Coast Guard Rescue Swimming School
Credit: photograph by Nathaniel Welch

A man bobs alone in storm-tossed waters, exhausted, struggling to keep his head above the waves. The surface is a froth of wind and rain, and waves break over him. Thunder splits the air, and below it, a deeper sound: the staccato thud of chopper blades. A roaring rotor flattens the water, spraying droplets at his face that sting like BBs. He shouts weakly for help. A U.S. Coast Guard airman stands in an open door 15 feet above the waves, in wetsuit, fins, snorkel, and rescue harness. He plunges in and strikes out toward the drowning man, grabbing him from behind and towing him in a cross-chest carry, kicking hard with his fins.

Just then, the man panics. He flails around, knocking off his rescuer's mask and wrapping his head in a bear hug, trying desperately to climb out of the water. Both men vanish below the waves. After several seconds, the rescue swimmer surfaces, looking about frantically, his mask and snorkel gone. He's broken free, but he's lost his victim. A piercing whistle blows, and the howling wind and rain stop as if on cue. At the push of a button, the thunder stops, the waves slosh down to stillness, and the house lights come up on the U.S. Coast Guard's cavernous new $30 million Rescue Swimmer Training Facility, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

Known among Coasties as A-School, this is where enlisted airmen come to test themselves against one of the most grueling training regimens in the armed forces – 18 weeks of relentless physical punishment – hoping to join the elite ranks of the rescue swimmers, among the most fearless first responders on Earth. It is a challenge many of them will fail. Chief Petty Officer Ken Kiest, a burly 50-year-old with a shock of white-blond hair atop an otherwise shaved head, calls the swimmer to the side of the pool. "You let the survivor die; is that correct?" Kiest shouts. "Would you do that in the real world, let my daughter die? You fit to train?" There's no response, and Kiest reddens, shouting louder. "Are you fit to train?" "Yes, Chief Kiest," the swimmer replies. "Obviously your lead instructor says otherwise. Get out of the water." The swimmer hauls himself out and carries his mask and flippers glumly to the locker room. By the end of the week, he'll face a board hearing, and will ultimately be sent "back to the fleet." If he wants to try A-School again, he'll have to reapply and start from the beginning.

Rescue swimmers – properly named "aviation survival technicians" – are a superfit, crazy-brave cadre deployed with the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue helicopter crews. They are trained to save anyone in distress: injured fishermen, sick cruise-ship passengers, raft-bound refugees. To do it, they drop, alone, into nightmare conditions, from subzero waters to hurricane-force winds. During Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard, drawing on 80-plus rescue swimmers, rescued more than 33,000 people."When Mom and Pop need to be rescued, we're the professionals," says Kiest, who went through the program himself in 1990. "In emergency, break glass and pull out Coast Guard."

Kiest loves to show off the bells and whistles of the 50,000-square-foot facility. Besides the wave generator, there are spray nozzles for creating sheets of rain, even a fog machine. A touchscreen controls dozens of sound effects: rotors, jets, foghorns, machine guns, sirens, and three kinds of thunder. The massive fans can stir up a 70-knot wind, the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane. To demonstrate, Kiest cranks them to full blast, the winds lashing the surface of the water. Towels fly off the bleachers on the far side of the pool. A rope course above the pool is modeled after the Navy SEALs', and a parachute hangs from a winch, to practice saving downed aviators. In another pool, a device known as the Dunker trains strapped-in pilots to escape from submerged and flipped-over helicopters and boats.

The "noncompliant survivor" is just one of the tests rescue candidates must pass in the 18-week program. After this, they'll face the downed-pilot parachute rescue and various "multis," during which they must deal with as many as six victims in the water at once. But the noncompliant-survivor test is the first and often the last test for many airmen. If the candidates can't get their victim safely under control and hoisted to the platform by rescue harness within the seven-minute limit, they'll fail A-School. Attrition is merciless: Eight weeks in and nine of the 18 hopefuls have already failed.