Cmdr. Brian Wetzler, US Coast Guard, Ret.
Guest Lecturer and West Point Alumni Association Outreach Manager
Current Job: I’m a retired US Coast Guard officer and aviator. I served 24 years on active duty, including 14 years amassing 3,200-plus hours in the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, mostly in search-and-rescue. My current involvement in the helicopter community is primarily as a guest lecturer. My other job is with the West Point Association of Graduates at the US Military Academy at West Point. I serve as an outreach manager for alumni and their families.
First Aviation Job: I was a junior officer and newly minted pilot in the HH-65 at Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico. Our job was mostly search-and-rescue, but we also did a lot of drug interdiction missions throughout the Caribbean.
Favorite Helicopter: Well, this one is easy! The HH‑65 Dolphin, US Coast Guard variant.
“Coast Guard aviation is as exciting, fulfilling, and challenging as any aviation career you can hope to pursue.”
How did you decide helicopter aviation was the career for you?
The idea of hovering captured my imagination. Coming from a fixed-wing mindset, I gradually came to discover that although fixed-wing aircraft propel themselves through the air, they don’t really “fly” in the spirit of nature’s original pilots (birds). But helicopters? They may not have wings, but they fly!
My pursuit of a career in helicopters was a combination of pure fascination with the aircraft and a love of the Coast Guard mission.
How did you get to your present position?
I began speaking and presenting on aviation safety while I was on active duty and flying. I traveled to numerous aviation units to perform training, and folks seemed to find great value in it. I still receive invitations to speak—basically through word-of-mouth chatter in the community.
What are your career goals?
In the aviation realm, I plan to continue speaking whenever and wherever I’m invited to do so. Much of my speaking is about how my crew and I survived a catastrophic helicopter mishap when we shouldn’t have. My presentations tell the story of the mishap flight, our hours in a life raft awaiting rescue, and the many lessons we learned.
Even though my personal flying experience gets older each year, the human factors I discuss in my training do not. As technology seems to take on more and more responsibility in the cockpit, I believe it’s important to remember that flying remains primarily a human undertaking.
What advice would you give someone pursuing your career path?
If “pursuing my path” means flying helicopters for the Coast Guard, my first bit of advice would be to believe the hype. Coast Guard aviation is as exciting, fulfilling, and challenging as any aviation career you can hope to pursue.
Educate yourself on every existing pathway, program, and opportunity to get into the Coast Guard and, ultimately, into Coast Guard aircraft. Locate and contact someone who’s actively flying in the Coast Guard and get as much insider wisdom and guidance as you can. Be aware that you are up against a bureaucracy of sorts, so be patient, passionate, and persistent. And, of course, get razor sharp on your aviation knowledge.
Who inspires you?
The entire first shelf of my bookcase is dedicated to George Washington. I have no words to adequately describe his importance to world history or the timelessness of his lessons on leadership, character, and pure grit. I would love to have served with him. Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale, US Navy, also comes to mind. He was a naval aviator, the senior American prisoner of war in Hanoi [in then-North Vietnam] for seven years, and a Medal of Honor recipient. When I really need a shot of strength or inspiration, I’ll read one of his speeches, contemplate the man’s character, and be awestruck all over again. My son’s middle name is Stockdale.
In a more contemporary timeframe, I’m inspired by people in any venue who pursue excellence with sublime passion. It could be [quarterback] Tom Brady, [rock climber] Alex Honnold, or the kid tending bar at the resort who tells me he’s going to own the whole place someday and really means it.
Tell us about your first helicopter ride.
I was in the Navy at the time, contemplating a cross commission to the Coast Guard and a change from fixed-wing to helicopters. I went out on a flight in an HH-65 with a crew from Coast Guard Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, and said, “Oh, yeah! It’s going to be helicopters for me!”
What still excites you about helicopter aviation?
Maritime search-and-rescue: it’s some of the coolest work in the world.
Complete this sentence: I know I picked the right career when …
… I look over my shoulder into the aircraft cabin and see a person we just rescued looking back at me—soaking wet, cold, but wearing a big smile. They’re going home to their family tonight.
Complete this sentence: I love my job, but I’d rather work for a paper company in Scranton when …
… I get drafted to do a track-and-balance!