What it’s like to rescue someone at sea from a Coast Guard helicopter

Incidents tend to rise in the summer. We flew in a big MH-60T chopper and watched dramatic practice scenarios unfold first-hand.

The duck was dressed for the ocean below. Clad in an orange dry suit, black gloves and flippers, and a yellow helmet with goggles and a snorkel attached, he was prepared to leave our hovering helicopter for the first time and enter the water. 

The large red and white Coast Guard chopper featured a crane-like hoist outside and above its big side door. With the hook from its dangling metal cable attached to him, the duck moved into the open doorway, his legs and flippers hanging off the side. Then the hoist pulled him up and out, and—after a thumbs-up from the duck—lowered him out of sight and into the sea. Not long later, the hoist returned, its hook empty. It was like the reverse of catching a fish. A creature went into the ocean on a hook, and the line returned with nothing on it. 

To be clear, the duck was a human being named Michael Judin, an officer with the Coast Guard. “The duck” is the term they use to describe the person who simulates being a survivor out in the water, giving the helicopter team a chance to practice plucking individuals out of the wet stuff and back up into the bird, which hovers above.

Rescuing someone via a helicopter and its hoist is an especially dramatic and effective way for the Coast Guard to grab someone in distress at sea. We were flying that day in late May 2021 out of an air station on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From that location alone, the Coast Guard says they’ve used aircraft to save more than 200 lives over the past three years—either via a chopper, like the MH-60T Jayhawk we dropped Judin from, or a fixed-wing airplane known as the Casa. Commander David McCown, the air station’s executive officer, estimates hoist rescues happen roughly once a month. In June, for example, a helicopter out of Massachusetts grabbed three people off a life raft after their fishing boat sank near Montauk Point, New York. And in mid-July, a Jayhawk plucked another three from a capsized trimaran in the waters around Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The flight I tagged along for was an evaluation ride for one of the pilots, Lt. Commander Rob McCabe, but more generally served as a chance for the crew to practice the high-stakes, highly dynamic techniques of hoisting people into a helicopter or tending to a boat in distress. Here’s what it was like to fly with them for the day.

A person is lowered out of a helicopter
Michael Judin gives a thumbs-up before being lowered down to the water below. Rob Verger

The duck returns 

Once Judin (the duck) was down in the water, it was time to grab him. A swimmer named Chris Moore lowered out of the helicopter to do the deed. On his yellow helmet was a patch indicating his blood type in case of disaster. The flight mechanic, Richard Garza, prepared a metal rescue basket big enough for a grown man to sit, clipped it to the hoist line’s hook, and lowered it down. When the basket came back up, viola—the duck was inside, wet from the water below. He sat down next to me. 

You would think that the Coast Guard would train someone up especially for harrowing practice scenarios like this, but Judin is not a professional duck. Instead, he’s in logistics. Usually, he works at a desk. That was his first time doing the duck job, and was only his second time in a helicopter since he’d started working with the Coast Guard at the Cape Cod Air Station around five years ago. 

“Let’s just keep in mind that Mr. J does not do this every day,” McCabe, one of the pilots, said over the radio before the duck left the helicopter. “Please go out of your way to look for him doing something wrong—just expect it, so we can catch it on the way down there.” 

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Judin had survived his first foray into the sea, but they weren’t done with him. The chopper team lowered him into the Atlantic waters off Cape Cod twice more that day, and each time the same swimmer, Moore, grabbed him and brought him back up.  

After we landed, I asked Judin how it had gone. He summarized what his thoughts were the first time he found himself hanging outside the helicopter: “Crud,” he said.

“Then it was like, this is cool,” Judin recalled, standing next to the helicopter on the tarmac. “Everything from then was awesome.” 

A Coast guard helicopter on the ground
Our ride for the day: An MH-60T helicopter. Rob Verger

On top of the hummingbird  

The MH-60T is a relative of the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters. It will allow the Coast Guard to fly roughly 250 or 300 miles away from a base, rescue someone, and then return home. In total, it can hold some 6,000 pounds of fuel, but about 2,000 of that is stored in three big, detachable, torpedo-shaped external tanks. 

“It’s kinda nice to hold some of your gas outside, because if we get in an emergency, where one of our engines quits on us, at one press of a button, we can jettison all of them,” McCabe said that morning before the flight, standing next to the helicopter and tapping on one of those tanks. 

Not long after that, he quickly scaled up the side of the parked whirlybird, and I followed. Standing up there on top of the parked helicopter, I asked him what he liked about flying it. It flies like a hummingbird does, he said, allowing you to check something out by hovering next to it, and then moving on. “It’s all about being low and seeing the stuff, and I think helicopters allow that,” he said. “They allow that really adventurous sense of seeing things from a different perspective.” 

“I think this is how, as a kid, you conceive of flying,” he adds. 

A pilot flies a Coast Guard helicopter
Rob McCabe, the pilot being evaluated that day, was in the right-hand seat for the flight. To his left was the pilot evaluating him, Kevin Murphy. Rob Verger

In a more practical sense, it’s a very effective way of helping someone out who is, say, in a sinking boat or floating around like shark bait. “It’s probably one of the biggest game-changers in search and rescue, ever,” he reflects. The Coast Guard began regularly using choppers for rescues in the early 1960s, with a model called the HH-52, according to Barrett Thomas Beard, a former military pilot and the author of Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopters. The HH-52 had a hoist for grabbing people, but was also amphibious—it could land on the water. It even had a ramp that could hinge off the side, and a pilot could use it to pick up an unresponsive person. “You actually tilt the helicopter over and scoop him out of the water,” Beard recalls. 

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Standing on the Jayhawk, I was struck by its sheer size. It stretches 65 feet long, if you count the spinning rotors—a far-cry from the hummingbirds McCabe evoked. I was high enough off the ground that falling to the ground was a serious concern. This type of helicopter, sometimes just referred to as a “60,” for MH-60T, is the bigger of the two rotorcraft the Coast Guard flies. It’s a good choice for rescue missions in bad weather, like what a pilot might encounter off Alaska. Meanwhile, a chopper called the MH-65, or Dolphin, is smaller than the 60. The Dolphin can conduct a search and rescue mission that’s closer to shore, since it has a shorter range, and it also carries weapons; those armed helicopters fly out of a unit known as HITRON in Jacksonville, Florida. 

The Coast Guard is under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense, but it’s still part of the US military. I asked if we were carrying any weapons that day on our 60; the answer was no. “Except these ones,” McCabe said, tapping on his biceps and smiling. 

Two members of the Coast Guard ride in the back of a helicopter
At left, Richard Garza, the flight mechanic and hoist operator. At right, Chris Moore, the swimmer. Rob Verger

Stay calm, and proceed hand-over-hand 

Before we lifted off, Garza, the flight mechanic, walked me through what to do if there was an emergency like a crash landing. The crash position, he explained, involves wrapping your hands underneath your legs and placing your head between your knees or thereabouts. The most frightening scenario is what happens when a helicopter meets the ocean. “I’m not trying to scare you, but if we were to go down in the water, it’s top-heavy, so it’s gonna flip,” Garza explained. There are few things I can think of more chest-tightening and pulse-pounding than the idea of being in a sinking helicopter that is also upside-down. 

My designated primary egress point was a nearby window. My instructions were to proceed hand over hand, gripping sturdy points on the interior of the cabin—and without kicking my feet in the water that would presumably be filling the space—towards that window and out of it. The idea is to stay calm, take a moment to orient yourself in the upside-down cabin, and use your hands to pull your way out. 

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We took off just after noon and flew for about two hours, over land and sea. My perch for nearly all of the flight was on a troop seat on the side of the chopper, strapped in with the duck, Judin, sitting to my right. The inside of the Jayhawk was filled with gear: the rescue basket in front of me (it instructs its occupant to “REMAIN SEATED”), a big orange pump that can be lowered to a boat taking on water near my feet, and a rescue litter that could also be lowered to my left. In front were the two pilots. In the back, sitting facing forward, were Garza, the flight mechanic who managed the hoist and worked hard throughout the entire mission, black knee pads over his orange dry suit, and the rescue swimmer, who sat to his left.

A rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard
Chris Moore, the rescue swimmer, has his blood type listed on a patch on his helmet. Rob Verger

We all wore bright orange. The crew was in orange dry suits, and I had on a pair of bright orange coveralls called a Mustang. Made of flame-resistant Nomex and Kevlar, plus materials to keep me warm and buyant if I fell in the water, the Mustang went over my normal jeans and t-shirt. I had ear plugs in my ears and a helmet with headphones and a push-to-talk microphone system. 

We flew with that side door open nearly the entire time, which is the best way to fly—with fresh air. It was loud. Everything vibrated. A couple screws in a panel on the low ceiling above me, half unscrewed, danced in their sockets. They were the only detail on the entire vessel that didn’t feel perfectly shipshape and squared away. 

A member of the Coast Guard at the door of a helicopter
Garza was tied in with a gunner’s belt to protect him from a tumble out the door. Rob Verger

Out the helicopter door  

The action began shortly before 1 pm, when we met a 45-foot-long Coast Guard boat below us. It bounced over the waves and its two flags blew in the wind. Garza lowered an orange trail line down and out of the chopper for the ship’s crew to grasp. Then the rescue swimmer, Moore, calmly lowered out the helicopter to meet them. What followed was a flurry of activity between the helicopter and the boat, all designed to simulate what it would be like to aid a vessel at sea. Eventually, Moore caught a ride on the hoist back up the chopper, and our rendezvous with the boat below concluded.

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But the day’s most dramatic moments were those three exercises where Judin, the duck, deployed into the ocean. 

With the duck in the water for a second time, Moore, the rescue swimmer, sat in the open door. He swung his black flippered feet, and then launched himself out of the helicopter. He free fell with his arms folded in front of him, and one hand over his face. He disappeared beneath the water’s surface for a moment and then, when he was visible again, raised his black-gloved right hand up to show that he was fine. 

“Swimmer’s away,” Garza said, over the radio. “Swimmer’s in the water, and swimmer’s okay.” 

Moore swam through the rotor wash to the duck. I filmed with my phone from the open door’s edge, strapped in with a gunner’s belt that allowed me to move about the cabin without risk of flying into the sea. The helicopter’s blades blew powerful bursts of wind onto the water below, sometimes producing a pattern that looked something like tree rings on a stump. We lowered the hoist, Moore attached it to both him and the swimmer, and we pulled them back up and out of the water. 

A member of the Coast Guard sits on the floor of a helicopter
Michael Judin, the duck, after his third trip out of the helicopter and back. He’s since done the duck job one more time following that day in May. Rob Verger

Then they did it again: Judin went down and hung out waiting to be rescued. Moore descended again on the line, staying attached this time in what’s known as a “direct deployment,” remaining just above the water’s surface and pointing toward the duck. The pilot flew us over, with the rescue swimmer just cruising through the air. Moore reached Judin and attached a strap to him. The wind from the helicopter pushed the water in white waves against the two men, so that at times it looked almost like the violent current of a river. 

Once Judin was attached, the hoist brought them both back up. Moore put his hand on Judin’s yellow helmet as they ascended. They arrived at the doorway, their gear all orange and yellow and black, with seawater blowing off of them. Garza grabbed onto Judin and pulled him all the way into the chopper. The duck sat on the floor. He looked exactly like a man who had been dropped out of a helicopter and into the water three times, and each time, hoisted back up into our loud, powerful vehicle hovering in the sky. 

Watch footage from the flight, below:

This story was originally published on July 20, 2021.

Rob Verger
Rob Verger

Rob Verger is the Technology Editor at Popular Science. He covers aviation, the military, transportation, security, and other complex tech topics. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he's also written for The Boston Globe, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, CJR, VICE News, and other publications. Contact the author here.