21 August, 2002
What a busy and exciting day! We started our last station early this morning, so that meant that the benthic work came about 9:30. Although the van Veen came up with a lot of sand and gravel, Jackie decided to try the Haps core anyway. The cores were short (low mud) but with good overlying water, so it was a success! As we were sectioning our last two cores of the trip, an announcement was piped throughout the ship, "Attention all hands, the sun is available for viewing on the port side!" Indeed the sun had come out for the first time in more days than I can remember. It was great to see the sun and the open blue ocean again. In addition to the excitement of the sun and our last station, I found out that I would be going on a helicopter trip later in the day! Laura Belicka and Karl Kaiser (see my journal from August 1) needed to collect running river water and the surrounding mud. They had been waiting for the right set of circumstances (good weather, close enough to a river and a place to land, available science time), and today was perfect!
At 1400 (2 o'clock), we all met in the helicopter hanger for our safety briefing with AVT2 (Avionics Technician) Brandon Cheramie who told us about the mustang suits and head gear we would wear as well as the proper procedures for entering the helicopter and buckling the five point seat belts. AVT2 Cheramie told us that his job consists of working as a technician to conduct maintenance and weekly inspections when the helicopters are not flying. There are actually four aircraft mechanics on board the Healy, less than half the usual number for an icebreaker. AVT2 Tom Agness told me that, in addition to their other duties, all the mechanics on board serve as aircrew members during flights. As crewmembers, they operate the hoist system during rescue operations, and conduct passenger briefings. They are also prepared to fight cabin fires if needed, and to provide medical attention when necessary. Later, at 1600 (4 o'clock), we all met on the bridge for a flight briefing. The Captain, the pilots and several officers were on hand to hear all the information related to the proposed trip. We were reminded that we should be in the helicopter hanger when the announcement for Flight Con 1 (Flight Condition 1) was piped. After the briefing, I had a chance to talk with our two pilots, LTJG Damon Williams and LT Michael Platt to learn a little bit about their work on board. Note: I later spoke with the third pilot on board, LT Marc Aparicio who told me that most icebreakers carry four pilots.
The Aviation Detachment on board the Healy consists of three pilots and four mechanics. It's called a detachment because the helicopters are not a part of the ship. They are based in Mobile, Alabama and fly to icebreakers whenever and wherever needed. Before the Healy returns to Seattle in October, the pilots will fly the helicopters back to Mobile. It will take them about four days if they do three flights each day. One flight uses a tank of gas and goes approximately 200 - 300 miles. Because Mobile is a large training facility, the pilots will be busy until their next ship tour. Although the helicopters and the pilots are a "detachment," they become the Aviation Department when on board.
LT Platt was the pilot who talked with the students from the Anvil City Science Academy who toured the ship when we were in Nome (see my journal from July 16). He has been in the Coast Guard for twelve years and has been a pilot since 1995. He was on the Healy for the Arctic East trip in 2001 when the Healy made it to the North Pole. He really enjoyed that trip and the spring SBI cruise because he got to do so much flying. On the spring SBI cruise, he was doing ice reconnaissance almost daily to try to find the best route for the ship. For him, the best part of his job is the challenge. Few Coast Guard pilots have the opportunity to fly Arctic missions! LTJG Damon Williams has been in the Coast Guard for four and a half years, but he has been a pilot since 1991. He came on board the Healy in April of this year. He loves the novelty of operating off a ship and the excitement of operating successfully far from support mechanisms. Both pilots stressed that safety is everyone's top priority. For every hour of flying time, seven hours of maintenance are required. Any pilot who flies for more than six hours must have a minimum of ten hours off, and the crew's mission log can't go beyond 12 hours. Although they are sometimes kidded about their duty hours, everyone knows that safety is the key, and a rested pilot is better than a tired one!
Prior to boarding, AMT1 Rich Lazaro gave us our mustang suits and demonstrated the life vests that we wore around our waists. He also provided earplugs to use under our headgear. Once we boarded the helicopter, we sat while the pilots ran through an extensive checklist before taking off. We flew approximately 500 feet above the water at a speed of 120 knots. After passing over the tiny settlement of Point Lay, we reached the Kokolik River. Once we found a solid spot for landing, AMTC (Aviation Maintenance Technician Chief) Mark Cummings helped us unload our gear. Laura and Karl headed for the river to collect their samples while LTJG Williams brought out a bear rifle as a safeguard against polar bears. Karl waded into the river while Laura collected mud from the edge. She was so excited when she found peat a little way down in the sediments! Once Karl and Laura were done, we headed back to the helicopter and our trip "home" to the Healy. It's an amazing experience to see nothing but ocean and suddenly spot a dot on the horizon. It's even more amazing to circle the Healy and then land on the small helicopter pad near the stern of the ship. Once we landed, the "ground" crew helped us unload and then they secured the helicopter. Each time the helicopters take off, at least seventeen crewmembers are available for support and in case of an emergency. They include eight line crew for tie down and secondary fire party duty, two for fire rescue, the remaining four in the aviation detachment, the HCO (Helicopter Control Officer) in the HCO shack above the helicopter deck, the LSO (Landing Safety Officer) on deck, and the XO (Executive Officer) on the bridge. There is no question that safety is a top priority!
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