Commercial, Public Service, Services

Operator Report: U.S. Coast Guard Elizabeth City

By By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | December 1, 2013
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U.S. Coast Guard - Semper

Coast Guard Medevacs Woman From Cruise Ship. Coast Guard Searches for Missing 32-Year-Old Man in Chesapeake Bay. Coast Guard, Navy Rescue Three From Disabled Sailboat.

Those headlines are just a sampling of actual missions flown by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) out of Air Station, Elizabeth City in North Carolina – and they were flown over a 15-day period. But each of those incidents, while recognized as being life-and-death situations, represented just another day in the life of a USCG helicopter crew.


The mission of the USCG is simple in definition: We protect the maritime economy and the environment, we defend our maritime borders, and we save those in peril. But that mission is quite difficult and dangerous in execution. Still, their motto of “Semper Paratus,” which means “always ready,” is something they live up to daily.

Elizabeth City is located on Albermarle Sound, 125 nautical miles east-northeast of Raleigh, N.C., and is home to the largest USCG air station in the service. Its four Sikorsky MH-60 Jayhawks – and the 330 personnel who manage, maintain, and fly aboard them – are responsible for an area that extends approximately 200 nm north to Atlantic City, N.J., southwest to the North Carolina-South Carolina boarder, and into the Atlantic Ocean for a 300-nm radius. Five Lockheed C-130J Hercules turboprop airplanes also operate from the base. They take missions as far north as Greenland, and as far south as the Caribbean.

USCG Sikorsky MH-60T helicopters, which came online in 1990 as replacements for the station’s aging HH-3 fleet, are crewed by a team of two pilots, one flight mechanic, and a rescue swimmer. And although they are very similar in design to the Black Hawks flown by the Army’s 160th Special Aviation Operations Regiment, the Coast Guard variant sports a few changes that make it more suitable as a search and rescue (SAR) platform, such as low, tightly slung external fuel tanks; an SH-60 Seahawk-style landing gear configuration; and just one aft cabin door.

Lt. Jon Lee, a helicopter pilot, was assigned to show me around, and then introduce me to the on-duty flight crewmembers assembled in a small conference room.

The MH-60T is equipped with weather radar,
chin-mounted forward-looking infrared camera
system, and external auxiliary fuel tanks.

Lt. Kristen Jaekel has 12 years in the USCG. Her first four years were spent as a flight mechanic, but she has been a helicopter pilot the rest of the time.

Sitting next to Jaekel was Lt. Jared Carbajal, a four-year pilot whose wife is assigned to Elizabeth City as a C-130J pilot.

Jaekel and Carbajal earned their wings as all Coast Guard pilots do. They were accepted to the Navy’s basic flight school in Pensacola, Fla., as commissioned USCG officers, earned their wings in small airplane trainers, and then went to the Navy’s helicopter school to learn how to fly the Seahawk. Each pilot now logs approximately 30 hours of flight time per month handling missions that range from SAR to drug interdiction.

Across the big conference table was Petty Officer First Class Ryan Parker, who has just shy of 14 years on. His rate is AMT-1, which means he is a highly skilled flight mechanic.

In the Coast Guard, maintenance personnel, like Parker, can find themselves working on any of the station’s aircraft one day, and flying crew the next.

Once airborne, Parker’s job is to manage and operate the gear located in the aft cabin, to include the rescue hoist, forward-looking infrared system, and powerful searchlight. He will also be the crewmember that deploys the rescue basket, or lowers portable water pumps and supplies to boats in trouble.

Seated next to him was Petty Officer Third Class Justin Gieringer, a former high school swim team champ-turned helicopter rescue swimmer. His rate is AST-3, and he has almost three years in the service.

Often considered the star of the show, the rescue swimmer’s job is to deliver aid away from the aircraft. This can mean being lowered by cable to the deck of a disabled ship, or free-falling 12 feet from the aircraft into an angry sea wearing snorkel and fins to reach a person needing help – all in the gale-force winds created by the helicopter’s rotor wash!

As a team, each person needs the other three, equally. Carbajal invited me to follow him to the flight line to look at one of their helicopters.

Parker had estimated that the average time on their helicopters is around 12,000 hours, but it was easy to tell that all aircraft were perfectly maintained.

The Coast Guard operates like a fire department, in that its personnel generally come to work, make sure they and their equipment are ready to launch at a moment’s notice, then wait for the phone to ring. Of course, they will take regularly scheduled training flights to keep their skills sharp, but they often don’t have to wait long for a call.

The Coast Guard’s MH-60Ts are an upgraded version of the venerable UH-60
Black Hawk. Its glass cockpit is compatible with the crew’s helmet-mounted
night vision goggles.

One such call came into Air Station Elizabeth City that week. Details were sketchy and the reports were confusing, but several boats were reportedly in distress in various locations between 100-275 nm off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina in high seas and foul weather. C-130Js and MH-60Ts were launched in what became a marathon SAR operation. By Friday morning, some very tired crewmembers reported they had hoisted an injured 67-year-old boater to safety, and ensured that the other ships, which had suffered damage, were no longer in imminent danger.

Capt. Joseph Kelly, the commanding officer of the air station, called the operation a success.

As a seasoned helicopter pilot, he had nothing but praise for his people, as well as the other USCG and Navy personnel who were involved.

“This is what my people do,” said Kelly. “And they do it well.”

In Their Own Words

• “I look back on my 26-year career, and I wouldn’t change a thing!” – Capt. Joseph Kelly, Commander, Air Station Elizabeth City

• “When I went through [flight school] everybody wanted helicopters, so it was very hard to get helicopters. I was a name in a hat, so I lucked out. I got helicopters!” – Lt. Kristen Jaekel, Helicopter Pilot

• “I really wanted to fly [MH-60s], and I just made a case for that. Fortunately, I got Cape Cod, which is all 60s.” – Lt. Jared Carbajal, Helicopter Pilot

• “There was one case I had that started out as a SAR call, but ended up being an alien migrant case. It was a 25-foot boat. I couldn’t believe it. There were something like 26 people on that boat.” – Lt. Jonathan Lee, Helicopter Pilot

• “I was part of a crew that went out to salvage a downed Coast Guard helicopter off of a mountain. I’m probably the only person in the Coast Guard that has cut the tail off [an MH-60] with a saw!” – PO1 Ryan Parker, Flight Mechanic

• “I think some of the training flights I’ve done at night are the most fun things I’ve done so far. If I’m being lowered to a vessel underway, it’s an interesting feeling. You’re putting a lot of trust in your pilots and everyone.” – PO3 Gieringer, Helicopter Rescue Swimmer

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