Angels in helicopters

A rescue swimmer participating in vertical surface cliff rescue operations training in Kodiak.

When Petty Officer 1st Class Alex Major received the order to recover four people from a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean — 50 miles south of Montague Island — he made a plan: swim to the raft, see who is injured, get the most severely injured people out first, and, once the fourth person is in the helicopter, pop the raft. 

For it to be a successful rescue mission — carried out by a team of two pilots, one flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer — getting to the sinking 75-foot fishing vessels as soon as possible was imperative. 

“In 35 degree water, you’d die in 10 to 15 minutes,” Major said. 

When Major arrived on scene, the situation was not what he foresaw — it was a chaotic mess. 

“There was debris everywhere. It was all telephone (pole)-sized floating logs,” he said.    

Major had to swim around the cargo supplies that had fallen off the fishing vessel to find the people who had gone overboard. By the time he arrived, the boat’s captain was unresponsive, two people were freezing to death — one was suffering from renal failure — and one was alive with only minor health issues. 

Major recovered all four people. 

However, Major, who remained humble throughout the interview, made it clear that such a rescue — any rescue — is impossible without the full team. 

He explained that in all Coast Guard helicopter operations, the teams are made up of two pilots, one flight mechanic and one rescue swimmer.

The flight mechanic is the “eyes and ears of the operation,” Major said. 

The flight mechanic has the best view of what is going on below in the water, directing the pilots where to go, communicating with the rescue swimmer and controlling the hoist cable used to lower and lift people from the helicopter. 

Without a flight mechanic, the rescue swimmer cannot carry out his job. 

 “The swimmer is useless without a helicopter and the helicopter is useless without being directed to what’s going on and positioning the swimmer to go in the water or the boat,” Major said. “Flight mechanics don’t get nearly enough credit.”

Once the flight mechanic lowers the rescue swimmer into the water, the team often has to reassess the situation. 

“Any rescue situation is a very fluid evolution because you never know what is going on,” Major said.

For Major, and other rescue swimmers, officially known as Aviation Survival Technicians, this kind of situation is what they train for. 

Their job is mentally and physically challenging: in some cases they work in darkness, icy and stormy weather; on heaving boats and with people injured or dying. 

However, search and rescue missions with rocking seas, 10-foot or higher waves and sinking ships do not happen very often, Major explained. 

“Not everyone is on a boat sinking,” he said.

Rescue swimmers also conduct land missions responding to bear maulings, snowmachine accidents, lost or stranded hikers, ATV accidents, lost hunters and more, Major explained. 

They are also often sent to rural communities that do not have medical facilities. 

“There’s remote villages that have 30 people living there, and they don’t have a hospital or anything so we do a lot of medevacs for them,” Major said.

In addition to conducting search and rescue missions, an important part of a rescue swimmer’s day is spent inspecting, repairing and testing equipment and machinery. 

Rescue swimmers even use their sewing skills to customize and repair gear such as parachutes, life support equipment, covers and containers — sometimes creating pieces from scratch. 

“I think it’s kind of relaxing. Some guys hate it and some guys get really into it,” Major said. 

Inspections are an important part of the job. Some equipment is checked every 20 hours, while other gear is tested on a quarterly basis.

“Inspection on these are so important because the people that do the fixing, do the flying. Everybody here does both. They know they better do it right because they are the ones whose lives will be impacted if they (mess up),” Major said.

Before rescue swimmers get to splash in for their first rescue mission, they must first test their knowledge, strength and will at rescue swimmer school, officially called Aviation Survival Technician A school at the Coast Guard Air Station in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

“Seven out of ten people fail,” Major said, referring to the high attrition rate at swim school when he was there. “Some guys have the heart and not the physical ability, and others don’t have the heart but have the physical ability.” 

Because of recently implemented preparation courses, the attrition rate for Aviation Survival Technician A school is down to 54 percent, explained Aviation Maintenance Technician Petty Officer Brad Hudson from the Aviation Technical Training Center. 

“You’re pushing yourself physically to your absolute max level five days a week,” Major explained. “Basically, they break you down and weaken you first thing in the morning.” 

Following early morning exercises, the cadets go to the school’s olympic-sized pool and complete water training, where they warm up with 500 to 1,000-yard drills. They also carry out oxygen deprivation drills, where cadets have to swim underwater for 30 seconds before coming up for air for another 30 seconds, and repeat, Major said. 

“In your head you’re screaming for air, and that’s when people quit because they are alike, ‘I need air, I need air, I need air... And that’s when they fail the drill,’” he said.  

One threat rescue swimmers face in the water are panicked victims. Training during swim school helps future rescue swimmers learn to safely control survivors and transfer them into the helicopter. 

These techniques are used when a survivor becomes combative in the water, delirious from hypothermia or fear. Survivors in this state of mind sometimes even try to drown the rescue swimmers, Major said.  

Swimmers have a variety of techniques using pressure points and jiu jitsu-like movements “that safely incapacitate and restrain a violent survivor,” he said. 

“I have to be able to get you off of me, turn you around and then get you in what we call a controlled cross the chest carry, so I can tow you safely through the water,” Major explained. 

Surviving school is only half the battle: to be a great rescue swimmer, continuous learning is key, Major said.  

For novice rescue swimmers who have never had a complicated or risky mission, learning from more experienced professionals helps them prepare to react quickly and efficiently when they are deployed on a difficult rescue mission, Major said. 

After graduating from rescue swimmer school in 2008, Major has been working at what he considers his “dream job” for the past 12 years — nonetheless, he continues to look to those with different rescue experiences to continue to grow and improve.

In addition to their other expertise, a rescue swimmer must also be an effective communicator, Major said.

With the flight mechanic in the aircraft, and the rescue swimmer down below in the water, the team uses hand signals to communicate. 

“It’s easier and faster to communicate with hand signals,” Major said. 

Often at the end of an operation, the helicopter has to fly back to base and leave the rescue swimmer on scene, either because there is no room for the swimmer on the aircraft or because of an emergency in the aircraft itself. 

In these cases, the swimmer opens an inflatable personal raft, turns on a beacon locater and waits — floating there alone at sea until the aircraft returns. Sometimes a rescue swimmer will wait up to nine hours to be recovered, Major said.  

In the end, a rescue swimmer, and his or her team, is there to serve people. And, that’s what Major loves most about his job, he said. 

“It’s an overwhelming feeling of elation,” he said, referring to the moment that everyone is back safe. “I don’t know what that feeling (near death) is, but I know what it’s like to look at their face and give them a hug. And, that’s a cool feeling at the end of the day to be able to impact somebody and their family in a positive way.”


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