HAI/Dan Sweet Photo
For many years, the US Coast Guard had a reputation for responding to distress calls in some of the worst weather imaginable. More recently, however, the Coast Guard is working to reverse the mission-driven “we have to go out, we don’t have to come back” mindset for pilots and boat crews. At US Coast Guard Sector North Bend, based in Oregon, training and rescue operations put safety first.
Oregon’s southern coast is a veritable sports enthusiasts’ paradise, with opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and beachcombing among the outdoor leisure choices available to residents and visitors. With that abundance of recreational options comes a corresponding number of challenges for the unlucky or ill-prepared who suddenly find themselves in need of rescue. When those rescue calls come in, US Coast Guard Sector North Bend, part of the 13th Coast Guard District headquartered in Seattle, Washington, often responds.
While the sector’s fleet of motor lifeboats or its 110-ft. (33.5-m) Island-class cutter handle some of the marine rescues, more often one of its five search-and-rescue (SAR) Airbus/Eurocopter MH-65E Dolphin helicopters gets dispatched. Because the Dolphin is among the only SAR helicopters in Oregon equipped with a hoist, sector crews respond to as many calls for inland emergency services as they do for coastal or offshore rescue. For those rescues, the hoist is used to conduct vertical-surface cliff rescue along the steep bluffs of the southern Oregon coast or to deploy rescue swimmers to vessels in heavy seas. On land, the hoist allows crews to conduct rescues amid tall trees or in other areas unsuitable for landing.
Recognizing that it was receiving more calls for inland hoist rescues, the sector adapted its training program to better meet those requirements. According to commanding officer Capt. Breanna Knutson, inland SAR and associated training is “unique to our AOR [area of responsibility] [and something] that you don’t see in a lot of other Coast Guard units.”
Sector North Bend’s AOR extends 220 mi. (354 km) to the north from Oregon’s southern border with California. The sector is based—as its name reflects—in the comparatively remote location of North Bend, Oregon. The versatility of its helicopters and boats enables sector personnel to handle a wide range of missions, from SAR, for which the Coast Guard is best known; to drug interdictions and law enforcement operations as part of the Department of Homeland Security; to supporting marine wildlife research studies, fisheries patrol, and maritime safety programs.
With such a variety of missions and ever-changing weather, risk mitigation is a factor for every person in the command. “I consider my biggest responsibility is ensuring the operational risk management of all of our missions,” says Knutson. “We’ve recognized that each person having an input as well has really changed the way we think about risk and risk management.”
Forty years ago, in November 1981, one of the then Air Station North Bend’s helicopters crashed in severe weather. The Sikorsky HH-52A SeaGuard was responding to a night call from a fishing boat in distress during a severe storm with winds exceeding 90 kt. and seas with 25-ft. (7.6-m) waves. After launching, the crew realized that the weather was deteriorating fast. While they were trying to return to base, an engine malfunctioned and they crashed attempting an autorotation into the surf line. The three-person crew included station commanding officer Capt. Frank W. Olson, copilot Lt. Glenn Gunn, and rescue swimmer AE2 Kenneth A. Zeigler. Olson died after ensuring his crew accessed the life raft.
The Coast Guard is working to reverse this mission-driven “we have to go out, we don’t have to come back” mindset. “We have a robust and committed safety management system within the Coast Guard, particularly within Coast Guard aviation,” says Rear Adm. Melvin Bouboulis, Coast Guard District 13 commander. “And I think it’s changed that [mindset] around. We took a real hard look at ourselves, I would say in the 2010 to ’15 time frame, maybe even earlier than that, 2007 to ’15, where we had a rash of mishaps that was a little surprising for us. And we looked hard at aviation and purposefully changed that philosophy.”
Today, risk mitigation begins the minute a call comes into the sector’s command center. “We have cards that we follow with our [air] crews,” says Knutson. “The boat stations do the same thing. And then when we check in on every mission with our command center, we report what our risk scores are.”
Perhaps the largest variable for any rescue mission is the weather. Western Oregon is renowned for heavy, warm rains, long periods of gray cloud cover, and periodic winter storms with hurricane-strength winds. When the summer sun heats the interior of the state, additional fog is drawn off the ocean, lowering visibility.
“In terms of the type of flying that we do, low-visibility situations that can happen in the blink of an eye” are unique to North Bend and the Oregon coast, says Knutson. Consequently, the sector trains extensively for instrument flight, and personnel appreciate the improved radar, avionics, and navigation equipment of the MH-65E, which add to crew comfort with the rapidly changing weather.
Scenario-Based Training Reduces Risk
Personnel stationed at Sector North Bend routinely serve there four years, with senior officers rotating through in about three years. The continuity of crews helps to further reduce risk because those in their second, third, and fourth years have already experienced many of the missions and have a transferable knowledge base to share with incoming personnel. Some personnel have the additional luxury of returning to the area. Knutson was assigned to the sector early in her career, and she has now come back as the commanding officer.
Scenario-based training therefore plays a large role in preparation, risk management, and aircraft-rescue coordination. Planning for potential risks provides personnel the opportunity to consider multiple options before conducting the mission. “We’re lucky here because we have a command center,” says Knutson. “Not every air station has a command center located with it. But because we’re also a sector, we have a command center. We can go into the command center and say, ‘Here’s the scenario for the pilots and the air crew that don’t know what’s coming,’ and then we’ll announce it like it’s an actual search-and-rescue case. [When] the pilots come into the command center, [we say], ‘Here’s what you have. How are you going to do it?’ ”
Being a sector with both aircraft and boats provides additional resources for training. Crew on a station boat in the ocean pretending to be in distress is one example Knutson gives of a scenario that is used to help flight crews figure out what to do in bad weather in terms of instrument flying and everything else they need to consider.
The Mission: Be Flexible
Mission focus can change at a moment’s notice. A flight crew supporting a whale research project with marine biologists aboard, for example, could be assigned a rescue call. In most cases, the crew would return to base, drop off the biologists and refuel, then respond to the rescue. Flight crews are routinely briefed, however, to be prepared to drop passengers at the nearest safe location and conduct the rescue immediately depending on specific situations.
While most Coast Guard rescue missions are deemed successful because crews remove people from dangerous situations, missions can equally be deemed successful when the crew itself avoids danger. Flight crews routinely reassess the risk-to-reward ratio, particularly during missions under adverse conditions. Avionics Electrical Technician First Class (AET1) Tim Gigliotti, a flight mechanic, recalls a night rescue at a point called God’s Thumb, near Lincoln City, Oregon. A pair of hikers got caught in a cove by high tides, and ground-based ropes crews were unable to assist from above. The helicopter arrived on scene around 11 pm.
According to Gigliotti, the winds were unpredictable, there was a slight overcast layer, and there was no illumination. There are no homes or city lights on that part of the coast to provide reference points, so the pilots were using night-vision goggles (NVG). “So they’re on NVGs,” recalls Gigliotti. “And I’m trying to use our night sun to illuminate underneath us so I can see what we’re doing. But the night sun is blooming out the pilots’ NVGs. So we have to basically do this balancing act of, Who needs to be able to see?”
Rescues from tides and cliffs are part of regular training scenarios, and the helicopter crew attempted to follow proven procedures to complete the mission. “We tried to put the [rescue] swimmer down twice, and the pilots were having a hard time maintaining station because there were so few visual references,” says Gigliotti. “I’d get to swerve about 20 to 30 feet down, and we’d start to get a swing. I’d have them pull power to arrest the swing, and then we’d pull it back up and reset and discuss with the swimmer. After the second time, I said, ‘Why are we doing this? These guys are in no distress. There is no medical emergency.’ ”
They dropped hypothermia bags and a radio with a trail line and told the hikers the crew would return in the morning to get them out. “So we knew they were safe, and we were a phone call away if conditions changed,” says Gigliotti. The next morning, however, the hikers were able to walk out after the tide ebbed.
Part of a Team
Like all helicopter operations—military or commercial—the crew that flies the helicopter is just a small segment of the personnel required to keep the aircraft mission ready. As with other branches of the military, the Coast Guard’s command structure is seniority based, with the most experienced officers and senior petty officers taking leadership roles. The commanding officer is at the top of the leadership chain, assisted by the executive officer, the second in command. At Sector North Bend, the chief pilot, a commander (O5), also serves as the operations officer. Despite the organization’s structure encompassing boat crews, each of the officers holding a leadership role is an aviator.
Most personnel at Sector North Bend have primary roles, such as pilots or maintenance crew. They also hold collateral duties involving flight scheduling, command security, training, standardization, housing, public affairs, or record keeping. “Because we’re a sector, not an air station, our operations officer is also in charge of all boat-station operations,” says Lt. Tyler Reynolds, a pilot and the sector’s collateral public affairs officer. One of the next most senior pilots then takes the role of air operations officer, managing the air side “to take some of the load off of the actual operations officer.”
Being responsible for many roles means training for both routine and specific scenarios. “From the flight mechanic side, the biggest training that we probably do here is
vertical-surface training,” says Gigliotti, who, as a senior petty officer, is not only a flight mechanic but also a watch captain, the maintenance control petty officer, a member of the quality assurance team, and a flight mechanic instructor. “There’s no place else in my career we’ve ever done it. It’s a very nuanced evolution to get the swimmer down and to get them over to the survivor.”
For SAR work, operating an MH-65E typically involves four crew members: a pilot in command (PIC), a copilot, a flight mechanic/hoist operator, and a rescue swimmer. Pilots begin training in flight school and advance through various levels of proficiency. Coast Guard pilots begin with standard copilot qualifications, then upgrade to SAR pilot and then first pilot, which means they are qualified to fly the aircraft.
SAR pilots fly from the right seat—the PIC position in Coast Guard aircraft—but they cannot conduct hoist operations until they qualify for that role. First pilots are limited in their mission assignments—no night missions without a copilot—but they can fly with newer copilots. The next upgrade is to aircraft commander, which means the pilot is qualified to perform all missions.
The role of onboard flight mechanic is a jack-of-all-trades, simultaneously conversing with the pilots to execute the mission, operating the rescue hoist and supporting the rescue swimmer, and listening for any unusual sounds from the aircraft—all while working next to an open door, exposed to the elements.
When the Coast Guard responds to an emergency such as a sinking boat or to rescue someone stranded on the side of a cliff or lost in the forest, the rescue swimmer is the person who leaves the aircraft to conduct the rescue. Rescue swimmer training takes 16 weeks and is conducted over a 6-month period.
Coast Guard rescue swimmers are in a unique situation: they are part of a rescue team but perform nearly independently as soon as they leave the helicopter. Once out of the helicopter, the rescue swimmer communicates with the pilots and the flight mechanic primarily through hand signals. For more complicated issues, such as giving patient updates while performing medical work or providing a time frame to complete the mission, the rescue swimmer uses a radio.
“We are trained to function on our own,” says Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer First Class (AST1) Rob Sullivan. “We will direct the whole [rescue] as we see fit in the best way possible, whether that’s on land, or on the side of the cliff, or in the water.”
Much of Sullivan’s work involves rescuing visitors who have fallen and injured themselves after climbing the cliffs along the Oregon coast to take pictures. “The vertical-surface aspect is definitely unique compared to the other places that I have been stationed,” he says.
As with the other crew members, the rescue swimmer has a voice in whether to proceed with a mission, including once the rescue crew arrives on scene.
“As swimmers, we have the final say as to whether or not we’re going to go down,” says Sullivan. “I have never been in a situation where I’ve said no. But there have been times where I’ve noticed, Hey, this might be a little bit dangerous. But thinking your way through the situation, having a plan, things like that really help.”
Sullivan is aware that rescue swimmers tend to get media attention on many rescues, thanks to cameras the Coast Guard uses during missions. News crews and Hollywood favor this footage because of the dynamic rescue work it captures. But what does he wish the public knew about being a rescue swimmer? “How incredibly difficult it is to become one,” says Sullivan. “And that we are trained to conduct rescue missions basically by ourselves in any environment. Whether it’s water, mountains, deserts, or forests, we’re ready to go.”
Aircraft Maintenance Is Serious Business
The Coast Guard operates both MH-65 short-range recovery helicopters and larger, longer-range Sikorsky HH-60 Jayhawks. In 2019, it began transitioning the MH-65 from the Delta to the Echo model. It’s been a little over a year since Sector North Bend’s Dolphins were upgraded, and pilot reviews are positive. “It’s great,” says Knutson. “I hear very few complaints. The transition period, people getting used to the aircraft, took a little time. But now that we’ve been flying it for a year, I only hear great feedback [about] all of the improved avionics and all the upgrades that we got with the Echo.”
The maintenance teams give the upgrade positive reports as well. “I’ve worked on 65s my whole career,” says Gigliotti. “I started with HH Charlies and then the MH Charlies, the Deltas, and now the Echoes. I think it’s a fantastic aircraft. It’s definitely done an exemplary job.”
The maintenance rotation for the sector’s five helicopters usually has one Dolphin in heavy maintenance, where the aircraft is stripped down, inspected, and rebuilt. The maintenance team works in shifts and includes 40 to 50 personnel. Most are already skilled in specific maintenance areas or have a general knowledge of the entire aircraft. Others are still undergoing training for their rating (military specialty). The crews track the maintenance rotation closely to ensure that a helicopter is always mission ready.
For the heavy-maintenance period, the crews will review flight-hour schedules to determine what components must come off and any additional work that might be needed as a result. “We’ll usually look at what big-ticket items are coming due and what maintenance we can do early to ball into that package,” says Gigliotti. “If we have to do a little maintenance a month or two early or a hundred hours earlier than needed, it’s advantageous for us to try to get those all to sync up.”
One element all sector personnel are keenly aware of is salt. Left on aircraft, salt becomes corrosive, aggressively eating into metals and avionics. To combat it, the crews at Sector North Bend regularly wash the aircraft and engines. They become familiar with where corrosion commonly occurs, especially inconvenient, difficult-to-reach places such as the wheel wells and underbelly.
The flight mechanic conducting the mission is responsible for pre- and post-flight inspections. After a mission, any available shift personnel also assist in the inspections. “It’s always better to have extra eyes on the aircraft,” says Gigliotti. “And the extra hands help to expedite the process.”
Today, risk assessment is a priority for all Coast Guard missions. “When I first started, we had conversations about it, but it was not as prolific as it is now,” says Knutson. “Now, before we go on a mission, even just a routine training mission, we do a risk analysis and talk about all the risk factors for this particular mission, each and every time we go out. I think the Coast Guard’s done a really good job of formalizing our risk-management procedures.”
Portrait of a Rescue Swimmer: AST1 Rob Sullivan
Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer First Class (AST1) Rob Sullivan did not plan to join the US Coast Guard. He was deciding between the Navy SEALs and the Air Force Pararescue specialists, knowing that both service branches depended heavily on those teams during wartime. When he joined up, however, no war or conflict was occurring, so he chose the Coast Guard because it was conducting missions regularly instead of just training every day. “I thought I’d be in for a few years, but it’s been so much fun I’ve stuck around,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan has served for 24 years and been a rescue swimmer for 21. He is now preparing to transition to the civilian sector. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, he learned about Coast Guard rescue swimmers through library books. He says he had to drive more than an hour to find a recruiter because “they weren’t going to come to me.”
Training to be a rescue swimmer takes 16 weeks over 6 months. Rescues along the Oregon coast usually involve hoisting survivors or recovering bodies from the ocean, but Sullivan is also trained for other environments, including deserts, forests, and cliffs. The breadth of knowledge needed for this work makes the job incredibly challenging, as does the fact that the rescue swimmer is required to work independently once out of the helicopter.
“You have to be able to function on your own,” Sullivan explains. “We deploy alone, so you have to be able to take charge of a situation and be prepared to do everything by yourself, and just push through any obstacles you might encounter, to complete the mission.”
The Oregon coast where Sullivan does much of his work is about 50% cliffs. “A lot of people take pictures of the sunset or coastline, and they fall off the rocks and injure themselves,” he says. Because the ocean water is never warm, hypothermia is always a risk for the people needing rescue as well as the rescue swimmer. While Coast Guard crews routinely wear Mustang Suits when flying, the rescue swimmer’s options are more limited: either a wetsuit or a dry suit.
“I’ve always got to keep hypothermia on my mind. I definitely check patients for signs of hypothermia,” says Sullivan. “The water is a bit shocking when you enter. You notice it, but it’s not bad because of the protective gear we’re wearing. But after a while, you start to feel some cold. But there are worse places to be.”
For the record, Sullivan says that Air Station Traverse City, Michigan, was his coldest duty station. “That’s where you’re floating around in ice chunks.”
As he nears retirement, Sullivan says he will miss his job. “My favorite jobs are the daytime hoisting flights on a nice, beautiful day. I just went out this morning and did it. It was a beautiful day, and I was thinking, ‘This is great. I’m getting paid to do this. It’s so fun.’ ”