COAST GUARD STATION KODIAK, Alaska -- Undulating waves pitched the 2,000-ton U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Cypress like a bath toy, which was nothing unusual for the vessel while operating in Pacific waters off Alaska.
What was out of place was the 210th Rescue Squadron (RQS) HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopter hovering overhead. Fast ropes dropped from the Pave Hawk’s open doors, and U.S. Coast Guardsmen of Maritime Security Response Team West rapidly streamed down to the deck like firefighters descending a fire pole.
Keeping watch over the ballet of tactical infiltration was Alaska Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Richard Stout, 210th RQS HH-60 special missions aviator. He simultaneously had to keep an eye on the helicopter’s relative position to the cutter, assist the MSRT operators to safely exit, and ensure the ship’s movements were within safety limits.
All in a day’s work for 210th RQS and the elite MSRT members who teamed up for the Jan. 8-13 training here.
The 210th RQS flies the Pave Hawk, which is the only rotary wing platform in the Department of Defense solely dedicated to combat search and rescue of downed pilots and other isolated U.S. and allied personnel.
Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Tyler Seibold, 210th RQS Pave Hawk pilot, said the HH-60 is well suited to supporting fast rope operations which is a core task for 212th Rescue Squadron pararescuemen and combat rescue officers.
Seibold said the Pave Hawk has wide doors on both sides of the aircraft whereas the Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk only has one door on the starboard side due to large port fuel tanks that grant the Jayhawk superior unrefueled range. The Pave Hawk’s Fast-Rope Insertion Extraction System is a heavy-duty, machined bar bolted into the roof of the helicopter that extends from the doors as an anchor for the ropes.
Both the Pave Hawk and Jayhawk employ rescue hoists, which are suited for deliberate insertion of rescue personnel as well as safe extraction of those being rescued. The fast rope allows pararescue to rapidly infiltrate a contested area, letting them quickly carry out a rescue while the helicopter provides overwatch and support by using its heavy-punching GAU-18 .50-caliber machine gun or the 4,000 rounds per minute GAU-2 7.62mm minigun.
According to Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Davis, USCGC Cypress commanding officer, the ship is a Juniper Class ocean-going buoy tender, responsible for servicing maritime aids to navigation around Kodiak Island and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The Cypress conducts search and rescue, law enforcement, marine environmental protection and defense readiness operations. The ship’s Integrated Control System, Electronic Charting Display and Information System and Dynamic Positioning System use the variable-pitch propeller and thrusters to precisely keep position for servicing aids to navigation with minimal crew input.
MSRT West’s enhanced boarding teams are capable of conducting the full spectrum of maritime boarding operations including an opposed boarding in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environment. MSRT West provides adaptable force packages of maritime law enforcement that specialize in maritime interdiction operations in support of Coast Guard or joint operational objectives. MSRT West operators are trained to quickly board suspect vessels, verify and secure any threats onboard, and conduct handover and disposition to other government agencies for further action
An MSRT West deployable team leader said the unit operates throughout the Pacific theater, and they must be ready to operate in every climate represented in the vast region, including the Arctic. He said the team carried out “hook-and-climb” from rigid inflatable boats onto Cypress in addition to fast roping with the 210th RQS.
“Our training objectives coming here were to conduct maritime interdiction operations both underway hook-and-climb, and fast rope evolutions with the 210th Rescue Squadron who we have a relationship with for tactical air support for the Alaska area of operations,” the team leader said.
Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Paul Rauenhorst, HH-60 pilot and 176th Operations Group chief of standards and evaluations, underscored the value of working with mission partners they may see again during domestic operations and overseas contingencies.
“These are some of the operators we might meet downrange, so it’s good to work with them in case we see them on future deployments,” Rauenhorst said. “It’s also good, flying wise, to experience different mission sets that are outside of search and rescue. It’s a different but challenging aspect working with the ships down here at Kodiak.”
Rauenhorst said a tumultuous sea state throughout the week made for especially difficult training.
“The rolling seas definitely made it challenging to get the operators off and on the ship in such a confined space,” he said.
Flying with the pilots were 210th RQS special missions aviators responsible for working closely with the operators to ensure a safe fast rope while providing a critical extra set of eyes. For Stout, this was his first experience flying in coordination with a Coast Guard cutter.
“I’m new to the job, so this is my first time working with moving vessels,” Stout said. “It’s very challenging because everything is moving, and the situation is very dynamic. Normally, we’re in a stationary hover, but we’re flying at the same speed and heading as the boat, holding position and delivering the operators safely.”
Sea water is a constant maintenance challenge, threatening to corrode fuselage sheet metal and engine turbine blades if not mitigated. Considering this, Rauenhorst said the helicopter gets special attention from 176th Maintenance Group upon its return to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
“The big items are rinsing the motor, rinsing the airframe and taking care of the hoist cable to make sure we’re not exposing the airframe to the corrosive saltwater – keeping the helicopter in tiptop shape,” he said.
The MSRT West team leader said the trip to Kodiak provided valuable training. The team determined how their equipment behaves differently in cold wet conditions, and they learned how to adapt accordingly. He also said he appreciates working with different units throughout the Pacific.
“There are always good lessons learned when you fly with new pilots and get different perspectives on things,” he said.