Patrolling lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron, U.S. Coast Guard pilots – or “Coasties” – fly their orange rescue helicopters ‘round the clock, year-round.
A familiar sight since 1946, Traverse City’s orange angels are as much a part of the area as cherries, dunes, and the crystaline waters they protect.
The Coast Guard story goes much deeper – and wider – than its coastline helicopter patrol, however.
A DEEP HISTORY
As home for one of the ninth district’s air stations, Traverse City is also one of two Coast Guard cities in Michigan, and one of 16 nationwide.
The airbase itself dates to 1941, when two aircraft carriers sailed Lake Michigan. The Navy used the base during World War II so that pilots could practice difficult landings after 1945, the Navy left and the next year the Coast Guard – itself established by the U.S. Government in 1915 – moved in.
At first, a single plane flew from the base; the patrol expanded to Albatross sea planes. Eventually those gave way to helicopters. Now, the aircraft fly out of a 50,000-sq.-ft. hangar that was constructed in 1980.
Of the base’s 26 officers, 24 are pilots. Of the 106 enlisted personnel, 65 are “aircraft types,” the people who maintain and make up the crew of a helicopter, said Sean Cross, commander of the US Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City.
There are five Dolphin helicopters assigned to Traverse City, a fleet that’s in the process of being upgraded. Each of the Dolphins come with an $8 million pricetag.
The helicopters fly with a crew of four people: the pilot, the co-pilot, a flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer.
By law, the Coast Guard has 11 missions, which range from coastal security, drug interdiction, aids to navigation, ice operations, and perhaps its most visible, search and rescue.
SEARCH AND RESCUE
The Coast Guard’s reputation as dependable is well-deserved. Several search-and-rescue missions have kept scores of sailors and pilots from perishing.
In 1961, H-19 helicopters assisted in the evacuation of the crew of the Francisco Morazan, an operation that lasted four days in continuous gale conditions.
Crews also rescued 25 survivors of the collision between the Cedarville and the Topdalsfjord in 1965, and 19 survivors from the fire aboard the Canadian freighter Cartiercliffe Hall in 1979.
In July 1987, a sudden storm produced winds nearing 100 mph, resulting in 32 separate missions. Following another violent storm in September 1988, nine distress calls were received within two minutes. Rescue efforts resulted in saving two persons clinging to a capsized sailboat in Lake Michigan.
In November of the same year, an HH- 3F flying at night successfully located a downed aircraft near Marquette, Mich. in a thick, fog-covered forest. All six aboard the plane survived the ordeal.
DEADLY CLOUDS AND OTHER HAZARDS
Of all things – 100 m.p.h. gales, 40-ft. swells, and onboard fires included – wintertime clouds are the biggest challenge faced by crews out of Traverse City.
“Our aircraft doesn’t have any ability to go into the clouds during the winter – we will ice up,” said Cross.
That means crews either have to find clear air or fly under the clouds.
The challenge of operating out of Traverse City any time of the year is compounded by the territory the station is supposed to cover, Cross said. It includes Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and the upper half of Lake Huron.
The geography of the region poses special problems for the rescue crews because they often must travel across land. There is much less to worry about when flying a helicopter over water.
“Most Coast Guard air stations, you take off from the runway and you’re over water at the ocean and you don’t really have to worry about things like towers and other obstructions and hazards to flight,” Cross said. “Up here, we do.”
Take a recent call to a downed aircraft near Duluth, Minn. The flight crew spent most of the 305-mile, three-hour trip flying over the Upper Peninsula.
“Seventy percent of that transit is over land, over rising terrain,” he said. “Even going to Lake Huron, or portions of Lake Michigan, we’re trying to get back over the water.”
‘MIDDLE OF JANUARY IN A STORM’
Traveling across all of that land when you can’t go into the clouds in the winter means you have to get creative.
That’s why Northern Michigan residents are accustomed to seeing the orange Coast Guard aircraft flying the same routes over Grand Traverse Bay or along road corridors like M-72 in Leelanau County.
“As we’re flying west, we’ve got some road systems that we follow to get back out to the beach,” Cross said. “Up north, we’re obviously going to get out over the bay … A couple of places along the Upper Peninsula we’ve got some railroad tracks and things that we kind of follow.”
It’s important that the pilots know those routes cold, Cross said.
“We run those routes throughout the year and throughout the summer to make sure we’re familiar with them, familiar with where the obstacles are, and things like that,” he said. “It’s so when we have to do it in the middle of the night, in the middle of January in a snowstorm, that we know what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
Taking Charge: Commander Sean Cross at the Helm
Like everyone who comes to Traverse City to command the Coast Guard air station, Cdr. Sean Cross doesn’t have long to settle in.
Most rank and file personnel are assigned to Traverse City for three or four years. The commander position turns over every two.
“I think the reason is because there are very few opportunities for folks to have O5 [equal to lieutenant colonel] command,” said Cross, who is already a year into his stint. “There are only 10 air stations where there’s an O5 commander in charge.”
Cross said he believes the Coast Guard wants to enable as many officers to get the experience as they can.
“That’s my theory; that’s not written anywhere in Coast Guard manuals or anything,” he said.
Cross said he always wanted to command an air station.
“I think most aviators aspire to be air station commanding officers,” he said. “That’s kind of the pinnacle – to be able to make a difference in the lives of folks that work for you.”
He entered the Coast Guard because his father was in the Coast Guard.
“I honestly thought what he did was noble and honest, and I thought doing the same thing would be good for me,” he said. “I thought it was pretty neat what my dad did – flying helicopters and saving people.”
Having a dad in the Coast Guard meant traveling around a lot. He spent high school in Cape Cod and San Francisco.
“I was a military brat. I was born and raised in Pensacola, Fla. and I lived there for like eight days and then I grew up around the country,” he said.
The path from entering the Coast Guard to becoming a commander is challenging.
Many more apply than are accepted. When Cross applied, there were three O5 command positions open. Forty or so officers tossed in their names, he said, and those were winnowed down to nine.
“There’s a bunch of people who put in to compete and usually there’s a board that gets together and they pick,” he said. “It’s a pretty demanding process.”
After his stop in Traverse City, Cross said he will likely not command another base, at least not right away.
“Typically, once a person becomes an O5 commander, they leave that after two years for another staff tour someplace else,” he said. “I’ll have some sort of desk job when I get out of this job and then hopefully will be able to compete for another air station at the O6 level.”
There are 16 air stations at that level, which means they are larger and have more kinds of aircraft.
Cross said he likes being in Traverse City s an example, he cited members of the Traverse City Elks Club who visited the base days before last Christmas to hand out hams.
“I’m just not used to charity like that for our folks,” Cross said.
He said that the local support is unlike any other he’s experienced.
“This is a very special place. Everybody told me about it before I got here, but it’s one thing to hear about it and another to experience it,” he said. “Not nearly have I experienced the support that I have here in Traverse City.”
The Rescue Swimmer who Couldn’t Swim
Ft. Worth, Texas native Robert Rendon said he had a “higher calling” to his job as a rescue swimmer.
“I’d read a book called ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ and it was a Christian book that helps you realize what you’re put on this Earth to do,” the 29-year-old said. “I wanted to physically help people with my strength.”
Around that time, Rendon saw a television documentary about Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
He took it as a sign. “Everything lined up,” he said. “I got into the Coast Guard and I got into the airman program right away.”
There was just one problem. Rendon couldn’t really swim.
He was athletic, though. In high school he’d been on the football and track teams.
“I pushed through it. Swimming was definitely a struggle,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to be that hard.”
Rendon has been in the Coast Guard for eight years and has been in Traverse City for three.
Rendon said the job of the rescue swimmer on land is to train and to maintain the rescue gear. On the helicopter, he prepares for the rescue or the medevac.
Rescue swimmers are also EMTs, so once a victim is aboard, the helicopter becomes an ambulance.
They are also the ones who go into the water.
Rendon learned the challenge of being a rescue swimmer is not just learning how to swim – it’s being able to swim in 40-foot swells while tethered to a helicopter.
On top of that, rescue swimmers may be asked to submerge into nearly freezing water.
“It’s when the water hits your head,” he said. “It’s like a brain freeze.”
Rendon said he has not gotten any big cold water calls, but he is ready.
“If it’s 0 degrees and there’s somebody in the water, I’m going down because I’m their only hope,” he said.
A lot of search and rescue calls out of the station end early because the station’s territory is dotted with local police and fire departments. Those rescuers often reach people in distress first. Also, there often just isn’t time to reach people in cold water.
“A lot of times the water is so cold,” he said, “it gets to them before we do.”
MECHANIC ON THE GROUND; LOOKOUT IN THE AIR
Geoffery Obermeier is a flight mechanic who has been in the Coast Guard for nine years. He’s been in Traverse City for two.
“My senior year of high school we took a trip to Hawaii and I really enjoyed being out on the water,” Obermeier said.
He’s previously served in New Orleans and before that aboard a Coast Guard boat in California.
He eventually was drawn to helicopters because he saw a chance to be able to become a mechanic and be in the air.
“I wanted to work with my hands and I saw that working as an aircraft mechanic I’d be able to work with my hands throughout the year and also fly,” he said.
Mechanics and rescue swimmers all have on-ground and in-air rolls. Flight mechanics maintain the helicopters while they are in the hangar and act as lookouts and man the communications when they fly. They also operate the hoists that raise people into the helicopter during emergencies.
Obermeier hasn’t seen a lot of action since he arrived in Traverse City last August. He’s spent most of his time on the night shift and he just hasn’t had a lot of calls.