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It was a little after 1:30 in the afternoon when the call came in. An 11-year-old girl was playing in the gentle Oregon surf when the current carried a log directly into her, trapping her under the surface. J.R. Nims and his crew rushed to their MH-65 Dolphin helicopter. Nims had probably made the flight above the picturesque Oregon coast hundreds of times, and it never got old. Flying at 100 knots, sometimes just a few hundred feet above sea level, the United States Coast Guard pilot knew the rocky coast as well as he knew his commute home. The points, beaches and jagged rocks lining the rugged coastline were all ingrained in his mind.

And that was fortunate, because this flight was going to be very different.

 

OBSCURED BY FOG

As the helicopter engine warmed, and the 39-foot-diameter rotors began to spin, Nims realized this would be a challenging mission. A thick layer of fog hugged the Oregon coast, creating a ceiling of 100 feet or less. Combined with the ¼-mile visibility, Nims would not have the normal visual of the rugged coastline. Plus, as is the case with all missions, the crew was battling one of the fiercest opponents known to man.

“When we have fabulous weather, I got to learn what coastline looks like in terrible conditions.”

“Time was of the essence,” says Nims, who is 43 and now stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Los Angeles. As they slowly lifted straight up into the gray sky, Nims welcomed the great challenge ahead. At the proper elevation, he turned the Dolphin and began the race against death. In no time, the helo was above the water, roaring around point after point until it arrived at the accident scene. Battling the elements, the veteran pilot set the helicopter down on the beach, where the crew immediately bolted to the girl, who had been brought to the sand. Within minutes, they were at a local hospital.

The Coast Guard responded to more than 17,000 search-and-rescue missions.

The Coast Guard responded to more than 17,000 search-and-rescue missions.

“We had flown in the area so much that I knew the coastline like the back of my hand,” says the 5-foot 4-inch, 150-pound pilot about finding the accident scene so easily. “When we have fabulous weather, I got to learn what coastline looks like in terrible conditions.” His skill and knowledge enabled the youngster to cheat death, and she eventually made a full recovery. “That was incredibly rewarding,” says the lieutenant commander of the girl’s recovery. “Saving people and assisting our local and national community are the highs of the job.”

 

THE RISKS

Sitting in his office at Los Angeles International Airport, reflecting on that incident, Nims said the risks guardsmen face on a daily basis are “fairly low.” The lieutenant commander said that the biggest problem Coast Guard Search-and-Rescue faces is the weather. To prepare for the days like those he encountered in Oregon, pilots spend a lot of time training in an instrument environment. During this training, they wear what are called “foggles”—safety glasses that restrict vision and simulate poor weather conditions. When the weather turns bad in real life, as it can along the California Coast, they are prepared. But it’s not only bad weather that plays a factor.

A Coast Guard port security unit (PSU) undergoes boat training. Note the .50-caliber machine gun in the bow.

A Coast Guard port security unit (PSU) undergoes boat training. Note the .50-caliber machine gun in the bow.

Lieutenant Commander BJ Coffman, also an MH-65 Dolphin pilot, has been in the U.S. Coast Guard for 13 years. Some five years ago, he experienced a day unlike any other. The crew initially received a call that there was a person in the water near a 30-foot boat. Shortly after, a call came in that the ship’s crew was up to its knees in water. But it didn’t stop there.

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“Imagine having to learn emergency procedures while bouncing a tennis ball off a screen and catching it. That’s what it can be like when flying.”

“On the way over there, we heard radio chatter about an elderly diver who had resurfaced, but he was not breathing,” says Coffman. The pilot said this was his “most challenging mission,” because it entailed three different rescues, forcing them to “change gears” quickly. Such is life in the U.S. Coast Guard—which is just how they like it, because saving and helping people are what steered these men toward this career.

 

THE START

Coffman’s grandfather and father served in times of war, and their profound impact on him set him on the path to the service. “They made sacrifices to make my life (and other peoples’ lives) better,” he says. “They instilled in me the notion of service and that there is something bigger and more important in life than oneself. That is the major reason I joined; that, and because I believe every person in this country should give back in some way. I chose to give back by combining my granddad’s and my dad’s experience to become a rescue helicopter pilot. It is one way I can honor their contribution to our country while fulfilling mine.” Like some of their missions, the journey to becoming a pilot is not easy, because it involves flight school, training and lots of testing. “It was challenging,” says Nims, who initially began training in fixed-wing aircraft. “Everyone always used to say it’s ‘drinking by fire hose’: There is a lot of information coming at you quickly. If you could not grasp that info, you could not perform.”

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Nims, who lives with his wife and two children in Los Angeles’ South Bay, made it through the class because he studied hard, “put his nose down” and worked with others, too, he says. “With assistance from the other flight students, we prepared as a group and studied as a group,” he says. “If you try to go through flight school solo, you probably won’t make it.”

Still, it was not unusual for Nims to get nervous before every flight. “Imagine having to learn emergency procedures while bouncing a tennis ball off a screen and catching it,” he says. “That’s what it can be like when flying.”

 

THE REWARDS

The job description may center on search-and-rescue, but the duties can entail much more—from drug interdiction to patrolling the harbors to fighting the war on terror. Saving lives, however, is what drives these men. “If I am not up there flying with that crew, someone might not live because of that,” says Nims, a 24-year veteran of the Coast Guard. “With our experience and know-how, we are the ones who are saving those lives. Sometimes, we are the only ones who can be there. That is pretty spectacular in my book—and I have a couple books.” Coffman is similarly driven.

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“Ask any pilot what he wants to hear, and he will tell you that he wants to hear you’re [the person rescued] OK,” he says. They realize that is not always possible, because their lives don’t always cross paths after that meeting, but that’s OK, says Coffman. “If we do not hear that from someone we rescued, we [still] know what we did,” he says with a smile. When that call comes in—which can be any time of the day in any type of weather—you know the United States Coast Guard is going to be ready. For the Guard, that state of preparedness is 24/7.

The Los Angeles crew: (left to right) Lieutenant Tim Olah, Aviation Electrical Technician 3rd Class John Teter, Lieutenant Commander BJ Coffman, Public Affairs Officer Sondra-Kay Kneen, Lieutenant Commander J.R. Nims, Aviation Electrical Technician 2nd Class Chase Blackman, Lieutenant Joe Heal

The Los Angeles crew: (left to right) Lieutenant Tim Olah, Aviation Electrical Technician 3rd Class John Teter, Lieutenant Commander BJ Coffman, Public Affairs Officer Sondra-Kay Kneen, Lieutenant Commander J.R. Nims, Aviation Electrical Technician 2nd Class Chase Blackman, Lieutenant Joe Heal

 

At a Glance: The USCG

2014 Workforce Totals

2014 State Assets  (California) 2014 Operational Statistics
Military, active: 36,235 Boats: 1,523

Search-and-Rescue Missions: 17,504

Military, reserve: 7,351

Cutters:238 Aids to Navigation Served: 42,871
Civilian: 7,064 Active,

Aircraft: 187

Active, retired: 35,570

Contract employees:32,814

MH-65 Dolphin Specs

  • Length: 38 feet, 2 inches
  • Rotor Diameter: 39 feet, 2 inches
  • Height: 13 feet, 3 inches
  • Maximum Weight: 9,840 pounds
  • Speed: 160 knots
  • Range: 150 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 3 hours

MH-65 Dolphin Features

  • Enhanced and electrooptical/infrared sensors
  • Capability to conduct sorties from a cutter flight deck
  • Capable of mounting a 7.62mm machine gun and .50-caliber rifle to disable
  • engines on noncompliant, go-fast vessels and provide fire support for boarding teams
  • Common avionics architecture system of digital glass cockpit instruments similar to those installed on the Coast Guard’s upgraded MH-60T medium-range recovery helicopter

 

 

By the Numbers

  • Responded to more than 17,000 search-and-rescue cases, saved 3,430 lives and more than $47 million in property.
  • Removed 90,997 kilograms of cocaine and 108,535 pounds of marijuana bound toward the United States via the Transit Zone and worth more than an estimated $3 billion dollars in wholesale value.
  • Continued the deployment of six patrol boats and 400 personnel to protect Iraqi critical maritime oil infrastructure and train Iraqi naval forces.
  • Conducted 25,393 container inspections, 3,643 facility safety and marine pollution-related inspections, and 1,366 cargo transfer monitors to ensure safety and environmental stewardship of the maritime domain.
  • Conducted 623 boardings of high-interest vessels designated as posing a greater-than-normal risk to the United States.
  • Interdicted more than 7,747 undocumented migrants attempting to illegally enter the United States.
  • Conducted 4,891 safety and security exams on vessels operating on the U.S. outer continental shelf.

 

 

The Los Angeles Crew

Aviation Electrical Technician 3rd Class John Teter

Aviation Electrical Technician 2nd Class Chase Blackman

Lieutenant Joe Heal

Lieutenant Tim Olah

Lieutenant Commander J.R. Nims

Lieutenant Commander BJ Coffman

 

 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2015 print issue of World of Firepower Magazine.

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