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NAS Whidbey Search and Rescue: Ready for anything
It wasn’t until I was actually strapped into the gunner’s seat and the helicopter’s blades started to turn that I really began to think about my earlier conversation with Navy rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Casey.
It’s not as if I hadn’t been listening. It’s just that, at the time, I was being stuffed into a bright orange drysuit and was feeling something like a tube of toothpaste. But as the sound of the MH-60s Knighthawk helicopter’s engines went from whine to roar, more and more of the safety brief began to come back to me.
Something about how, if we landed in the water and weren’t killed on impact, the helicopter wouldn’t float and would almost certainly flip belly up. It would be dark, cold and disorientating, but try not to forget that I should only inflate my life vest after I was out of the aircraft.
With nightmarish images swimming through my mind, I began to wonder just what I’d gotten myself into. Then we lifted into the air and Petty Officer 2nd Class Brent McIntyre, a hospital corpsman from Arizona, gifted me with an excited and contagious grin.
He was probably just reacting to the look on my face, but the effect was immediate. I remembered that I was with a highly trained crew from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s Search and Rescue unit and that I had little to fear. And as the helicopter banked and headed toward the San Juan Islands, for just a second, I forgot who I was and believed I was one of them.
But I wasn’t. These guys aren’t just real-life heroes, angels from above, they’re the elite of the Navy’s SAR units. Out of the 11 on bases scattered across the country, none are as busy or have more rescues behind their name. This year alone, at least nine people owe their lives to Whidbey SAR crews.
While 2010 has been uncharacteristically slow, with only 26 missions flown as of Dec. 6, over the past decade the unit has flown an average of 41 missions a year. They range from the transportation of medical patients from one hospital to another — usually when the conditions are so bad that no one else is willing to fly — to the search and rescue missions that often make headlines.
One of the most recent and highly profiled was the daring August rescue of a teenage girl from underneath the Skokomish River bridge in Mason County. With canyon walls on either side and the potential for high winds, it was a good example of the extreme and dangerous conditions common to Washington state.
In fact, the weather and geographical challenges posed by Puget Sound and the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges earns NAS the honor of being one of the most dangerous duty stations in the country, according to SAR’s assistant operations officer, Cmdr. Werner Rauchenstein, call sign “Rock.”
“We live in constant awareness of the dangers we put ourselves in,” he said, but it’s one of those jobs that never becomes routine.
Coping with the dangers is part of the job and every crew member knows the risks. Rauchenstein himself looks back on a few past missions and admits to wondering just “what the hell I was thinking.” Everyone handles it differently, but they all do it for the same reason — to save a life. The unit’s motto is literally, “So others may live.”
“Nine times out of 10 we’re the last resort,” said Jeremy Wilkins, a chief petty officer and rescue swimmer.
“If I can save just one person, it’s enough to justify the job,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory Wendland, a hospital corpsman.
While most seem to agree that it’s hard to beat the feeling you get from a successful rescue, there’s another darker side of that coin. In February, SAR crews attempted to reach a 52-year-old climber who fell into the crater of Mount St. Helens but weather repeatedly thwarted their rescue attempts. They returned the next day and recovered the man’s frozen remains.
“It’s the worst feeling being there and knowing you can’t do anything,” said Lt. Scott Zenner.
To ensure they are as effective as possible, SAR crews train hard, typically flying from six to eight missions a week. That tallies out to about 750 to 800 hours a year. And these are no cake walks. On our training mission, I watched as McIntyre and Wendland rappelled out the door of our Knighthawk onto a nameless snow covered peak near Mount Baker.
The temperature, combined with the wind from the rotor wash, made it so cold that it didn’t take long before my hands were numb. And I know I wasn’t the only one feeling it. But neither the cold nor the drop, which looked to be about 50 feet, deterred McIntyre or Wendland. There were no deep breaths or shaky knees; crew chief Wilkins gave the OK and they were gone.
I’m sorry to say that I can’t say the same for myself. Wilkins told me earlier that flying a helicopter is like balancing a tennis ball on a plate while standing on a bowling ball, and that flying close to fixed objects can make the job a lot trickier. They tend to create unexpected wind patterns that can destabilize a helicopter at the most inopportune times, such as when you’re hovering on the side of a snow-capped peak in the middle of nowhere.
After the flight, Rauchenstein reaffirmed that this isn’t the kind of job where you go home at the end of the day and tell your spouse what you did. In fact, most SAR crew members elect to keep family in the dark about the risks they take. But like many who work in inherently dangerous professions, so that other’s may live, they say they are nothing particularly special and certainly are not heroes.
“None of us are rock stars, we just have a really great job,” he said.