Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Littlejohn, 13th Coast Guard District public affairs.
Hail pelts the side of students’ faces as they prepare to plunge into the frigid surf. Their teachers put on fins while lifeguards float on jet skis just beyond the 12-foot breaking waves, crashing on the beach before them. This is no ordinary classroom, and these are no ordinary students.
The Coast Guard’s Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, held in Astoria, Ore., and the area surrounding the Columbia River entrance, typically does what its name implies. It’s a Coast Guard school that teaches Coast Guard helicopter crews advanced rescue techniques required for successful mission execution in extreme conditions.
One recent class of trainees took their extreme training as an opportunity to partner with other rescue professionals. The class convening at the end of January included air operations members of both the Los Angeles City and Santa Barbara County, Calif., fire departments as well as pararescuemen with the Royal Canadian Air Force 442nd Squadron out of Comox, B.C. The mix of students marked the first joint-agency class of its kind, strengthening partnerships and sharing knowledge with civilian and military rescue agencies with similar search and rescue missions.
“During Hurricane Katrina, it was evident that interagency cooperation needed major improvement,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Beaudry, lead instructor at the rescue school. “The Coast Guard has learned from other agencies. We reviewed the Los Angeles City Fire Department’s swift-water training techniques when we attended their river rescue program last July as the Coast Guard responds to river flooding as well. This week we hope to teach different agencies some skills to cope with heavy weather rescues, and what better training environment than the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’?”
The entrance to the Columbia River, dubbed the “Graveyard of the Pacific” due to the area’s historically high volume of shipwrecks, provides the ideal environment for training air rescue personnel to perform in extreme conditions.
The week the students trained was no exception. Students operated in heavy surf conditions during a hail storm near the river’s entrance on a day when nearly every river bar in the Pacific Northwest was closed due to inclement weather.
Adding to the unique experience for all trainees, flights were performed from different platforms. Helicopter pilots from Air Station Astoria at Sector Columbia River, Ore., flew MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots flew a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter. Students from the various agencies were lowered into the water and practiced rescues in high seas.
“The U.S. Coast Guard AHRS school provides the best instructors and training environment for high-wave rescues,” said Capt. Jean Leroux of the 442nd Squadron. “It has been a privilege for us to fly here and attend this course to see if we can learn something from each other.”
Students showed an appreciation for the Coast Guard’s ability to operate in extreme weather and environments, and a reoccurring ingredient to mission success became evident: standardization.
“I’ve really come to understand the value of standardization,” said Timothy Ernst, Los Angeles City Fire Department battalion commander. “Probably the most important thing I’ve learned this week is the importance of standardizing everything from the most basic commands to the most technical of operations.”
Coast Guard mission success can be attributed in part to its standardization policies. When aircrews from all over the country, having never met or worked with each other before, came together for Hurricane Katrina relief, they were able to work as a team because all commands and procedures are the same throughout the Coast Guard. This point is driven home at AHRS.
Back on the beach, groups of students took turns wading out into the water and swimming out through the breakers. Later, through chattering teeth on the walk back to the parking lot, conversations filled the air. Trainees left the rescue school better able to serve their communities, trained to perform missions in the most extreme of circumstances. But they also went home with something else that cannot be taught in any classroom – the camaraderie found among rescue personnel, regardless of service.
To see the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School trainees in action, check out the video below!