It was a nasty night, 250 miles off the North Carolina coast, when pilot Lt. Cdr. Jay Balda and his Coast Guard helicopter rescue team responded to the Mayday call. A sailboat with a crew of five was taking on water, and its life raft had been swept off the deck in gale force winds and 20-to-30-foot seas. A helicopter rescue was the frightened crew’s only hope.
Balda faced a daunting task: fly into the gale, find the small boat, which was being blown downwind at 4 knots, deploy a rescue swimmer in monster seas, and then pull the crew (and the rescue swimmer) up to his helicopter using a thin wire cable. He got three guys out of the water before the violent winds of the storm caused the winch wire to chafe on the side of the helicopter and jam. Now Balda had a limited fuel supply, a rescue swimmer in the water, two more crew on the boat, and no way to retrieve them. All he could do was call for another helo, drop some life rafts, and head back to base. Meanwhile, the rescue swimmer was repeatedly washed out of his raft (he eventually tied himself in), started to suffer from hypothermia, and was blown more than 2 miles away from the sailboat. The second helo arrived over an hour later and pulled the severely hypothermic rescue swimmer and the rest of the sailboat crew to safety. Just another day at the office.
Lt. Cdr. Balda recounted this story matter-of-factly on the morning I joined him and his crew for a training exercise off Rockport, Massachusetts. I’d heard similar stories before but had never considered exactly what was involved in a helicopter rescue. I wouldn’t know what to do if I were the person being rescued. I was about to find out.
Rescue swimmer AST2 John Houlberg gave me a headset and strapped me into my safety harness; then our Sikorsky HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter took off. In minutes we were over the water, looking for the Pearson 28 that was serving as our vessel in distress. It was a bright, sunny day and this was only a drill, but Houlberg and colleague AST3 Zephyr Mays were getting ready to jump from the helo, swim to the Pearson, and organize the hoist just as they would in an actual emergency. Flight mechanic AMT1 Jack Hancock prepared the winch and the other gear he would need for the hoist and ran through the mission checklist with Balda via the headsets in their helmets. They all went about their
business with the confidence that comes from constant rigorous training and the quiet humility that comes from saving lives for a living. These guys operate helicopters in raging storms when lives are on the line. They don’t have to act tough—they are tough.
The first thing I noticed as we circled our predetermined rendezvous point with the sailboat was just how difficult it is to spot a boat on the water from the air—even on a calm, sunny day. Imagine how hard it would be to spot your boat at night in storm conditions. The lesson here—relaying your precise position to the Coast Guard—is critical when making a Mayday call.
Once we spotted the sailboat Balda briefed its crew via VHF about what was going to happen, and the boat was prepared for the helicopter’s arrival (see “Chopper Checklist”). Each rescue is different, but sailboats with masts and rigging swinging around on ocean swells can be particularly daunting to a helicopter crew. If a rotor clips the mast or the winch wire gets caught in the rigging, the helicopter and the lives of the rescuers—not to mention your own life—will be in jeopardy. A helicopter crew will try to hoist crew from the cockpit if possible, but often conditions dictate that the hoist must be from the water.
Since this was only a training exercise, the helicopter crew did not want to take unnecessary risks. We practiced water hoists. Hovering close to the sailboat, the helo whipped up a terrific racket and hurricane-force winds from its rotors. Taking care to keep the sailboat close but also out of the rotor wash, Balda descended to 10 feet. At that elevation Hancock gave the signal for the “victim” (Mays) and then the rescue swimmer (Houlberg) to jump. Orders for each maneuver were calmly relayed via headsets, and the helo gained elevation after each swimmer hit the water.
The team worked with the same cool efficiency during the hoist. With the helo hovering about 50 feet off the water, Hancock pushed the rescue basket out and lowered it to the water with the winch. Houlberg swam the “victim” back through the stinging 100-mile-an-hour rotor wash and helped him into the basket. Balda kept the helo in a steady hover as Hancock winched the basket up and pulled it into the cabin. Then they retrieved the rescue swimmer.
These guys made it look easy; they are highly skilled professionals trained to operate in the worst of worst-case scenarios. Balda has been flying helicopter rescue missions for 13 years and has pulled countless people out of life-ordeath situations. Houlberg and Mays have jumped into seas that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, and Hancock is a 14-year veteran. It’s comforting to know guys like these will be there if you need them.
If you ever need a helicopter rescue, you can count on the varsity team showing up overhead. But will you be ready? Here’s what you need to know. Rule one: Don’t panic. Chances are you’ll be both afraid and pumped up with adrenaline. You and/or your crew may be injured or seasick. It’s a chilling thought, but take the time to run over several rescue scenarios in your mind before you are ever in a rescue situation. Develop a rescue checklist that works for you. Laminate this (or a more personalized) checklist and keep it in an easy-to-reach spot. It’s important to have clear directions for emergency procedures even though you hope you’ll never need them.
● Issue a Mayday call to the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 or SSB frequency 2182kHz (dialing 911 on a mobile phone is not the Coast Guard’s preferred means of communication). Speaking clearly, give the radio operator your vessel name, position, and description, including the number of crew aboard and nature of the problem. If you have a medical emergency, give a detailed description of the situation so the rescue team can bring appropriate medical equipment and personnel. Let them know if you are taking on water so they can bring pumps and life rafts.
● Assign a crewmember to monitor the radio and set up a communication schedule. A Coast Guard radio operator will help you calm your nerves, provide mission info, perhaps make first-aid recommendations, and give an estimate of how long it will take to get the helicopter to you.
● If you have a 406-MHz EPIRB on board, activate it and tell the radio operator you have done so.
● If you are not wearing a PFD, put one on and instruct your crew to do the same. Put on survival suits if you have them.
● Lower and secure your sails. Make sure any roller-furled sails are securely cleated and lashed.
● Remove any deck gear—biminis, spray dodgers, unnecessary lines, fenders, cockpit cushions, even small things like hats— that could become projectiles and possibly damage a helicopter rotor.
● Remove anything that will hinder free movement in the cockpit, including fishing poles, barbecues, and manoverboard poles that could possibly catch the winch wire.
● Make sure any extraneous items on deck—a dinghy, windsurfer, bike, or life raft—are securely lashed.
● In most situations, the helicopter will approach your stern quarter on the port side so the pilot (who sits in the starboard seat) will have maximum visibility and the open helo door will face the boat. If you are trailing a dinghy, lash it out of the way along the starboard side using several bow and stern lines. Don’t expect to get into a dinghy trailing off the stern during a rescue. High winds created by the helicopter rotor wash will flip most dinghies easily.
● If your boat is taking on water, prepare to launch your life raft (if you have one) and make sure you have a well-stocked ditch bag and at least one hand-held VHF. Place flares in a dry, easily accessible place so you’ll be able to signal the helo when it
● You’ll be informed if the rescue team is going for a cockpit or a water hoist. To facilitate a safe cockpit hoist, lash the boom away from the cockpit to starboard. If you can, release the port lifelines and lash them out of the way.
● Keep the injured/sick crew as comfortable as possible, but also make sure they are in the cockpit and ready to receive instructions as soon as the rescue swimmer arrives.
● Firing a flare—smoke in daylight, incendiary at night—can help the helicopter crew
pinpoint your location. Never fire a flare in the direction of the helicopter or shine a spotlight directly at the helicopter when it’s hovering close by.
● As the helicopter approaches, listen to the radio for instructions. The pilot may instruct you to slowly head 30 to 60 degrees off the wind on port tack, moving just fast enough to maintain steerage. This provides the helicopter maximum maneuverability and visibility.
● Once he reaches your boat, the rescue swimmer is boss. If a hoist from the cockpit is going to be attempted, he will come aboard and work with the helicopter crew to get the basket on board. He will secure the victim in the basket and signal the helicopter when it’s safe to hoist. If it’s a water hoist, he will swim you (with your back to the spray) through the rotor wash and put you in the basket.
● If it’s a medical emergency, tell the rescue swimmer and tag the patient with a written note outlining the nature of the problem, medication given, plus any other information that could assist a doctor.
● When the rescue swimmer gives the signal, you may be asked to help guide the basket away from the boat. Do not grab and hold on to the basket as it’s being hoisted, and never—repeat, never—attach the winch wire or the basket to the boat.
● When riding in the basket, never put your hands, feet, or head outside of the basket. Make sure you hold on tightly with your hands inside the basket.
● Riding in a basket that is winched up to a hovering helicopter on a thin cable in a storm can be a terrifying experience, but it’s important to remain calm. Never lunge for the door as the basket approaches the helicopter. Let the crew pull the entire basket into the helicopter cabin. The flight mechanic will tell you when it’s safe to get out.