitely in our best interest to make sure all systems are working properly,” said West. ”We know our friends and shipmates depend on us. The most important part of my job is keeping the helicopters safe in the sky to complete the mission.”
When it comes to Coast Guard search and rescue, all too often the ones behind the scenes making the mission possible are forgotten.
“This job is exactly what I expected and love to train for,” said Marcotte. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else more rewarding and the chance to serve my local community makes it all that more special.”
Without the hard and often tedious work by the men and women behind the scenes, the aircraft wouldn’t be able to get out of the hangar. Coast Guard AETs are the unsung heroes behind the scenes every day making the mission possible for lives to be saved nationwide.