Cockpit communication

Coast Guard aircrews complete thousands of missions a year, often in extreme weather conditions, low visibility or in the darkness of night. But no matter how tough a mission can be pilots, flight mechanics and rescue swimmers rely on one thing to succeed – communication.

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Aviate, navigate, communicate. These three words are drilled into the minds of Coast Guard pilots from day one. First, you have to focus on flying the plane. Next, you have to figure out where the plane is headed. Lastly, you have to talk to those in or outside the plane.

This week 3,000 aviators descend upon Dallas for International Women in Aviation. But, as these aviators are ashore and not in the skies, they still find themselves reflecting on the three words that mean the most to them: aviate, navigate, communicate. This story is our last from International Women in Aviation and focuses on “communicate” as Compass talks with Coast Guard aviators on the importance of communication while in flight.

An MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter at Coast Guard Air Station Houston. Coast Guard photo composite by Petty Officer 2nd Class Prentice Danner.
An MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter at Coast Guard Air Station Houston. Coast Guard photo composite by Petty Officer 2nd Class Prentice Danner.

With contributions from Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

Coast Guard aircrews complete thousands of missions a year, often in extreme weather conditions, low visibility or in the darkness of night. But no matter how tough a mission can be pilots, flight mechanics and rescue swimmers rely on one thing to succeed – communication.

Each aircrew member fulfills a different role while in flight, providing different perspectives throughout a mission. The pilots and flight crew must constantly communicate these unique perspectives, passing vital information that allows them to perform each of their missions.

Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules airplane line crewmen fuel the airplane in almost whiteout conditions on the Air Station Kodiak tarmac. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen.
Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules airplane line crewmen fuel the airplane in almost whiteout conditions on the Air Station Kodiak tarmac. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen.

“As a flight mechanic, we are the eyes and ears between the rescue swimmer and the pilots,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashlee Leppert, an avionics electrical technician at Air Station Detroit, Mich. “There is constant communication and constant evaluation of the situation, updating the pilots on their position, their height, their speed.”

“They can’t always see what we’re doing and we can’t see what they’re doing, so talking and communicating is pretty much our lifeline,” added Petty Officer 3rd Class Heather Valentino, an aviation maintenance technician at Air Station Cape Cod, Mass. “There’s not a lot of visual so you have to rely on verbal a lot of the time.”

One person who definitely has a different view from those inside her helicopter is Petty Officer 2nd Class Jaime Vanacore, a rescue swimmer at Air Station Atlantic City, N.J. As the rescue swimmer, Vanacore is often outside the helicopter and may be lowered onto a boat or even directly into the water to save a life.

“I think everybody sees how the mission is going through different eyes. Having all those angles, one person can’t see everything that’s going on, so it’s important that everybody’s on the same page,” said Vanacore.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaime Vanacore, an aviation survival technician at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., looks out the window of a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaime Vanacore, an aviation survival technician at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., looks out the window of a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg.

Whenever a mission involves hoisting, it requires an even more concentrated focus on communicating. Lt. Maria Richardson, a pilot at Air Station San Francisco depends on her crew’s unique perspective to keep everyone safe during more difficult parts of a mission.

“If you can’t see the vessel or if you can’t see the rescue swimmer, they’re telling you all the things you need to know about what’s going on,” said Richardson. “If our crew is not efficiently communicating, the pilot doesn’t know what’s going on and you end up maybe jerking the swimmer out of the water or pulling the rescue basket off the boat, or hurting somebody on deck.”

To succeed at each of their missions, whether it be a rescue of a mariner lost at sea or pursuing a drug runner, each member of the aircrew knows that it all comes back to being part of a team; a team that communicates.

“We succeed as a team, we fail as a team. There’s no one person that can take accountability for the whole flight evolution. We’re a team. One set of eyes can’t do as good of a job as three to four sets of eyes,” said Leppert.

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