United States Coast Guard – San Diego
With the main missions of the United States Coast Guard being humanitarian based,
the USCG has many roles. Søren Nielsen reports from USCG station San Diego.
the USCG has many roles. Søren Nielsen reports from USCG station San Diego.
United States Coast Guard
The United States Armed Forces are not just the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps. As part of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), is a part of the Armed Forces just like any other military branch in the U.S.
With the main missions of the USCG being humanitarian based, the USCG has roles in maritime homeland security, maritime law enforcement (MLE), search and rescue (SAR), marine environmental protection (MEP), plus the maintenance of river, intracoastal and offshore aids to navigation (ATON).
The USCG operates both at sea and from the air, with a range of boats, cutters and different aircraft types. The USCG is divided into two areas; Atlantic Area and Pacific Area – which are furthermore divided into multiple districts.
Each district then has its own sectors which carry out different roles. Søren Nielsen visited sector San Diego, from District Eleven in the Pacific Area, which among other things operates the MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter. Sector San Diego has a key role within SAR which includes the fight against drugs, illegal migration and the regulation of vessels coming in and out of the ports.
Sector San Diego
The USCG regulates not only all of the vessels within the port of San Diego, but the Captain of the USCG, (Sector San Diego), is also the Captain of the port itself, and as such regulates everything within the port.
Maintaining law enforcement in both air and at sea sees the USCG undertake many tasks. Lieutenant Timothy Nicolet, an MH-60T pilot in Sector San Diego explains,“We also impose law enforcement for drug running and illegal migration, especially here in San Diego. A lot of people enter illegally across the border, whilst others run drugs via the sea – coming from Mexico and further south – then heading offshore and run all the way up and around.
Search and rescue is our main thing, especially with the helicopters, but we also try to stop as many narcotics coming in, as we can. One of the main things within SAR, in San Diego, is medical evacuations of people on cruise ships, as well as from the big fishing fleet offshore. We spend a lot of time picking up people who have fallen, hit their head, had a heart attack, had a scuba diving accident etc. – we have even had shark bites.
The focus is not a battlefield focus, it’s a search and rescue focus. It’s more humanitarian – we’re going out to help people. That’s important for us, and that’s something we have in common and links us a little bit closer, more than just being work colleagues.”
The San Diego sector covers approximately 80 miles of coastline to the north of San Diego, then goes offshore for 200 miles, heading 100 miles south and back to San Diego. Then all the way inland, and covers the entire state of Arizona, including parts of Nevada and Utah, as well. Most of the operating area is inland. But as it’s the Coast Guard, their main focus is maritime distress, which results in 99% of the sorties sector San Diego responds to being over water, while other agencies usually covers inland emergencies.
Because of the endurance the Coast Guard unit would have to travel, (sometimes being more than four hours), it would be ineffective for them to respond to most inland sorties. There is always a risk of sorties inland. There could potentially be someone climbing a cliff inland, falling down injuring himself, and the USCG could be called in to aid them. But usually people call the fire department, and not the USCG when this happens, as you’re inland, and you don’t think about calling the Coast Guard if you’re on a mountain or in the desert.
Besides SAR and patrolling for drugs and migrants, the USCG also go out patrolling some of the critical infrastructures for the United States, like the Hoover Dam, for example.
The Aviation Assets Of USCG
The USCG has a fleet of fixed-wing propeller aircraft. These being the HC-130(H/J) Hercules, HC-144A Ocean Sentry and C-27J Spartan. These fixed-wing turboprops are long-range, high endurance aircraft, capable of covering long distances – and they can fly anywhere up to ten to twelve hours. These are the ones that patrol, especially, long offshore.
Besides the fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, the USCG operate two types of helicopters. These are the MH-60T Jayhawk and the HH-65(C/D/E) Dolphin. The HH-65 is frequently deployed to the larger coast guard ships, where they operate from a landing platform at the stern of the ship. The MH-60T is too large to land on any of the USCG ships, and are usually only land based.
On the aviation front (Sector San Diego) is equipped with three MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters (originally designated HH-60J before being upgraded and redesignated, beginning in 2007). The MH-60T is derived from the SH-60 Seahawk, which is a variant of one of the most common helicopter workhorses, the UH-60 Blackhawk.
The MH-60T is designed to fly a crew of four up to 300 miles offshore, hoist up to six additional people on board while remaining on-scene for up to 45 minutes and return to base while maintaining an adequate fuel reserve.
Lt. Nicolet continues, “The tango model (MH-60T red.) is equipped with an additional three external fuel tanks, a smaller one on the right and two on the left. That’s what allows us to go that far, it gives us almost two hours of extra fuel. We can fly for 6 hours, in total. If we’re that far offshore, they’ll usually launch a C-130 or a C-27 to fly behind us, to keep an eye on us, and help us with radio communication and things like that, because of the distance”.
An operational crew of the MH-60T consists of four crew members; Two pilots, one flight mechanic, and one rescue swimmer. Lt. Nicolet explains, “We always fly with two pilots, no matter what. The smaller helicopter (HH-65), you can fly with one pilot, but because of the size of the cockpit and things like that, we always have two pilots in the sixty.
The flight mechanic does a lot of maintenance while on the ground, but he also operates the hoist while out on a sortie. The pilot flying, when doing a rescue, can not see the boat directly under the helicopter. As the boat passes underneath (the helicopter), he loses all visual contact with it. The flight mechanic lays on the floor and looks out of the door, relaying where the pilot should fly. He guides the pilot ‘forward and right 5’, ‘forward and right 10’, ‘easy back’, as you as a pilot can’t see the boat, you are just listening to the guy in the back, trying to follow his instructions, and stay as stable as you can.
The rescue swimmer is the medical professional on board. They have an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) certification and they’ll administer medical care, if needed, once the patient is onboard the helicopter. Additionally, they can deploy down to the boat, or down in the water, by getting lowered down the hoist”.
“The flight mechanic lays on the floor and looks out of the door, relaying where the pilot should fly.”
Lots of room
Besides the crew, it’s possible to have 5 people seated in the back, if additional seats have been installed. There’s not always enough seats for everyone, however, as Lt. Nicolet continues, “Of the two cases I can recall, there’s the one we were rescuing fishermen out in Alaska. They were in big, soaked survival suits. We picked up nine people, so that was eleven people in the back, with the two crew members.
There was another sortie, where they rescued some people off a cruise ship. They were smaller people, and they weren’t in big survival suits, and I think they had 25 people in the back. One person couldn’t fit in the helicopter, because it was so full, so they had him in the basket, hanging outside the helicopter – but these scenarios are very rare”.
Usually it’s only one or two people they’ll rescue, unless it’s a sinking vessel. It’s just the people in immediate peril (or sick) that get picked up. What’s important to remember is, hoisting people is always dangerous. It’s not easy to hover the helicopter near a boat, as it gets very loud, windy, and it’s a stressful environment. So the USCG only pick up people that are in absolute need of urgent attention, as it’s safer both for them and the USCG. Otherwise they’ll take a boat back to shore if they’re not in urgent need of attention.
Flying In The Dark
Ships don’t just sink without reason and, usually, it’s due to high seas and/or bad weather. Combining this with flying in the dark of night, makes this demanding job even more challenging.
“Flying in the dark is more demanding. From a pilot’s perspective, flying the helicopter is like balancing a broomstick on your hand. A lot of small movements – as long as you correct it right away, then it stays balanced, but if you let it start tipping too far, you can’t go catch it. The helicopter is like that, it’s very delicate. To balance it, you use your visual references outside the helicopter. You use different objects to see if they’re moving, helping you sense how the helicopter is flying.
At night most of these visual references disappear, due to it being dark. So it becomes difficult to sense the motion of the helicopter. Because you can’t always feel it in the seat of your pants you can end up drifting very slowly, and you may not notice it, if you don’t have anything that indicates it.
But if there’s a lot light, or the moon is very bright, then it’s not that difficult. But if it’s really dark then it gets more difficult, especially out at sea. Then you obviously use the instruments in the helicopter, even though you can’t sense the motion occurring outside the helicopter. When we’re hoisting out of boats on dark nights, that’s probably the most difficult thing we do.
But to help with that, we have night vision goggles that we wear, which helps a lot. It basically amplifies the ambient light from the stars and things, magnifying it a lot. But goggles have their limitations, too. A person’s field of view is 180 degrees by 135 degrees. With goggles it’s just a 40 degrees circle, so you have to move your head a lot to see things you usually could see without moving. So it’s important to look around and move your head, to see how the helicopter is moving, to make sure it stays stable.
The helicopter has a lot of systems that helps you, you can even push a button and it will hold a stable hover for you, but when you’re over a boat you need to be very precise, as you need to lower the basket right onto the deck, and the automated hover is not precise enough. It will hold you stable, but usually it will have a little drift.” concludes Lt. Nicolet.
“At night most of these visual references disappear, due to it being dark. So it becomes difficult to sense the motion of the helicopter.”
Become A Part Of The USCG
There are two ways to join the USCG; you can either enlist in the Coast Guard, or become an Officer in the Coast Guard. To enlist you just sign up for four years, starting at a bootcamp for 9-10 weeks. You’ll then get your station once you have graduated from bootcamp. The enlisted are the work force of the USCG. The jobs they can choose can also be a lot of fun, such as being a flight mechanic, or a swimmer. Everyone that works on the helicopters – besides the pilots – and everyone that pilots the smaller boats, as well as all of the secretarial and logistical jobs – most of those are enlisted people.
As with all the branches of the U.S. military, all pilots within the USCG are Officers. There are two ways to become an Officer in the USCG. For one, you can go to the Coast Guard Academy once you’ve completed high school. It’s four years of college, after which you receive your degree in one of the eight majors available through the Coast Guard Academy. These majors are:
When you finally graduate from the academy, you’ll do some extra training before you become an Officer in the USCG.
You can also go to a regular civilian college, get a degree as a lawyer etc., and then go on a 17 week Officer program, at the aptly named Officer Candidate School, becoming an Officer that way.
Once you’re an Officer you can become a pilot as a specialty. To do that, you’ll have to apply to the Flight School Program and, once accepted, you’ll be sent to Pensacola to be trained as a pilot.
Lt. Nicolet explains, “That’s what I did. After high school I applied and got into the Coast Guard Academy. I went there for four years. I studied Marine and Environmental Sciences, and got a Bachelor degree in Environmental Sciences, and then went to Pensacola for flight training. You’ll get a bachelor degree, just like of any other college. They are actually very well respected degrees.
There are a lot of support programs once you’re in the military, that can help you. You can also transfer a lot of what you’ve learnt in the military, (mechanical engineering on the helicopter, for example), to the civilian world, getting certification of what you did in the military, which helps you.”
Being A ‘Sixty’ Pilot
The job as flight crew in the USCG is more like a regular day job, where you have weekends, and you come in to work 7:00 am to 4:00 pm. You go home every night to your family, especially in the 60 community (MH-60 red.), as they do not deploy to ships, which leaves them on the USCG station. Although it’s not always a strict 7 to 4 job, as they do duty rotations. Once a week you’ll stay on base overnight to be part of the crew that’s ready to go out, in case there’s a sortie over the night.
“I kind of like that, it gives you a break from being home every night. I like the pace of the lifestyle.” concludes Lt. Nicolet.
Lt. Nicolet continues: “Flying the aircraft is fun. It’s never easy, it’s always a new challenge. They say you’ll never have a perfect flight. You’ll always mess something up, because there’s always a lot of small motions going on, and there’s a lot of pieces to the equation, navigating, talking on the radio, landing the helicopter, and lot of pieces of knowledge you get from practice, but there’s just too much to practice every day.
So you may only practice one maneuver a couple of times a month, so each time you do it, you try to remember how to do it perfectly, and you’ll never get it perfectly, but you do your best, and you do it well enough.
So it’s a constant learning curve, as a pilot. You’re always studying, so you don’t forget things, and then you’re always relearning the skills, because it takes a lot of practice to learn how to do it, and once you know how to do it, if you don’t do it for two weeks, you’ll be rusty at it, and need to practice it again.
I love being a pilot, as it’s always challenging, and that’s probably the most fun part about it. And also as an Officer, a lot of officer jobs in the military are mostly administration, a lot of emails, managing personnel, managing payroll, managing projects. When you’re a pilot, you can actually go out and do the mission. You are the guy that picks up people in trouble, and actually flying the helicopters.”
“It took us 4 hours to get there, hoist the person, and come back, it’s a long sortie, and it can be further than that.”
Training To Be Ready
When they are not flying, they have other assignments, but when the crew flies during their work day, it takes about half of that day to prepare, execute and debrief, etc. They aim to fly about four times a week, even if there’s only a sortie once or twice a week on average. This means that it could be a long time between when the different crew has an active sortie.
Which is why training is a big part of the work for the crew of the sixty. Lt. Nicolet explains, “The training sortie is always two, to two and half hours, but the law enforcement, and search and rescue sorties just depends on what’s going on. I did a sortie, 220 miles of the coast in Mexico, there was a tanker ship that needed medevac. It took us 4 hours to get there, hoist the person, and come back, it’s a long sortie, and it can be further than that. Sometimes you have to go, get more fuel, and then continue from there. There’s some islands that we can get fuel from, to extend our range offshore.”
The training is structured, and all the aspects of the training must be completed every six months, to be cleared for active sorties, as Lt. Nicolat explains; “We have broken the training into 9 segments. We call them recurrent trainers, and every six months, you have to do that flight one time, to make sure you practice all those skills.
Each flight has a list of maneuvers you have complete, which includes day and night landings, day and night hoistings, instrument flying, external loads, degrading the helicopter (turning off parts of the helicopter red.), practicing emergency procedures, turning off different systems of the helicopters, so it gets harder to fly, like flying with only one engine, or turning off all the hydraulics, making the controls harder to move etc.
The elements on each segment are pretty long, it takes about two hours to do a segment. That’s how we stay proficient.
Infrared and night vision cameras used for locating people in the water, with the heat signatures, also to videotape rescues. The helicopter is equipped with a good radar, including a weather radar, mapping out storms, also to track vessels that have lost radio communication, etc.
Radio frequency tracking, so if someone is talking to us on a certain frequency, then we can use that signal to home in on the direction where the radio call is coming from. If you can’t find somebody, and they don’t know where they are, they can be located with the help of the radio frequency tracking device.
It’s a very capable helicopter, and it has more tools than we can use in one sortie, and it helps us to get the job done.”
The Search – A Crew Effort
When people are in the water, it’s only possible to see the head and shoulders. “Like a needle in a haystack in the ocean”, as Lt. Nicolet points out. “If there are any waves or wind, you have white caps on top of the water, depending on the where the moon or the sun is, there is glare, and it’s like finding a watermelon floating on the water.”
The entire crew helps to search for people, either by using the cameras, or by looking out the windows to do visual searches for people – it’s a crew effort. The pilots can’t do anything by themself.
Communication is the key, as Lt. Nicolet illustrates, “One of our main focuses is our communication. We have to be very clear, and very concise and short, in what you’re trying to say to the other person. When you talk to a person, 70% of the talk is non-verbal. The tone of the voice, how the person reacts etc. When talking on the radio, you’ll miss all the non-verbal communication, and you’re down to 30% of the ability to communicate complex ideas, and complex motions.
So most of what we say is scripted, exact words meaning exact things, and every word has a specific definition. Every phrase is set to a certain speed, so even the speed of the things you’re saying has a meaning. If you come over the top of a boat to hoist, the flight mechanic will guide you in ‘forward and right 20’ … ‘forward and right 15’ … ‘forward and right 10’ … ‘forward and right 5’. If he starts going faster, then you know you’re coming in to fast, and you know you have to slow down, etc.
So there are a lot things like that, where the crew has to be in sync, so that nothing dangerous happens.”
CRM – Crew Resource Management
Teamwork and communication are the keys to success for the USCG. It’s called CRM – Crew Resource Management, and it basically means making sure everyone is communicating clearly, and everyone feels like they have the right to say whatever they want. Lt. Nicolet explains, “Like if someone in the back sees something happening that’s unsafe, or he thinks that this maneuver isn’t safe, or why are we going out to do this, it doesn’t make sense, there is another option – maybe we could do this, it’s much safer.
We want the environment in the helicopter to become low key, so that everybody feels like he has the right to say ‘Sir, I think you’re wrong, this is the wrong thing. Let’s try this’, or ‘I think this would be better’. Because a lot of times a lot of mishaps have happened where someone was just watching while it was happening, and in their mind they thought ‘This is not right, I have seen this happen before, and it’s not good’, and they didn’t say anything, and something bad happens.”
Making sure everyone feels equally responsible for the success of the mission, and equally has the right to give their opinion about how to do something the best way possible, is really important, and a challenge, especially in the military where ranks matter.
Lt. Nicolet concludes, “So you have the person in charge of the aircraft, one of the pilots, called the pilot in command, he’s the ultimate authority. He has 51% of the votes, for whatever we do. Usually he’s the guy with the most experience, he’s the older person who has normally seen most, but that doesn’t mean that someone that’s junior, that’s brand new to the helicopter, doesn’t see something that’s still important.
So we want the most junior mechanic in the back to be able to tell the captain of the sector, who owns the helicopters, who might be flying the mission ‘Hey Sir, I don’t think that’s the best way to do it, let’s try something else’.
So communication is the big key to success. We do a lot of training, so it’s a fair environment, there’s no punishment for giving your opinion on the best way to do something, or giving your feedback. Everyone is fair game to say whatever they think.
Communication between two people can be the most complicated thing. It’s something that we’re always trying to improve.”
A huge thanks Sector San Diego of District Eleven, and especially Lt. Timothy Nicolet, and PA1 Rob Simpson for making this article possible.