For rescue swimmers, practice makes perfect
Navy search-and-rescue (SAR) swimmers from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 25 on Andersen Air Force Base have taken on a job and it is not for the faint of heart.
HSC-25 supports the 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific and assists the U.S. Coast Guard by providing SAR units. HSC-25 is the only helicopter asset for the Mariana Islands, making them a sought-after resource for SAR missions.
Providing around-the-clock search-and-rescue support, HSC-25 averages 30 rescues and 70 medical evacuations a year.
The advanced physical and mental training SAR swimmers receive aids them to work confidently in the vast sea, prepared to save lives.
“The program changed a few years ago,” said Senior Chief Naval Air Crewman (NAC/AW) Jonathan Hettel, HSC-25 rescue swimmer. “Now all the rescue swimmers go to a different division in boot camp called 800 Division. Their focus is getting in shape; they do twice the amount of physical training than everyone else.”
The division includes Navy SEALs, explosive ordnance disposal and special warfare combatant-craft
“We changed the program because people were graduating boot camp, showing up for rescue swimming school and they just weren’t ready for what the schools ahead entailed,” Hettel said.
The SAR swimmers must complete a long curriculum and attend several schools boasting an attrition rate of approximately 50 percent. There is also a 65 percent attrition rate within their first year joining the fleet.
Swimmers attend boot camp and then air crew school in Pensacola, Fla., where they learn about the specific aircraft they will be flying in.
“This school is four weeks,” Hettel said. “It’s basically physiology and anything flight related, from water survival to parachute disentanglement.”
After completing boot camp the swimmers progress to rescue-swimmer school.
“This is where they really become comfortable in the water,” Hettel said. “They learn more about their gear and how to handle physical contact with someone in the water.”
Before joining the fleet, SAR swimmers are trained in oceanography and gain hands-on experience with the MH-60 Knighthawk helicopter weapons capabilities, rescue equipment and systems. They are also trained in first aid and CPR.
These swimmers can be used in a variety of situations from aircraft crashes to boats capsizing and are usually the first to arrive at the scene.
After completing the curriculum, HSC-25’s search-and-rescue swimmers participate in frequent exercises and training.
“This is an opportunity to practice our skills, which keep us qualified and in peak condition,” said Naval Air Crewman 3rd Class Thomas Sheehy, HSC-25 search and rescue swimmer.
With the ocean and helicopter moving in opposite directions, their advanced training becomes priceless.
“We have to be primed 24/7,” Sheehy said. “We constantly push each other to stay in top physical condition. Our motto is, ‘So Others May Live,’ and it’s true. It’s not just an occupation; to us it’s a lifestyle. We want to save lives, it’s what we do.”