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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Helicopter Training: The Right Stuff

So you want to be a SAR pilot? Adaptability, flexibility and on-scene initiative are what it takes to fly with some of the world's best.

Jason Morrow

SEARCH-AND-RESCUE PILOTS HAVE BEEN BUSY AND in the spotlight in the last two years. These are folks who thrive on racing to the aid of those in distress, often in conditions that most rationale people are fleeing.

Passenger ship Sea Breeze
Rescues like the December 2000 flights to the foundering passenger ship Sea Breeze 220 mi east of Cape Henry, Va. test the decision-making skill and initiative of Coast Guard aviators. One flight to the ship set a record for the number of persons rescued by a single Jayhawk in one flight-30.
US Coast Guard
Photo by U.S. Coast Guard
The last two years, though, have brought SAR operations on a scope, scale and pace that seemed unprecedented. The Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, hurricanes along the U.S. and Central American Gulf Coasts, and a massive earthquake in Pakistan killed thousands, stranded millions and required assistance that, in many cases, only helicopters could provide. Those that responded included many whose crews spend all or most of their days flying SAR missions.

What does it take to fly with such crews as these?

For answers, Rotor & Wing turned to those who train some of the world's best, the helicopter pilots of the U.S. Coast Guard. The Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Ala. provides advanced aircraft training and transition programs for Coast Guard aviators who fly the HH-60 Jayhawk and HH-65 Dolphin SAR helicopters, as well as the HC-130 Hercules and HU-25 Guardian fixed-wing assets and the MH-68A Sting Ray drug-interdiction helicopter. Capt. Dave Callahan, commanding officer of the training center, explained to us the service requirements you must meet to fly with the Coast Guard.

Most of the service's aviators are officers commissioned through the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. or Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. Once commissioned, pilot selectees attend the U.S. Navy's Naval Flight Training program at NAS Pensacola, Fla. Roughly six out of 10 Coast Guard aviators earn their wings this way.

The remainder of those in the service's cockpits gets there through the Direct Commission Aviation program. Candidates for a direct commission as an aviator must be at least 21 and younger than 35 and a graduate of a military flight training program and have full-time military or civilian flight experience within two years of application. Candidates also must have at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university and have served a minimum of two years as a warrant officer in the U.S. Army or a commissioned officer in any of the other U.S. military services.

Rotary-wing applicants must provide evidence that they are a military-rated pilot with at least 500 hr rotary-wing time, not including initial flight training hours. (Fixed-wing applicants must have proof of a military rating and at least 1,000 hr in a fixed-wing aircraft. Waivers are not allowed for the minimum flight-hour requirements.

Applicant packages are screened in depth and undergo an interview panel process. A Coast Guard headquarters selection panel then reviews their applications.

"The process is highly competitive," Callahan said.

It is not just flying skills, however, that set Coast Guard aviators apart, he said. It is also the basic operating principles of the service that are drilled into its members from the start. These are adaptability, flexibility, and on-scene initiative.

"These are tough things to train, but they are imbedded in our entry-level and pilot upgrade programs," Callahan said. "Coast Guard aviators are constantly challenged and tested in these areas as they develop from a co-pilot to first pilot, and up to aircraft commander."

The Coast Guard employs a rigorous standardization program, he said, that regularly challenges an aviator's decision-making skills and practices.

Callahan also cited three "key enablers" on which success in aviation SAR depends. Each is heavily dependent upon training programs, he said.

The first is repetitive, frequent, proficiency-based training of basic rescue maneuvers such as hoisting, rescue-swimmer operations, overwater instrument and night-vision-device assisted maneuvers, and fixed-wing drop procedures. "Every rescue situation throws a different set of variables at rescue aircrews, so it is vital that the constants, or the basic maneuvers, are trained to a level that they are second nature to the aircrew," Callahan said. "This allows them to focus on the variables, which are always the tougher aspect of a SAR operation."

The second is a strong foundation of crew resource management and risk management in both initial and recurrent training.

"I would defy anyone to find a tighter, more cohesive team than a Coast Guard rescue helicopter aircrew," Callahan said. "Coordination and teamwork are absolutely essential to a successful rescue mission. Crew resource management and teamwork have been heavily emphasized in the Coast Guard aviation training programs for years."

The program has been so successful and valuable, he said, it has migrated into other areas of Coast Guard operations, such as team-coordination training for small boat and cutter programs.

The third is empowerment of aircrews to remain flexible, adapt, make decisions, and exercise on-scene initiative.

"This basic operational principle of on-scene initiative is pretty important to Coast Guard aviation, and is something we highly emphasize in our aviators," Callahan said. "Embedded on-scene initiative comes from an enabling culture, but I would also offer that a portion of it can be developed through training programs. I think it is important to recognize that on-scene initiative is not possible without a concerted effort to exercise and train this into our people, in conjunction with an effort to maintain a culture where on-scene initiative is valued and rewarded."

He noted that some of the best examples of on-scene initiative during rescue and relief operations after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in late 2005 "came from aircraft commanders who managed to adapt and overcome overwhelmingly challenging situations, relying solely on their own initiative to meet objectives.

"These aviators were brought up in a culture that encourages and expects them to exercise flexibility and initiative," he said. "In other words, change the plan if and when necessary."

Coast Guard aviators learn this over time, Callahan explained, through a training and development program that brings them up through increasing levels of skill and, more importantly, increasing levels of responsibility. Aviators first serve as co-pilot, then as first pilot, and eventually as aircraft commander.

"As they upgrade and develop through this training process," he said, "they are challenged with various training scenarios, and exposed to operational situations. They are taught to follow protocols and procedures, but they are also taught to continually assess and reassess, and change the plan on scene when required in order to meet the mission objectives."

Katrina tested the mettle of Coast Guard aviators. The storm "was an affirmation of the many things that are good and right about Coast Guard aviation and our training programs," Callahan said. "The basic pillars of Coast Guard aviation were tested and passed with flying colors.

"Specifically, our service-wide aviation standardization program was a primary enabler that allowed our rapid, robust, and highly flexible air response. On extremely short notice, we mixed aircrews and airframes from every aviation unit in the Coast Guard. A typical Dolphin flight crew out of Mobile working rescue operations in Mississippi or New Orleans may have consisted of an aircraft commander from Mobile, a co-pilot from Miami, a flight mechanic from Los Angeles, and a rescue swimmer from Kodiak, Alaska.

"These crews had never trained together or, for that matter, had even met each other until their pre-mission brief. They flew together for hours under some of the most demanding conditions experienced in our service's history, and returned to Mobile 'high fiving' each other after saving 150 lives in a day's work."

Coast Guard aviation forces are credited with saving more than 12,000 lives after Katrina.

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