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‘A Pretty Cool Job’

Posted in: Sandwich News, Top Stories
Dec 12, 2008 - 12:00:44 PM
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  • Captain Byron Johnson, a member of the Canadian Forces on exchange in the United States, stands inside the hanger at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod where he has been serving for the past 2 1/2 years.
  • Captain Byron Johnson (right) stands with fellow foreighner Benny Wenban, a Lieutenant in the Royal Austrailian Navy. Both men are on exchange to Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod.
  • A Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter stands ready for its next mission inside a hanger at the air station.
  • Captain Byron Johnson makes his way to his waiting Jayhawk helicopter.
  • Captain Byron Johnson reaches for a pre-flight checklist inside the cockpit of his Jayhawk.
  • Flying low and slow over Town Beach in Sandwich. The Cape Cod Canal and the Mirant Canal Plant can be seen in the background.
  • A view of the intricate patterns created by the creeks and drainage ditches in Old Harbor Marsh.
  • A birds-eye view of the ongoing work on the Shawme Pond dam.
  • A view looking southeast from above Town Neck toward Old Harbor Marsh.
  • Wing School children at play during recess.
  • A view of Cemetery Point.
  • Sandwich Village as seen from 1,000 feet.
  • Flying high over the Forestdale School on the way across the Cape to Falmouth.
  • View of the beach along Surf Drive in Falmouth.
  • Nobska Lighthouse in Falmouth decorated with a wreath for the Christmas Season.
  • The Jayhawk soars high above Woods Hole in Falmouth.
  • Two crewmen inside the back of the Jayhawk helicopter.
SANDWICH- “Are you all set back there?” Captain Byron J. Johnson said over the radio of his Jayhawk helicopter, looking over his left shoulder with a smile to his two civilian passengers strapped in to the back of the aircraft.
The Coast Guard authorized Captain Johnson to take an Enterprise photographer and editor on a quick flight from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod last Friday morning. It was a picture-perfect early December morning. A beautiful day to be in the air, Captain Johnson said.
During the previous few minutes, Captain Johnson and fellow pilot Lieutenant Commander Brian Hopkins had gone through their pre-flight checklists that are printed in spiral-bound books that hang in the cockpit behind the two pilots’ heads. The checklists are written down so the pilots do not have to memorize the entire pre-flight routine. They have enough to remember and having the printed lists helps to ensure nothing is forgotten.
The Sikorsky-built helicopter’s twin, 1,800-horsepower engines were roaring, the rotor blades whirling faster than the eyes could see as the pilots completed the pre-flight work.
After getting quick nods from his two passengers, indicating they were eager to take to the air, Captain Johnson turned his attention back to his controls. The engine noise grew even louder as Captain Johnson coaxed the aircraft up. Soon, the Jayhawk was 1,000 feet in the air, zipping over Forestdale at 125 miles an hour, headed toward the coastline.
The Jayhawk’s top speed is 180 miles per hour, but during training flights the pilots keep the aircraft at about 125.
“It helps prolong the life of the aircraft,” Mr. Johnson explained.
As the helicopter reached the coast, Captain Johnson flew in low (400 feet) and slow (85 miles per hour) over Town Beach. Two people, bundled against the cold, walked slowly along the shore.
He then banked the helicopter left and headed south across the expansive Old Harbor Marsh toward Sandwich Village, which was newly decorated for the holiday season.
From about 900 feet, shoppers were visible on the sidewalk, and a short distance away, children out for recess could be seen on the playground of the Henry T. Wing School.
Looking out the windshield of the helicopter, Captain Johnson remarked on the cloudless blue sky. “We lucked out today with the weather. It’s not always like this.”
Captain Johnson said he has flown in some pretty nasty weather during his more than 16 years of search and rescue flying.
“Sometime harsh weather sets in quick,” he said.
Asked if he has ever feared for his life while flying during bad weather, Captain Johnson gave a little shrug. “There’ve been times I’ve been disoriented over the water. There have been a few instances…but I’ve never had an ‘Oh, this is it’ moment.”
Captain Johnson said search and rescue helicopter pilots spend about 85 percent of their flying time on training and support exercises, so when the real emergency comes, they’ll be ready.
Emergencies come in many forms, from missing people, boats in distress, to even medical emergencies that require quick transport to Boston hospitals. Private companies such as MedFlight handle most of those medical emergencies, but, if the weather is bad, they call the Coast Guard.
An emergency flight from Martha’s Vineyard to Boston takes just 30 minutes by helicopter, even in poor weather conditions, Mr. Johnson said.
On Friday, after making a few passes over Sandwich, Captain Johnson pointed the helicopter toward Woods Hole. A trip that would usually take at least a half-hour by car took no more than three minutes in the helicopter.
The Jayhawk can carry 6,000 pounds of jet fuel and can fly 600 miles without having to stop to refuel. That’s about five continual hours aloft. This extended airtime is necessary during search missions: when someone is missing at sea and the Coast Guard is their only hope for survival.
Captain Johnson said when he first entered the Canadian Forces, he thought he wanted to be a fighter jet pilot.
“I thought fighters were the coolest things going,” he said. But after getting his hands on the controls of a helicopter, he forgot all about fighter jets.
“Flying helicopters is like nothing else in the world,” he said. “This is a pretty cool job.”
Speaking from experience, being a passenger in a Jayhawk helicopter is way cool, too.

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