Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory Mendenhall, 11th Coast Guard District public affairs.
In today’s world it has become quite normal to view jobs that require using your hands or getting them dirty as undesirable. There seems to be a collective dismissing of the importance and merit of manual labor. Skilled tradesmen not only afford us basic comforts, their talents can save lives. In the world of maritime rescue and security, there are few people more valuable to have around than a Coast Guard flight mechanic.
Officially called aviation maintenance technicians, or AMTs, Coast Guard aviation mechanics keep a nation-wide fleet of airplanes and helicopters ready to execute a variety of demanding and sometimes dangerous missions.
“Without AMTs we wouldn’t be able to keep these planes up and flying,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Miguel Arellano, an aviation maintenance technician at Air Station Los Angeles. “We make them able to go out and do those rescues.”
Coast Guard flight mechanics are charged with a wide array of responsibilities that can be grouped into two main categories.
“You have two main duties as an AMT,” explained Arellano. “You have your mechanical duties and you have your flying duties.”
When the helicopters or airplanes are not up in the sky, AMTs are working hard in the hangars, performing a multitude of tasks from metalsmithing, to conducting inspections, to changing tires, to servicing gearboxes, fuselages, wings and rotor blades. AMTs are also responsible for painting the aircraft those instantly recognizable colors.
When the alarm sounds and Coast Guard aircraft take to the skies, AMTs become an integral part of the flight crew, serving as flight engineers. AMTs are responsible for safely lowering and retrieving Coast Guard rescue swimmers and survivors during training and actual rescue operations.
“When you’re not hoisting,” said Arellano, “you’re backing up the pilots as an extra pair of eyes, observing air traffic and making sure they’re taking the right steps.”
These duties are not taken lightly and acquiring the skill and qualifications to perform them is no easy task. Hopeful AMTs must first meet the required score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test which is taken upon military enlistment.
“Next, they’ll go through the Airman Program for four months before A-school,” explained Arellano. “They’ll go to an air station and learn about the aircraft, how to tow the aircraft in and out and how to fuel. Then it’s off to A-school for five months.”
AMT A-School is held at the Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, N.C. The curriculum is intense. Students are taught about every Coast Guard aircraft platform, including the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, the C-130 Hercules airplane and the HC-144 Ocean Sentry airplane.
“You have a test every day for five months,” remembered Arellano. “It’s tough, but not impossible.”
Coast Guardsmen endure the training and become AMTs for many different reasons. Arellano originally wanted to pursue the path of a rescue swimmer.
“I was pretty athletic, but I had no idea what the whole rate entailed,” said Arellano. “I was mechanically inclined already and thought AMT sounded more like something I would want to do.”
It takes a lot of effort and training to become an AMT, even for those who possess a mechanical aptitude. For Arellano, however, the rewards are well worth the hard work.
“A lot of the time, it’s just work, work, work,” said Arellano, “but when you get that plane up just as the SAR alarm is going off and rescue three people off a sinking ship; that’s the true reward. We made it possible to save those lives.”
AMTs often stand humbly behind the scenes of glamorous rescues and don’t often receive the recognition their invaluable work deserves. So next time you hear the distinct sound overhead of a Coast Guard helicopter or airplane on its way to a rescue or patrolling coastal areas, think of the many skilled and distinguished men and women who keep the Coast Guard in the sky.