Rescue Swimmers: Sew Others May Live
Posted by PA3 David Micallef, Friday, October 23, 2015
Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class David Micallef
Coast Guard rescue swimmers are infamous for jumping out of helicopters in the most treacherous conditions. They are renowned for going out to sea when no one else would dare — day or night — fulfilling their oath to serve others.
What people don’t see is the amount of preparation rescue swimmers put in on a daily basis to ensure the safety for all involved in their flights. Coast Guard rescue swimmers are mentally sharp and physically capable. They are also masters of sewing. From flight-suit patches to cargo parachutes, rescue swimmers are responsible for creating and maintaining a wide range of aviation equipment.
Rescue swimmers begin their training at Aviation Survival Technician ‘A’ School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. When AST students are not in the pool or learning basic first aid, they are learning to sew.
“You walk into ‘A’ school pretty much clueless about what you’re doing when it comes to sewing,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Dave Froehlich, an aviation survival technician at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, New Jersey. “You come out of there and learn quite a bit. A lot of guys are surprised by what they can make by the end of the training we get.”
Rescue swimmers incorporate several factors before beginning a project. For lightweight gear like flight suits, they use different types of thread as opposed to when they hand-build a bag for stowing a survival raft. When sewing a flight suit, a rescue swimmer uses thinner thread, which holds two pieces of fabric together. Manufacturing a bag for heavy equipment calls for thicker thread and more stitches per inch, so being familiar with the sewing machine is paramount in the success of every project.
“The sewing machine has the ability to be adjusted for different types of projects,” said Froehlich. “If it’s a load-bearing stitch you want to have more stitches per inch. Fewer stitches per inch means you just want to get those two pieces together, and it doesn’t really have to take any kind of load or have a whole ton of strength, but it just binds two pieces together.”
In order to avoid surprises, rescue swimmers perform routine maintenance on their safety equipment. When the safety gear aboard the aircraft is properly maintained and ready at all times, the aircrew has one less thing to worry about.
“These cargo parachutes we are sewing and putting together are important, and it’s our goal to provide a high-quality product,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Roderick Ansley, an aviation survival technician at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City. “Our mission is to ensure the rescue gear being dropped from 250 feet at 150 mph to people in distress doesn’t fail.”
Maintaining the readiness of the gear and equipment is critical to mission success. Rescue swimmers are constantly faced with mental obstacles, some more surprising than others.
“The biggest obstacle I had to overcome with sewing was just getting my head wrapped around the fact that I was sewing,” said Froehlich. “I’m a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard. The next thing you know you’re sewing up bags, repairing uniforms and putting your own name tapes on — it’s a surprising thing.”
Behind the scenes and before a rescue, there are a lot of small jobs performed by Coast Guard members that can sometimes go unnoticed. Whether it’s sewing stitching on a deployable cargo parachute or jumping into dangerous waters, the seemingly small jobs add up to one large responsibility — saving lives.