The Triumph and Tragedy of Coast Guard Search and Rescue

A Coast Guard Air Station Miami aircrew prepares for a training flight.
Aircrew Air Station Miami aircrew prepares for an evening training flight on Tuesday, June 7, 2018, at Opa-Locka Executive Airport in Opa-Locka, Florida. (U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Parrinello)

Coast Guard rescue swimmer Ryan Pierce learned that lesson the day the call came to evacuate a man who’d suffered a heart attack aboard a cruise ship off Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Pierce and the other three Miami-based aircrews loaded onto their bright orange MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and took off, headed east over the ocean. While en route to the waiting cruise ship, and purely by chance, the aircraft passed near a small fishing boat in distress. Flares arced into the sky just before the vessel slipped under the surface. The two men who’d been aboard were now in the water.

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“We hovered around them and literally watched the boat sink. I had a weird, creepy feeling,” Pierce later recalled.

Inside the helicopter, the two pilots, the flight engineer, and Pierce agonized over what to do. Without an immediate rescue, the two boaters would probably die. But the heart attack victim’s life was in jeopardy, too – there was medical personnel aboard the cruise ship, but he needed to get to a hospital fast.

The Coast Guard crew debated what to do. For his part, Pierce considered jumping in the water with a small raft to wait with the boaters until the helicopter could return. But there wasn’t enough gas left to make the round trip to the cruise ship and back, then hoist three people from the water, and get back to base. Calling for another helicopter wasn’t an option, either. In the time it would take for another MH-65 to arrive on the scene, those two boaters could easily ride the Gulf Stream into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. In that case, they’d be lost forever.

“We had to pick one or the other,” Pierce said. “We had to choose.”

Ultimately, the Coast Guard crew agreed on a course of action. First, they were going to rescue the boaters.

“We ended up saving these two guys first … and the guy on the cruise ship passed away,” Pierce said. “So the pilots, my pilots, were beating themselves up over this for a while. Wondering if they’d made the right decision.”

Coffee or Die Magazine recently visited Coast Guard Air Station Miami. Located on a dedicated ramp at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in south Florida, Air Station Miami comprises five MH-65E “Dolphin” helicopters and five HC-144 “Ocean Sentry” aircraft. Some 350 total Coast Guard personnel are assigned to the station, including 25 MH-65 pilots and 30 HC-144 pilots.

Throughout the balmy June day, the facility’s alarm frequently sounded – each time signaling another search and rescue call.

The pace of operations was frenetic, nearly nonstop. Yet, as is so often the case among a highly trained and seasoned military outfit, the outward demeanor of the aircrew members did not reflect the life-or-death stakes of their job. Instead, they appeared calm, unhurried in their actions. They shared a joke or engaged in small talk while donning their flight gear or stepping out to the aircraft.

To an outside observer, these behaviors may seem jarring, even detached, given the seriousness of the job at hand. But the secret to success in military aviation, especially a specialty as stressful as search and rescue, is a term called “compartmentalization.” It’s the ability to quarantine emotions that are not helpful to the execution of one’s duty. Fear, above all, must be ignored.

“We have to be able to go out and do anything for anyone at any time,” said Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Horejs, an MH-65 pilot.

Acting calmly is the best way to feel calm. Thus, all the joking and the smiles and the small talk. The coolness on display is how Coast Guard aircrew members deal with the stress of their chosen profession. But when it’s time for wheels up, the compartmentalization gives way to absolute focus as they endeavor to live up to their creed: “Always ready, that others may live.”

“There’s a tangible switch when it’s mission time,” said Lt. Cmdr. Corey McPartlin, an HC-144 pilot. “You go right from smoking and joking, and then snap, it’s time to go. It’s an instantaneous switch.”

Aircrew is on call for search and rescue missions during 24-hour shifts, which they typically pull about once or twice a week. When not on call for overnight duty, aircrew members can still be assigned as backups. Unfortunately, that often makes weekends a tricky proposition – flight rules prohibit drinking alcohol or leaving town. So they have to go about their off-duty business with the constant awareness that they could be recalled to base and tasked to a mission at any moment.

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