Hanging by a line.
Navy Search and Rescue swimmers risk their lives on a daily basis - hanging from a thin line, dangling from helicopters and plucking victims from danger and death. We've seen their heroics play out in the movie theaters and while watching the nightly news.
Descending from the sky like angels, these brave Sailors are prepared to put it all on the line every time a call comes.
Aviation Warfare 1st Class Karl Anderko of Lockport, N.Y., recalls flying back toward Naval Air Station Norfolk's Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 when the crew received word there was a boater in distress, and they were asked to investigate.
"We came back and placed Petty Officer Gillespie's and Petty Officer Rockwell's rescue gear into the bird," said Anderko. "We refueled and headed out."
Flying over the area AW2 Zachary Gillespie spotted something with his night vision goggles. There was a boat below with its lights flashing and a man frantically waving his arms.
Acting quickly, Anderko lowered AW2 Eric Rockwell into the water about five feet from the boat. Swimming over, Rockwell found one survivor.
"Well, right from the start I was amped," said Rockwell, a Saint Augustine, Fla., native. "As soon as I hit the water all my training kicked in, and I started asking him questions and assessing the situation."
The boater was very scared because there were water moccasins in the water, but after a little coaxing from Rockwell he made his way over. A rescue strap was quickly lowered and the boater was brought to safety.
Rockwell said he will never forget the man's words to him as they were being hoisted up. "He said, with a very unusual accent, 'I'm a little scared, but right now I feel safe in your arms.' I felt really good that I had just saved someone."
The entire evolution lasted approximately 35 minutes from the time of the initial call to the rescue.
"We just stick to our training, and execute quickly and safely," said Gillespie, a native of Phoenix. "One of our sayings that is always passed down from Fleet Readiness Squadron is 'slow is smooth and smooth is fast.' So, that is what we have trained for."
SAR swimmers must complete nearly a year of training before going to their first squadron - four weeks at Naval Aircrew Candidate School, five weeks in Aviation Rescue Swimmer School, 16 weeks at Aviation Warfare 'A' School and 16 weeks at Fleet Replacement Air Crewman School.
Once Sailors complete aircrew and rescue swimmer school, they enter into what many view as one of the most dangerous jobs in the fleet.
Rescue swimmers must have flexibility, strength, endurance and be able to function for 30 minutes in heavy seas. Once qualified, training remains a constant.
"There's lots of pool training," said Gillespie. "And, in any given month, we train just on SAR - a minimum 20 hours."
The job is tough, training non-stop and the story doesn't always have a happy ending. But, for Sailors like Gillespie, Anderko and Rockwell, the knowledge that they could be called on at a moments notice to save a life is all the motivation they need.
"Making a rescue is pure adrenaline," said Gillespie. "It feels good to know you can help someone when they are in a bad situation. That's what we're all here for. If you asked us to do it every day, we would."
Kirk and Aho are assigned to NPASE-East, Norfolk.
Story by MC1 Amy Kirk, photo by MC1 Brien Aho