ABOARD USS KEARSARGE, At Sea (NNS) -- Hovering 55 feet above people in distress, search and rescue (SAR) swimmers are trained to swoop down and jump out of perfectly good aircraft into the water to save lives. In their world, as the adage suggests, practice makes perfect. Recently, eight SAR swimmers from Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 8, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 6 and USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) were provided a rare, realistic training opportunity.
Over the warm waters of the Northern Arabian Gulf, as ships were starting to make their way out of the Gulf to head back to the home ports, the timing was perfect to flex a capability of the ship and crew that isn't often possible.
Always ready for anything, SAR swimmers jump into the water between 10 to 15 feet, plunging into the depths feet first. Although wearing goggles, SAR swimmers often try to immerse the rest of their faces to avoid the 100 to 115 knots of wind from the incredible rotor wash until the helicopter climbs back up to about 50 feet; sea spray pelts them from the moment they enter the water.
The most difficult part of a rescue mission, according to most SAR swimmers, is hoisting people out of the water. With the helicopter and the sea moving at the same time, often in different directions, timing means everything.
"During MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) rescue operations from small vessels, getting the people out from a small area of the deck is really difficult, but it always works out," says SAR swimmer Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class (AW/NAC) Richard R. Hyman Jr.
"Before we jump, we evaluate the waters. If the waters are dangerous, like if there were sharks, it's the swimmers call if he or she is willing to risk their life or not," explained SAR swimmer Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class (AW/NAC) Joseph Schafer. "It's also the aircraft commander's call, but when it comes down to the wire, the swimmer has to make the choice. I would jump though if it came down to it."
SAR swimmers can be utilized to assist in many situations. Anytime there is a man overboard, an aircraft crashes, a boat capsizes, SAR swimmers are usually the first on the scene.
SAR swimming is demanding physical work. Requiring a vigorous routine of running and lifting weights, maintaining strength is extremely important. The arduous nature of their work requires constant physical maintenance. "I run 2.5 miles a day, lift weights and when I am at home, I swim a lot," said Hyman.
Schafer added, "At home, on base in Virginia, I use the pool two times a week, and I'm also very active in the simulation rescued scenario. During pool training they throw parachutes in the water, with the lights out; it's very realistic."
The competition to become a SAR swimmer is keen. If selected, you attend five weeks of aircrew school, four weeks of SAR school, and then specific training for the type of helicopter in which you will fly. To enter the aircrew/SAR program, you must come from the aviation community, meaning your rating must be an air rating. You also must be at least a level two swimmer and pass an extensive flight physical. SAR training encompasses many areas, including lifesaving, first aid and knowledge of rescue devices. The training also includes towing a "victim" 800 meters, a very grueling exercise.
"The 800 meter tow is fun. What we do is literally tow another person, attached to us, 800 meters," added Hyman. "Depending on the person you get stuck with, it could be easy, or quite difficult."
When asked if SAR swimmers get nervous about being needed with little or no notice, Schafer had this to say: "Are you kidding? This is what we do. This is what we are trained for. We fight to get into the bird. It's our job out here to save people."
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