In the Navy, there are two types of Search and Rescue (SAR) swimmers: Ship-based SAR and airborne SAR (usually in rescue helicopters). Both are side gigs.
Usually, a boat person (insert Navy ship job) will apply for SAR school and learn the ins and outs of operating off the boat as a search and rescue swimmer. Typical missions would be recovering a man overboard or refugees lost at sea.
Airborne operations are usually conducted with helicopters. Airborne SAR swimmers have very different and more extensive training operating around aircraft and rescuing pilots, which is their primary mission. An Aviation Rescue Swimmer, or AIRR, will attend boot camp and then Aircrewman Candidate School, their specialty “A” School, SAR school, and SERE school. They will also have to earn their gold aircrew wings and train to be a plane captain and later a crew chief.
I did this job and flew in the back of Rescue Helicopters before becoming a Navy SEAL. It’s a job and community I’m proud to belong to. My primary job was as an Aviation Warfare Systems Operator (AW). I operated the dipping sonar and flight systems in the back to track targets.
Below is an excerpt from my book, The Red Circle, which talks about my training.
After Aircrew Candidate School I headed down the block for four weeks of Search and Rescue school, and sure enough, here things kicked up a notch. Although it was just down the street, it might as well have been a thousand miles away. Search and Rescue school was a completely different world.
If Aviators Bail Out, a Navy Rescue Helicopter Will Come for Them
At SAR school they ran a tight ship, and the atmosphere was serious and professional. We showed up early every morning for inspection, and our uniforms had to be perfect. From there we went to PT, followed by a 3-mile conditioning run, followed by some swims, then the classroom, and then we hit the pool for training.
The training environment revolved around a huge indoor pool that could simulate various sea states, the irregular swell of waves on the open ocean, in a space the size of a large gymnasium. They had huge spray machines to simulate helicopter rotor wash, and parachute-like devices hanging down from cranes, which they used to drag us through the pool. We learned the basics of lifesaving, then moved on to more advanced techniques for rescuing downed airmen.
Imagine you are a pilot and you’ve had to eject from your craft. It’s the middle of the night, and you’ve parachuted into rough water. You can’t see a thing, you’re weighed down and badly entangled in a web of parachute shroud lines, and the water is freezing cold. We’re the guys who jump out of helicopters into this environment to save your ass.
When people are plunged unexpectedly into the water, they tend to panic, and even though you’re the guy swimming out there to save their life, they tend to grab on to you and push you down. It’s not conscious, it’s out of pure panic. Still, conscious or not, they are doing their level best to drown you. So we did a lot of what they described as drown proofing.
The objective was to make sure we were ready for whatever conditions might be thrown at us. They taught us how to get the pilot out of his chute and then either clip him into a litter or fit him fast with a rescue strap device that slips under the arms. Then we would have to clip ourselves in and get us both hoisted up and into the waiting helo, all while the victim was panicking and trying to fight us off. There are dozens of different types of harnesses, straps, chutes, and other systems, and we had to know the procedures for every one of them—and we had to know them blind, backward, and forward, because we might be dealing with them in the worst of circumstances, with a panicked or incapacitated human being on our hands. We also had to master a range of first aid techniques, because you never know what kinds of injuries a downed pilot might have sustained.
Here’s a fun fact. In the water during a rescue, no survivor in the water outranks the SAR Swimmer. This is because the survivor’s judgment could be seriously impaired by injuries, dehydration, exposure, or hypothermia. The SAR swimmer is going to give some instructions to a survivor like ordering him out of his raft and if the survivor doesn’t comply he’s going to be made to by the swimmer. Even if that survivor is an Admiral.
Near the end of the four weeks, it was final exam time. We all filed into the locker room and sat down on benches to wait while they called us out, one by one, to go to the pool for our turn. When my name was called, I stood up and walked out into the open pool area.
Read Next: The Pic of the Day: Rescue Swimmer in action
‘SAVE ME FROGMAN!!’
The place was noisy and dimly lit, simulating a nighttime scene. The rotor chop simulator spray was on, the hoisting equipment was up and running, and there below me was a downed pilot flailing around in the water, on the edge of drowning.
I leaped off the platform, eyes looking to the horizon as instructed, and felt myself splash down into the tank. I swam directly toward the panicked victim, trying in vain to sense when I was getting close. It was impossible to hear anything over the roar of the machinery and chop of the waves. Suddenly two huge arms wrapped around me like a steel bear trap, and we were both thrashing in the water. I could feel his panic as he yelled “SAVE ME FROGMAN!!” I knew it was simulated and that he was in reality a skilled instructor posing as a terrified pilot—but he was a good actor, and he was taking me down, drowning me.
The shroud lines were everywhere. I knew I couldn’t let myself get tangled in those goddam ropes, but it was very difficult not to. For an instant I flashed on that picture of my dad, struggling to fight clear of that cloying bed of kelp and spitting out his regulator in panic. I wanted to say, “For Chrissake calm down—I’ll get you out of here!” But I knew that when someone is in a panic, there’s no talking to him. Finally, I managed to free myself from the guy’s grip, wrestle him into the harness system, and get him hoisted up onto the helo.
Once he was laid out on the floor, I saw that he was badly injured. His injuries were simulated, of course, but the special effects were very good—and I had to administer the correct first aid if I wanted to pass the test.
That exam was tough. Fortunately for me, my years of experience on Captain Bill’s dive boat had sharpened my water skills to a fine point, and I made it through okay. Not so for some of the others. The drown-proofing was where the most people washed out. In that frantic, darkened, noisy environment, feeling themselves being dragged down by a crazy person, they would lose their grip and panic themselves. A few of our victims “drowned.”
Search and Rescue was an excellent training experience. Graduates of this program are an elite bunch. Howard Wasdin, the SEAL who fought in the “Black Hawk Down” battle of Mogadishu and went on to write the book SEAL Team Six, started out training as a search-and-rescue swimmer. I was proud when I finished the course, and I’m proud to this day to have belonged to the SAR community. Virtually every Navy recruiting ad shows a SAR Swimmer jumping out of a helicopter. What they don’t tell you is that there are only a couple of hundred SAR Swimmers among some 346,000 sailors in the fleet. And SAR training has an attrition rate similar to BUDs training. It is also true that the most common Rating of Sailors who make the transition over to Navy SEALs are Aviation Rescue Swimmers. It’s been that way since the 1980s at least.
The SH-60 Seahawk: The Navy’s Premier Rescue Helicopter
The SH-60 is a broad class of U.S. military helicopters that includes the Sea Hawk, the Ocean Hawk, the famous Black Hawk, and a handful of others. At HS-10 they put us into several different kinds of simulators representing the various helicopter platforms we would soon be flying. One had a heavy sonar package; another, which we called a truck, was completely gutted out and used mainly for combat and search-and-rescue exercises.
After learning all the technology on the simulators, it was time to go out on live training. They put one instructor in front with the pilot and another instructor in the back with the aircrewmen. In helicopters, the command pilot sits on the right side rather than on the left side in fixed-wing aircraft. The reason is twofold. At airports under Visual Flight Rules, the standard pattern for helicopters is to the right to avoid conflicts with the fixed-wing aircraft pattern and also because of the clockwise rotation of the rotor blades, most helicopters turn faster to the right.
So in the actual flight training, they taught us how to operate the hoist, how to use the proper terminology to talk from the front to the back, radio etiquette, and all the different systems on the aircraft. In an actual rescue, the “Dry” aircrewman in the rescue helicopter works with the “Wet” SAR swimmer in the water using hand signals. The Dry Guy operates the hoist, gives hover directions to the pilots and a blow-by-blow account of everything that is going on during the rescue related to the position of the swimmer and survivors.
In mid-October, after six months at the helo training squadron, I got orders to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Six. HS-6, also known as the Indians, was my first deployment. Yes, I was still in training—but I was now part of an actual, operational helicopter command. I was in the navy fleet now.
And a helluva command it was. The squadron had an illustrious history stretching back nearly forty years. The Indians had rescued more than a dozen downed pilots in Vietnam and helped underwater demolition teams (the predecessors of SEALs) pluck moon-walking Apollo astronauts out of the ocean on splashdown, had earned a long succession of trophies and awards, and would years later go on to serve the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was excited about becoming part of HS-6. It was a damn good squadron—and I was out to make a name for myself.
Back in April, when I had first arrived at HS-10 for training, I had made another strong push to get orders to SEAL training. Once again, I’d been told I would have to wait until I got to my final duty station. Well, here I was at my final duty station, and I was determined to do a kick-ass job so I could apply for BUD/S and get there as fast as I could.
Which turned out not to be very fast at all. In fact, I would continue serving as part of the Indians from October 1994 through the summer of 1997, encountering obstacle after obstacle in my quest, before finally getting my orders to SEAL training nearly three full years later. The Navy spends a lot of money training SAR Swimmers and I think sometimes they like to get their money’s worth out of a guy before they cut him orders to another school like BUDs.
In the spring of 1995, about six months after becoming part of the Indians, I went on a six-month deployment on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the western Pacific, called a WESTPAC. An aircraft carrier normally sports a full-time crew of several thousand. When it leaves port for a WESTPAC, though, all its associated helicopter squadrons populate it and disembark with it, which brings the total onboard population up to around five thousand, and it becomes like a small city unto itself.
We had gone out before for shorter trips of up to a month. The WESTPAC was different. Now we headed out west clear across the Pacific, stopping in Hawaii, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Australia, and then on to the Persian Gulf, where we spent the next four or five months as the U.S. aircraft carrier presence there. This was something like being a cop on the beat. We weren’t necessarily engaging anyone or seeing any action, but we were the show of force, ready to be tapped for whatever need might arise.
For those of us still in training, the WESTPAC gave us the opportunity to learn everything we could ever want to know about all the systems on the different helo platforms we were using at the time.
I went on to do two deployments involving SH60 rescue helicopters, one on the USS Abraham Lincoln, and later on the USS Kitty Hawk. The first deployment on the Lincoln actually inspired the book, Steel Fear.
An SAR Swimmer’s Mission Set
An SAR swimmer’s missions would be:
- Pick up VIP passengers on other ships (move people around);
- Re-supply operations (we call this VERTREP-vertical replenishment);
- Submarine warfare (using dipping sonar or passive sonar buoys to detect and track enemy submarines);
- Search and Rescue (SAR) or Combat SAR (CSAR). CSAR crews were few as this was advanced training. Most SAR missions lasted for two-three hours during flight operations and were pretty boring (bring a good book!);
- Ready room watch (we’d alternate and stand a 12-hour watch to help plan and brief the flight crews, make coffee, run errands, and deliver the flight schedule);
- Training to keep sharp.
What’s in a Rescue Helicopter?
What are the best rescue helicopters? Personally, I think the CH47 Chinook is a badass rescue bird. Also, the older model H3 Sea King could land and float on the water! Why the hell we gave that capability up I’m not sure. The H60 platform is also great but could use a ton of improvement from a SAR capacity.
Any SAR rescue helicopter will come equipped with a hoist that can hold up to 600lbs. Usually, each squadron will have a variety of attachments to clip onto the hook, like baskets, litters, and a soft strap to go under the armpits of one person to hoist them out of the ocean and inside the helicopter. The swimmer’s job would be to jump into the water and put people into the basket or if there’s a neck injury maybe a litter, then give the signal to the hoisting crewman to hoist up.
SAR swimmers are also trained and equipped to give emergency trauma care to survivors. Most of the Navy SAR rescues are of pilots who have ejected from their aircraft. Ejections often result in serious injuries to the pilot, because we are talking about being launched by a solid-fuel rocket attached to your seat. The injuries can be anything from compression injuries to spine to head trauma and broken arms, legs, and shoulders. Before a pilot pulls that ejection seat toggle he’s supposed to position his body just so to clear the cockpit, but in the split second they often have to make the decision to punch out, they can’t always do that.
And they get hurt.
There you have it, a little SAR tutorial.
And Don’t Forget the Video
Hope you enjoyed learning a bit about the SAR community, it’s a great one and both SOFREP Editor-in-Chief Sean Spoonts and I share the military background of being SAR swimmers and anti-Submarine warfare helicopter crewmen.
This video below is a pretty good visual summary of the fun and often dangerous work of SAR Swimmers. This is my old outfit, HSC-7’s search and rescue swimmers performing routine operations in the Arabian Sea in a DoD Video by PO3 Sophie Pinkman.
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