BZ's USCG Helicopter Ops

Photo Gallery

I've always wanted to photograph a Coast Guard helicopter rescue close up. So when the opportunity to ride along with the Coast Guard Auxiliary on a rescue swimmer Helo Ops came up, I naturally jumped at the chance! To say it was an interesting experience would be a major understatement. The sensation of having a 3 ton machine hovering 20 ft directly above, with the resultant cacophony of noise and sea spray as the rotors beat the air into submission is something I would not soon forget! Oh, and I think the pictures turned out pretty good too. :-)

Nikon D300 w/ 70-300mm VR lens, and D200 w/ 18-105mm VR lens - Bernard Zee

As most people who live in San Francisco know, the mornings can be somewhat foggy...
This is the Travis Marina, on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's here that I met up with the Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel Sunrise and her crew.

Rae Kleinen is the Captain and owner of the 36 foot cabin cruiser Sunrise, and a very active member of the USCGAUX. Here's Rae being congratulated for being Coast Guard Auxiliary member of the year!

The crew for that day's exercise was (from left to right), Dave Talton, Bart Rugo, and Rae Kleinen. Here's Rae going over the day's mission and what everyone's duties were to be. Being a guest on board, my duties were limited to being an extra set of eyes, and not falling overboard! :-)

Joining the crew were a couple of regular Coast Guard swimmers. The exercise is meant to maintain the helicopter crew and swimmers proficiency.
However, a problem starting one of the 2 engines threaten to derail the whole operation before it even began. Just when it looked like it had to be called off, the starter miraculously engaged and the engine roared to life!

It was such a relief to get underway, and it felt very nice to have the cool wind in our face. Here's Bart with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge behind him. Bart as well as the rest of the crew on board wore these 'Mustang' suits. They're bright orange padded waterproof overalls, which felt nice on that cold morning.

The fog had been a bit of a concern too, as the helicopters had minimum rules for visibility in order to fly.

Fortunately, the visibility was good enough that the helicopters could operate normally. Here's a MH-65C Dolphin buzzing us and making a tight turn.
Click play to hear the a clip of the helicopter as it passes us, with the radio traffic on the boat audible in the background. The clicking noise, is my camera going into overdrive in burst mode. :-)

Having made visual contact with the helicopter, the rescue swimmers Thomas Distefano and Matthew Crow put on their gear - which includes a dry suit underneath all that. They need all that insulation, for the water in the bay is bone numbingly cold!

We hung around a stretch of water between Alcatraz and Angel Island. In preparation for the upcoming exercise, Bart now has on a protective helmet, as do I. Probably decent protection against a basket strike to the noggin, but not if the copter decides to throw a blade our way! :-)

In operation with the USCG since 1979, the orange Dauphin is practically a Coast Guard icon.
Here's what it sounds like when it's hovering close by.

Many distress boaters have looked up at this sight and thanked their lucky stars!

As can be seen here, the Dauphin has a hoist on the right side, and a hatch which opens up to allow crew members to stand upright for easier rescue operations.

Since the Dauphin cannot land in water, the hoist is the main method used for rescue at sea. The first exercise is to put a basket on the stern of the Sunrise.

Here's the basket safely on the boat.

It's then pulled back up to the helicopter, to be repeated again.

This time, a weighted guide rope is dropped first. Here's Bart grabbing for the rope.

With the guide rope attached to the basket, the task of getting the basket in the boat is a bit less risky.

There were 2 Coast Guard helicopters involved in the exercise that day. Here's a rare shot where they're both in the same frame.

Thinking it's time to get wet, the rescue swimmers put on their snorkel, goggles, and fins.

and jump in the freezing water!

But, there must have been some kind of mix up, as they were back in the boat in short order.

Apparently, they helos wanted to do some more boat basket practices. Here's a really cool shot showing how close overhead the helicopter was! It's a rare shot, because there's a good chance of getting drenched by the rotor wash spray when out in the open like that!
Click play to hear the deafening sounds of the helicopter as it hovers close overhead!

Here's Bart pulling the basket in using the guide rope, being soaked and cold!

Trying to guide the basket in the boat without banging up Sunrise! Great job by the helicopter pilot and Bart. Not a scratch on the fiberglass!

The objective normally, is to retrieve someone using the basket. For that day's exercise, no one go in for the ride up from the boat.

Here they are retrieving the guide rope after pulling the basket up.

It's into the water one more time for our rescue swimmers!

The MH-65C is one of the newest model Dauphin variants. It's quieter than the older models as it uses a 10 blade low noise Fenestron tail rotor. The distinctive Dauphin whine is now mostly gone - which is too bad, according to some!

Matthew Crow is a veteran helicopter rescue swimmer, and has saved many lives in his various postings including Puerto Rico, Seattle, and now San Francisco. The other swimmer with him that day was Thomas Distefano, who's in training to be a rescue swimmer.

The effects of the rotor wash can be seen in the water as the Dauphin hovers over the bay, with Alcatraz, the Bay bridge, and San Francisco in the background.

The 2 rescue swimmers waiting to be picked up.

Here, one of the swimmers is being pulled up after having climbed into the lowered basket. Towards noon, the skies are still overcast. It's like one giant white diffuser.

For some reason, one of the helicopters that day was running with the landing gear down, and the other one had it up. A quick way for me to distinguish the pair.
Some may notice that the vast majority of helicopter shots have it facing right. Well, there's a reason for that! The hoist and pilot are on the right side, which is always facing the boat when they're trying to do any sort of rescue operation! This one is facing left because he's just passing through.

The Palace of Fine Arts done can be seen in the background here.

Having plucked them out of the water, the swimmers are about to be put back in again.

Here's Thomas (I believe) being lowered by a hoist.

Here I am tyring to shoot as slow a shutter speed as possible to get the maximum rotor blur. Only problem is, due to the dismal lighting conditions, the rotors can hardly be seen! Had to adjust the exposure curves in photoshop to bring out the faint rotors. Of course, it would have been much easier to shoot high speed and just freeze the rotors - but it doesn't look 'right' that way!

In the meantime, Sunrise goes off and practices basket operations with the 2nd helicopter.

Here's an almost surreal shot of the helicopter overhead.

AAAAHHHHH!! Sea Spray in the rotor wash!! Fear not, I was safely behind glass in the cabin for that shot. :-)

Basket on, basket off...

I must say, the USCG helicopter pilots were superb. They handled those machines like precision instruments. Even with the boat moving (at a constant 5 knots), the pilots were able to drop the basket in the boat without banging it around. I'm sure Rae really appreciates that!

Here's Rae keeping a watching eye on the chopper as he pilots his craft.

And here's Bart flying a MC-65C kite. Yeah, right!

Having completed a series of basket moves with the 2nd Dauphin, we return to watch the first helicopter and the rescue swimmers. Here's one of the swimmers sitting in the door, with Alcatraz and San Francisco downtown behind him.

Really hard to spot people in the water - even if they're wearing neon yellow helmets and orange suits!

How more San Francisco can it get? Coit tower, and the Transamerica building in the fog!

Here's the 2nd Dauphin, taking its turn with the rescue swimmers.

A close up of the helicopter crew.

A side profile rescue shot.

This time, lowering the rescue swimmer using a hoist.

Then pulling them both up!

Almost up to the door...

The swimmers are soon put back in the water AGAIN, for another go.

So Thomas gets to pretend to need rescuing, with Matt as the rescue swimmer. Had to throw in this shot because it has that nice Bay Bridge double decker in the back. San Francisco Bay-bie!

Here's Thomas being lowered one more time.

ANOTHER helicopter shot, but this one is slightly has the Rescue Swimmer sluming in the doorway.

This time, the helicopter hovers maybe about 12 feet off the water, and Matt leaps out feet first!

They both swim back to the Sunrise for the ride back to Travis Marina.

Here's Bart lending a helping hand.

Whew! That Bay water is cold!

Thomas looks happy to be back on board. Note his use of earplugs. I guess dangling under a helicopter can be quite deafening!

One last exercise, is to bob around without power, and let the helicopter practice pushing the boat around using just the rotor wash.

Here's Dave manning the radios, and the helicopter visible in the side window.

Rae's taking it easy, letting the helicopter do all the work.

Time enough for one more basket on/off cycle.

And that was it for the day! It was a pleasure to be out there with Sunrise and her crew, and I'd like to thank the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard Auxiliary for having me there, and all the fine work they do in keeping the waterways safe!
- BZ