The duck was decked out for a day at the beach.
He was dressed in an orange dry suit, black gloves, and flippers, and a yellow helmet with goggles and a snorkel attached, ready to jump out of our hovering chopper and into the sea for the first time.
Outside and above its wide side door, the large red and white Coast Guard chopper had a crane-like hoist.
The duck moved into the open doorway, his legs and flippers hanging off the side, with the hook from the dangling metal cable tied to him.
After a thumbs-up from the duck, the hoist lifted him up and out, then lowered him out of sight and into the water. The hoist reappeared not long after, its hook empty.
It was the polar opposite of catching a fish.
A creature was dragged into the sea on a hook, but the line returned empty.
To be clear, the duck was a human called Michael Judin, who is a Coast Guard officer.
The person who pretends to be a survivor out in the water is referred to as “the duck,” providing the helicopter team with the opportunity to practice plucking people out of the muck and back into the bird, which hovers above.
Using a helicopter and its hoist to rescue someone in peril at sea is a particularly dramatic and effective method for the Coast Guard. We were flying out of a Cape Cod, Massachusetts air station on that day in late May 2021.
The Coast Guard claims to have saved more than 200 lives from that area alone in the last three years, using either a helicopter,
like the MH-60T Jayhawk we dropped Judin from or a fixed-wing plane known as the Casa.
The air station’s executive officer, Commander David McCown, estimates that hoist rescues occur once a month.
A helicopter from Massachusetts, for example, rescued three individuals from a life raft after their fishing boat sank at Montauk Point, New York, in June.
Another three were rescued from a capsized trimaran in the waters around Portsmouth, New Hampshire, by a Jayhawk in mid-July.
The trip I was on was an evaluation flight for one of the pilots, Lt. Commander Rob McCabe, but it was also an opportunity for the crew to practice the high-stakes,
high-dynamic tactics of loading people into a helicopter or caring to a stranded boat. Here’s what it was like to spend the day with them.
The duck reappears.
It was time to grab Judin (the duck) after he was down in the water. Chris Moore, a swimmer, was lowered from the aircraft to perform the task.
In the event of a calamity, a patch on his yellow helmet indicated his blood type.
Richard Garza, the flight mechanic, built a metal rescue basket large enough for an adult to sit in, clipped it to the hoist line’s hook, and dropped it.
The duck was within the basket when the basket was raised again, soaked from the water below. He took a seat next to me.
You’d think the Coast Guard would specifically train someone for harrowing to practice scenarios like this, but Judin isn’t a professional duck.
Rather, he works in logistics. He spends much of his time at a desk.
That was his first duck job and only his second trip in a helicopter since joining the Coast Guard at the Cape Cod Air Station around five years ago.
Before the duck exited the helicopter, one of the pilots, McCabe, stated over the radio, “Let’s just keep in mind that Mr. J does not do this every day.”
“Please look for him doing anything wrong—expect it—so we can catch it on the way down there.”
Judin had made it through his first expedition into the sea, but his troubles were far from over.
The chopper team lowered him twice more into the Atlantic waters off Cape Cod that day, and each time, Moore, the same swimmer, grabbed him and brought him back up.
I asked Judin how things went once we landed. “Crud,” he murmured, summarising his thoughts the first time he found himself hanging outside the aircraft.
“Then it was like, this is cool,” Judin recounted as he stood on the tarmac next to the chopper. “After then, everything was fantastic.”
A hummingbird on top of a hummingbird
The MH-60T is a close relative of the Black Hawk helicopters used by the Army. It will enable the Coast Guard to fly approximately 250 to 300 miles from a base, rescue someone, and then return home.
It has a total fuel capacity of 6,000 pounds, with 2,000 of that held in three large, detachable, torpedo-shaped exterior tanks.
“It’s kinda great to keep some of your gas outsides because if one of our engines quits on us in an emergency,
we can jettison all of them with one touch of a button,” McCabe explained that morning, standing next to the helicopter and tapping on one of those tanks.
He immediately scaled up the side of the parked whirlybird, and I quickly followed. I asked him what he loved about flying the parked helicopter while standing on top of it.
He explained that it flies like a hummingbird, allowing you to inspect anything by lingering adjacent to it and then moving on.
He explained, “It’s all about getting low and seeing the stuff, and I think helicopters offer that.” “They give you that incredibly exciting sense of seeing things from a different angle.”
“I believe this is how you imagine flying as a child,” he adds.
In a more practical sense, it’s a very effective technique of assisting someone who is, say, trapped in a sinking boat or circling like shark bait.
He reflects, “It’s one of the biggest game-changers in search and rescue history.”
According to Barrett Thomas Beard, a former military pilot and author of Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of US Coast Guard Helicopters,
the Coast Guard began regularly utilizing choppers for rescues in the early 1960s, with a model named the HH-52.
The HH-52 was not only equipped with a hoist for snatching people, but it was also amphibious, meaning it could land on water.
It also had a side-hinged ramp that a pilot could use to pick up someone unresponsive. Beard recalls tilting the chopper over and scooping him out of the sea.
The sheer enormity of the Jayhawk struck me as I stood on it. If you include the spinning rotors, it’s 65 feet long,
a far cry from the hummingbirds McCabe conjured up. Falling to the ground was a significant concern because I was so high off the ground.
This helicopter, often known as the MH-60T or just a “60,” is the larger of the two rotorcraft flown by the Coast Guard.
It’s an excellent choice for rescue missions in inclement weather, like what a pilot may encounter off the coast of Alaska.
Meanwhile, the MH-65, or Dolphin, is a smaller helicopter than the 60. Because of its limited range and the fact that it carries guns,
the Dolphin can execute a search and rescue mission closer to shore. The armed helicopters are dispatched from a unit known as HITRON in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Coast Guard is part of the US military, however, it is under the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense.
On our 60, I inquired if we were carrying any firearms; the response was no. “Except these,” McCabe remarked, laughing and touching his biceps.
Maintain your composure and proceed hand-in-hand.
Garza, the flight mechanic, coached me over what to do in the event of an emergency, such as a crash landing before we took off.
He stated that the crash posture entails wrapping your hands behind your legs and placing your head between your knees or close to them.
The most terrifying situation is when a helicopter collides with the water. “I’m not trying to scare you, but it’s top-heavy,
so it’ll flip if we go down in the water,” Garza stated. Few things make my heart race and my chest tighten more than the prospect of being in a sinking helicopter that is also upside-down.
An adjacent window was selected as my primary egress point. Hand over hand, clutching firm spots on the cabin’s interior,
and without kicking my feet in the water that would presumably be filling the space—towards that window and out of it, were my orders.
Keep calm, take a minute to orient yourself in the upside-down cabin, then pull yourself out with your hands.
We took out shortly after noon and flew over land and water for nearly two hours.
For virtually the whole flight, I sat in a troop seat on the chopper’s side, belted in with the duck, Judin, at my right.
The inside of the Jayhawk was crammed with gear: a rescue basket in front of me (with the instruction to “REMAIN SEATED”),
a large orange pump that could be dropped to a boat taking on water near my feet, and a rescue litter to my left.
The two pilots were in front. Garza, the flight mechanic who oversaw the hoist and worked tirelessly during the mission, sat in the back, facing forward,
with black knee pads over his orange drysuit, and the rescue swimmer, who sat to his left.
We were all dressed in bright orange. The crew was dressed in orange dry suits, and I was dressed in a Mustang, a pair of bright orange coveralls.
The Mustang went over my regular pants and t-shirt and was made of flame-resistant Nomex and Kevlar,
as well as things to keep me warm and safe if I landed in the water.
Earplugs and a helmet with headphones and a push-to-talk microphone device were in my ears.
We flew almost the entire flight with that side door open, which is the finest way to fly—with fresh air. It was deafening.
Everything seemed to be vibrating. A couple of half-unscrewed screws in a panel on the low ceiling above me danced in their sockets.
They were the only part of the ship that didn’t feel completely squared out and shipshape.
The helicopter door opens.
The incident started shortly before 1 p.m. when a 45-foot-long Coast Guard boat approached us from underneath.
It sailed through the waves, its two flags flapping in the breeze. Garza dangled an orange trail line from the chopper for the ship’s crew to grab.
Moore, the rescue swimmer, then gently lowered the chopper out of the sky to meet them. Following that, there was a flurry of activity between the helicopter and the boat, all aimed to resemble assisting a ship at sea.
Moore eventually grabbed a ride back up the chopper on the hoist, and our encounter with the boat below came to an end.
The three drills in which Judin, the duck, was deployed into the ocean, however, were the most spectacular of the day.
Moore, the rescue swimmer, sat in the open door as the duck entered the water for the second time.
He swung his black flippered feet out of the chopper and jumped out. With his arms folded in front of him and one hand over his face, he free-fell.
He vanished beneath the water’s surface for a moment, then lifted his black-gloved right hand to signify that he was fine when he reappeared.
Garza said over the radio, “Swimmer’s away.” “The swimmer is in the water and is doing fine.”
Moore swam to the duck in the rotor wash. I videotaped with my phone from the open door’s edge, wearing a gunner’s belt that allowed me to roam around the cabin without falling into the sea.
The helicopter’s blades sprayed tremendous bursts of wind onto the water below, creating a pattern that resembled tree rings on a stump in some cases.
We lowered the hoist, Moore hooked it to him and the swimmer, and we yanked them out of the water.
Then it happened again: Judin went down and waited to be rescued. Moore descended on the line once more, this time staying attached in a “direct deployment,” hovering just over the water’s surface and heading toward the duck.
We were flown over by the pilot, with the rescue swimmer simply cruising through the air. Moore approached Judin and secured him with a strap.
The wind from the helicopter pushed the water in white waves against the two guys, resembling the raging torrent of a river at times.
The hoist brought them both back up after Judin was attached. As they soared, Moore placed his palm on Judin’s yellow helmet.
Their clothing was orange, yellow, and black, and seawater was blowing off of them as they approached the entryway.
Garza snatched Judin’s arm and dragged him into the chopper.
The duck took a seat on the carpet. He looked just like a man who had been pulled back up into our loud,
powerful vehicle floating in the sky three times after being dropped out of a helicopter and into the lake.
The author is Rob Verger
is the Technology Editor at Popular Science.
He covers aviation, the military, transportation, security, and other complex tech topics.
A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he’s also written for The Boston Globe, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, CJR, VICE News, and other publications