When a boating excursion turns into a deadly nightmare, the sight of an orange-and-white Traverse City Coast Guard helicopter can feel like divine intervention. We look inside the world of the chopper-rescue teams.

On a Sunday afternoon in September, the whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop of a Search and Rescue (SAR) alarm pulsates over the sprawling grounds of the Traverse City Coast Guard Station, a complex of low red brick buildings and a helicopter hangar on the city’s east side. Even as the alarm ceases and the voice of the duty officer in the control center details the emergency at hand over the base-wide intercom, the designated four-person watch-team is already pulling on their orange, dry-coverall suits—a standard outfit worn to protect crew members against hyperthermia if they end up in the water.

Each rescue team is composed of two pilots, an Aviation Maintenance Technician, known commonly as a flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer, aka Aviation Survival Technician. The watch team this afternoon: Jason Evans and Andy Schanno (both pilots), flight mechanic Cliff Fisher and rescue swimmer Paul Wiedenhoeft. Some 20 minutes later, and only after a pre-flight protocol to consider destination, weather, flight path and if any crew members have any condition that might impede the mission (alcohol consumed in the last 24 hours?), the crew is strapped in and Lieutenant Commander Jason Evans starts up one of the station’s three Jayhawk helicopters. The blades, with 54-foot rotor diameter, stir up a small tornado as the chopper lifts off.

Flight mechanic Josh Heyns and rescue swimmer Nick Trimpe // Photo by Andy Wakeman

Since Traverse City is an air station only, a rescue boat from the station in Charlevoix is summoned for the mission. Other rescue boats go out too, among them a boat from the Charlevoix Sheriff’s Office.

Meanwhile, 60 miles to the northwest, the subjects of that SAR alarm, weekend sailors Alan Vicstein and Keith Brothers, are indeed in peril. Their boat is sinking and they are being plunged into Lake Michigan’s 60-degree waters—waters that will trigger hypothermia within hours. The men were able to get off just one brief distress call, picked up by the crew at the Coast Guard sector Sault Sainte Marie. After triangulating the location of the radio call using an advanced system called Rescue 21, the Sector determined it came from the waters off Beaver Island. That’s when the Traverse City station got a call to mobilize a helicopter—the station shares responsibility with Coast Guard Air Station Detroit for the entire US Great Lakes.

Flight mechanic chief Dan Coleman guiding the pilot so he can hover directly over the target // Photo by Andy Wakeman

No search and rescue operation is ever routine, which is why Coast Guardsmen, Coasties for short, are so rigorously trained. For many Coast Guard Pilots, initial training is completed with the United States Navy in an exacting program that lasts approximately two years and is based out of Whiting Field near Pensacola, Florida. Flight mechanics, one of whom is always aboard a rescue flight, must pass an equally stringent five months of training and then go on to receive advanced training in their specialized aircraft.

Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmers are among the world’s most elite rescue swimmers. Since the 1980s only 900 swimmers have passed the grueling 24-week course, much of which is spent in the surf off Elizabeth City, North Carolina. When they graduate, among other Poseidon-like feats, rescue swimmers will be specialized EMTs, trained to save lives in ocean hurricanes, freshwater storms and anything else great bodies of water can dish out.

Lowering a basket to a Coast Guard boat during a hoisting drill // Photo by Andy Wakeman

I get a taste of what it takes to be a guardian of the Great Lakes when I am invited on a training mission. The crew consists of pilots Michael Haas and Ted Borny (who also doubles as the station’s public affairs officer), flight mechanic Josh Heyns and rescue swimmer Dave White. Barrel-chested with tree trunk-sized arms, White has passed advanced training in the menacing waters off Cape Disappointment on Washington’s coast where the Columbia River crashes into the Pacific—as has Paul Wiedenhoeft, the swimmer on the Vicstein/Brothers rescue team. White once endured an especially long rescue off the Alaskan coast when he was stationed there, an experience that made him swear never to be that cold again.

The plan is to rendezvous with a USCG rescue boat on Lake Michigan near Manistee where our crew will conduct a series of basket hoisting drills, that include attaching a hoist to the boat.

A helmet with infrared night vision goggles // Photo by Andy Wakeman

There’s low cloud cover today, so we’ll fly at around 500 feet, much lower than normal. We hover just ten feet above the runway for several minutes for a last-minute check. At any altitude below 100 feet or so, the Jayhawk vibrates violently and the noise level increases. Then suddenly we begin to climb. Earplugs and a thickly-padded helmet can’t hide the deafening roar.

The only chatter over the intercom is between the pilots. While Haas flies, Borny holds an I-pad that displays dozens of yellow triangles. Each one represents a cell tower. “In two miles there’s a 200-foot tower at your one o’clock, then another one a half a mile farther on your left,” Borny speaks into a microphone.

The landscape gives way to the rainy, featureless grey of Lake Michigan. We fly lower. The incredible din returns. We slow, drop to an altitude of 35 feet and begin to hover above the USCG boat. The drills begin.

Flight mechanic chief Dan Coleman // Photo by Andy Wakeman

Even in relatively calm weather like this, it is difficult to make a helicopter stay exactly at the same spot in the air—a sudden change of just a few feet in the helicopter’s altitude or horizontal position can create violent swings of the rescue basket. Borny recalls a flight school instructor comparing hovering to “trying to ride a unicycle on a beach ball.”

Flying this low, our own rotor wash buffets the helicopter. Below us, the boat crew is pelted by a helicopter-induced maelstrom of water “bullets.”

Because the pilot’s line of sight downward and to the rear is limited, the flight mechanic takes on an additional task—barking out a constant stream of orders to the pilots through a helmet-mounted microphone: “forward and right 50 feet, forward and right 45 feet, forward and right 15 feet, easy forward and right and hold.”

Honing survival fire-making skills with rescue swimmer David White // Photo by Tony Denim

The day’s final drill is for White, who attaches himself to a hoist line and allows himself to be lowered and raised several times before he makes several untethered free jumps. Jumps have to be timed perfectly so swimmers land at the top of a big wave, because hitting the trough between waves is dangerous.

When there’s no more room in the helicopter, rescue swimmers are left behind—often at night and in rough seas—in a tiny life raft until the next chopper comes, which might not happen until sunrise. White, like most of his colleagues, has experienced the wait firsthand. “The worst is when you have injured people with you who are yelling and screaming in pain all night, and you can’t do much to help them.”

In from the water, left to right: Lieutenant commander Erik Oredson and flight mechanics Heath Day, Tyler Town and Andrew Kelly // Photo by Tony Denim

Back in the waters off Beaver Island, precious minutes have turned into hours as the search continues. Vicstein, huddled next to his friend who is faring better probably because he is larger, is clinging to consciousness—and his life. With a core temperature hovering at 83 degrees, he is in imminent danger of a fatal heart attack.

As Vicstein’s chances fade, two volunteer firemen sitting on the roof of a lakeside home finally spot something out in the bay. It is Alan’s red shirt. They direct the Charlevoix Sheriff’s Office boat to the precise site. Both men are hauled into the boat. Brothers is still conscious. Vicstein is not.

If the sheriff’s boat had been farther from shore, the Jayhawk crew would have hoisted to the sheriff’s boat and Wiedenhoeft would have dropped down to administer emergency services. Then Vicstein could have been pulled into the chopper via a basket hoist or Wiedenhoeft could have strapped the unconscious man to himself and hoisted him up to the chopper with him.

The most efficient solution that day, however, is for the chopper to meet the sheriff’s boat on Beaver Island where Wiedenhoeft administers emergency aid to Vicstein before an airlift to Traverse City’s Munson Medical Center.

Swimming for a life raft in East Grand Traverse Bay amid the chopper’s rotary wash // Photo by Tony Denim

Alan Vicstein survives and recovers. A few months later, I’m there when he visits the base to meet up with the crew who helped resuscitate him and transport him to safety. The crew is visibly delighted to see him. As Base Commander Nathan Coulter says, there are many more recoveries than successful water rescues. “And recoveries are hard on everybody, including our crews,” he says.

Vicstein delivers his simple, heartfelt thanks. “I owe my life to you,” he says to the crew. “I wanted to thank you in person.”

Details of the rescue are discussed, and now, with the crisis over, there is even room for some dark humor. “I woke up the next day in the hospital and looked at the food menu. One of the first things on the list was popsicles,” Vicstein says.

It takes several minutes for the laughter to subside.

Photo by Tony Denim

Clark Miller writes from Traverse City. clark@clarkmillercommunications.com // Tony Demin is a replanted local from Montana. His photos capture the in-between moments in living wild. // Andy Wakeman is an editorial and commercial photographer proud to call Northern Michigan home.

More About the Traverse City Coast Guard

Photo(s) by Andy Wakeman