It’s been a year of big changes at the Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City. Not only is the base getting a huge upgrade of its aircraft—transitioning from the lighter weight, Baywatch-esque H-65 helicopters to the more rugged Blackhawk-style H-60 choppers—the base is also getting an almost entirely new crew, including Coast Guard Commander Nathan Coulter. And after serving for a decade in the Pacific Northwest, including six years in Alaska, the veteran H-60 pilot says he’s looking forward to the relatively milder challenge of the Great Lakes.

So did you have any say in getting stationed here?

Well, it’s funny: Everybody gets to ask for what they want, but ultimately they’re called orders for a reason. So you look through the list of available jobs that match your skillset and your rank, and you put in your “dream sheet.” Then the folks up in D.C., through some sort of magical process, will give you orders. But Traverse City was my number one choice. And I can tell you, in the Coast Guard, in aviation, this posting has always been a crown jewel that everyone asks for.

And at the risk of asking the obvious, what exactly does the Coast Guard do in Traverse City?

Well, I would say unless you’re in the Coast Guard, you probably have no idea. Clearly, the most visible thing we do is search and rescues. We do about 150 cases per year, and record somewhere between 20 and 30 lives saved per year. Most of our search and rescue cases here have to do with recreational boating. Quite honestly, over the last 10 years of my career, being in cold water climates, you can almost set your watch to it: It’s a blue bell day, you have people who don’t throw on a life jacket and the water is still in the 40s, and they tip over and they end up drowning. It’s unbelievable how quickly that cold water can overtake you. But we also do a number of other types of missions. For example, we do marine environmental protection, which involves responding or patrolling for pollution-related stuff; and we do ice recon in the hardwater season for the Coast Guard Icebreaker.

Planning for cold water safety is critical for even the most experienced sailors and paddlers. Always follow these tips, especially in the spring and fall when water temps are cooler. (Video filmed in 2013.) 

Well, your posting is for two years. During your time here, are there some places you want to explore?

Well, everybody says you have to go to Sleeping Bear Dunes and Mackinac Island. And I enjoy the tourist stuff and I’ll definitely do it, but what I really like is getting out and meeting people who are locals. A couple weeks ago, I went up to Beaver Island: I flew one of our helicopters out there, and I met with all the local first responders and airport personnel. And after we got done with the formalities, I pulled a couple of the older folks aside to talk with them about the real history of Beaver Island. The other thing is, my grandfather was a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, and he trained for World War II at Ypsilanti and up at Sault Ste. Marie. I’m very connected to his legacy—I wear his wings on my uniform. So I want to do a pilgrimage to both of those places. I only get two years, so I have to cram all that stuff in.

In 2016, United States Coast Guard aviation celebrated its centennial. In honor of the milestone, the Traverse City Coast Guard flew the MyNorth video crew over Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore via helicopter. Take a look.

Safety Tips from the Coast Guard

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner