By Douglas A. Campbell / Senior Writer
The qualities that make a good rescue swimmer are not always obvious.
Salary: Starting salary for E-4 rank is $1,758 per month and for E-9 is $4,254. The amount is increased by time in service, flight pay, special duty assignment pay, and housing, food and uniform allowances.
“I always played sports,” says Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician Second Class Michael Ackermann. But, he admits, “I wasn’t much of a swimmer.”
And yet in February 2007 Ackermann was the key figure in two dramatic rescue operations in the Atlantic during which he saved three men and two women in violent storms with enormous seas that had disabled their sailboats.
Stationed then at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., he was on the crew of a helicopter that responded to a report of a capsized catamaran 200 miles north of Bermuda. On the scene, he “got smacked around” by 45-foot waves as he dangled on the chopper’s cable, then swam up the faces of similar waves to rescue two survivors. The following May, Ackermann performed an encore in 40-foot seas, rescuing a 70-year-old couple and their 45-year-old daughter from their sailboat off North Carolina.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,” said Lt. Daniel Molthan, the chopper pilot, after that rescue. “It took him a couple of seconds to swim that 40 to 50 feet. He grabbed the back of the boat and just pulled himself up into it … almost like Spiderman.”
Ackermann’s path to rescue swimmer was spawned by an unpleasant vision in his final months of college. “I figured I was going to be sitting in an office the rest of my life, and I was too young to do that,” he says. “I wanted to find something adventurous to do and use my youth.”
Now 30, Ackermann has been a rescue swimmer for three years. He plans to remain in the Coast Guard until he is 44. “I’ll always be swimming. A big part of the job is staying in shape,” he says. “I know some swimmers in their 40s who are in better physical [condition] than I am.”
Ackermann pursued his job the only way you can: by enlisting in the Coast Guard. However, there was no guarantee he would become a rescue swimmer. When he reached the rank of E-3, he was eligible to apply for the duty.
“First of all, you put your name on a waiting list,” he says. The wait is about a year. “Then you get stationed at an air station, where they prepare you for school. The [commanding officer] signs a letter, which is an endorsement” that you have passed the minimum requirements. Among those benchmarks are swimming 500 yards in less than 10 minutes, swimming underwater for 25 yards, doing 80 pushups, and running 1.5 miles in 11 minutes, he says.
Next, Ackermann says, there is a 17-week training school, followed by a month at emergency medical technician school. Finally, there is a qualification period at an air station, learning about the aircraft and studying a search-and-rescue syllabus. After a year and a half, you are ready to stand duty.
The working week is daily from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., Ackermann says. He swims or runs from 8 to 10 in the morning. Then he maintains survival equipment for 90 minutes, followed by more of the same after lunch. Once a week, he participates in practice flights during which the crew engages in mock search-and-rescue cases that involve the rescue swimmer entering the water. “About once a week, we stand duty” in a 24-hour shift, Ackermann says.
Ackermann says the job has provided the adventure he was seeking. “As I’m learning more and more and I’m getting better and better at what I do, I’m feeling more comfortable, and I’m liking it even more,” he says.