One bright afternoon in February, I hopped a ride with a Coast Guard chopper on a routine cruise around O‘ahu. The experience was eye-opening. Flying with civilians didn’t call for any special equipment beyond a helmet and radio. To take a Coast Guard flight, I donned a fire-resistant flight suit, fire-resistant leather gloves, a “Mae West” life jacket, and a wide harness around my waist so that I could clip myself securely to the bright orange helicopter.
Before the flight, Danny Rees, the flight mechanic, gave me a safety briefing. (The Coast Guard is unique among the services in requiring the mechanics to fly regular shifts in the helicopters they service, surmising perhaps that this will inspire greater attention to detail.) Despite all the protective gear, Rees was emphatic about the safety of helicopters. “I feel safer flying in one of these than I do driving my truck,” he said.
After my briefing, we were joined by the pilot, Cmdr. Donald Dyer, and his co-pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Detton. Rees made sure I was properly strapped into the far back, where the rescue swimmer usually sits. With Rees strapped into the gunner’s seat, Dyer fired up the engines and we taxied out to the runway. Once he had clearance from the tower, Dyer brought us to a low hover, then peeled out over the ocean.
We flew low along the Wai‘anae coast, looking for swimmers or boaters in trouble. At Ko Olina, we paused to circle the Pro Bowl practice fields and ogle the yachts in the marina. Then we patrolled the beaches of Wai‘anae, surveying the camps of homeless and the surfers lining up on the break. The great leeward valleys of Wai‘anae and Makua reached off to our left. Then we rounded the headland of Ka‘ena Point, braided with four-wheel drive tracks, and began the run up the North Shore.
The surf was up. No kiteboarders braved the waters of Mokule‘ia. Great, frothy breakers washed over the hard shelf there. Rees spotted a monk seal sunning on the beach and we circled back to make sure it wasn’t injured. Then we ran low down the beach, over Hale‘iwa, Waimea, Pipeline and Sunset. From 200 feet even big surf looks small. But a contest was on at Pipeline, and Dyer slowly circled the event, tipping way over to improve the view. There were crowds of spectators on the beach. Jet skis towed the surfers into the waves on the outer break and foam churned the inshore waters.
From the North Shore, we flew over the West Loch of Pearl Harbor. Here, we slowed to a crawl and Rees opened the door of the helicopter to take a picture of the mothballed fleet below us. Over Honolulu Harbor, I slid forward and clipped into the gunner’s spot. I was sitting there when we reached Diamond Head Lighthouse, where we waggled our figurative wings at the station crew. Then, as we returned along Waikiki Beach, the door open, I sat cross-legged on the floor of the helicopter, with my notebook flapping furiously in the breeze. Even the Coasties have fun.