U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crews from around the country took to the waves and cliffs around the mouth of the Columbia River over the past month for the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, testing their mettle in some of the roughest conditions faced by rescuers.
On Nov. 7, Senior Chief Petty Officer Eric Bednorz from Air Station Mobile stood on the dunes of Clatsop Spit and watched through a set of binoculars while six Coast Guard and two U.S. Air Force rescue swimmers treaded water.
“They’re just trying to make it outside,” Bednorz said of the swimmers, who traded off playing survivor and rescuer, trying to pull each other through the 5- to 10-foot swells.
The Coast Guard pushes its rescue swimmers past their comfort zone, Bednorz said, “but we want to do that under instruction.”
Trainers from Air Station Mobile in Alabama, swimmers, pilots and hoist operators from around the country head each year to the mouth of the Columbia River, which offers rough surf and diverse environments, from the cliffs at Cape Disappointment to the dunes of Clatsop Spit. Swimmers practice maneuvering in the water. Pilots and hoist operators on the Coast Guard’s HH-60 Jayhawk and HH-65 Dolphin helicopters practice pulling them away from danger. The entire crew learns how to work together during a rescue.
“The Coast Guard is the best at all rescue-swimmer aspects,” said Allen-Mikel Armstrong, one of two pararescuemen at the mouth of the Columbia last week for training from the Air Force’s 212th Rescue Squadron in Alaska.
Jason Hughes, the other pararescueman, said the squadron coordinates closely with the Coast Guard’s Air Station Kodiak. The Air Force has similar training in Alaska, he said, but no surf comparable to the wild waves of Clatsop Spit and Cape D.
Hughes was paired in the surf training with 16-year veteran rescue swimmer Ty Aweau, who served four years with Sector Columbia River and has gone through the training four times.
Aweau said the dynamic surf environment means rescuers are always learning something new. “Bednorz is aware of the water, what the ocean does. He brings that knowledge here.”
In the mid-1980s, the Coast Guard established a helicopter rescue swimmer program. In summer 1993, HH-65 Dolphin helicopter air crews started training using the hoisted swimmers near San Francisco and on the cliffs of Cape Disappointment. With support from a helicopter, swimmers rescued simulated survivors from 200-foot cliffs, wave-swept rocks and heavy surf with ease, improving the Coast Guard’s rescue capabilities in otherwise inaccessible terrain.
Master Chief Darell Gelakoska, who headed the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program, helped develop the concept of deploying rescue swimmers from helicopters.
It was Gelakoska who recommended that an advanced rescue swimmer training be created to familiarize swimmers with the equipment and conditions they would face in the field. In 1996, a building at North Tongue Point in Astoria was dedicated as the school’s home base.
Since then, the Coast Guard held semiannual trainings for pilots, hoist operators, flight mechanics and rescue swimmers from air stations across the country.