The helicopter hovers maybe 30 feet over the boat, seemingly motionless in mid-air.

But the Coast Guard chopper's propellers are whirling through the air about six times per second, fast enough to kick up a misty cloud of water that sprays off the bay below.

So on the boat deck, Scott DiStefano, Bill Hannan, Steve Wilder and Jim Haag are getting soaked - even in their rain suits - as they strain to pull in the basket the helicopter crew drops down to them. The team on the boat handles the basket, then sends it back up to the chopper.

But it's empty, because there was nobody in trouble on this 27-foot boat, nobody who needed an emergency Coast Guard rescue on this gray, windy day. This was just a drill, a practice session for the crew of the short-range, search-and-rescue helicopter.

"Helo-ops," as the drill is known in the Coast Guard, goes on all along the New Jersey coast, from Cape May to Long Beach Island and beyond. This drill a few weeks ago was in the bay near the Coast Guard's Atlantic City boat station, but a pilot who regularly makes the training flights says people in many places along the state's shoreline could see these drills any time from spring through fall each year.

"We average about six training flights every day," says Lt. Jay Kircher, the pilot, who adds that estimate doesn't include actual search-and-rescue missions by the 10 Dolphin MH-65 helicopters based at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township.

The air station, near Atlantic City International Airport, normally has about 60 pilots and 185 total crew members who all need regular training, in teams of four to a flight - pilot, co-pilot, rescue swimmer and flight mechanic - in day and night sessions.

They maintain their rescue skills in helo ops, which include drills lowering and lifting those rescue baskets, working on a boat that has lost power - that drill is called DIW, or "dead in the water," and it can include the helicopter pilot using the wind from the rotors to position the boat properly for the rescue try. The crews also practice with the rescue swimmer, hovering even lower to drop the swimmer into the water safely, or sometimes using the line from the helicopter to lower the swimmer directly onto the boat deck.

The helicopter crews practice those skills sometimes with Coast Guard boats, sometimes with contractors from Tow Boat U.S., the rescue company, and often with members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, area residents who volunteer to go out on the boats to be part of the drills.

Scott DiStefano, of Linwood, is a real-estate agent in Brigantine in his day job. But over the past four years, he figures he has been captain of an Auxiliary boat for about 75 helicopter-training runs, a dozen or so of them this year alone.

"Some days we do one helicopter, and some we do up to three," says DiStefano, 53, a veteran of 35 years of boating. "We also have to do night training."

Being on the boat with a helicopter hanging overhead - at anywhere from 10 to 100 feet, by Kircher's figures - is never especially pleasant for the crews on deck. They all wear rain suits because of the rotor spray, although they need full survival suits when the water temperature is below 60 degrees. Plus it's hard to see, because the flying water also quickly covers up their safety goggles.

"And you can't hear anything," adds Bill Hannan, of Brigantine, a builder when he isn't being an Auxiliary crewman. They're all wearing ear protection, which they need because the helicopter is so loud when it's hovering right above their boat.

The boat captain has a radio on earphones, DiStefano says, but that's mainly for pre-drill briefings - the helicopter crew gives the people on the boats the same set of instructions they would give in a real rescue try.

"Secure all loose objects, lower any antennas on the boat, remove all jewelry," DiStefano says, from memory, because he has heard it so many times. But he couldn't hear any of that with the helicopter in actual rescue position.

"When they're right overhead, you can actually count the rivets" in the chopper's body, says Walt Alsegg, 69, of Somers Point, who is in charge of the Auxiliary's helo-ops program, which includes 20 volunteers from seven different Auxiliary flotillas in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

And Coast Guard Petty Officer Chris Fonseca, who is at the helm of a second boat observing this drill, knows there's a good reason for all those orders from the flight crew to the boat below.

The helicopter can get so close to the deck, "They've almost scratched my antenna before," Fonseca says.

The helo-ops drills had to stay in the bay on this day because of a small-craft warning brought on by an approaching storm. Kircher, the pilot, explains active thunderstorms can cancel a scheduled practice, but just normally nasty weather won't keep the rescue crews on the ground - mainly because rescues are often needed in bad weather.

"We have our set limits for training, and if we're scheduled to go and conditions are better than those limits, we'll go," Kircher says. "We don't seek it ... but you get more training value sometimes from going in worse weather."

The teams also have to drill at night. Kircher estimates the helicopter pilots at the Atlantic City air station average about one practice session per month, roughly half of them after dark.

But on nice days, in clear conditions, helo ops can draw crowds of spectators on land, wondering what's going on out in the ocean. The teams usually do their drills 1 to 3 miles off the coast, and when they happen off Ventnor, for instance - a regular spot, for its convenience from both the Atlantic City air and boat stations - the sessions regularly get groups of people stopping on the Boardwalk, speculating on why that helicopter out there is flying so low and staying for so long.

The civilian consensus is it must be a rescue. And some days, there are rescues needed right off the beach, but far more often, these events are drills.

"We train effectively every single day," says Nick Ameen, a Coast Guard spokesman, who notes the agency's motto is "Semper Paratus," or "always ready. ... That's not just some words. That's how we operate."

On this recent day of drills on the bay, the first helicopter is finished its routine. The rescue basket has gone down to the boat and come back empty, the rescue swimmer has dropped out of the helicopter and been pulled back in and the other drills are done.

So the pilot finally lifts out of his steady hover and pulls away, heading back to the northwest and the helicopter's home. Shortly after it leaves, a second chopper flies onto the horizon and heads for the Auxiliary boat, getting ready to hang overhead and practice another run of rescue techniques.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


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