WARRENTON — The people of the Lower Columbia have counted on Air Station Astoria day and night, 365 days a year for 50 years.
The U.S. Coast Guard station was established at Tongue Point in 1964 but moved to the Astoria-Warrenton Regional Airport in Warrenton two years later. In the years since, distinctively painted USCG helicopters have become harbingers of comfort and concern — racing to the aid of drowning beach swimmers, tourists dangling from coastal cliffs, and mariners and fishermen in distress on the ocean and river.
At the open house celebration Saturday, civic leaders, current Sector Commander Capt. Daniel Travers and first Station Commander Capt. Robert L. Lawlis recalled great moments in the Air Station’s history.
Travers said since its induction, the air crew has been responsible for saving more than 700 lives on more than 9,000 search and rescue missions. Today the station has 498 active personnel, but the station began with only 104.
Lawlis said one of the most memorable rescues that happened while he was commander at Air Station Astoria was herding swimming elk with an HH-52A helicopter.
“We saved about half of them,” he said.
“They made it back to the beach but the others probably ended up down with Davy Jones.”
Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen was most excited about the recent addition of Astoria to the Coast Guard Cities list. The nomination comes from the city and is then voted on by Congress.
Van Dusen remembered how much help Air Station Astoria provided during the Great Coastal Gale of 2007. Generators were out on Wickiup Mountain and the Coast Guard brought fuel up, but realized once they were there, the generators took diesel.
“I remember saying it’s too bad you have to do that,” Van Dusen said.
“The pilot said something like ‘It won’t take too long, we’ve got a 119 mph tailwind.’”
Warrenton Mayor Mark Kujala summed up everyone’s feelings. “We’re so proud to have the Coast Guard in our community,” he said. “Here is to 50 more (years).”
Assets on display included a Jayhawk helicopter, one 26-foot navigation boat, one response boat small and the station’s crash fire trucks. Visitors were encouraged to interact with the equipment and rescue gear.
Also available for interaction was Coastie, the robotic boat, and Tuffer, the 10-year-old poodle. Both demonstrated safety precautions to bystanders — Tuffer wore his life jacket and Coastie told kids about water safety.
Coastie is only 5 and, though shaped like a boat, doesn’t actually float.
“I have a 50-pound battery, I’d sink like a rock,” Coastie said.
The robot is equipped with a siren, four different lights and a squirt gun. Though fun for the operators, the squirt gun is used sparingly because parents are not always thrilled with the feature.
The air station is full of new arrivals, familiar faces and guardsmen on their way out.
Chief Petty Officer Chris Sheppard attended the event with his daughter Mady, 8. The Sheppard family transferred to the area about one month ago. Sheppard is the officer in charge of Aids to Navigation Team Astoria and commands the navigation boat displayed Saturday.
Current Commander of Air Station Astoria Brett Verhulst has just been granted an extension to remain in this area until 2015. He will have been in Astoria for five years next summer. Verhulst said he may try again for an extension then, but it is unlikely it will be granted. He has been at Air Station Astoria the longest of any active member there now.
Commander Nevada Smith is on his way out — he turned in his retirement papers last week. Smith is somewhat infamous around the station and has been part of “A Storm Too Soon,” a true story written by Michael Tougias. He also has been in National Geographic specials, on The Weather Channel’s Coast Guard series and had a small speaking role in Hollywood movie “The Guardian.”
Usually members of the Coast Guard get three to four year tours in one location. After that, they pack up and move their lives somewhere new. Verhulst said he is proud of the men and women at Astoria. “We have a culture where we take care of each other,” he said.