Flying Rescue Missions in the Most Remote Reaches of the U.S.

An interview with Lieutenant Commander Tom Huntley, a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard

Tom Huntley (Rebecca Clarke)

On August 4th, 1790, barely a year after George Washington took office as president, Congress created the Revenue Cutter Service under the authority of Alexander Hamilton and the Department of the Treasury. Over time, the service changed its name to the Coast Guard, and was moved first into the Department of the Navy and then into the Department of Homeland Security. Today the Coast Guard is responsible for fighting the importation of drugs, enforcing trade and customs laws, and performing search-and-rescue missions, among much else. But the service’s basic purpose hasn’t changed since its inception: securing the waters off of U.S. shores that the country uses for trade.

Lieutenant Commander Tom Huntley is a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, where he is at all hours on call to fly across America’s harshest state to help people caught in life-threatening situations. For The Atlantic’s ongoing series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Huntley about what it’s like to save people’s lives, why his job isn’t always as glorious as it’s perceived to be, and how his family manages the dangerous nature of his job. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nick Clairmont: How did you get started as a helicopter pilot and why did you join the Coast Guard?

Tom Huntley: It was right after September 11th, 2001. At the time I was working in the business sector in a sales job out in northern California. I didn't particularly like that job. When 9/11 happened, it shook all of us. And for me, it shook me in two ways: One was a draw to patriotism, but probably moreso was a call to do something that actually mattered. In my job at the time, I felt like I could either go to work or not go to work and nothing really mattered.

A few weeks after 9/11, my wife said, "Since you obviously don't like your job, what would you do if you could do whatever you wanted?" I said, "I'd either join the Coast Guard or become a firefighter." Then she said, "Well, why don't you go figure out if you can do one of those things?" I went to see a recruiter. I was eligible for officer school, but opted to enlist instead and spent the next four years as a surf-rescue boat driver in Washington state on the Columbia River. Then, I had my opportunity to go to officer's school, and I did. After an initial tour in the law-enforcement side of the Coast Guard, I got a chance to go to flight school and that was in 2006, 10 years ago.

The whole thing was almost an aside at first. These were kind of foolish dreams that I thought I would never be able to do. I felt entrenched at all of 25 years old. I had to put food on the table and pay rent and we had a dog—all these responsibilities that weren’t actually that much, looking back 20 years later. The Coast Guard really did appeal to me, partially because it entailed being part of the military combined with the humanitarian and life-saving mission.

Clairmont: Did you have any previous aviation experience before you went to flight school?

Huntley: No, I didn't have any. The closest thing I had was a frequent-flyer card. I didn't grow up wanting to be a pilot like many of my colleagues did, but I see aviation in the Coast Guard as such a powerful way of accomplishing our mission.

We have many missions, the most notable of which is search and rescue, but it's not the only one. In the public's eye, search and rescue is what gets the press and the attention of the American people, because we save lives.

Clairmont: Some people may not know the Coast Guard is a branch of the military. Can you speak to how the Coast Guard fits into the military at large?

Huntley: First and foremost, the Coast Guard is part of the military. We are one of the five branches of the armed services, and in that regard equal to our four slightly better-known Department of Defense brethren: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

We are not in the Department of Defense, and for good reason. The Department of Defense and all of its branches cannot enforce U.S. law due to the Posse Comitatus Act. For us, one of our main purposes is to enforce domestic law, so we are outside of the Department of Defense and therefore in the Department of Homeland Security.

Being part of the military, we have the exact same rank structure, and the same oath of office: duty to our country, sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. All of that is identical, but our setup does give us a much wider range of mission areas, like anti-narcotic law enforcement.

Clairmont: Is Alaska a special or challenging place for the Coast Guard?

Huntley: Alaska does mean something special, especially in a search-and-rescue helicopter. This is the most extreme area to conduct these sort of operations, and not just because of the weather—although the weather plays a major role. The seas are bigger, and the nights are way longer. In the winter in Kodiak, we routinely have winds at 70, 80, 90 knots, which is hurricane-force. And we go fly in it, because we have to.

The other part that is challenging up here is just the vast distances that [we have to travel to do our job]. You see Alaska on a map and it's usually kind of tucked off in a corner box. I still can’t really fathom the distances we have to fly. If you take Alaska and you superimpose it over the lower 48 United States, Kodiak would be somewhere near the Texas Panhandle, the Aleutian Islands would reach out to California, the north slope, where I've been operating for the last couple of weeks, would be up towards Canada, and southeast Alaska would reach down to Florida. I mean, it covers the entire United States, so the fact that we operate out here so remotely is also dangerous.

If you have an emergency in the helicopter, we can land nearly anywhere: on a beach, a small runway, land anywhere. You get safe on the deck and then deal with the emergency. In Alaska, we would also land on the nearest point of land. But that nearest point of land is the tundra, and we may be 600 miles away from a town. There's a lot more to think about.  

Clairmont: How does your family deal with the dangerous aspect of your job?

Huntley: I've got a fantastic and amazingly supportive wife. I wouldn't be able to do the things that I do were she not doing the things that she does. I can operate out here and not have to spend mental energy worrying about all the other things, and that is critical. I have two kids, a 12-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. They are getting to the age where they realize that what we do in the Coast Guard is dangerous and they are able to articulate those sort of questions, which is challenging. "Dad, what would you do if you crashed a helicopter?" I do think about them, but I'll tell you, I also think about the people that we get to rescue and we get to bring back. What causes me to not necessarily worry about my family is the ability to bring other people's families together. We conduct search and rescue, and oftentimes bring people back from a situation where they don't think they are going to make it.

Clairmont: Can you describe a recent one of those rescue missions?

Huntley: I'm currently at our forward-operating location up in the Arctic. We got called out to look for three lost hunters. They went out on a hunt in a small boat in an inland lagoon that stretches 20 miles from a small village. That lagoon froze over, and when they weren't able to get out, they went oceanside. The seas were rough. Water filled their boat, and they all got exposure to the Arctic Ocean. They made it back to their little hunting cabin, but their boat wouldn't start and they were stuck. We got called out; we searched for them. We found them in this hut, were able to land, and to bring them back to their small town.

When we landed, word had gotten out that we were searching. Their families were all waiting there at the airport when we landed and taxied in. To see fathers hug their sons and daughters and their wives is pretty amazing. We get to do that. I’ve had that experience a number of times and it never ceases to be extremely powerful.

Clairmont: What are the things about your job that you like the least?

Huntley: I don't go out and fly these heroic rescues every day. The Coast Guard is very small, and so because of that everyone has multiple jobs. I spend plenty of time sitting at my desk managing the mundane parts of keeping the organization running. We have to write policy and make things better, and that's why I enjoy it. But it isn't all glory every day.

There are other frustrations just based on not being in the Department of Defense. I'm not saying we should move agencies by any means. I’m not arguing the need for advanced defense equipment, because the country needs strike fighters. But the cost of one of them would pay for our budget many, many times over. Sometimes it's frustrating when we operate old equipment or have to really pinch our pennies, because the Coast Guard's budget is so minuscule compared to the rest of the military.

I'm not just flying by myself. There are also two pilots, a flight mechanic, and a rescue swimmer. That rescue swimmer, especially, goes down and disconnects from the helicopter and swims in the Arctic Ocean to save people. That is incredibly dangerous stuff, and we're flying old equipment. I mean, I trust our equipment and our maintenance personnel take care of it exquisitely. But we have an aging aircraft fleet.

A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter stationed out of Kodiak, Alaska, sits in the hangar at Deadhorse Aviation Center at Prudhoe Bay. (Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert / U.S. Coast Guard)

When we conduct operations in the Coast Guard, I think we are using our tax money very wisely, and I think the return on investment is fantastic. I wish that we were rewarded financially a little bit more so that we could maintain and upgrade our fleet. Because we protect all of the maritime domain of the United States, and also deploy [outside of U.S. sovereign territory] all over the world, and we do that with a force of 45,000 people. The New York City police department has 50,000 people. We're doing a lot with pretty little.

Clairmont: What kind of relationship do you have with the other members of your crew?

Huntley: The whole thing's a concert of four people working together. The rescue swimmers probably have the most heroic mission. Flying the helicopter and leading the mission is one thing, but detaching from the helicopter, jumping out into 10, 20, 30, 40-foot, seas to actually conduct a rescue is amazing.

In addition, our flight mechanics are running the cabin and the hoist. What I think people sometimes fail to understand is when we're conducting a hoist and I'm in the cockpit, I can't see the target, or whatever we're hoisting. So it's actually the flight mechanic essentially flying the aircraft through his voice, telling me where to fly to put the basket or the swimmer in the precise position. It's all four working together and it's pretty amazing to watch and to be a part of. Not to mention, there are 50 people who are back in the hangar who got that helicopter fixed and made sure that it was safe to fly. And those people were supported by our administrative personnel and our supply-system personnel to make sure that the people got paid and the parts were there on time. It's a full effort, so to get one flight-hour takes hundreds of people to actually get the helicopter out on the ramp and off in the air.

Clairmont: What's the most satisfying moment you've ever had on the job?

Huntley: Three sailors left Nova Scotia bound for Bermuda, and they hit weather they weren't expecting. They sent out a mayday, but they thought that they were gone.

Well, we sent out a C-130 [aircraft] that searched overhead and, needle in the haystack, heard a faint mayday call. It circled overhead, we got the helicopter ready, and we launched out. We actually had to land on the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier that was operating off the coast of Virginia to get gas to continue on, hoist these three individuals, one of whom who had severe broken ribs and a possibly broken back. We brought them back and got them to land again. The gentleman said to me, "I never thought I would see solid earth again." They thought that they were gone. So to bring them back from 30-foot seas, having been rolled a couple times in their sailboat, and having given up on the idea that they were going to be rescued, bringing them back was pretty amazing.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a cartographer, a wind turbine technician, and a paramedic.