Many of us have witnessed helicopter rescues thanks to programs such as the “Deadliest Catch”, numerous documentaries covering ship disasters, and the indelible images of the 9th Ward Katrina rescues, but the majority of us have not actually participated in such an evacuation first hand.
So far, in my 36 years on tugboats, the only victim I’ve ever had to evacuate by helicopter was my wife (from a dive boat). Herself had suffered a mild hit of decompression illness after we dove a particularly rigorous dive profile off the Jersey coast.
She was exhibiting classic DCI symptoms including tingling and pain in her joints and specifically her shoulder. Rather than attempt the 2 hour trip back to the dock, we notified the USCG Sector Atlantic City who just so happened to have a helo on patrol in our area. The flight surgeon in Otis Airbase in Cape Cod Massachusetts recommended O2 and evac. Of course, the idea of a helo evac rotation was a bit exciting, my wife had her doubts that it was necessary and believed the “boys” just wanted to play with a bigger toy. As much as that may have been true, the flight surgeon at Otis made the call to evacuate her to the deco-chamber in Brick Hospital.
The evolution happened almost exactly as described in the Coast Pilot directions. The helo located us with a radio direction finder after a brief “10 count” and was overhead in short order. It’s really pretty simple if you pay attention to the number one rule. Don’t touch the basket until it has touched the deck. I’ll repeat that, don’t touch the basket. The static shock that is generated by the aircraft is substantial and will put anyone who’s foolish enough to ignore that advice flat on their ass and perhaps knock them unconscious.
A tankerman riding a sinking barge many years ago was set to be airlifted off his vessel had rushed to the basket earning the moniker “Sparky” after receiving a good jolt, in his survival suit.
There are many stories of folks being a little too anxious to grab the basket before it has discharged its static load and been worse for it. A survival suit will not protect you from this static charge. The moisture in the air and on the suit adds a certain conductivity to you that will be extremely unpleasant should you “reach out and touch” too soon.
The routine is straight-forward and well articulated by the flight crew on approach. You are asked to put your vessel on a course that quarters the wind on your bow, and the decks are made as clear as possible of anything that might get blown away and antennas and such secured as the helicopter approaches. And if you have the ability to ignite a smoke canister all the better.
It becomes apparent that the crew of the helo are always aware of the need to have a way out as they make their approach. If necessary, they can pull away with the wind and avoid landing on the deck of the boat should ditching become necessary.
The amazing thing about this is that these guys look like they’re on a “skyhook”. They are holding the aircraft so steady
overhead, it doesn’t look real. A tagline is lowered, a non-conductive tagline, and once in hand the basket begins its descent. As the basket approaches it can be guided into position to allow it to touch and then it can be adjusted to accept the occupant. In this case, we did not have a rescue diver board the boat and the basket was put on the deck that was barely 6 x 8 feet. It was difficult to see given all the spray and noise, but it didn’t take long from start to finish to execute the recovery. My wife was at the local hospital in 5 minutes and her issue resolved on its own, thankfully.
The point is, it was a well practiced crew that was able to execute a technically difficult maneuver and make it look effortless. We often talk about this kind of rescue during safety meetings but it was really a thrill to actually participate in an actual helo-op. Luckily as well it was a relatively benign situation that wasn’t life or death.
I can’t say enough about these men and women, conducting these rescues in any flyable conditions at great risk. The Missus won’t soon forget her ride with the best of the USCG. Thanks, USCG Sector Atlantic City.