In which we relate a Coast Guard adventure
Speeding across the Bay
Our Coast Guard Auxiliary
crew met at 0800 and tripped over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Presidio Yacht Club, where the Auxiliary vessel Sunrise
awaited us. We were under orders to assist the regular Coast Guard in a Helo Ops (helicopter operations) training mission. Helicopter teams must perform a certain number of training exercises each year in order maintain their flying status.
Today we were to assist in cage drop rescue operations, in which a cage is lowered onto a boat from a helicopter, simulating an emergency evacuation of a sick or injured person.
This was my second on-the-water training, and my first Helo Ops exercise. Any initial nervousness I felt was quickly allayed by the professionalism of our Auxiliarist crew – Flotilla Commander Dave, our Coxswain, Rae, and my fellow crewmen, Leonard and Bill. Honestly, I can't say enough about how much these mentors are patiently teaching me about seamanship. They are truly amazing .
After readying the Sunrise
, a beautiful, tricked-out 38-foot cabin cruiser complete with sirens, emergency “cop lights,” radar, depth finder, GPS, etc., and after we had hoisted the Coast Guard ensign, we set off for our rendezvous in the Eastern half of San Francisco Bay.
Whenever a Coast Guard power boat accelerates, the Coxswain calls out “Comin’ up!” and the crew answers back, “Comin’ up, aye!” so that he knows everyone’s prepared for the sudden acceleration. It’s a smart protocol that helps ensure no one falls overboard, but it’s also one that gives the operation a sense of community, like a church ritual.
While awaiting the rendezvous, we underwent a drop anchor / raise anchor drill. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The Dolphin comes in for a low pass
We were to assist four different helo crews – each consisting of a pilot, co-pilot and an engineer (in charge of lowering and raising the cage) in two different types of cage drops, plus observe a few man-in-the-water drills, helping ensure the safety of the diver.
The day was warm and calm – the Bay almost like glass in the morning – and we quickly grew hot in our “Mustangs” – flotation/survival suits Coast Guard crews are required to wear during on-the-water missions.
We didn’t have to wait long before our helo, an H-65 Dolphin short range recovery aircraft, radioed us, signaling that they were ready to come in. The Dolphin is a beautiful, powerful 9,500 lb. beast, with two Turbomeca 2C2-CG Turboshaft engines boasting 934 horsepower. It has a top speed of 160 knots per hour (184 mph) and a rescue hoist capacity of 900 lbs. It’s a freakin’ high performance demon.
The Dolphin's engineer moves the boom into place and makes ready to lower the cage
The Dolphin came in for a low pass, circumnavigating our boat as per protocol to check out our overall situation and make sure we were safe for a cage drop. The helo crew then radioed the Sunrise that they were coming in for their first drop. This was to be a straight drop into the cockpit of our boat. I observed while Bill showed me how it was done. There isn’t a lot of finesse to a straight drop: The cage comes down and you catch it and haul 'er in. On humid days, the protocol is to let the cage touch the hull of the boat first in order to discharge any static electricity, which can cause serious injury.
Unlike other helicopters, the Dolphin doesn’t make that “whop-whop-whop” sound but, because of its turbojet engines and because the tail rotor is encased in a cowling, it makes this cloyingly loud buzz, like a giant, angry hornet out of The Land That Time Forgot
. It’s so loud, in fact, that when it was right overhead at perhaps 20 feet it seemed to give me an auditory hallucination, as if I could hear voices whispering underneath the din. Damned strange, that.
Getting ready to bring in the cage
Then the real work started. Bill and I teamed up to handle the line-drop exercises. This entails the helo engineer dropping a weighted line while the pilot edges the Dolphin toward the boat. One man catches the line and tosses the weight to the other man. As the first man gently brings the line in, the other coils it so that it doesn’t get caught up in anything. At the last second, the hauler pulls fast and hard as the cage is dropped, bringing the cage into the cockpit of the boat – usually banging the hell out of the transom or fantail in the process. (Sorry, Rae!)
It’s rough and potentially dangerous work – everything is in motion: the aircraft, the boat, the waves, and the cage, which is just heavy enough to knock you out or overboard if you are not careful. At one point, as the cage was being raised out of the cockpit, my leg got caught in the line. I had a moment there when I was sure I was going to get pulled up and out, leg first. Luckily, I untangled myself in the nick ‘o time. Whew
In all, we did 20 cage drops with four different air crews, two in the morning, two after lunch. We also did man-overboard drills and I was taught radio protocol and manned the helm to boot.
Dropping the cage
Our second-to-last helo team of the day was so pleased with our performance the pilot buzzed us by way of salute, coming in so low I thought he was going to scratch our paint.
Then we observed the man-in-the-water drills, in which a diver leaps from the helicopter at a height of perhaps 20 feet and is then plucked out of the water on a rescue line. Talk about drama.
Hauling in. I recommend gloves next time.
I’ve done a lot of things you could call adventurous in the last 20 years – surfing, snowboarding, skydiving, etc. – but this takes it. That’s because this is real
. There is no script, no groomed runs, no lift chairs, no beer in the lodge at noon, no sexy girls on the beach. You’re doing an important job at service to your community and your country. It was one whole hell of a lot of work, but I loved every second of it. It's about the most fun you can have with your pants on.
Lifting the diver out of the water
And, in the unlikely event that I happen to be aboard a vessel in need of a helicopter evacuation, I’ll likely be the only guy on board who knows how to do it. That's a pretty exhilarating feeling.