Then there's the survival and rescue equipment packed in the rear of the helo, including rafts and a dewatering pump that can move 250 gallons per minute from a sinking boat. Most impressive is the medical kit, which features a backboard, collapsible litter, Super D oxygen bottle, backpack trauma kit with drugs, IVs and intubators, an advanced first-aid pack and a Lifepack multifunction monitor with automatic defibrillator -- in short, anything you'd expect to find in a big city ambulance. "I've seen everything in the back of a helicopter that occurs in a hospital emergency room," says Cmdr. Karl Baldessari, a Jayhawk pilot and operations officer at Sitka, "from fighting a combative survivor to rescue swimmers straddling a cardiac patient while performing CPR."
One mission always stands out, and for Schelin it began with a mayday call from a mariner stranded in Chatham Strait, a notoriously nasty stretch of water. The man's engine had quit en route to Funter Bay, and 40-knot winds and 8-foot swells were pushing him toward a jagged outcropping. Hovering directly over the boat, Schelin yanked the man to safety seconds before his skiff splintered.
Such scenarios drive home the very real possibility of a rescuer being left behind, with or without the rescued. Anytime you deploy a swimmer, explains Baldessari, you're talking about at least three live hoists: deploying the swimmer, pulling up the survivor and recapturing the Coastie. Should things turn sour, the flight mechanic would throw the swimmer an inflatable raft, which comes complete with a survival suit, flashing light and emergency position indicator beacon. "It drives you crazy if you think about it too much, but we're all trained to do whatever it takes to survive," says Schelin. "I'd put on the suit, get in the raft and deal with it."
Rescue swimmers have the right to refuse any mission they deem beyond their capabilities, but it's tough to imagine one dire enough to fit the bill. "We've stopped counting the number of people we've saved," explains Baldessari. "In that respect, the swimmers are definitely heroes."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.