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"It's not the kind of job you can do if you don't like getting up at night" - a day in the life of a Coast Guard pilot

Chief Pilot at the Coast Guard base at Waterford Airport Mark McDermott showed TheJournal.ie around for a day.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

THE COAST GUARD is rarely far from the news columns here in Ireland.

And the Coast Guard helicopter service is something of an emblem for the lifesavers – the huge machines with their red-and-white livery make for an iconic camera shot when news crews are covering the kind of drama that sees the aircraft deployed.

Not much is known about those who man the aircraft though. So we took a trip down to the Coast Guard base at Waterford Airport to try and get a feel for what goes on.

Here we met Mark McDermott, chief pilot at the base, a veteran flyer with over 30 years experience in both the Royal Navy (where he was stationed in the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war) and, for the past 11 years, the Irish Coast Guard.

Mark’s a quietly-spoken 49-year-old Scotsman (he’s originally from Falkirk) who has been flying helicopters since he left school. One thing is certain – the man knows his business and, like all others we meet at the base, he’s deadly serious about it.

But then lives depend on these guys being at the top of their game.

Fun facts

20160831_135352 The Sikorsky S92, call sign EI ICU, also known as Rescue 117 Source: TheJournal.ie

Here are some things you may not know about life at a Coast Guard base:

  • The crew work 24-hour shifts on a day-on, day-off basis
  • Standard crew for a Coast Guard helicopter mission is four – two flight crew, two winchmen
  • The aircraft is flown at least once a day whether there is an emergency or not
  • There is no key to start a helicopter – it takes about 10 minutes to get it up and running between firing up power, then auxiliary power, then the two gas-turbine jet engines, and finally the rotors. So if you’re planning on stealing one, don’t
  • The Irish Coast Guard operates five such helicopters. They’re Sikorsky SK92s, worth in the region of €30-€40 million. And their pilots love them like they’re their children. The aircraft at Waterford’s (known as Rescue 117 when its operational) call sign is EI-ICU. And it gets a wash twice a week to keep it free of soot from the jet engines (and to make sure it’s shiny too no doubt)
  • These machines are LOUD. And kind of terrifying. And hugely impressive.

Mark himself first came to Waterford after retiring from the Royal Navy in 2005.

“I’d been looking at getting into piloting for the airlines and then I was speaking to a friend who said there was a spot in Waterford if I was interested in going for it,” he says.

He’s still there 11 years later, although now he’s Chief Pilot on the base.

It’s not a particularly easy place to get a job unfortunately. “We only recruit pilots with reasonably significant previous flying experience, measured in flight hours,” says Mark.

Pilots who come here have to do a conversion course followed by a Search and Rescue (SAR) course. Then they need a minimum of three years as a co-pilot before you can take a command course. You’re talking probably eight to 10 years experience before coming here, and then another five years before you’re looking at a possible command upgrade.

Getting to Carnegie Hall takes…

20160831_121503 Mark McDermott Source: TheJournal.ie

Each of Ireland’s four Coast Guard helicopter bases has a staff of 27 – nine pilots, nine winch crew, and nine engineers. There are five helicopters in the fleet – one for each base and a spare that tends to spend its down-time at either Shannon or Waterford as they have the biggest hangars.

Every shift is a 24-hour one, from 1pm to 1pm. Crew are on 15-minute take-off notice between 1pm and 9.30pm, 45 minutes from then until 7.30am (to allow for sleep), and back to 15 minutes for the last five-and-a-half hours of a shift. There are beds on the base if needed. The whole place is quite cosy really.

Those who live locally, which is most, will often go home during sleep hours, and if there’s no call-out during the night they sleep as well as the rest of us. And if not?

“I tend to be on the phone by the first ring,” says McDermott, who lives in nearby Dunmore East. Sleeping-in isn’t an issue then?

20160831_140919 The back of the S92. Patient stretcher and medical gear (the equivalent of a ground ambulance) can be seen Source: TheJournal.ie

We’re all on radios and our phones, but to be honest the type of person in Search and Rescue is not the type to have a problem with getting up during the night.

The more time you spend on the base the easier that statement becomes to believe.

These are courteous, friendly people, but underneath is an iron regard for the seriousness of what they do. Lives depend on their utter dependability, and there is no let-up in focus.

20160831_140843 Do not push the big red button - inside the cockpit of the S92 Source: TheJournal.ie

“If we don’t get a call-out, we’ll go training. First thing on shift on-crew and off-crew will discuss what has been happening, then we’ll do a thorough systems check of the aircraft so we can be ready to go at a moment’s notice with an abbreviated checklist,” says Mark.

When that call comes, we have to be in the air inside 15 minutes or we’d better have a very good reason why that’s not the case.

Once the debrief is done and the machine has been checked, a training flight will be planned. These helicopters go up at least once a day minimum regardless of whether there’s an emergency or not.

“We have to train,” explains Mark. “And we have to progress scenario evolutions – that means if we haven’t encountered a situation for a while, or if a certain crew hasn’t, we’ll send them off to practice.”

20160831_142652 The hangar where the Sikorsky 'sleeps' Source: TheJournal.ie

So maybe we’ll get in touch with a fishing boat and lower onto its deck (the local fishermen are invariably happy to do so for obvious reasons – one day they may well be reliant on the Coast Guard’s skills). Or we’ll practice a mountain scenario. One way or the other we’ve budgeted those flight hours to keep our skills and competencies as honed as possible.

Once training is completed there’s paperwork to be done (“the bane of our lives but it’s very important, we need to gauge the aircraft’s performance,” says Mark), and then the crew is on call for any emergency that may arise. And when the call comes, they’re ready.

Rescue 117

If you pay much attention to news of Coast Guard rescues you’ll know that each base has its own call sign – Rescue 115 to 118. Waterford’s sign is Rescue 117, although it only officially becomes so once on a legitimate mission.

This is where the beauty of the job comes into play for McDermott. “Every job we do is challenging in a different way,” he says.

We could be on a mountain rescue, managing an effective hover in massive up and down drafts, or we could be out to sea evacuating a cardiac patient from a boat and getting them to hospital, or we could be carrying a child with meningitis to hospital. You never know what you’ll be doing.

20160831_152732 Flying high over Co Waterford Source: TheJournal.ie

20160831_154436 Source: TheJournal.ie

“If we’re training when the call comes we have to form a plan mid-air, manage our fuel and figure out how we’re going to carry it off. That means a degree of mental agility. That’s what I enjoy most.”

Put it this way, you don’t see many bored people in the Coast Guard. There’s natural variety.

The base’s helicopter will generally be actioned by MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) in Dublin – so your 999 or 112 call will probably go through another avenue before ending up on their radio.

“We want to get that call,” says Mark. “It’s a lot easier to stand people down than to wish we’d gotten that call half an hour ago. Once we get it we want to know a) what is it, b) where is it. Then we get planning.”

Do not be shy about calling us out. Prompt action is the difference. If you think you see danger we want that call. The earlier we’re in the air the better.

The Sikorsky S92s that the Coast Guard now fly came online in and around 2012. They’re a vast improvement on what went before (see our video above for a rundown of what they can do). They’re also fully-certified air ambulances which means you’ll see the Coast Guard at a lot more road traffic accidents and the like these days.

“It means a marked shift in the tempo of our work, and with the crew behind us full paramedics also it has really increased the quality of the service we can deliver,” says Mark.

Both winchmen will be “extremely comfortable in the water”.

“They don’t have to be Michael Phelps,” says Mark. “But they do need to be completely at ease when in the sea.”

“Purest form of flying”

So what marks out flying a helicopter from any other kind of aircraft (having now been lucky enough to take a ride in one as a passenger, we can say the experience is infinitely more enjoyable than being on a plane)?

“It’s almost back to pure flying,” says McDermott. “Fixed-wing (regular airplanes to you and I) are enjoyable, and the view is amazing, but in this kind of aircraft there’s the physical challenge. No disrespect to flying a plane, there’s always something to do, but mid-flight essentially there’s not a lot to be done from a flying point of view.”

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The Coast Guard’s S92s are state-of-the-art – every doohickey you can imagine for locating people and saving lives is present (on the training flight we took, winchman Neville Murphy was able to zoom in on the signatures of cows in a field two miles away using front-mounted cameras and infra red equipment).

“It’s a credit to Ireland – the country has a world class Search and Rescue service,” says Mark.

Do any missions stick out?

20160831_152750 The equipment at the winchman's station is state-of-the-art. It can pick up heat signatures using Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) sensors and onboard cameras Source: TheJournal.ie

This surprises people but it’s hard for us to recall what our last mission was. Because by the job’s nature we’ve moved on to the next one.

“Our job is a conduit, and particularly for us, the pilots, we fly the aircraft and the action behind us tends to be quite separate. I mean we’re aware what’s going on, but often we’ve landed and the emergency has been transferred into an ambulance before the rotors have stopped turning.”

20160831_155235 Winchman Neville Murphy, looking relaxed Source: TheJournal.ie

We get thank you cards, and they’re very gratefully received. Most people who we rescue, if not all, are very grateful. But we don’t tend to follow up. We’re moving on to the next job.

Those that do resonate will generally be those that are local, says Mark.

We all live locally for the most part. So the things that stick out are the ones that happen in this area.

He cites the sinking of three boats in six dark days in 2007 – the Pere Charles, the Honeydew II (which had been searching for survivors from the first tragedy), and the Renegage – close to the coast at Dunmore East. Seven people lost their lives in a week of numbing tragedy. Four more lives were saved however by the Coast Guard and the helicopter was on scene off its home base on each occasion.

20160831_152739 View from the cockpit mid-flight Source: TheJournal.ie

“Those boats sank, seven people died, you remember that because it was a very stark sequence of events, a very difficult time for the local community of Dunmore East.

And we’re part of that community.
But really, most do tend to blend into each other. You don’t really dwell on one job over another.

McDermott says that compartmentalisation is key to the job. “You can’t show too much empathy, or worry about one case over another, one family in particular, or you couldn’t do the job,” he says.

“There’s a certain amount of black humour. It’s needed to carry the crew along in difficult situations. We’ve all seen a fair amount at this stage. But there’s a job to be done. You have to stick to your routine.”

If a situation has been especially difficult or unpleasant we’ll be looking out for each other, asking each other are we ok, are we holding up OK.
But really what we want is constant improvement, what worked well, what went less well. That’s what we take from each job.

Dangerous days?

Mark McDermott doesn’t seem like someone who worries about the dangers of his profession especially.

20160831_142621 Source: TheJournal.ie

“Look, the aircraft is incredibly safe, generally you will not have major issues, the key for us is to always follow procedure to keep it intact,” he says. “Cutting corners is no use to anyone. If we break the aircraft skipping a procedure to save one minute then that’s of no use to the person in the emergency.”

Our biggest hazard by definition is the environment we work in, which is by its nature low-level flying in crappy weather. In those circumstances keeping safe is the biggest challenge.

The S92 is “very robust” he says. So no dangerous situations ever then? Well…

“The major incidents that I’ve experienced personally have been down to the environment,” he says.

I’ve had the same one twice actually, once in the UK, and once here. The winch wire has snagged on a vessel, snapped, recoiled and damaged the blades and smashed the windscreen.

“So that was a bit of excitement,” he smiles. “But the control of the aircraft wasn’t compromised in any significant way on either occasion.”

To be honest, it’s quite reassuring to see first-hand how unflappable these guys are. And while they’ve earned it, they do seem to have quite a special job. Are there any downsides? Any at all?

“I’d have to say the paperwork,” laughs Mark. “But who can say they enjoy that?”

Well, I’m 49 now, and that’s not old, but maybe sometime in my late 50s I’ll be pulling on an immersion suit at two in the morning, and heading into the wild west, and it might start to pale a little.
But other than that? No. It’s just a very enjoyable job.

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