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U. S. Coast Guard   

Rescue Swimmer Program

By

LCDR Richard M. Wright, USCG (Ret.)**

A photo of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.


     On the evening of 10 February 1983, the M/V MARINE ELECTRIC sailed out of Norfolk, VA, enroute to Brayton Point, MA, with a 25,000 ton cargo of pulverized coal. Seas were rough, the skies were laden with a heavy overcast and the wind was cold and blowing in excess of 40 knots. The crew of 34 officers and men were experienced and had sailed in such weather on numerous occasions. As the ship proceeded on course, operations seemed normal. However, as the ship cruised off Virginia's east shore, the weather intensified. By the following morning, the seas were between 20 and 40 feet, with winds blowing at 60 knots. The MARINE ELECTRIC strained under the growing seas, as each successive wave crashed green water heavily over the decks. By midnight on 11 February, the ship seemed sluggish through the seas, and the Captain instinctively sensed that the ship was not recovering normally through the swells. He directed that the holds be inspected to ensure the cargo was secure. A frantic report returned that the holds were filling with sea water. Severely weakened over time with rust, weak spots in the hatch covers were allowing the sea to pour into the holds. With the storm still intensifying, the Captain knew the ship was doomed. At approximately 0400 on Saturday, 12 February, a distress call was sent and acknowledged by the Coast Guard. An HH-3F helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, NC, piloted by LT Scott Olin, was immediately dispatched by Rescue Coordination Center Portsmouth. By the time the helicopter arrived, however, the ship had sunk, and 34 people were now desperately fighting for their lives in the frigid waters. As theH-3 hovered overhead, a rescue basket was prepared and lowered to the people in the water. Numbed by severe hypothermia, the men were unable to grab the basket and floundered helplessly. LT Olin quickly recognized that these victims could not be rescued with the capabilities at hand and asked RCC Portsmouth to make an immediate call to NAS Oceana to inquire if a Navy helicopter and rescue swimmer might be available to assist. Not normally maintaining a ready helicopter on weekends, the Navy recalled LCDR William Sontag, who quickly rounded up a crew including rescue swimmer Petty Officer James McCann. The Navy H-3 helicopter arrived on scene at 0605, and for over an hour, both aircraft positioned themselves to receive survivors. Petty Officer McCann swam to the point of exhaustion in 40 foot seas in his effort to save as many as he could. Conditions were so severe and the temperatures so cold that sea water on his facemask froze. Although only three persons were recovered alive, Petty Officer McCann was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic efforts. Tragically, a total of 31 crewmen perished.

     The Congressional Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee convened hearings to question why the worlds premier maritime rescue service was unable to assist people in the water. It became apparent during testimony the existing techniques and equipment were inadequate for rescue in such extreme circumstances as occurred with the MARINE ELECTRIC. Congress, therefore, mandated in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984 that "The Commandant of the Coast Guard shall use such sums as are necessary, from amounts appropriated for the operational maintenance of the Coast Guard, to establish a helicopter rescue swimmer program for the purpose of training selected Coast Guard personnel in rescue swimming skills."

     With this mandate from Congress, the Coast Guard immediately turned attention to developing rescue specialists who could assist incapacitated people in the water. The Aviation Division (G-OAV) at Coast Guard Headquarters was tasked with researching alternatives and recommending a plan. LCDR Dana Goward, of the Aviation Plans and Programs Branch, was tasked to develop the Planning Proposal that would incorporate the outlines of the Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program and determine its funding. LCDR Ken Coffland, Chief of the Aviation Life Support Branch, was named Program Manager. To assist them was ASMCM Larry Farmer, the Aviation Survivalman (ASM) Rating Subject Matter Specialist at the Coast Guard Institute in Oklahoma City, OK.


A photo of the rescue swimmer insignia.

The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer insignia.


     The main question arose as to who would become Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers? Should the program be open to volunteers from any aviation rating; should a new and separate rating be established; or should one rating be transformed to provide rescue swimmers? Each option had significant implications to the existing enlisted force structure. The duties and training required of rescue swimmers would preclude most aviation ratings from performing their highly specialized maintenance duties while also maintaining demanding rescue swimmer qualifications. It was decided that the rating most easily transformed and one already identified with sea survival was Aviation Survivalman. Transition of the ASM rating, however, raised concerns for those individuals within that rating who were: in mid-career or had no interest or ability to become rescue swimmers. However, the Coast Guard was faced with a Congressional mandate that a rescue swimmer program be established. LCDR Coffland and ASMCM Farmer recommended that the fairest way to transition the ASM rating would be to exempt individuals who were E-7 or above and to offer all others who did not want to become rescue swimmers lenient conditions for changing to a different rating. In June 1984, with many details of the plan still to be refined, the Commandant authorized a five year period to implement the program throughout Coast Guard aviation. On 25 February 1985, an ALDIST message was disseminated announcing the requirement for all ASMs below the rate of E-7 to become rescue swimmer qualified. ASMs were given until 30June 1990 to either become a rescue swimmer, be promoted to E-7, begin school to change to another rating, retire or resign. Recognizing the unquestioned demand for dramatic change but also in fairness to those who elected to make the difficult transition to rescue swimmer, the Commandant stated that virtually no waivers to these options would be given. The extraordinary physical demands required of rescue swimmers also raised the question as to whether the program would be open to females. Considerable thought was given to the physical standards required to perform the duties of rescue swimmer, and no other service allows females in such programs. The Coast Guard decided that physical fitness standards would be 'mission specific' and gender blind. If otherwise qualified, females who possessed the strength and stamina were as eligible as men to become rescue swimmers.

     On 21 May 1984, LCDR Goward visited the Navy's Rescue Swimmer School at NAS Pensacola, FL, to discuss the Navy's program, looking particularly at its training, mission and equipment. Recognizing that the Coast Guard program would ultimately be a maritime rescue resource similar to the Navy's, the Coast Guard and Navy entered an agreement by which Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers would be trained at the U. S. Navy Rescue Swimmer School at NAS Pensacola, FL. Commencing training on 10 September 1984, ASM2 Steve Ober and ASM3 Kelly Gordon became the first Coast Guard personnel to complete the four-week course, graduating on 5 October 1984. In addition to having the distinction of being one of the first Coast Guard rescue swimmers, ASM2 Ober graduated as the Honor Graduate of his class, one of only four out of 282 graduates up to that time to be so honored. Petty Officers Ober and Gordon were joined shortly thereafter by more graduates of Rescue Swimmer School. ASM1 Richard Woolford, ASM3 Matt Fithian, and ASM3 Butch Flythe were qualified by the end of 1984. These five individuals were to become the first operational rescue swimmers when Air Station Elizabeth City reported operational on 5 March 1985. Air Station Elizabeth City recorded the first life saved by a Coast Guard rescue swimmer on 4 May 1985 when a severely hypothermic man was saved after clinging to the bow of his capsized boat. With the survivor unable to climb into a rescue basket, ASM1 Richard Woolford was deployed into the water and pulled the person to safety. Training for the Aviation Survivalman rating became extraordinarily intense. As of 1 January 1986, individuals have been required first to pass a physical fitness screening test and then attend sixteen weeks of Aviation Survivalman "A" School at ATTC Elizabeth City. This is followed by four weeks of training at Rescue Swimmer School. With weight and space limitations aboard HH-65A and HH-60J helicopters, there was concern regarding the ability to provide medical treatment to survivors once recovered. To eliminate the need for hospital corpsmen in the aircrew, it was decided that Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers should also be qualified to administer first aid. Therefore, in addition to their other training, rescue swimmers are required to attend three weeks of training at EMT School at Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma, CA. Only the most dedicated men and women complete this rigorous regimen of courses to earn the coveted title of Helicopter Rescue Swimmer. Since the program's inception, however, the idea of placing these individuals above their contemporaries as elite has been spurned. At every instance, rescue swimmers are reminded that they are merely part of a team. When not conducting rescues, it is expected that ASMs will perform their other duties as Aviation Survivalmen, maintaining the survival equipment depended upon by pilots and other aircrew. The concept of "The Quiet Professional" is ingrained from the beginning of their training and reinforced throughout their careers.

A photo of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.     In January 1985, an inter-service conference was held at NAS Pensacola to determine the operating procedures for the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program.  At the time, helicopter rescue specialists were utilized by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, the Canadian Forces, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.  These services were invited to demonstrate their deployment procedures and techniques.  Following the demonstration exercises, the Coast Guard team recognized that their primary mission would to assist people in distress in a maritime region in a peacetime environment.  The focus, therefore, was concentrated on the U.S. Navy's Rescue Swimmer program, as modification of the Navy procedures could be more easily adapted to Coast Guard requirements.  It was decided that Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers would not utilize scuba, parachutes, or utilize procedures for combat SAR, tree extraction, or mountain rescue.

     Once the decision was made to establish a program similar to the Navy's, ASMCM Farmer developed the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Manual to delineate policies and operating procedures.  The concept of operations stated that the rescue swimmer would either free fall from the helicopter or deploy via the hoist cable and, equipped with mask, fins, snorkel, and appropriate anti-exposure garments, would swim freely to assist the survivor.   Master Chief Farmer himself began training to become a rescue swimmer, and following graduation on 29 March 85, he was selected to lead the Rescue Swimmer Standardization Team at Air Station Elizabeth City, established in September 1984 by ASM1 Woolford.  Master Chief Farmer and Petty Officer Woolford continued to test and evaluate rescue swimmer equipment, operational concepts, and aircrew training.  The Rescue Swimmer Standardization Team remained at Elizabeth City until August 1988, when it was transferred to ATC Mobile and joined by ASM1 Jeffery Tunks, ASM1 Jim Sherman and ASM2 Scott Dyer.

     LCDR Coffland, meanwhile, developed a comprehensive schedule for implementation of the program throughout Coast Guard aviation.  Every air station tasked to maintain operationally ready helicopters for search and rescue would be required to implement rescue swimmers.  By the end of 1986, LCDR Coffland had implemented rescue swimmers at six air stations.  Elizabeth City reported operational on 5 March 1985, with San Francisco following on 1 November 1985; Astoria on 31 January 1986; Clearwater on 11 August 1986; Sitka on 20 November 1986; and Cape Cod on 1 December 1986.  By August 1987, when CDR Hugh O'Doherty relieved LCDR Coffland as Program Manager, there was still significant resistance and apprehension within Coast Guard aviation regarding the need for rescue swimmers.  The MARINE ELECTRIC incident that precipitated the Congressional mandate for rescue swimmers involved severe hypothermia.  Many persons in warmer regions were skeptical of the need deploying rescue swimmers into water where hypothermia was not perceived to be a problem.  Others were concerned about the impact of additional training requirements to maintain flight proficiency for all pilots and aircrews in rescue swimmer operations.  CDR O'Doherty's greatest challenge was to overcome these apprehensions and ensure that the Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program was implemented at every station.


A photo of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

An HH-60J helicopter demonstrates procedures used to pickup a rescue swimmer after a rescue for the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference attendees at Reserve Training Center Yorktown.


     When the program first became operational, there was considerable reluctance to deploy rescue swimmers except under generally favorable conditions. It soon became apparent, however, that Coast Guard rescue swimmers would frequently be utilized in extreme weather conditions.  On 10 December 1987, Air Station Sitka, Alaska, received a distress call from a 26 foot fishing vessel taking on water about 10 miles southwest of Sitka. An HH-3F was quickly launched to search for the vessel, but the weather conditions were terrible. Visibility was down to 1/4 in a severe snow storm, the seas were running at about 25 to 30 feet and the wind was blowing at 35 knots with gusts up to 70 knots. Aboard the vessel were a 33 year-old man and his 6 year-old son, both of whom were wearing survival suits. In the heavy seas, the tall rigging of the sinking boat swayed violently from side to side, with the stern already awash. Despite numerous attempts, the pilot and hoist operator were unable to get the rescue basket to the two people on the boat. The pilot, after considerable persuasion, convinced the father and boy that their only chance at rescue was to enter the water where they could then get into the rescue basket. With the son strapped to his chest, the father jumped over the side into the turbulent water. However, the man's survival suit leaked, and immediately filled with water. After several attempts to get into the basket, it became apparent that they could not. The pilot turned to ASM1 Jeffery Tunks, the rescue swimmer, and directed him to prepare for deployment. In a few short moments, Petty Officer Tunks was in the turbulent water and swimming to assist the two individuals. Fighting heavy seas and winds, Petty Officer Tunks struggled to get the two survivors into the rescue basket. Once secured, they were hoisted to the hovering H-3. With the aircraft being buffeted by extremely gusty winds during the subsequent effort to recover the rescue swimmer, Petty Officer Tunks was dragged through an enormous sea swell, causing him to lose his mask and snorkel and sustain a minor back injury. He was ultimately recovered, and with the two survivors safely aboard, the H-3 returned to Sitka. For his courage and presence of mind in deploying into conditions as yet not previously encountered during previous rescue swimmer operations, ASM1 Jeffery Tunks became the first rescue swimmer to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross.

     Operations such as this became almost routine.  As more people grew aware of the significant enhancement that rescue swimmers give to the capabilities of the SAR team, people wondered how the Coast Guard had operated so long without them.  Questions still remained, however, particularly concerning the suitability of women as rescue swimmers.  On 23 May, 1986, ASM3 Kelly M. Mogk became the first female to graduate from Navy Rescue Swimmer School.


A photo of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

The insignia on the wall of the Rescue Swimmers Office at Air Station Traverse City, Michigan.


     On 3 January 1989, the pilot and weapons officer of an Oregon National Guard F-4 fighter jet bailed out 35 miles west of Tillamook Bay, OR. The Coast Guard responded by dispatching an HH-65A helicopter from Air Station Astoria, piloted by LCDR Bill Peterson and LTJG Bill Harper. Also aboard were Petty Officer Reese as flight mechanic and ASM3 Mogk as rescue swimmer. On-scene conditions were 100 foot ceilings, one-quarter mile visibility and 20 foot seas. Being mid-winter, it was also extremely cold. After a brief search, the pilots spotted two rafts, but only one person was seen clinging to one of the rafts. With the helicopter in a hover and after completing the appropriate checklists, ASM3 Mogk jumped from the aircraft into the frigid waters and swam to the survivor.  The pilot was entangled in his parachute, had several broken bones, was suffering from hypothermia and was barely able to keep his head above the water.  Despite the real danger of herself becoming entangled, ASM3 Mogk worked for twenty minutes to free the pilot from his parachute.  Finally cut free, he was hoisted to the aircraft, but due to his size, it took two men aboard the aircraft to pull him inside. Meanwhile, Petty Officer Mogk was also suffering from severe hypothermia, as her own dry suit had leaked, allowing cold water to enter. Her fingers and hands were severely numb. A second aircraft arrived on scene and futilely attempted to locate the missing weapons officer. Unable to find the man, ASM3 Mogk was hoisted aboard, and the aircraft returned to Air Station Astoria. After refueling, LCDR Peterson returned to scene accompanied by an Air Force H-3 helicopter with two PJs aboard.  The missing crewman eventually was found tangled in his parachute about twelve feet beneath the raft. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. For her exceptional skill and determined effort during her rescue, Petty Officer Mogk was awarded the Air Medal, becoming the first female rescue swimmer to receive an award for heroism.

     Having overcome most resistance to the program, CDR O'Doherty faced other obstacles, primarily budget battles.  Due to a lack of funding, implementation was temporarily halted during 1987 and much of 1988.  In the Coast Guard's Authorization Act of 1988, funding for the program was restored, and implementation was rescheduled for the remaining air stations.  Four air stations went operational in 1988, with six more in 1989. Due to recurring budget constraints, only three air stations went operational in 1990.  In July 1990, LCDR Richard M. Wright became Rescue Swimmer Program Manager, and between February and July 1991, he implemented the final five air stations and two air facilities.  With Air Facility Charleston, SC, reporting operational on 24 October 1991, the program was completely implemented at all twenty-four Coast Guard helicopter air stations and two air facilities.  During the six years of implementation, the helicopter rescue swimmer program gained national recognition and acclaim as an extraordinarily successful enhancement to Coast Guard search and rescue operations.  Over 250 lives were saved by rescue swimmers during this period.

     As operational commanders learned more of their capabilities, rescue swimmers were utilized in an increasing variety of situations.  With the concept of "Risk versus Gain" continually stressed to both commanders and rescue swimmers, few restrictions were placed on how rescue swimmers could be utilized. As the original mission of the program was intended to assist incapacitated people in the water, the Coast Guard elected not to train its rescue swimmers for mountain rescues or tree extractions, which required highly specialized training and equipment. In practice, however, it became evident that the Coast Guard was indeed responding to persons in distress along rugged coastlines as well as further inland.  Reviewing the increasing number of deployment messages, LCDR Wright perceived that there were numerous instances where rescue swimmers were being deployed to the rocky surf, caves and steep cliffs of the Pacific coast, on the winter ice of the Great Lakes and to a variety of other hazardous situations elsewhere.  He expressed concern within the Aviation Division that the training received by rescue swimmers and flight crews might not adequately prepare them for such conditions.

     The requirement for additional training and procedures gained a greater sense of urgency in February 1991, when a rescue swimmer was nearly killed along the rugged coastline of Oregon. In an attempt to rescue a stranded hiker from a steep cliff near Lincoln Beach, an HH-65A from Air Station North Bend deployed ASM3 Patrick Chick to a steep cliff to assist the hiker. Following normal procedures, he detached from the hoist cable to await delivery of the rescue basket. While attempting to put the hiker into the basket, however, Petty Officer Chick lost his footing and fell 120 feet to the beach below. Fortunately, his outstanding physical condition, helmet and anti-exposure clothing protected him, and he suffered only minor injuries. The hiker, meanwhile, was able to retain his grip on the rescue basket and was lowered to the beach. This incident highlighted the need for additional procedures appropriate for operating in this and other similar environments where rescue swimmers routinely operate. This rescue and Petty Officer Chick's fall fortunately were captured on video camera, providing dramatic evidence of the dangers involved. Senior officials at Headquarters reviewed the film and quickly approved a study into new procedures.

     LCDR Wright contacted ASMCM Darell Gelakoska, now Chief of the Rescue Swimmer Training Branch, to discuss techniques whereby the rescue swimmer could remain attached to the hoist cable and deployed directly to a survivor. This would provide for a faster delivery of the rescue swimmer to a survivor and allow the pilot to quickly recover the swimmer and survivor if particular hazards existed. Remaining connected to the hoist cable on vertical surfaces would also provide a lifeline should the rescue swimmer fall. ATC Mobile was tasked to test, evaluate and develop appropriate procedures and equipment to enhance rescue swimmer capabilities. In August 1992, LCDR Wright, Master Chief Gelakoska, ASM1 Sherman and flight crews from ATC Mobile met for three weeks at Air Station San Francisco, under the command of CDR Kevin Scheid, and Air Station Astoria, under the command of CAPT Charles Leiand, to test and evaluate procedures and equipment for the direct deployment of rescue swimmers to cliffs, wet rocks and heavy surf. Wind conditions, terrain clearance, engine power and obstacles were crucial considerations, as were protective clothing and harness gear for the rescue swimmer. In April 1993, following these intense trials, CAPT Pete Poerschke, Commander, ATC Mobile, forwarded a complete package of recommendations regarding new rescue swimmer direct deployment procedures for HH-60J and HH-65A aircraft. These proposals were reviewed by the Aviation Division and approved by the Commandant. LCDR Wright then developed a plan to implement the direct deployment procedure at all air stations. During June and July 1993, ATC Mobile instructors trained designated pilots and aircrews from every air station in the new procedures on the steep cliffs of Darrell' s Ledge and to the heavy surf at Zimmerman Beach below the Presidio in San Francisco for HH-60J aircrews and at Cape Disappointment, WA, for HH-65A aircrews. Demonstrating the effectiveness of the procedure, Master Chief Gelakoska and ASM1 Dyer deployed to 200 foot cliffs, wave swept rocks and heavy surf with ease, recovering simulated survivors from otherwise inaccessible places. The aircrews under training quickly recognized the enhanced operating capabilities the procedure provided. They, in turn, returned to their units to conduct additional training until all pilots and aircrew were qualified. The direct deployment procedure gave operational commanders significantly more flexibility, allowing safe rescue swimmer operations where previously infeasible.

     During the "Storm of the Century" that raced up the Atlantic coast in March 1993, the Coast Guard responded to numerous distress calls from Miami to Cape Cod. Coast Guard helicopters operated in the most extreme conditions imaginable, with winds in excess of 80 knots and seas up to 60 feet. Although numerous rescues were conducted effectively, in several instances rescue swimmers declined deployment. Although the rescue swimmer has authority to decline deployment if conditions are beyond his or her capabilities, some swimmers were distressed later that they had not deployed. ASMCM Gelakoska contacted ASMs at every air station to survey them as to what they regarded as conditions too severe in which to deploy. It was discovered that there was a great disparity in perception as to what was deemed too severe. Some rescue swimmers admitted considerable peer pressure to deploy under circumstances they believed might be beyond their abilities. Master Chief Gelakoska proposed that a training program be developed to expose rescue swimmers to high sea conditions. With such training, rescue swimmers would be better able to judge their abilities in extreme situations. From his standardization training trips around the country, Master Chief Gelakoska indicated that the units best situated for the most ideal conditions for high seas training would be Air Station Astoria, OR and Air Station Humboldt Bay, CA. With approval from CAPT Gary McGuffin, Chief of the Aviation Division, LCDR Wright coordinated with Commander, Pacific Area and these units to provide helicopter support for the Rescue Swimmer Training Branch to develop an appropriate course of istruction. In April 1994, ASMCM Gelakoska and ASMI Ted Finney conducted training to test and evaluate effective procedures for rescue swimmer operations in rough sea conditions.


A photo of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer David Moore (right) prepares three Coast Guardsmen from the cutter Tamaroa to be hoisted into the helicopter following the rescue of people from the sailing vessel Satori.  The three crewmen were forced to abandon their small boat after it was damaged in rough seas during an earlier rescue attempt. 


     During this high seas training, consideration was also given to yet another environment in which rescue swimmers had occasionally been called upon to assist individuals in distress. On 1 April 1991, Air Station San Francisco received notification that two boys were trapped inside a coastal cave. An HH-3F was launched to assist. Arriving on scene, it was readily apparent that the youths could not be recovered directly by the helicopter and could be reached only by the rescue swimmer. With the helicopter hovering at the mouth of the cave, ASM1 Steve Frye jumped from the aircraft into the water and swam into the cave. He found the boys perched on a ledge that was imminently in danger of being submerged by the rising tide. Petty Officer Frye's only option was to take hold of the boys one at a time and swim out of the cave. The strong swells repeatedly pushed him back into the cave and against the rocks. Due to his superior physical condition, stamina and determination, after several attempts Petty Officer Frye was finally able to escape the cave with the first survivor. Although fatigued, he re-entered the cave for the second boy. Again battling the heavy swells and protecting both himself and the survivor from beating against the rocks, ASM1 Frye reached the relative safety beyond the incoming surf. The two boys were hoisted aboard the aircraft and transported to a hospital for evaluation. Other than exhaustion and a broken finger, ASM1 Frye was in good condition. For his extraordinary heroism, ASM1 Frye received the Coast Guard Medal. Although this case ended successfully, it dramatically highlighted that cave rescues presented yet another situation wherein rescue swimmers were called upon to operate without guidance or hazard awareness. In conjunction with high seas training, therefore, Master Chief Gelakoska and Petty Officer-Finney evaluated different techniques for entering caves under various sea conditions.

     By 1994, the Rescue Swimmer Program had evolved dramatically from its initial concept of open ocean operations, with numerous changes in policies, operating procedures and equipment being developed. The direct deployment was a significant enhancement, as were procedures for ice operations and deployments in other hazardous situations. Always striving to improve the program, like a quilt maker attempting to connect many pieces into one, ASMCM Gelakoska recommended in early 1995 that advanced training be provided in hazard awareness and the various new procedures, techniques and equipment that rescue swimmers do not receive in Rescue Swimmer School or normally encounter during operations at their air stations. A formal proposal to establish an Advanced Rescue Swimmer School in Astoria was submitted by ATC Mobile in March 1995 and approved by CAPT McGuffin. Astoria was determined to be the best location for such a school, as the rugged coastline, demanding surf and prevailing high seas provided ideal training conditions. Within three months of its inception, the plan to renovate a building at Tongue Point in Astoria was designed by Coast Guard Pacific Area civil engineers and approved by Vice Admiral Richard Herr, Commander, Pacific Area. He directed that a $200,000 project be undertaken to make the facility suitable for the proposed school. On 9 April, 1996 Vice Admiral Herr dedicated the building to establish the Coast Guard Advanced Rescue Swimmer School.  Twice a year for one month periods, HH-65A, HH-60J and Rescue Swimmer Training Branches from ATC Mobile host advanced rescue swimmer training for pilots, hoist operators, flight mechanics and rescue swimmers from all Coast Guard air stations.  Although the mission of the school is to conduct training in advanced rescue swimmer operations, the focus is upon integrating the pilots and aircrew into an entire team to enhance the Coast Guard's ability to conduct helicopter rescue safely and efficiently.


A photo of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

A rescue swimmer from Air Station Elizabeth City, NC, deploys to the cruise ship Sea Breeze I in December, 2000.  Two Coast Guard HH-60 helicopters and two C-130 Hercules aircraft rescued 34 crewmembers off the distressed 600-foot Panamanian-flagged passenger vessel Sea Breeze I after their vessel began taking on water and later sank approximately 290 nautical miles east of Cape Charles, VA.


     In just twelve years the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program progressed from mere concept into a nationally acclaimed program.  It evolved from its initial mission of open ocean rescue to its now extensive capability to assist people in distress in virtually any environment in which the Coast Guard operates. In the program's first ten years of operations, over 400 lives were saved through rescue swimmer deployment. Rescue swimmer operations remain team efforts.  Despite operating in the most severe weather conditions imaginable and deploying into extremely hostile environments, there have been no serious injuries to rescue swimmers. The program's record of success speaks highly of the training, fitness and courage not only of the rescue swimmers but also of the aircrews who deploy them.

[NOTE: Since the inception of the program two rescue swimmers have been killed in the line of duty when their helicopters went down.  They were ASM3 J. Caines, who perished aboard AIRSTA Humboldt Bay HH-65A CG-6549 on 8 June 1997 and ASMCS P. Leeman, who perished aboard AIRSTA Humboldt Bay HH-65A CG-6541 on 12 July 1994.]  

     Although the Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program has taken enormous strides to achieve its current abilities, it remains a dynamic resource able to change and adapt as conditions warrant.  Looking to the future, strong consideration is being given to establishing a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer School at ATTC Elizabeth City. Coast Guard rescue swimmer operations have progressed to the point that with its own school, the Coast Guard could tailor its curriculum to provide training more specific to Coast Guard operations.  Where the program stands in 1996 on the 80th anniversary of Coast Guard aviation attests to the vision, leadership, professionalism and determination of all individuals who directly participated in the program's development.  For those who had the privilege of participating in this program's evolution, it was a distinct honor to serve with the "Quiet Professionals" who so routinely demonstrate that courage is a common trait. There are few titles within the military profession that are as hard earned and respected as that of Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer.


**Our thanks to Robert Swift, ASMCS, USCG (Ret.) for bringing this article to our attention and to LCDR Wright for writing it!

Please note that LCDR Wright has applied for a copyright for this article.

Last Modified 11/17/2014