Teamwork: Above, Below and Beyond

Sunrise over the San Francisco Bay as seen from Air Station San Francisco. (Coast Guard photo by LTJG Matthew Udkow)

Sunrise over the San Francisco Bay as seen from Air Station San Francisco. (Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Matthew Udkow)

Story by Lt Marshall Burtt, Coast Guard Air Station San FranciscoThe sun was setting as the USS Shoup, a U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke Class destroyer steamed toward San Francisco still more than 80 miles offshore.  A sailor on board was suffering from appendicitis and urgently needed medical evacuation. Meanwhile at Air Station San Francisco, the SAR alarm was already sounding.  The crew of Coast Guard Rescue 6515 — Lt. Cmdr. David Middleton, Lt. Matt Meinhold, Chief Petty Officer Jeff Jones, and Petty Officer Max Kaczmarek — were about to launch for their third case of the day. 

Like all search and rescue cases, this one would require a team approach for success. The crew would be asked to fly far offshore in their MH-65D Dolphin helicopter and hoist the injured sailor and an accompanying Navy corpsman aboard before reaching “bingo fuel” – the final point at which the pilot has a safe amount of fuel left for the return trip home.  With fog clinging to the coastline and zero illumination offshore, close coordination was vital.

“We had just finished debriefing our previous case — helping a sailboat in distress near Santa Cruz — when we got the call,” said Meinhold.  “Our first order of business was to get in touch with the destroyer and work out a game plan.  Sector San Francisco set up communications between the air station, the flight surgeon, and the USS Shoup so that we were able to brief the entire evolution and determine a rendezvous location before we even started the aircraft.”

 Flying through darkness that made it impossible to see the horizon or distinguish sea from sky, Middleton and Meinhold flew toward the rendezvous position.  Once on scene, the crew found the Shoup aligned into the wind with the ship’s lights configured for night vision goggle operations.  Battling high winds and waves, Meinhold kept the MH-65 in a steady hover over the back of the destroyer while Jones lowered rescue swimmer Kaczmarek to the vessel.

Seamless cooperation between destroyer and helicopter crews made for a fast, efficient evolution and allowed the air crew to safely complete three challenging night hoists — the corpsman, the patient, and the rescue swimmer.

Back on shore, duty watchstanders at the Sector San Francisco Command Center on Yerba Buena Island were just as busy.  SAR controllers kept a close eye on the case and provided the air station with continuous updates on the rescue crew’s progress.  Ten miles to the south, Coast Guard Petty Officer Jean-Pierre Mouzon, the Officer of the Day at Air Station San Francisco, briefed local emergency medical personnel on the proper procedures for unloading the patient from the helicopter.  Within minutes of the 6515 returning, the patient had been safely transferred to a waiting ambulance and was already headed for the hospital.

Every member of Air Station San Francisco takes great pride in their ability to partner with a diverse group of agencies to complete their mission.  The air station has an area of responsibility that includes Lake Tahoe, the Sacramento River Delta, and more than 250 miles of coastline between Point Arena and San Simeon.  As a result, the unit regularly works and trains with a wide variety of local, state, and federal agencies.

“The Coast Guard is unique because we are both a military and a law enforcement organization,” said Meinhold.  “Since we work with so many different units, we have a good idea of how everyone operates. That came in handy for this case since it allowed us to quickly provide care and serve as an interface between the Navy and local EMS.  We could speak everyone’s language.”

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