By Kate Bilo
BARNEGAT LIGHT, N.J., (CBS) — It’s an incredible sight: a helicopter only about 30 or 40 feet away from your head. Imagine it’s your only ride to safety. That’s what CBS 3 meteorologist Kate Bilo did earlier this week. She went out on the water with the U.S. Coast Guard to see how they perform a rescue at sea.
Off the shores of Barnegat Light in the Atlantic Ocean, Coast Guard men and women practice the art of survival.
“We do training situations like this all the time because the real thing could happen right now,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Ameen.
Swimming exercises take place every six months. Guard members jump off their 47-foot motor lifeboats.
“These 47s are self-righting, self-bailing, which means they can capsize and roll back over,” said Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Speer, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Barnegat Light. “If for some reason they don’t come back up, we all have to be able to use our pyrotechnics.”
Flares give them thirty seconds of orange smoke, making it easier for crews to find them.
Now it’s time for a rescue at sea. Coast Guard rescue swimmer David Froehlich is being lowered from the chopper.
Froehlich is no stranger to this. He rescued a man from a fishing boat off Lewes, Delaware in April. He’s getting me ready to be rescued by their helicopter, a MH-65 Dolphin.
The chopper has to get 30 to 40 feet above the water. A trail line goes down first, then comes my ride. It’s a 4-foot long steel basket. Capacity: one adult.
Before my trip, I get a quick lesson in basket safety: Don’t hang on. Cross your arms in front of you. This is much easier said than done once you’re hoisted up.
The trip up to the chopper takes about 45 seconds. The Coast Guard in Atlantic City estimates it rescues people this way about 20 times a year, so practice is key.
“We do the training missions like this all the time so the people from the boat crew know how to properly interact with the helicopter crew, so that if we need to hoist a survivor, to get them to the helicopter to get them to land as quickly as possible, it’s just muscle memory, reflex, at that point,” said Ameen.
Finally the basket is brought into the chopper. Inside is a pilot, co-pilot and an aviation maintenance technician. After a few minutes, I’m heading back down. It was such an adrenaline rush, I want to do it every day.
The Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City patrols the coast from Connecticut to Virginia, conducting rescue missions involving everything from container ships to small sailboats in all kinds of weather.
“When most people run away from Mother Nature, we’re the ones that run out into it,” said Speer.
Whether by sea or by air, they do anything to complete these dangerous missions.
You can see the Coast Guard up close yourself. There is a community festival at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May Saturday, May 9. The public can go on base, tour ships, and see a live search and rescue demonstration.