Fishers of Men

By Jeffrey Pollinger, Coast Guard District Thirteen

When 64-year old hiker John Williams was injured while climbing in the Olympic Mountains near Port Angeles, Wash., local rescuers felt there was little hope of safely evacuating him by land. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, transporting the man down the rugged, snow covered terrain would be too dangerous. So, local officials called the Coast Guard for help.

An HH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Air Station Port Angeles answered the call. Shortly before dusk, the crew located the man and moved in for the rescue. After maneuvering around the rocks and cloud cover, a rescue swimmer attached to a steel cable was lowered more that 100 feet to the rocks. In less than one minute, the swimmer strapped himself to the injured hiker and was hoisted back to the helicopter.

Stories of Coast Guard helicopter pilots operating in extreme environments and rescue swimmers performing dangerous rescues are not unusual. When Hurricane Katrina stuck, newscasts were saturated with video of Coast Guard helicopters maneuvering over dangerous urban terrain and rescue swimmers plucking stranded residents from rooftops.

But one group of people in the Coast Guard aviation field are often overlooked – Avionics Electrical Technicians (AET) and Aviation Maintenance Technicians (AMT).

Aviation technicians, commonly referred to as flight mechanics, play a vital role at any air station. These highly-trained professionals are responsible for maintaining and repairing both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in the Coast Guard’s fleet. Flight mechanics undergo months of formal and on-the-job training needed to work on the complicated systems on Coast Guard aircraft.

But the job of an AMT or AET is not limited to maintenance or repair work. The technicians that ensure that Coast Guard aircraft are in good working order are just as much part of the air crew as the pilots and rescue swimmers.

Aboard helicopters, AETs and AMTs are also responsible for operating the aircraft’s hoisting system and radio communications equipment. Operating the hoist is not a simple task – many things can go wrong.

The cable that’s used to lower or hoist rescue swimmers or rescue baskets can easily become entangled on the deck of a boat if not tended properly by the hoist operator; a situation that can bring a helicopter crashing down.

“Anytime you are hoisting from a boat, you have to worry about wrapping the cable up around gear on the boat”, said Petty Officer Trever Tufts, an aviation maintenance technician assigned to Air Station Astoria, Ore.

While lowering or hoisting rescue swimmers in heavy seas, the operator has to judge the wave action in order to properly position the swimmer. Any mistake can result in the swimmer taking the force of a large wave or being injured from a sudden jerk in the cable.

“A strong jerk in the line can throw a rescue swimmer’s back out”, Tufts said.

Another consideration is the load that the cable has to bear. Too much weight can cause the cable to snap – and possibly spring back and foul the rotor blades.

Electrical and maintenance techs are also called upon to perform another duty – to help fly the aircraft. While they don’t actually take to the controls, they provide guidance commands to the pilot through the helicopter’s intercom communication system. The guidance is crucial because the pilots have a limited field of vision.

“The pilots are counting on us to paint a picture of what’s going on”, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Josh Abler, an aviation electronics technician stationed at Air Station Astoria.

The guidance commands must be precise, as helicopters often operate within just a few feet of rock formations, mountains, trees and other obstructions. Often the flight mechanic has to give commands and operate the hoist at the same time.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Lamb, an AMT now assigned to Air Station Astoria, recalls an especially challenging rescue in Alaska that required him to skillfully perform several duties while trying to save two men who were in grave danger.

A 140-foot boat had caught fire in the Bering Sea and the only two crewmen were trapped at the bow of the boat by the flames. The helicopter crew quickly determined that lowering a rescue swimmer to the deck would be far too dangerous. The only option was to lower a rescue basket and hoist the men one at a time.

Once the helicopter was in position, Lamb lowered the rescue basket to the ship’s deck. But when 20-foot waves caused the boat to roll on its side, the basket slid along the deck and became entangled. However, Lamb eventually freed the basket, allowing one of the men to crawl into it.

Just before Lamb began the hoist, the boat rolled on its side again, causing the basket to swing off the deck and away from the burning ship. Acting like a pendulum, the basket and victim started to swing back towards the hull of the boat. Lamb quickly instructed the pilot to maneuver the helicopter away from the ship, preventing the basket and victim from swinging violently into the ship’s hull.

In the end, Lamb successfully hoisted both men to safety, despite thick smoke, 150-foot flames and 20-foot seas. It was his first rescue, but he remembers it well.

“When we got them both in the helicopter, we realized that they would have perished if they remained aboard the ship,” said Lamb

“The flames had actually started to burn holes in their survival suits”

Rescues like this clearly demonstrate that every member of an air crew has an equally important role. If no flight mechanic was aboard the helicopter that day, it’s unlikely the two men would have survived. With each member working in unison, flight crews can perform rescues in almost unthinkable environments.

John Williams, the hiker rescued from Brother Mountain by a Port Angeles air station crew, may not fully understand the complexities of a helicopter rescue, but he certainly appreciates how the crew performed.

“It was excellent work – it wasn’t good work, it was the best. They did a great job,” he said.

Here’s the video of the rescue.

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