Coast Guard cliffhangers in the Pacific Northwest

Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Gilbert, aviation survival technician and Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, prepares for hoist after securing a simulated person-in-need during a cliffside rescue training exercise near Ilwaco, Wash., April 8, 2015. Several training dummies were placed strategically along the cliffside to be rescued by aviation survival technicians. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Gilbert, an aviation survival technician at Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, prepares for hoist after securing a simulated person-in-need during a cliffside rescue training exercise near Ilwaco, Wash., April 8, 2015. Several training dummies were placed strategically along the cliffside to be rescued by aviation survival technicians. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

It is easy for a sunny day to turn sour along the Pacific Northwest. Beachgoers and hikers alike come with flip-flops and an umbrella, or shorts and rain jackets. That being said, due to how drastically the weather situation can change, it is easy for someone to find themselves in a precarious position while at the beach or along mountain trails.

Tide poolers having a day at the beach enjoying the creatures found in the shallows can quickly find themselves too distracted to notice the incoming tides and become stranded on a rock. Similarly, a slip and fall on a hike could leave one’s knee injured and unable to carry on. These are two examples of very real cases Coast Guard rescue swimmers have responded to along the Washington and Oregon coasts. Not all of the lives they save are related to boating traffic or directly from the water.

Every month rescue swimmers at Coast Guard Air Station Astoria conduct a series of exercises, working with the pilots and the flight mechanics, to extract simulated stranded people from the area’s rocky cliffs.

“Communication between the whole crew is key during these training exercises,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Gilbert, an aviation survival technician at Air Station Astoria. “Once you are down, you have no vocal communication with the helicopter. So, keeping your communication with the helicopter via hand signals as well as watching your surroundings is essential, not only the safety of the crew, but also for the person being rescued.”

Overall, these evolutions have a lot of moving parts. The flight mechanics tend and control the hoist cable the rescue swimmer is dangling from. Simultaneously he must communicate the helicopter’s position to the pilots and get the directional movement he needs from them. They are often unable to see the swimmer once he’s lowered and depend entirely on commands from the flight mechanic while watching their surroundings and often dealing with down drafts and other exterior forces.

Coast Guard Air Station Astoria crewmembers prepare to lower a rescue swimmer during cliff-side rescue training near Ilwaco, Wash., April 8, 2015. Communication between the pilots and crewmembers is essential for success during these dangerous evolutions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Coast Guard Air Station Astoria crewmembers prepare to lower a rescue swimmer during cliffside rescue training near Ilwaco, Wash., April 8, 2015. Communication between the pilots and crewmembers is essential for success during these dangerous evolutions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

That swimmer is being pushed around by rotor wash from the helicopter near sharp cliff faces, the rescue swimmer communicates to the flight mechanic via hand signals and these hand signa1s are relayed to the pilots as they make minute adjustments, inching the rescue swimmer closer and closer to his target all.

“This entire coastline has very steep cliffs that are very popular with people,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Wilson, also an aviation survival technician at Air Station Astoria. “We have a big tidal range with big surf; people can find themselves caught out very easily. The result of this training is confidence and experience. Our ability to get in and out of these locations efficiently greatly increases the chances of us reaching a stranded person in time and thus their survivability.”

Gilbert added that as a beachgoer or hiker, having a solid plan before you go out, checking the weather, taking gear for changing conditions and possible extended stays also increases that survivability rate.

“Planning ahead and training is also crucial for us to minimize risk before we even go out on a case,” said Gilbert. “One of the best things you can do is to have everybody on the same page, that way no one is confused and everyone can anticipate what is coming next.”

Although neither of these rescue swimmers have yet to be involved in an actual cliffside emergency, it is evident that through consistent training they will be ready when the time comes and someone in need will be in good hands.

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