Two Stories from the U.S. Coast Guard
On the Ground and in the Air in Houston
Around the world, men and women use their helicopters every day to make a difference for others. Below are first-person stories by two Coast Guardsmen who participated in Hurricane Harvey relief operations.
When reading their accounts, a couple of points jump out. First, these two service members continue the proud Coast Guard tradition of “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready). Second, as a nation, we are fortunate to be able to call upon them and other first responders in times of need.
“Born into Utter Chaos”
By Petty Officer 3rd Class Allison Dowell
This is not a normal operation.
U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Houston, usually home to three MH 65 Dolphin aircraft, has become the Coast Guard’s largest air station overnight. It suddenly houses HC 130s, HC 144s, MH 60s, and MH 65s. The aircraft stretch as far as the eye can see, and the numbers are climbing.
By August 29, things have settled into a routine of sorts, but that makes it no easier to adjust. Because of a lack of transportation to and from the various locations housing crews, morning shift starts somewhere around 4:00 a.m., when the wait for a shuttle starts. The briefing comes at 6:00 a.m., with flights near 8:00 a.m.
Later, our goal is to try to meet massive crew staffing requirements while balancing safety and crew fatigue, but during the first few days, we simply try to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
The crews turn around sometime around 2:00 p.m., with the true work of the afternoon shift starting at noon and going into the night. The first shift often does not get back to quarters until well past 6:00 p.m.
Because we aren’t familiar with the area and the flooded, wind-wracked terrain poses additional hazards, flying for the H 60 crews ceases shortly after the last light of the day is extinguished. It is a grueling, unrelenting schedule.
If there is one thing that does feel familiar, it is the weather. While the rains of the Pacific Northwest are not usually so strong, operating in poor conditions is part of the job for crews out of Coast Guard Sector Columbia River, my normal duty station, located in Warrenton, Oregon. The ceilings (300 feet) and visibility (somewhere around 1/2 mile) found over Port Arthur, Texas, could be found anywhere in Oregon and Washington.
However, the antennas, some reaching up to 600 feet and well above the cloud level, are not. It is the job of Lt. j.g. Tripp Haas, a helicopter pilot also from Sector Columbia River, to navigate around them, but with damaged and overused infrastructure occasionally failing, the task is demanding, even with the helicopters of other services staying away for the moment. The systems we usually take for granted are suddenly not the best options, and Haas gives directions that he pulls off of Google Maps.
“Turn right on 8th over here,” says Haas.
We are on our way for a pickup, a distress call routed through a makeshift command center about a pregnant woman in labor. The flying en route has been challenging, but it has done little to prepare for us for what is ahead in Port Arthur.
It is not the sight of homes underwater that is unexpected, nor is it the sheer number of people in need of assistance. What does look strange as we streak over houses, streets, and cars, are the power lines and trees that usually create a tidy grid for a neighborhood but now sprawl brokenly over it.
The power lines provide some of the more difficult obstacles to overcome. Hoisting swimmers between them is new but not impossible. Convincing a nine-month pregnant woman and her mother to get into a rescue basket in murky water thick with oil and sewage and be hoisted up turns out to be.
Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Rapp, a former Army medevac pilot and Coast Guard aircraft commander with 18 years of flying under his belt, suggests an alternative: an on ramp to the partially flooded I 10 highway. It is a confined area landing, something trained for in Astoria on logging hills and between tall pines of different proportions.
Here in Houston, there are different obstacles. A black truck tries to get past us as we settle onto the pavement. There are stoplights to think about.
Rapp’s steady stick guides the MH 60 down smoothly. Within minutes, not only is the pregnant woman and her mother loaded onboard but so is another woman. She’s so far along in labor that her contractions are coming only a couple minutes apart and her water has long since broken.
We make our approach to a hospital in Beaumont, Texas, where the rain is whipping back into the cabin sideways. The visibility is so poor, we need all the visual space we can get and a closed cabin door would do nothing but restrict it. We land in 2 inches of water beside the hospital parking lot, avoiding wires, trees, and a fence. We unload and take off again.
The cases continue to come like this. Air assets from other services slowly join us as the weather improves until I am hoisting above an apartment complex and able to count six aircraft just on one side. There are enough people waiting below us that we could hoist and cram the cabin full, then come back 10 times and we still wouldn’t get them all.
We load another pregnant woman and her family of terrified children, who are only slightly less terrified when glow sticks are cracked, shaken, and handed over.
People are swarming and moving toward the rescue basket and our rescue swimmers, or as we call them aviation survival technicians. For a moment, we are concerned that they may be mobbed, but Petty Officer 3rd Class Brendan Kiley, an AST from Air Station Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Dave Braaten, an AST from Air Station Traverse City, Michigan, take control of the situation.
When we leave with the family in the back, an Air Force Pave Hawk swoops in to pick up immediately where we have left off. We get gas. The family gets off. The rain continues. We are soaked and not particularly concerned.
It takes a while to get gas at the field because of the sheer amount of assets. The fuel trucks, two of them with a tiny capacity, are being manned by stranded aircraft rescue and firefighting crews who can only do so much when every other stop requires a replenishment of the tanks.
We lift back up and fly again. I don’t know how we found the next group, only that we did. We have to navigate more power lines with this hoist — there are power lines everywhere, trees everywhere, shingles trying to come off roofs, and portable basketball hoops lying on their sides underwater.
The next family is wearing life jackets. When they’re up with us, it must be the first time they realize the extent of the destruction because the woman starts sobbing and continues to do so, even after we move to the next place and the next hoist.
Here, there are boats. We pick up a woman and her child. We drop our passengers off quickly, without shutting down.
In a short time, we’ve now airlifted 14 people, 17 total lives if you include the ones soon to be born into such utter chaos. On our return flight to Air Station Houston, we are requested to divert by Houston Approach and fly over a broken levee that has swept away a family, but despite almost an hour of circling, we find nothing. We are over our flight time limit when we finally shut down.
While search and rescue is the most visible mission we perform in Texas, it is not the only one. On our second flight, we conduct a Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security mission. Like search and rescue, providing security for U.S. marine infrastructure is one of the 11 official Coast Guard missions. Usually, it is a simple surveillance flight; today it becomes something more.
The Colorado and Brazos rivers are cresting, swelling past their breaking points with refineries near the banks of the rivers leaking oil and chemicals; the water has turned into double chocolate milk.
From 500 feet above, floating logs and boats almost look like tinker toys. But the toy-like illusion only goes so far since the oil and chemical sheens are unmistakable, as are the barges that have crashed into one another, then into the banks, crowding and blocking traffic paths.
It all needs to be documented, and we bring along a marine science technician to do just that. Coordinates are marked, photos are taken.
In the port of Galveston, dolphins jump out of the water precariously close to the bow of one of the first cargo ships to enter the mouth. It is the first sign of things returning to normal.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Allison Dowell is an avionics technician at Coast Guard Sector Columbia River in Warrenton, Oregon.
“Do You Want to Go to Texas?”
By Petty Officer 2nd Class Jake Cimbak
There are nine U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) air stations that operate Sikorsky MH 60 Jayhawks throughout the United States. Each air station has a specific area of responsibility that offers unique challenges. All perform like well-oiled machines, handling the Coast Guard’s many missions, including search and rescue (SAR), law enforcement, drug and migrant interdiction, fisheries enforcement, and environmental protection, to name a few.
Coast Guard MH 60 aircrews are unique in that we perform as maintenance technicians on the ground and also perform as aircrew in flight, either as basic aircrew or flight mechanics. I’m qualified as a flight mechanic and also as a watch captain at Sector Columbia River in Oregon. We rotate duties with each other within our small watch section.
Every USCG MH 60 that flies on SAR missions brings a pilot-in-command, copilot, flight mechanic, and rescue swimmer. Each night, a SAR crew sleeps on base, ready to launch in a helicopter at a moment’s notice for those in need.
When I perform duties as a flight mechanic, I am responsible for the overall integrity and maintenance of the aircraft. I’m also entrusted to perform as the hoist operator on rescue missions, deploying rescue gear and the rescue swimmer, and bringing survivors into the cabin.
Each air station follows a meticulously scheduled maintenance plan, put into place by the unit’s engineering officer, maintenance officer, and the enlisted watch captains, who task the technicians with performing the complex work, fixing discrepancies, and turning them into corrective actions.
When I perform duties as a watch captain, I am entrusted by unit leadership to carry out the specific maintenance plan for three helicopters, the smallest allowance of helicopters at any given Coast Guard air station. Being watch captain is the kind of position where the details really matter. It’s incredibly important to dot all your i’s, cross all your t’s, and constantly double-check yourself.
Enter Hurricane Harvey. I was at work Friday, August 25, buttoning up things for the day and getting ready to give pass-downs (maintenance items that still required attention) to the night shift and go home for the weekend. I had heard on the news that a hurricane was bearing down on Texas and was potentially very destructive.
The engineering officer, Cmdr. Dave Feeney, arrives at work and sees me standing in the Maintenance Control Office. “Do you want to go to Texas?” he asks me.
I immediately respond, “Yes,” without hesitation.
Three days later, Monday, August 28, I arrive in Houston via a Coast Guard HC 130 Hercules. I step off the plane onto the tarmac and am immediately greeted by both humidity and a hot, sideways-pelting heavy rain. I am instantly soaked from head to toe and would basically remain so for the next 48 hours. By this time, Harvey had been sitting over Houston for the past 48 hours, slowly moving east at 3 mph, dumping torrential rain everywhere.
The air station in Houston is another small three-helicopter unit similar to Astoria, only it uses the MH 65 aircraft. When I walked toward the makeshift MH 60 hangar — it is privately owned with an owner kind enough to let the Coast Guard use it — I witnessed a beautiful sight: three MH 60s landing in the rain, just returning from SAR missions with tons of lives saved.
Further north along the air strip, outside the MH 65 hangar, I see two fuel trucks parked on the ramp, refueling two MH 65s while their rotor heads are still turning at 100 percent — we call this hot-gassing. Two more MH 65s are waiting patiently in line for their turn to hot gas, and then two more H 65s land and line up to wait their turn for fuel. These fuel trucks would remain permanently parked on that ramp for the next three days, only moving to refill themselves with more fuel.
The MH 65s ran this pattern for 72 hours straight, flying 24 hours per day. They only stopped when maintenance became due or when discrepancies prevented them from going back out.
I walk into our makeshift MH 60 Maintenance Control Office. In one corner is a small restroom; another corner houses a small kitchen with stacks and stacks of MREs and a fridge loaded with bottled water, Gatorade, and Red Bulls. A cheap coffee machine is set up on the counter with about 200 small, white plastic cups.
In the center of the room is a small kiosk, just large enough to fit one, maybe two people sitting in chairs. About 20 plastic chairs line the outside wall. Filling the inside of the rest of the room are boxes of cots and sleeping bags, all resting in 2 to 3 inches of floodwater. Written on the inside of the windows in permanent marker are a few tail numbers, such as 6024 and 6038, with their current aircraft hours and some notes about a few special inspections coming due.
Three MH 60s were out flying in the hurricane performing SAR. Three others were inside two separate hangars, broken and grounded. I was told that two more MH 60s were in Sugarland, Texas, one of which was grounded, and yet another was grounded in New Orleans. I was also told as many as four more MH 60s were expected to arrive within the next 24 hours.
This was a major surge movement for the Coast Guard: deploy as many SAR helicopters and crews to the scene as fast as we can, to save as many lives as we possibly can. With so many MH 60s on scene and more arriving, it dawned on me quickly that writing on windows would not be a solid way to carry out a maintenance plan moving forward.
Maintenance data is normally recorded in the USCG’s online maintenance database. With no internet access in the kiosk room, there was no solid maintenance plan currently in action. The pace was intense, and the weather made it even more uncomfortable.
I step into the kitchen for a small cup of coffee, thinking of options, and discover a beautiful tool: a big, white dry-erase board with a couple colored markers. The light bulb clicked on in my head, and I knew what I needed to do.
I walk up to the maintenance officer on scene, Chief Warrant Officer Jim Schwader, normally stationed at Air Station Clearwater, Florida, and ask him for a pad of paper and where I can find some internet access, so I can tap into the Coast Guard’s electronic database of maintenance. He told me to walk to MH 65 maintenance control several buildings down. I immediately begin the quarter-mile trek through the torrential downpour.
I find my way through the MH 65 hangar. Four of them are parked inside, all from different units, ironically none from Houston. All four have complex maintenance being performed on them. They had already flown on SAR missions, saved hundreds of lives, and now were down for maintenance until they could be released again to fly more SAR. As many as 20 other MH 65s were currently out flying on SAR.
I find a good friend inside the hangar, Lt. Charles Whitesel, normally stationed at Aviation Training Center Mobile, Alabama, whom I had gone to boot camp with 11 years ago. He points me in the direction of internet access.
I log into our aircraft maintenance database with my friend Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Castro, an aviation maintenance technician also normally stationed in Mobile. For the next two to three hours, we search through the database for each individual MH 60 tail number that is temporarily assigned to Houston. I also happen upon a Command Center room. A Coast Guard commander there gives me the names of the tail numbers that are due to arrive still in the next 24 hours.
I now have the beginnings of a Houston Maintenance Plan with 13 MH 60 tail numbers written down from different air stations such as Mobile, Clearwater, Elizabeth City, and even Cape Cod and San Diego. Chris and I went “through the books” of each tail number, one at a time, very meticulously acquiring each tail number’s current aircraft hours, specific special inspections due, and open discrepancies.
Figure 1 shows what my completed tail number maintenance plan looked like. It wasn’t complicated, but it did the job. The green arrow pointing up indicates the 6001 is able to fly. The red arrow by the 6038 indicates a grounded aircraft.
As you can see, each tail number has different maintenance requirements. However, they generally follow the same guidelines. Knowing that all these MH 60s would only be there temporarily for the hurricane surge, our rule of thumb in Houston was that we were not to go over the 200-hour DNE (Do Not Exceed) limit.
After around three hours of meticulously recording every aircraft hour and every special inspection hour, I walked through the rain and the hot Houston night air and found my way back to the MH 60 Maintenance Control Office.
Over the next hour and a half, I transferred all the data from my notepad onto the big white board. Now where to hang it? As if it were meant to be, two nails were sticking out of the pillar connected to the kiosk, a perfect location to post the board.
The maintenance officer on scene was impressed and very thankful that I took the time to do it. Of the 13 MH 60s either on scene already or due to arrive soon, we had seven “up” assets or six grounded ones.
The next few days would be very long and daunting, but the maintenance plan I helped set up gave us a big-picture idea of where to start organizing individuals and teams for jobs on each aircraft. In a nutshell, I helped to organize a small part of all the chaos into a much easier-to-manage setting and kept as many aircraft “up” as possible.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Avionics Electrical Technician Jake Cimbak is an MH 60 flight mechanic and watch captain at Coast Guard Sector Columbia River in Warrenton, Oregon.