Written by Lt. Shawn Lansing, helicopter rescue swimmer No. 369.
In the early hours of Feb. 12, 1983, 34 crewmembers from the motor vessel Marine Electric were in the fight of their life. Caught in the grip of a fierce winter storm, their 605-foot ship capsized, throwing them into the frigid 39-degree waters 30 nautical miles east of Chincoteague, Va. Having radioed a mayday prior to the vessel capsizing, the crew desperately clung to the hope that rescue crews would arrive and hoist them to safety.
When a Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., HH-3F helicopter finally made it on scene, they found a sea of survivors spread out over the surface of the water. Recognizing the severity of the situation, the aircrew’s training took over. The pilots quickly positioned the helicopter into a hover, and the flight mechanic started lowering the rescue basket to the nearest person in the water. Even though the basket was directly on top of the individual, they were too hypothermic to climb in.
After multiple attempts, the aircrew made the tough decision to move on to the next victim, but again the individual was too incapacitated to climb into the basket on their own. Over and over the same scene played out that fateful morning. At day’s end, even with the assistance of an additional Navy helicopter, only three of the 34 crewmembers would be rescued.
Over the ensuing weeks and months, a marine casualty investigation was conducted to determine factors in the sinking of the Marine Electric and resulting tragic loss of life. With the facts in hand, a congressional hearing was convened.
The birth of the helicopter rescue swimmer program
On Oct. 30, 1984, Congress acted on the hearing’s findings and directed the Coast Guard to “establish a helicopter rescue swimming program for the purpose of training selected Coast Guard personnel in rescue swimming skills.”
With some of the groundwork already laid by earlier ad hoc attempts, the program quickly gained momentum. Select Coast Guardsmen were sent to the Navy’s Helicopter Rescue Swimmer course in Pensacola, Fla., and in March 1985, the first aviation survival technicians were standing duty at Air Station Elizabeth City.
But as retired Master Chief Petty Officer Darell Gelakoska, former aviation survivalman and chief of the rescue swimmer training branch, recalls, that didn’t mean pilots were necessarily willing to use swimmers on rescues.
“Pilots were doing calculations in their head wondering if the weight of a swimmer with full gear was worth the equivalent weight of fuel that they would forego,” recalls Gelakoska.
Aircrews didn’t want to deploy the rescue swimmer to the water and have yet another victim to be concerned with. As Gelakoska traveled to various air stations, commanding officers would tell him their pilots could not deploy a swimmer without first calling and getting their permission.
“No commanding officer wanted to be the first to lose a swimmer,” writes Gelakoska. “But as time progressed and the aircrews were able to pull off remarkably successful rescues using the swimmer, the program proved its weight in gold.”
Taking the training to the next level
Meanwhile, the quality of training at “A” school in Elizabeth City was proving its value. Building upon the foundation of the Navy’s rescue swimmer course, Coast Guard instructors folded their operational experience into the program and greatly strengthened the curriculum. In just over a decade, the program had progressed so much in fact, Coast Guard students no longer attended the Navy program. Instead, other services began sending their rescue personnel through the Coast Guard course to see how they could improve their own programs.
Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Joseph “Butch” Flythe, an aviation survival technician who ran the schoolhouse during a part of this era, attributes the exponential growth to the fact that Coast Guard rescue swimmers “saw way more search and rescue than Navy swimmers did, because the Navy rescue swimmer’s primary role was to be ready in the event of a pilot ejecting.” Coast Guard aircrews were being called in to rescue people off cliff faces and rooftops, ice flows and glaciers, and from crashing surf and ocean caves.
The rapidly diversifying operational environment found rescue swimmers increasingly beyond the scope of their training. To address this, Gelakoska and others stood up the Advanced Rescue Swimmer School in Astoria, Ore. Located at the mouth of the Columbia River, an area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” the area’s treacherous currents, caves and cliffs provided the ideal training environment.
“We brought in aircrews and assets from all over the country to train in the harshest conditions,” recalls Gelakoska. “The training undoubtedly instilled confidence in the aircrews, and I’m sure it resulted in aircrews making decisions to put the swimmer down safely in scenarios that they previously would have never dared.”
The legacy continues
Today the program continues to live up to its legacy. The program’s “A” school will soon be housed in a world-class facility in Elizabeth City. Integrating wave generators, rotor wash simulators, a fog generator and other environmental effects, instructors will be able to put the trainees through even more realistic training scenarios, ensuring they are ready for the field.
The advanced school in Astoria, now named the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, has further integrated aircrew dynamics into the training. With Coast Guard aircrews increasingly coordinating with local agencies during disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Red River flooding, the training recently hosted aircrews from Southern California and Canada, boosting interoperability during crises.
However, none of these accomplishments would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the vision of the rescue swimmers’ early proponents. Nor would it have become the success it is today had the first rescue swimmers not taken ownership of the program, proven their abilities in the water when put to the test and pushed the professionalism of elite rescuing to new heights.
Each of these rescue swimmer pioneers contributed to ensuring the lessons learned from the Marine Electric tragedy are never forgotten, and true to the motto of the rescue swimmer, so that others may live.