A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

1984 – U. S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program Established

rescue swimmer - 1984 - U. S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program EstablishedAt approximately 0400 on Saturday, 12 February 1983 the M/V Marine Electric sent a distress call. The vessel was taking on water and sinking off the Virginia coast in 20– 40 foot seas with winds in excess of 60 knots. The Rescue Coordination Center Portsmouth alerted the Navy at NAS Oceana and the Coast Guard Air Station at Elizabeth City. The ready HH-3F helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City was immediately dispatched. It was one hour-fifteen minutes enroute in freezing rain. By the time the helicopter arrived the ship had sunk and 34 people were now desperately fighting for their lives in the frigid waters.  The rescue basket was prepared and lowered but numbed by severe hypothermia the men were unable to grab the basket and pull themselves in. The Navy helicopter, with a rescue swimmer, was delayed because NAS Oceana did not keep a ready-crew on board the station at night but due to a shorter enroute time to the scene the Navy H-3 helicopter arrived on scene just shortly after the Coast Guard. The Navy swimmer immediately deployed but had difficulty with the “Billy Pugh” net collapsing in the rough seas. The two crews agreed to have the rescue swimmer work with a rigid basket lowered from the Coast Guard helicopter. For over an hour, both aircraft, supplemented by a second HH-3F out of Elizabeth City, positioned themselves to receive survivors. The Navy rescue swimmer 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. A number of hoists were made but only three persons were recovered alive. Tragically a total of 31 crewmen perished.

The Congressional Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee convened hearings to question why the world’s premier maritime rescue service was unable to assist people in the water. It became apparent during the hearings that the existing Coast Guard techniques and equipment were inadequate for rescue in such circumstances as occurred with the Marine Electric.

The rescue swimmers or equivalent had been used by other services for some time. The U. S. Air Force Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service pararescue operations evolved from trained parachute rescue teams utilized in the latter part of World War II. Originally limited to pararescue operations the scope was expanded over the years to include SCUBA capabilities.  During the Vietnam conflict the pararescue man was part of the helicopter rescue teams recovering downed airmen. The U.S. Navy had trained aviation rescue swimmers in support of naval aviation operations.

At the operating level there were Coast Guard personnel that were aware of the need for a rescue swimmer capability within the Coast Guard. Visionaries at several Air Stations created their own rescue swimmer programs. Most notable of such initiatives were New York’s Air Station Brooklyn’s team and California’s Air Station San Francisco’s Sea Air Rotor Wing Evacuation Team (SARWET).   With assistance of Air Force personnel training programs were set up. Everything, however, was in house and subject to limited funding. There was no advocate or support at the Headquarters level. This was partly due to the fact that the Coast Guard had been and was in a fight for its very existence; the budget was extremely limited; and instituting a new program was not top priority.

Congress 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.”

The responsibility for research and implementation of this project was given to The Aviation Division (G-OAV) at Coast Guard Headquarters. LCDR Dana Goward, of the Aviation Plans and Programs Branch, was assigned to develop a proposal for a Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program and determine the funds required to implement it. 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) Specialist at the Coast Guard Institute in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The source and designation of Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers was addressed. Aviation ratings in the Coast Guard, in addition to flight crew duties, were maintenance orientated and highly specialized. The extensive training and the maintaining of demanding rescue swimmer qualifications required a specific rating dedicated solely to this function. It was decided to transform a present rating rather than establish a new one. The rating most easily transformed was Aviation Survivalman (ASM). Transition of the ASM rating, however, raised concerns for individuals within that rating who had no interest or the ability to become rescue swimmers. This was resolved by exempting individuals who were E-7 or above and providing a satisfactory procedure to change to a different rating for the others. In June 1984 the Commandant authorized a five-year period to implement the program throughout Coast Guard aviation.  Physical fitness standards and requirements were established. The requirements were mission specific.  Female personnel who possessed the strength and stamina and met the established standards were eligible to become rescue swimmers.

The initial concept of the Coast Guard program was primarily a maritime rescue resource similar to the Navy’s. An agreement was entered into with the Navy by which Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers were trained at the U. S. Navy Rescue Swimmer School at NAS Pensacola, Florida. Training commenced on 10 September 1984. The Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City was the first unit to go operational in March of 1985. Two months later the Air Station recorded the first life saved by a rescue swimmer when a severely hypothermic survivor was unable to climb into the rescue basket. 

rescue swimmer 2 - 1984 - U. S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program EstablishedTraining for the Aviation Survivalman rating is both specific and 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 was followed by four weeks of training at Rescue Swimmer School. It was determined that the ability to provide pre-hospital life support for rescued individuals was a necessity. For a short period of time hospital corpsmen were part of the flight crew. Due to weight and space limitations on HH-65 and HH-60 helicopters it was decided that Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers should  be qualified to perform these duties  eliminating the need to carry a hospital corpsmen in the aircraft. 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.

ASMCM Farmer developed the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Manual to promulgate policies and operating procedures.  The rescue swimmer deployed either by free fall from the helicopter or 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 a rescue swimmer, was selected to lead the Rescue Swimmer Standardization Team at Air Station Elizabeth City established in September 1984.  The Rescue Swimmer Standardization Team remained at Elizabeth City until August 1988 when it was transferred to ATC Mobile.

A comprehensive schedule was developed for the implementation of the program throughout Coast Guard aviation. Every air station providing operationally ready helicopters for search and rescue was required to utilize rescue swimmers. In addition to Air Station Elizabeth City, San Francisco followed on November 1 1985; Astoria on 31 January 1986; Clearwater on 11 August 1986; Sitka on 20 November 1986; and Cape Cod on 1 December 1986. Implementation would continue but there was considerable resistance within Coast Guard aviation regarding the need for rescue swimmers. Reasons and opinions put forth by those opposed were numerous and varied. Some had merit and were addressed. In most cases, however, it was a resistance to change.  One of the greatest challenges was overcoming this resistance. 

Initially there was a reluctance to deploy rescue swimmers except under favorable conditions. As operational experience was gained the saving of life dictated otherwise and rescue swimmers were increasingly utilized in extreme weather conditions. On 10 December 1987, Air Station Sitka, Alaska, received a distress call from the F/V Bluebird taking on water about 10 miles southwest of Sitka. An HH-3F was quickly launched to search for the vessel. The weather conditions were terrible. Visibility was down to ¼ mile 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 was 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 two survivors abandoned the vessel as it rolled and went down by the stern. 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 rescue swimmer, ASM2 Jeffery Tunks, volunteered 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 HH-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 an injured back. Tunks was ultimately recovered and with the two survivors safely aboard, the HH-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 ASM2 Jeffery Tunks became the first rescue swimmer to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross; the nation’s highest peacetime award for heroism.




certificate head dfc 370 - 1984 - U. S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program Established

Petty Officer TUNKS is cited for extraordinary heroism during aerial flight on the night of 10 December 1987 as rescue swimmer on Coast Guard HH-3F 1486 engaged in the perilous rescue of a man and his son from the F/V BLUEBIRD which sank in storm tossed waters 10 miles southwest of Sitka, Alaska. The helicopter launched into a blinding snowstorm and severe turbulence to assist the stricken 26 foot fishing vessel foundering in 30 – foot seas. The two survivors abandoned the vessel as it rolled and went down by the stern. After several unsuccessful hoist attempts in the 70 knot winds, Petty Officer TUNKS voluntarily deployed into the frigid, angry seas. Swept back 75 yards from the victims as he was being lowered, Petty Officer TUNKS struggled through the towering waves to reach the survivors who were by now immobilized by the icy water entering their survival suits. He calmed and reassured them. Then with Herculean effort Petty Officer TUNKS was able to pull the survivors away from the sinking vessel, grab the sea tossed rescue basket after several attempts and roll them into the relative safety of the basket for hoisting. Later, as Petty Officer TUNKS was himself being hoisted, the helicopter was driven backwards by particularly violent gusts; Petty Officer TUNKS was smashed into the breaking waves which ripped away his mask and snorkel and injured his back. Petty Officer TUNKS’ remarkable fortitude and exceptional daring in spite of imminent personal danger saved the father and child from perishing at sea. His courage and devotion to duty are most heartily commended and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard.

Operations such as this continued to occur with increased regularity.  As more people became aware of the significant enhancement that rescue swimmers gave to SAR team capabilities attitudes changed and resistance to the program changed to endorsement. The rescue swimmer became “my swimmer.”

Like so many programs in the Coast Guard, lack of funding was a problem. The program was temporarily halted during 1987 and much of 1988.  Fortunately funding for the program was restored in 1988 and implementation of the remaining air stations was rescheduled.  Ten air stations went operational during 1988-1989. Budget constraints occurred again in 1990 and only three air stations went operational.  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. 

Rescue swimmers were being utilized in an increasing variety of operational situations. The Coast Guard was responding to persons in distress along rugged coastlines as well as further inland in ever increasing numbers.  Concern was expressed that the training received by rescue swimmers and flight crews did not adequately prepare them for such conditions. The requirement for additional training and procedures did not gain a sense of urgency until a rescue swimmer was nearly killed in an attempt to rescue a stranded hiker off a 120 foot cliff along the rugged Oregon coastline.

LCDR Wright with the assistance of ASMCM Darrell Gelakoska, who became Chief of the Rescue Swimmer Training Branch, evaluated techniques whereby the rescue swimmer remained attached to the hoist cable and deployed directly to a survivor. This was followed by a program to expose rescue swimmers to severe sea conditions. 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 did not receive in Rescue Swimmer School or normally encountered during operations at their air stations. A formal proposal was made and approved and an Advanced Rescue Swimmers School was established at Astoria, Oregon. The rugged coastline, demanding surf and prevailing high seas provided ideal training conditions. 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. It is now a highly sought training opportunity by not only Coast Guard rescue swimmers, but also Navy, Air Force and international students. In 1997, the Coast Guard opened the Rescue Swimmer Training School at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City.

The Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program has and continues to be outstandingly successful. During the period 1985 – 2004, Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers saved more than 5,700 lives. This elite group operates in the most severe weather conditions imaginable deploying into extremely hostile environments. The record of success is directly attributable to the training, professionalism and courage not only of the rescue swimmers but also of the aircrews who deploy them. Only those who have willfully placed themselves in harm’s way and have known that innermost feeling which comes from a personal experience resulting in the saving of life can understand the bonding and uniqueness of this group of kindred spirits. Courage and devotion to duty is a common trait.

Aviation Life Support Equipment

During 1970 a Life Support Section came into being, however, the emphasis was still on flight safety and standardization. Life support equipment was primarily of Navy derivation and those items germane to Coast Guard missions were obtained. It was not, however until late 1979 that helicopter crews were required to attend the Navy’s Helicopter Egress Trainer. Egress inability is no longer a problem. As late as 1981 aircrews were flying in flight suits that did not protect against hypothermia. With the advent of the Rescue Swimmer Program the development of Life support equipment was accelerated. Rescue Swimmer personnel CDR. O’Doherty, LCDR Coffland, LCDR Wright, ASMCM Farmer and ASMCM Giza were directly involved in acquisition and development of life support equipment.

In 1986 the Coast Guard evaluated two prototype aircrew anti-exposure coveralls resulting in the first anti-Coast Guard exposure coveralls. This evolved into the procurement of the CWU-62P Aircrew Drysuit.

In 1991, working closely with the Gentex Corporation, the Coast Guard developed the SPH-5CG helmet used by helicopter crews. It is a form fit, lightweight composite shell and energy-absorbing liner providing impact protection. It has a visor system to protect the eyes from glare, wind and dust and is equipped with a quick disconnect device for ANVIS-6 night vision goggles. The internal wiring of the helmet is compatible with all Coast Guard aircraft. The helmet dampens noise in excess of 39 decibels. The result is a light weight helmet that provides outstanding crash protection, sound attenuation and comfort.

In fulfillment of its drug interdiction mission the Coast Guard operated E-2C and RG-8A surveillance aircraft. The existing parachute system in the E-2C did not meet Coast Guard requirements and the RG-8A had no bail out system at all.  The Aviation Life Support Branch began a search for a parachute sufficiently compact to work in the E-2C and also compatible with the extremely small cockpit of the RG-8A. A parachute manufactured by Butler Parachute Corporation, similar to those worn by the crew of the Voyager aircraft, was chosen. To meet Coast Guard requirements the parachute was modified to contain an LRU-18/C one person life raft and a normal complement of survival aids. The package was designed as a backpack for the RG-8A and as a chest pack for the E-2C and EC-130V.

Equipment utilized by the airlines for smoke and/or fire in the cockpit which also provided eye protection was investigated. The EROS Quick Don Oxygen/Smoke mask best satisfied Coast Guard needs. An Underwater Emergency Rebreather was developed as an interim measure and was replaced by an Emergency Survival Air System (ESAS) which was compact and could be placed into the side of LPU-25/P survival vest and greatly enhanced underwater egress.

The Modern Era