It’s a riveting scene: The Coast Guard helicopter hovers near the churning surface of the sea, its rotor blades adding to the wind-whipped waves that threaten to swamp the small boat below. A helmeted rescue swimmer drops into the water where he’ll put his own life at risk to save the frightened survivors aboard the sinking vessel.
Being a Coast Guard rescue swimmer is only part of the responsibility of the service’s Aviation Survival Technician (AST) rating, but a critical and challenging one, according to ASTCM James Brandt, the Rating Force Master Chief.
“Rescue swimming is a collateral duty for ASTs. We’re sort of the poster children for the Coast Guard,” chuckles Brandt. “That portion of our duties is the sexy, macho part and it’s good for recruiting, but the bottom line is that every part of an AST’s responsibility is about saving lives. The AST motto was ‘So others may live’ long before the Coast Guard even had a rescue swimmer program, and each rescue requires the skills and talents of the entire AST team.
“An AST’s primary responsibility is aviation life support,” continues Brandt. “Our primary duties are to inspect, service, maintain and repair aviation life support systems, such as aircraft oxygen systems, cargo aerial delivery systems, drag parachute systems, air/sea rescue kits and special-purpose protective clothing. We’re also trained and train others in emergency egress procedures, how to get out of submerged aircraft, survival on land — building fires and shelter, finding food — and first aid. We train to take care of our own before we take care of civilians who need our help. We have to be able to float our own boat before we can float others’.
“ASTs perform lots of duties that don’t require our rescue swimmer skills, but every AST is qualified and capable of deploying as a helicopter rescue swimmer. You can’t be an AST in the Coast Guard unless you’re qualified as a rescue swimmer,” adds Brandt.
The Journey to AST
Like all Coast Guard enlistees, non-rates are assigned to a station or cutter after boot camp, where they spend four months learning about the operational Coast Guard and proving they have what it takes to make E-4. Once they’ve proven their potential, they can request a specialty rating and are recommended for an A-School.
In order to be considered for any aviation-related A-School, a candidate must complete the Coast Guard’s Airman Program. “It’s about a four-month process to work through the Airman syllabus, which is required of all non-rates interested in pursuing the AST, Avionics Electrical Technician (AET) and Aviation Machinery Technician (AMT) ratings,” explains Brandt. “They must also pass a flight physical and be qualified for a ‘secret’ security clearance.”
The Airman program also includes a mentoring component that allows a candidate to demonstrate their readiness to a supervisor. Those interested in becoming ASTs must meet stringent physical fitness requirements and also work an AST syllabus concurrently with the Airman Program, which focuses on building a candidate’s confidence in the water.
When candidates complete the Airman and AST syllabi and have been recommended for AST A-School, they are assigned to an 18-week program at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where they’ll learn about aviation survival skills and how to maintain life support equipment on an aircraft, including rafts, parachutes, pumps and all the equipment an AST will need to deploy from an aircraft. They’ll also learn other necessary skills, such as how to operate and repair sewing machines so they can fix flight suits and upholstery. And, of course, they’ll be mentally and physically tested on their ability to be a helicopter rescue swimmer.
“The rescue swimmer portion of the curriculum is very demanding,” explains Brandt. “We currently have a 70- to 80-percent attrition rate, which is almost always attributable to failure to meet the physical and mental requirements. You can’t graduate from AST A-School if you can’t complete the rescue swimming component. If a candidate is close to meeting the standards, he or she may be re-phased — put back a class or two — to get the extra training needed in a particular area. But if you wash out or drop out by request, you’ll be assigned to another rating and can reapply [to the AST program] later.
“ASTs must be able to keep their heads about them in the midst of a chaotic situation,” says Brandt. “They have to be focused on what’s happening around them, which requires 360-degree situational awareness. In the end, they have to face the big hairy monster and not be bothered by it. They have to have the confidence to do whatever is required of them.”
In order to build students’ confidence in the water, the program incorporates stress inoculation training, a process that gradually exposes candidates to more chaos and more stress — both actual and perceived.
“I’ve always believed that if I started screaming and yelling at someone to tie their shoe, most people would get flustered and have some difficulty doing this simple task they’ve been doing their whole life,” Brandt suggests. “When external confusion is added to the equation, it makes any task more difficult. Training for emergencies is very similar. We train ASTs to get used to the chaos of a crisis situation, to stay focused so they can triage the situation and determine what’s most important and what needs to happen first.”
About 100 to 110 candidates start the AST course each year, but only about 20 graduate. For each training cycle, the Coast Guard has about 20 service members in the Airman Program and there are 12 students in each AST class. For the past several courses, only two or three have graduated from the AST program.
“There are currently only about 360 ASTs in the entire Coast Guard and we’re actually about 24 ASTs short because we aren’t generating enough graduates,” says Brandt. “We’ve adapted the program a bit to make the training more science-based and more realistic so that we’re training how we fight. Requirements haven’t been lowered, but we’ve incorporated more strength and conditioning training. Last time we had eight graduates and we’re on track to graduate seven from the current class.”
Once they’ve completed AST A-School, graduates are then assigned to an operational unit, usually for a four-year tour. After they become familiar with the local protocols, they are required to participate in several flights to demonstrate their basic aircrew knowledge and then take a final standardized check ride or “stan check.” They must also pass a rescue swimmer check ride, where they are evaluated on four different rescue scenarios. Once they have proven their capabilities, they are awarded the prestigious rescue swimmer wings that feature crossed swim fins.
The Training Never Ends
Like all military rates, an AST’s training is never complete. In addition to the ongoing training required to maintain job-specific proficiencies, new ASTs must also attend EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) training in Petaluma, Calif., where they learn diagnostic and treatment protocols.
“The EMT course is the most academically difficult program I’ve ever attended,” says Brandt. “The course was recently increased from three to seven weeks long to provide more in-depth training ASTs will need to assist those they rescue.”
The Coast Guard also hosts the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School — a rigorous one-week training program for USCG helicopter pilots and aircrews, as well as Air Force Pararescue Jumpers (PJs), Navy SEALS and rescue swimmers. Ideally attended by ASTs shortly after they become qualified as rescue swimmers or approximately six months after A-School, the program trains pilots, hoist operators, flight mechanics and rescue swimmers in the skills they will need to meet the challenges of cold-water, high-seas, and cliff and cave rescues. The program’s focus is on integrating the pilots and aircrew into a unified team to enhance their ability to conduct helicopter rescues safely and efficiently.
Air Station Astoria, on the coast of Oregon, provides the perfect location for this training program. The courses are held during the early Spring and late Fall to take advantage of the heavy seas and inclement weather patterns prevalent at that time of year. The area’s rugged coastline provides cliffs and caves for vertical surface training, as well as cliff and cave rescue training, which require the helicopter to hover close to the rocky outcroppings while lowering a tethered rescue swimmer to recover stranded or injured persons.
“We often have 15-foot seas at the mouth of the river at those times of year, which allows us to simulate the extreme conditions our aircrews often face during rescues,” explains Brandt. “We’re able to do surf swims, pull survivors through the surf, experience rip tides, etc. And the cliffs and coastal caves allow us to teach some of the real life lessons we’ve learned over the years.”
“For example, we talk about cave hydraulics,” explains Brandt. “We had a situation in 1993 where a rescue swimmer had to swim into a cave to rescue two boys who were trapped by the advancing tide. The waves continued to push the swimmer back into the cave, but he was eventually able to time the waves as the cave filled with water and then released, and got the boys to safety. We now teach rescue swimmers not to fight the currents, but to wait for them.”
The program also includes a 30-minute sea survival component where pilots, flight mechanics and rescue swimmers are each put in a one-man raft and set adrift in the middle of nowhere. They cannot see land or any other rafts.
“Thirty minutes may not seem like a long time, but trust me; it can seem like forever when you’re out there all alone,” says Brandt.
The point of all this training is to prepare ASTs for the unpredictable circumstances that inevitably surround a rescue. Every scenario is different and all require precision teamwork. The ultimate success of each and every rescue is totally dependent on a unified effort by the entire aircrew. Lives depend on it.
Communication is critical; not only between the rescue swimmer and the aircrew, but also between the AST team and those needing help.
“Information is of the utmost importance. We try to get as much information as possible before we get to the scene, so we can formulate a plan,” says Brandt. “On our way to an incident scene, we attempt to communicate with the crew or vessels needing our assistance. Knowing the number and condition of the patients before we arrive on the scene really helps us.”
“Most of our [rescue] missions take place in less than ideal weather conditions or when something has gone bad,” adds AST3 Luke Wengrin. “People are usually happy to see us!”
All rescues are rewarding, but none are cut-and-dried. During his 28 years as an AST, Brandt has participated in hundreds of rescues. Not all of them have been dramatic, but all have been rewarding. He’s proud of the 46 rescues he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but is quick to add he “wasn’t really in harm’s way.” He’s rescued divers who were unconscious on the bottom of the ocean and were experiencing the bends. He’s been involved in multi-victim rescues that included three or four survivors at a time, including a German Shepherd.
And although ASTs follow a variety of procedural protocols, no rescue is routine. One of Brandt’s most memorable rescues involved a paraplegic senior citizen whose boat was sinking off the coast of Florida.
“A three-man crew was in a 16- or 17-foot John boat, one of whom was an elderly gentleman in leg braces. They were 2 or 3 miles offshore when the anchor line got fouled in the prop. In the process of freeing it, the bilge plug accidentally got pulled, and the boat began sinking at about the same time a storm was brewing,” recalls Brandt. “We found them 15 to 20 miles offshore and thankfully the old guy was wearing his life jacket. He had been pretty resourceful during his 24 or 25 hours in the water. He’d taken his shoe strings and tied his life vest to his belt to prevent it from riding up around his head and had dollar bills stuffed in his nose to keep the salt water out.”
Helicopter rescues like those depicted in the 2000 film The Perfect Storm are not just the stuff of Hollywood. Based on Sebastian Junger’s book by the same name, the film portrayed the Coast Guard’s successful efforts to rescue the crew of a sailboat during the brutal 1997 storm. In his overview of the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program, LCDR Richard W. Wright, USCG (Ret.), talks about other heroic rescues during the 1993 “Storm of the Century.”
According to Wright, the Coast Guard “responded to numerous distress calls from Miami to Cape Cod … and USCG helicopters operated in the most extreme conditions imaginable, with winds in excess of 80 knots and seas up to 60 feet. Although the rescues were conducted effectively, in several instances rescue swimmers declined deployment.”
Rescue swimmers have the authority to decline deployment if they believe the conditions are beyond their capabilities, but it’s a difficult call to make for those who’ve dedicated their profession and lives to saving others. Though he’s never had to make such a call, Brandt knows a colleague who did.
“This guy is no sissy,” says Brandt. “He’s a big, macho guy with chiseled features, a real man’s man. He felt the conditions were beyond his capabilities. Another guy went instead and saved three lives. At first the guy who declined felt guilty and took a little ribbing, but the other swimmers in the shop nipped it in the bud. It was crazy out there and you can’t judge another swimmer’s judgment. You weren’t there. We’re very proud of what we do and don’t ever want to let anyone down. But we are a liability to the victims we’re trying to help and to our fellow crew members if we also need to be rescued.”
Some of the training conducted at the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School is a direct result of this incident and others like it. By exposing rescue swimmers to extreme conditions in a training environment, they are better able to gauge their own abilities in extreme situations in the field.
The AST’s responsibilities and the rescue swimmer program are always evolving and new technologies are being developed to help them do their job more effectively.
“For example, we are currently testing and are getting closer to having a hands-free communications system in rescue swimmers’ helmets,” explains Brandt. “It’s vitally important that we can communicate with the crew above us. We’ve also changed the way we tow people and are employing new techniques that help minimize the impact on the spine, which is particularly important for aircrews who’ve punched out [of airplanes or helicopters].
Think You Have What it Takes?
Being a Coast Guard AST is rigorous duty to be sure. And although they don’t perform dramatic rescues every day, the rescue swimming portion of the job is the most physically demanding.
Brandt, who got into the career field “by dumb luck,” says being comfortable in the water is the most fundamental requirement.
“I grew up in Nevada — a long way from any ocean — but I always loved swimming and wanted to be near the coast, so I thought the Coast Guard might be a good option for me. At that time, the rescue swimmer rate was brand new in the Coast Guard and candidates had to go through the Navy’s rescue swimmer program in order to be qualified. I was anxious because I didn’t know what to expect, but I obviously did OK,” he chuckles. “It’s been very exciting and I’ve never looked back. It’s a very rewarding and fulfilling career field and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
“In my experience, it’s not the best collegiate or competitive swimmers who make the best rescue swimmers,” he continues. “People who have experience in contact sports seem to do the best. They are focused on the end goal and are better able to keep their head in tough situations.”
And the USCG AST rating is not exclusively for men. Brandt says that females going through the Airman Program and AST School actually have a higher success rate (percentage-wise) than men.
“There are currently five female ASTs, all of whom are quite small in stature. You’d think you’d have to be a big burly person to meet the requirements of this job, but these women use their body mechanics to meet the physical demands of the duty and are worth their weight in gold.”
Make a Strong Team
The Coast Guard AST rating and its associated rescue swimmer program have a remarkable safety record, which speaks volumes about how effectively AST teams perform their duties.
It’s all about training and teamwork, and by all accounts the Coast Guard is doing it right.
Since the USCG rescue swimmer program’s inception in 1985, thousands of lives have been saved by rescue swimmers’ deployment. In the program’s history, only four ASTs have been lost in the line of duty, all of which were the result of helicopter crashes.
It’s also a testament to the strength of their training programs that other elite forces, such as the aforementioned Air Force PJs and Navy SEALS, attend the Coast Guard’s Advanced Helicopter Rescue Swimmer School.
“We train to a very high level,” says Brandt proudly. “There’s a huge level of mutual respect and I don’t mean to diminish [the other services’] level of skill or abilities in combat, but they work in teams. Coast Guard rescue swimmers are absolutely part of a team and couldn’t do what we do without the crew above us, but in the water, we’re on our own. In the water, all decisions are on the rescue swimmer.”