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Airborne With the Guardies



Perilous Plunge fans lined the docks, waving as the helicopter descended. Our flight mechanic, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Rick Vige, and rescue swimmer, Petty Officer James Moore, waved back. We hovered at about 10 feet, rotor wash radiating outward. Vige tossed the dummy, then Moore took his own plunge into Humboldt Bay. Pilots Lt. Russ Merrick and Lt. Steve Baxter lifted us back toward the sky. We circled around, then returned for Moore. He was tugging off his flippers when I noticed the Easy-Up upside down between the docks. The force of the spinning blades had blown it into the water. The crew expressed relief when it was quickly salvaged.

"No one hurt?"

"No one hurt."

The air pulsed outside as we flew off, demonstration complete. Inside, calm reigned. Compared to flying through storms, a minor tent flap is nothing to lose a stoic demeanor over. The ever-shrinking people continued to wave as we headed out to sea.

Helicopters fly faster than I realized, with banking turns like too-fast highway curves -- but still, I did not need the vomit bag I'd declined pre-flight. (Spewing breakfast across the helicopter insides would have embarrassed me to the point that I'd likely have popped off the door and tumbled into the ocean myself -- and then Moore would've had to come get me and the whole magnificent experience would end a fiasco.)

No, enough drama arrives in the form of distressed vessels, weakened surfers and beach-goers swept out to sea. I would maintain professionalism, find out what the Coasties really think about having to rescue people who foolishly dump themselves into the sea. (Answers: "We don't judge how they got there, we just want to get them out," "We all make mistakes" and "Job security.")

The adventure began with the donning of a drysuit, which looks like fancy coveralls, weighs several pounds and immediately provoked both sweat and a bit of a swagger. Next, the helmet. "You'll want to keep the visor down in case of birds." Socks (I'd worn Chacos, not exactly approved flying footwear) and boots so serious it was like driving a big truck after a lifetime of VWs. Thus weighted, I was good to go.

At 300 feet, perspective changes. Google Earth is no substitute for the real thing. The Pacific unrolled itself onto the shore. Tiny people sat on tiny redwood stumps. I marveled at the challenge of finding some floating speck in all that water, especially in less favorable conditions than we experienced that day. "This is pretty perfect," Merrick explained. "The sun isn't out, so we don't have any glare, but it's not raining, so the visibility is good."

Snow-covered Trinities appeared in the distance. Missions don't always happen on the coast -- just last month, Air Station Humboldt Bay was called to help near Dinsmore. Paramedics couldn't easily reach the snowed-in home of a 60-year-old woman needing medical attention, but the helicopter could.

The day before, two crews had been honored at the annual Red Cross Humboldt Heroes luncheon. (They'll enthuse endlessly about how their HH-65C Dolphin helicopter works, but try to get a "Yes, we're amazing" and the dialog turns along the lines, "All in a day's work, ma'am.")

As I was leaving, someone mentioned several calls from people upset that their Saturday had been disturbed by the noisy helicopter overhead.


"Yeah," Merrick shrugged. "Sometimes we'll head out on a mission at 2 a.m. and someone will call in because we've woken them up."

I thought about how small we were in that big sky, above that huge ocean, about the risks these folks take to save people from their own foolish mistakes. Complaints? I preferred the thank-you notes lining the base's bulletin boards.

Sunday night, a single-engine plane disappeared near Trinidad. A pilot and his passenger, flying up from Bakersfield, last known position 100 feet -- lower "than they should have been," according to Merrick -- when the plane went off the radar. A 47-foot lifeboat and helicopter were called in. As of Monday evening, the Coast Guard was still searching. As public affairs officer, Merrick couldn't speculate on what might have happened, but he did say he hoped their efforts would turn out to be unneeded, that perhaps the plane had made a safe landing somewhere. The turn of events portended worse, however. Whatever the outcome, the Coast Guard was there when called.

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