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.
● 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.