“That Was The Most Turbulent Rescue I’ve Ever Done!” Captain Brian C. Erickson, United States Coast Guard Air Station Savannah

Captain Brian C. Erickson, Commanding Officer, Air Station Savannah, United States Coast Guard.

From 2018-2020, Captain (Select) Brian Erickson served as the Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Air Station Savannah (GA).  A native of Port Townsend, Washington, Brian Erickson is a 1998 engineering graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy. He would later go on to earn a Master of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Purdue University.  His pathway to Coast Guard aviation, and eventually Coast Guard command, was initially, as you’ll see, neither obvious nor predestined.

“When I was in high school,” remembered Erickson, “all I really wanted to do was ride my dirt bike and drive around in my truck. Needless to say, I didn’t get very good grades in school.” But as can happen, less-than-great-grades in school isn’t always a true indicator of one’s innate intelligence, of one’s ‘smarts,’ if you will.  And such would clearly prove to be the case with Brian Erickson, who would go on to excel in a very demanding and challenging aviation and command career.

But back to those ‘average’ grades in high school.  A couple of his buddies were talking about joining the Coast Guard after their senior year. Erickson well remembered that he very much did want to leave his hometown, but definitely did not want to go overseas, “so the Coast Guard sounded like a pretty good fit.”   Impacting his service choice, as well, was the fact that the Coast Guard Cutter POINT BENNETT (with a 10-person unit) was moored right there in the Port Townsend marina; then during his senior year, he spent one assigned outreach period each school day with that unit; and, finally, a retiree from the Coast Guard, whom he’d known for many years, managed one of his dad’s businesses. No question, he had grown up amidst some very prominent and positive Coast Guard influences. So, in 1992, he made the decision to join, but would need the help of his parents to sign him into the military, since he was just 17 at the time. Then things happened quickly. One month after high school graduation, Seaman Recruit Erickson was off to Coast Guard boot camp at Cape May, New Jersey.

From Cape May, his first assignment was to Key West (FL), where, with the rank of Seaman (non-rated sailor), he would be aboard the USCG Cutter SEA HAWK, a unique high-powered, solid-hull, hovercraft (called a “surface effects ship”) being utilized for law enforcement, counter-narcotics, and alien migrant interdiction operations in the Florida Straits. During his one-year serving in Key West, he decided to put his name on the list for more training, applying, then, for aviation electronics technician school. “My thinking was that I’d just go ahead and do that for the next four years.  Frankly, at that point, I really didn’t know what I was going to do long-term, you know, career-wise,” said Erickson.

But then, on the subject of career, opportunity unexpectedly knocked. He received a letter stating that his test scores were high enough to make him a candidate, not just for aviation tech school, but potentially high enough for actual Coast Guard Academy eligibility!  Erickson called his Mom to ask if she thought he should apply to the Academy. Without hesitation, she responded: “Oh, my God, yes, you should.”  That left little question in his mind that she was, indeed, supportive!

So, with Mom’s seal of approval, he applied to enter the Academy.  He was accepted to attend, first (at that time), the Naval Academy’s Prep School for one-year of preparatory study.  Back then, recalled Erickson, the Navy’s prep school accepted prior-enlisted from the Marine Corps, the Merchant Marine, the Coast Guard, the Navy, of course, and also top graduates with Congressional appointments coming directly from high school.  Following his very good year at Navy Prep, as expected, Erickson moved on up to the Coast Guard Academy proper (New London, Connecticut).  Year One on the road to becoming a Coast Guard Officer.  Best yet, upon entry, with his enlisted time, he already had “2-years and 5-days” of service time on the record!

Cadet Erickson attended the Academy from 1994 to 1998.  For co-curricular activities, he played lacrosse (club sport at that time), along with several other intercompany sports. He majored in naval architecture and marine engineering (single degree program).  He served as class vice-president, and later president, which were definitely honors, and a clear indication of his stature among his Academy peers.

Ensign Erickson’s first assignment was aboard Coast Guard Cutter MELLON, a 378-foot high endurance craft, based in Seattle, Washington.  He served there, “on the engineering side of the house,” as both an engineering-officer-in-training, and as a trained damage control assistant.  He would go on, in short order, to qualify as a deck watch officer. Then, just three-months after his arrival on the Cutter, he applied for flight school and, following a lengthy process and wait time, he was accepted. Shortly thereafter, he “left the boat.” Total time with Cutter MELLON: One-and-a-half years.

At the start of his Coast Guard tenure, with all manner of career options on his mind (in or out of the CG), he recalls having had no real expectation of one day going to flight school. “It was something I didn’t even think I could do,” said Erickson. Back in Port Townsend, “my father was a huge general aviation influence (obtained a private pilot’s license & owned his own plane), and I grew up with so much enjoyment around flying. I eventually got to the point where I did want to make it a career, so that ‘I wouldn’t have to work a day in my life!”  As if by fate, somehow, amidst the rigors and demands of the Academy, while there, he actually found the time to obtain his private pilot’s license. As an Academy graduate with an impressive all-around record (not to mention already having 150-hours of civilian flight time!), LTJG Erickson was accepted for school, and began his flight training in November 1999, at the Navy’s flight school in Pensacola, Florida.  This is the training site for all future Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps pilots. Adding-in occasional joint training exercises, Air Force pilots became involved there as well. Rounding out the student mix, select pilot-trainees, from approved allied nations, also come to Pensacola for flight instruction.

Following flight school graduation, LT Erickson’s first duty station as a Coast Guard helicopter pilot was Air Station Port Angeles, Washington (February 2001).  Convenient to his hometown, it’s also where he first met fellow CG pilot Marshall Branch.  He recalls flying a rescue mission with him. The memory and significance of that first meeting is that now-Captain Marshall Branch would actually end up immediately preceding Brian Erickson as Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Air Station Savannah.

Later that year, September 11, 2001, to be exact, fanatical Islamic terrorists carried out their destructive attack on America, causing more deaths, in three intended aircraft crashes, than resulted from the equally unanticipated surprise attack on America by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor, almost 60-years earlier. Missions were immediately altered for America’s military everywhere, to include Coast Guard personnel at Air Station Port Angeles.  “I remember driving in to work on September 11th, and over the next two to three weeks, operations definitely changed, as you’d expect,” recalled Erickson. “We were much more focused on the port and surrounding waterways, patrolling the local areas by air to ensure that the area waterways and infrastructure, were secure.”

It was close to that time-frame when LT Erickson took part in his very first rescue mission, launching from Port Angeles. Serving as co-pilot, their flight was at night, in fact, a very dark night, with low visibility across a turbulent Pacific Ocean.  They were searching for a man who had wrecked his boat on some of the very treacherous rocks, somewhere out along the coast.  With the high waves, his boat was crashing and breaking up against those rocks.  The crew was told that the man was able to get out of his boat and had made it to a place called Little Rock Island, an outcrop located about 500-feet from the actual shoreline. With Erickson’s helicopter now about 70-miles from launch point, they finally saw a flare in the darkened night. With that sighting, they approached the location, got into a low hover, and could finally see the man, who wasn’t standing, but out of the water, lying down, with the waves crashing near him.

“So we put the rescue swimmer down, who determined quickly that the man was having heart attack or stroke-like symptoms.  We really couldn’t see anything except where our light was pointed directly down on the man and our swimmer as he did his work.  Once stabilized there on the rocks,” said Erickson, “we hoisted them up, and in the midst of increasingly high winds, dark skies, and low fog, we then navigated our way back to Port Angeles, and directly to the hospital, where the man arrived alive and stable.”  Erickson indicated that, three days before, he had flown a previous search mission, out over the water, looking for a father and his two kids who’d gone out in the fog, but they were never able to find them.  So, sadly, no rescue.  The bodies of the missing three were located weeks later.  The Little Rock Island flight had, thus, been his very first hoist-and-rescue mission.

It was 2003, while still at Port Angeles, when he began flying his first missions as Flying Pilot. Many of these were medivac flights.  There was a private airlift service in the area, but once the weather got bad enough, they wouldn’t fly.  So it was left to the Coast Guard to make the medivac flights, regardless.  The routine would be to fly out to the Indian reservations at Neah Bay, located at the very tip of Washington State, land on a helicopter pad at the Coast Guard Station there, to pick up an individual who needed to be moved inland to a higher level of care. Most often at night, it seemed, navigating through fog, depending totally on radar, “creeping through a very treacherous environment” to get out to that Station, and then back. There were a number of other missions flown while Erickson was still functioning as flight pilot, to include “hoisting a guy off a tanker ship in the daytime, so that wasn’t too bad,” and then actually landing on a Navy ship at night to take a person off, and then fly on to the hospital for treatment.

Then began his rescue missions as a Coast Guard Aircraft Commander, the first one occurring in 2004, while at Port Angeles. At that time, LT Erickson and his colleagues were covering for Air Station Astoria, which resulted in a much larger area of responsibility, taking them all the way down to the mouth of the Columbia River. Flying in an area where they didn’t normally operate, they would be looking for a crew member out on a fishing boat, thought to be possibly suffering from pancreatitis, said the Flight Surgeon prior to their leaving Port Angeles.  As Erickson’s team headed down-state along the coast, it was, as he recalled, “a beautiful night, as we flew over the Olympic Mountains with a clear night sky.”  They then dropped down on the southwest side of Washington State and headed out to the fishing fleet and found the vessel in question.  At about the time his helicopter had initiated a circle around the boat, they got a radio call from the Flight Surgeon updating the crewman’s prognosis. He did need to be medevac’d.

This fishing boat was a traditional one, with a lot of rigging and lines, meaning that the rescue basket would need to be carefully threaded down through that maze.  With the horizon now dark, Erickson’s night vision goggles were actually more impediment than help. So he flipped them up to get away from having “two little TV screens that were just giving me green lights.” But then, the challenge became his point of reference, since he was looking down at the boat, now with its deck in ocean-water motion, making the precision insertion required all the tougher. After sending a trail line down to the awaiting boat crew below, with great care, Erickson was able to steady his aircraft so that, despite high seas below, he was able to thread the rescue basket ever-so-carefully through the cables and rigging on down to the deck of that seas-shifting boat. With the trail line to assist, boat crewmen were able to pull the basket on in. Due to the added danger of entanglement, no rescue swimmer was sent down, or even needed on this one, since radio contact was made and maintained with an assisting boat crew member on board.  Thankfully, with the patient actually able to walk, and with crew help, he was able to position himself in the basket. Once safely strapped in, he was hoisted carefully on up to the aircraft without incident.  Erickson flew him to a waiting ambulance on shore. The man was hospitalized in stable condition, and he survived. Many additional search and rescue missions followed during his time at Port Angeles. Along with his Aircraft Commander designation, Erickson also served there as Flight & Ground Safety Officer.  Also while at Port Angeles, he deployed aboard a 210-foot CG Cutter for 45-days, serving off the coast of Mexico.

Next assignment: The Coast Guard’s Polar Operations Division, from 2005-2006.  Providing him with the parting thrill of landing on top-of-the-world ice, the Coast Guard was, at that time, actually shutting down its aviation polar operations division.  During this three-month tour, Erickson, serving as the aeronautical engineer, had the opportunity to take the last Polar Operations Division trip to the North Pole! And that was only the third time a U.S. surface vessel had ever reached the Pole.  Their ship was the HEALY, a 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter ice breaker, with two of Erickson’s helicopters on board.  The mission was a scientific one, with the aviation detachment supporting the scientists on board. Erickson’s group then consisted of four pilots and four mechanics.  Following their work at the Pole, “we came down the backside and went to Norway and Ireland, before the ship eventually made its way back to Seattle,” he remembered. While Erickson was operating in the remote North Pole, his wife Leighanne was ‘holding down the fort’ in Mobile, Alabama, as Hurricane KATRINA made landfall only 65-miles to the west and knocked down trees throughout the Mobile neighborhood where they lived.  Thankfully, none fell on their house! Erickson’s North Pole assignment was four-months in duration.

From 2006-2007, LT Erickson served as the Assistant Aeronautical Engineering Officer at the Aviation Training Center in Mobile (AL), providing him with a world apart climate and temperature change!  That came about because Mobile was, at that time, the headquarters for the Polar Operations Division, which, while he served there, the Coast Guard was in the process of  dissolving, as previously mentioned.  As the Engineering Officer, he was in charge of all of the H-65 “Dolphin” helicopters at the Mobile Center.  “I oversaw the mechanics, all of the maintenance, and all of the warrant officers. Everyone who turned a wrench on the H-65’s, became my responsibility, in order to ensure the air worthiness of those aircraft,” said Erickson.

Then came a major change from the normal assignments. LCDR Erickson was competitively selected by the Coast Guard to spend two-years at Purdue University (2007-2009) to study for, and earn, a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering Structures. Thinking back, when he entered the program there, still earning his normal Coast Guard salary, he had already accumulated 15-years of service (Enlisted time + Academy years + Officer active duty), making him, at his level of compensation, no doubt, “the highest paid Masters student there!” Erickson recalled that he was being both well-paid and with “no responsibility!” The author would respectfully step in and disagree.  In a demanding advanced degree engineering program, at a highly regarded engineering-oriented university, and with the Coast Guard no doubt keeping an eye on its “investment,” there is no question that Erickson had ample expectation and “responsibility.”  No doubt the reason he felt that way, in hindsight, was the fact that he was an exceptionally bright, capable student, studying in a field in which he excelled (as with every Coast Guard assignment throughout his career). That combination of attributes and abilities can certainly take the edge off anyone’s course work and degree effort!

Following his graduation from Purdue, LCDR Erickson began a three-year tour at Aviation Logistics Center (ALC) Elizabeth City (North Carolina), where he was assigned as the C-130-H Product Line Engineer.  He had done fixed-wing piloting in the primary course at flight school, prior to moving to helicopters in advanced, and then he completed a ten-week C-130 flight course in Clearwater (Florida).  He was responsible for the maintenance and logistical support of the entire C-130-H fleet there.  At the time, that fleet consisted of 24 aircraft globally deployed.  “I loved that job. It was so much fun flying that plane, and I really enjoyed the work,” he remembered. Principal reason why?  “We were making the aircraft better for years to come. Anything that was prototyped on the aircraft, like a new GPS, night vision goggles, or a moving map for the pilots, or a safe to store classified material. We also installed the first center wing box in any Coast Guard C-130, which essentially extended their life for another thirty-years.” said Erickson.

At Elizabeth City, he was the engineer responsible for signing off on the approval for any flight following maintenance or repair, and that responsibility carried over to anytime an aircraft was damaged.  As an example of the latter, they had a C-130 out in the Pacific with a load of U.S. Congressmen on board, who were visiting a Pacific island.  On departure from the island, the plane hit a bird, forcing it to circle around and land back on that island, leaving passengers and crew stuck there. In that particular instance, “they contacted me by cell phone, and we immediately developed a suitable repair plan to be accomplished right there, in order to make the aircraft once again safe for flight. Challenges and solutions like that made it very enjoyable work for me,” said Erickson.

The remaining question, of course, was what about the Congressmen?  “Fortunately, there was enough room on the island to land a second bird.  So, we were able to load and fly them out, while the repair party remained to fix the old aircraft, and we were eventually able to fly it back,” he said.  They also did logistics missions during his time at Elizabeth City.  In one such, Erickson piloted a C-130 down to Guantanamo Bay, flying “right over the top of Cuba.” Later, aerial observation after the Haiti earthquake.  And several flights over the “Deepwater Horizon” major oil spill, caused by the explosion of the large oil drilling platform there, seeking to determine the extent of the environmental damage from that huge oil float.

Then, in 2012, LCDR Erickson began his first tour (3-years) at Coast Guard Air Station Savannah (Georgia).  He served as the Aeronautical Engineering Officer, the junior position among the four officers on the Air Station command staff.  That assignment allowed him to both stand-duty and fly H-65 rescue missions.  One rescue he flew on involved a fishing boat that had run aground, at night, in very bad weather, down near Jekyll Island (Georgia).  Although he was the Aircraft Commander for this particular flight, Erickson, to enhance training opportunities, elected to put a junior officer in the pilot’s seat for this mission and “he did a terrific job,” recalled Erickson.  They launched and “navigated down through some pretty hairy weather.”  After searching, they found the boat that had made the rescue call. Using night vision goggles, they could see that the water was crashing over the back of it, breaking the boat up before their eyes.

Meanwhile the helicopter, too, was being “pummeled by gusty winds, oddly gusty winds,” which was very unusual, he said, since the rescue was occurring in the middle of the night. “We really had tried to hoist the swimmer down to the boat, but it continued to be just too tight, trying to work his way through all of that rigging, even though, strangely, at his point, the boat had actually become relatively stable,” he recalled.  Erickson remembered that the boat’s crewmen really wanted to get off that boat, as they watched it breaking up under them, even though, at this point, they were likely only in five or six feet of water.  “They were within 100-feet from shore, but completely unwilling to venture out themselves,” remembered Erickson.  So, to avoid rigging entanglement entirely, they ended up sending the rescue swimmer down directly into the water, had the crewmen jump into the water, and then the swimmer pulled them clear of any potential danger from their wrecked boat.  Erickson’s crew hoisted the crew up, one at a time, and flew them over to the nearby airport. While that delivery was going on, given the time required to arrive on scene, and the time it took for the rescue, his helicopter was running low on fuel. So, they left the rescue swimmer in the water, letting him swim to the beach. Now that might sound strange, but it’s what these amazing rescue guys do, they’re swimmers(!), and they maintain peak physical conditioning, due to the rigors of their job. Erickson then came back to pick up his swimmer, then headed to St. Simon’s Island to refuel, before flying back to Savannah.

One of his most memorable rescues occurred in the daytime, “memorable for among other things because it featured “some of the highest seas I’d ever encountered.” It involved sailing vessel “Molly Jane.”  A call had come in that the crew of this vessel had managed to ride out the night on board and were now located 41-nautical-miles southeast of Charleston (SC).  They were caught out in Tropical Storm Andrea (June 7, 2013), so by this time, they had lost propulsion, their boat was flooding, and the main sail had ripped!  With their boat dead in the water, they wanted off!  A C-130 flew out and found the boat.  Pin-pointing the exact location, the Coast Guard then sent out an 87-foot Cutter to either tow the vessel in or at least get its crew on board. But the waves were too high, rendering it  “out of limits” (i.e., sea-state too high), so they couldn’t safely make the surface transfer. So, the next rescue call came to Savannah, and two helicopters were sent. Normally, one would have already been at Air Facility Charleston (serviced by Savannah), but the daily crew rotation was underway, with that crew now back at the Air Station, so there was actually no helicopter available at that time in Charleston.

Erickson was piloting one of the two Savannah helicopters. “We had flown a long way to get to the scene.  We did have a tail wind going up, so we knew we’d have a headwind coming back, meaning we had to be very careful with our fuel planning,” he recalled.  It was about 2 PM and he remembers that it was tropical- storm-windy, and with it, the seas were quite rough (“17-foot swells at the buoy”).  “Even out in the Pacific, doing work from Port Angeles, I hadn’t seen seas like that very often,” he said. Given the dangerous conditions, not only for the boat crew, but also for Erickson’s crew, he came in at a lower altitude, safely off from the sailing vessel. “We don’t normally hoist below 30-feet, but I wanted to be just above the waves for this one, so we were probably at just about 20-to-30-feet,” he recalled.

He lowered the rescue swimmer, and then had two of the boat’s crew members jump into the water, where the swimmer then held onto them, and helped each one into the basket for the hoist.  Erickson recalls that his swimmer was tiring from the beating of the waves and the time it took to corral the basket and hoist each one up.  The second CG helicopter, piloted by a lesser experienced crew, chose to hover much higher for the rescue than Erickson (about 80-feet), taking more time in- between hoists, and causing the swimmer to blow much farther from the vessel between hoists.  This added time and complexity to the rescue of the first two crewmen, a fact that Erickson would use for after-flight review training back in Savannah, later on.  He had comparative video of the rescues to use in illustrating his subsequent instruction, since that original C-130 had remained on the scene videotaping the dual rescue!  Tired and understandably frightened, thanks to Coast Guard Air, all four boat crew members involved in that rescue survived their ordeal in good health.

Following his initial three-years in Savannah, LCDR Erickson’s next assignment (2015-2018) took him to Coast Guard HQ in Washington, D.C., for a staff assignment in the Office of Budgets and Programs. His primary responsibility was to assist in annual budget development for the entire Coast Guard, along with helping to prepare their top HQ commanders to testify before Congress, working hand-in-hand with their Congressional Affairs staff.  “Basically, we helped propel the major Coast Guard strategies forward,” said Erickson.  And it should be noted that his position at CG HQ was a special staff assignment, meaning that he had to interview for it in D.C., and was ultimately competitively selected.

After his time in D.C., it was a return to both an operational assignment and to Savannah (GA), where, on this tour, now-CDR Erickson would take command of the Coast Guard’s Air Station there (2018-2020).  Air Station Savannah has 5 H-65 helicopters and 110 uniformed personnel. The demanding rescue flights would begin, again, a source of both challenge and pleasure to the commander, since flying had clearly become his first love (professionally, and with his civilian license & plane), with the principal mission of assisting those in distress, which is, after all, what he’d signed up for those many years ago, when he raised his right hand and joined America’s Coast Guard.

When first flying again, after any staff assignment, even an experienced pilot like Erickson is required to take a bit of a ‘back-seat’ for a while.  So he would fly the next few missions as the co-pilot “because when you come back as CO (Commanding Officer) from a staff slot, it takes about six flights before you re-qualify for aircraft commander status,” he remembered.  Proper protocol, then, is typically to take some time after arrival, perhaps six-months or so, do some flying in the interim, before beginning that official six-flight aircraft commander sequence.  And there’s a reason. Experience had taught him that, jumping to the head of the line over other pilots, who had been waiting their turn, never did sit well with the unit, which is not the best way to begin a command!

And one of those co-pilot missions would turn out to be “a really hairy one.” It involved a rescue from the back of a cruise ship.  Flying with LT Crystal Barnett as pilot and aircraft commander, he remembered that, when they departed Air Station Savannah, the weather was fine.  But by the time they reached that cruise ship, some 35-miles off the coast, the weather had turned bad. The wind, as he described it, was “horrible.” Adding to the wind and the rain issues, this rescue took place in the dark, at midnight. “It was overcast, at about 300-feet, so we didn’t have any visibility up above, because of the rain.  I estimated seven-foot seas and winds at 35-knots,” he recalled.  So, to review the mission scene they encountered: high winds, high seas, low, overcast skies with rain, a cruise ship rescue, and it’s midnight.  Far from an ideal mission scenario, without question, an incredible understatement!

The person in need of rescue, and medical assistance, was an elderly female passenger, who had fallen down some stairs on the ship, resulting in “multiple traumas.” Erickson and crew were battling to hold an uneasy hover over the back of the ship, while the rescue swimmer was lowered to the rear pool deck on the first descending hoist.  On the second down hoist, a litter was lowered for the injured passenger.  Rather than using a basket in this case, the litter is a survivor-gear option that, when the situation requires, allows the patient to be laid out flat. Erickson would later label this night as “the most turbulent rescue I’d ever done.”  “There we were, getting beat up by the wind. But it was so dark, that we felt it would be less dangerous to just stay where we were, despite the punishing winds, than to initiate some sort of an orbit, either in the clouds or below them, and wait for the rescue swimmer to ‘package’ the survivor,” concluded Erickson.

So they remained, right where they were, maintaining that challenging hover, as they waited for the preparations down on deck to be completed.  “It took 30-minutes for the swimmer and the ship’s doctor (whom we did take back with us) to stabilize the patient on the litter, ready for hoist,” said Erickson.  All during that time, he recalled the sensation of almost flying sideways, as the wind was coming at them over the top of the cruise ship, while LT Barnett, a very experienced pilot, struggled to keep their hover steady.  And the rain had now become blinding.  “At one point, she asked the flight mechanic to reach out and wipe the rain bubbles off her side window, because with all that rain, the light coming up from the ship was distorting the view, making it difficult to see clearly, and hampering her ability to maintain our hover,” he said.

With preparations finally completed on the deck below, having taken much longer than anticipated, the first hoist up would be the patient, shielded from the rain and safely strapped onto the litter.  Normally, then, the next hoist up would be, first, in this case, the ship’s doctor, followed by the rescue swimmer.  But given unanticipated additional time on station, in order to conserve both time and fuel, the decision was made to send the hoist “hook” down and bring both the doctor and the swimmer together in a double pick-up.  The doctor and the medically-trained swimmer would then both tend to the injured woman during the flight to shore.

And that flight would still not be without its challenges. Heading off, then, into the darkness, with clear visibility a continuing issue, they opted for a manual departure “to avoid having the autopilot take us into the sea.” At that point, “all of our focus was on the gauges, because since we couldn’t see anything outside, we wanted to be sure that we were, indeed, climbing away from the water!” he said.  Once they had ascended above the cloud layer, at about 1,000-feet, they brought on some autopilot and continued their climb up to 2,500-feet. They were at last out of the rain squall that had surrounded the ship and were now turned back toward shore.  With the weather now much better, they could see in the distance, the welcoming lights of Savannah!  They flew those 35-miles directly back, landing on the mid-town Savannah helicopter pad at Memorial Health University Hospital.  With the expert care received in route, fortunately for all, the patient arrived there in stable condition. The team at Memorial made it clear to the Air Station Savannah crew, that “she had survived because of us,” remembered Erickson, thankful that all involved had made it back safely.

And ‘co-pilot’ Commander Erickson vividly recalled that LT Barnett had done a tremendous job flying this rescue, under very trying and hazardous conditions.  “That was the most turbulent rescue I’ve ever done,” he recalled. Since he was then commanding the unit and, as such, hadn’t flown nearly as many missions as he had during his first Savannah tour, after that very vivid, tense, and demanding rescue, for the only time during his command, he recalled thinking to himself:  “I’m too old for this stuff!”  Now, in the interest of interview accuracy, it should be noted that the Commander’s actual word there was not “stuff”!

Hurricane DORIAN Operations – CDR Brian Erickson briefs Mayor John Tecklenburg of Charleston, South Carolina prior to infrastructure overflight following the devastating impacts of Hurricane Dorian.

During the 2019 hurricane season, Hurricane DORIAN (September 6, 2019) destroyed areas of the Bahamas, but then steered offshore as it approached the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. The Air Station Savannah teams were poised and ready to respond, but DORIAN’s path skirted the coast which, while a relief to area residents, “was kind of a letdown” for Erickson’s new crews anxious to put their hard training to work. But just days following DORIAN’s movement away from the area would come the one heroic mission, performed by members of his Savannah team, that Erikson considers to be the “landmark rescue” of his command assignment. The M/V GOLDEN RAY was a fairly new (2017), 656-foot long cargo ship, designed specifically as a vehicle carrier. Loaded with over 4,000 new Hyundai and Kia cars, GOLDEN RAY departed the Port of Brunswick, Georgia, on the night of September 8, 2019, and shortly thereafter capsized, ending up lying on its side in comparatively shallow water (estimated depth: 31-feet).  Air Station Savannah got the call, and responded with two  helicopter crews, flying at night, for the trip to Brunswick, where they would focus on the anticipated rescue of the ship’s crew (joined throughout the operation by CG boats, an important assist to the successful rescues).  Thanks to the rapid response by that Savannah Coast Guard team, along with other  rescue personnel arriving later, there were no fatalities among the 24 ship’s crew on board, when there easily could have been, since there was a fire burning in the rear of the ship, and several crew members remained trapped below for over a day. They were ultimately rescued, alive, only after holes were cut through the ship’s hull by land-based rescue teams with heavy equipment!

All of the responding Savannah Air Station crew members performed heroically, and, perhaps most exceptionally, Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Nate Newberg who, in the darkness, was lowered down from his hovering helicopter, stepping off onto the pilot house wall of the severely-listing ship, and with great courage and ingenuity, was able to rescue the ship’s captain from the bridge via hoist up to the helicopter, and then by somehow finding and securing a fire hose to the pilot house wall, he was able to also rescue the Brunswick-based river pilot, trapped by debris at the other side of the bridge, by helping him climb out and then guide him down that hose to the water line, where he was then able to step right onto a waiting boat, which had arrived there from the Brunswick Coast Guard Station. Intense rescues completed, Newberg would eventually be hoisted back up to his helicopter.

For his skill, bravery, and ingenuity, operating under incredibly challenging conditions, Nate Newberg was subsequently awarded a meritorious promotion to AST-1 (Aviation Survival Technician First Class), and was also presented with an Air Medal. Ultimately, he was invited to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. where he was honored as the 2019 National USO Coast Guard Service Member of the Year, in the company of the Coast Guard Commandant, Congressman Buddy Carter (Georgia-1), and other dignitaries.

M/V GOLDEN RAY Rescue Crew – CDR Brian Erickson, Commanding Officer of Air Station Savannah, stands with his aircrews who responded to the capsizing of the M/V GOLDEN RAY.

Eric Young, the rescue swimmer from the second Air Station Savannah helicopter, was lowered down to another section of the ship, and was able to rescue three crew members, all by hoisting.  Executing challenging rescues, as well, he was awarded the Air Medal and was named the 2019 Air Station Savannah Coast Guard Person of the Year.

Commander Erickson remained ashore, serving with his operations team, as “quarterback,” managing response risk, while his on-scene teams down in Brunswick were achieving those amazing rescues.  “Long before this or any rescue, as the CO, you try to set up a culture at your unit, so that you have rescue teams that are willing to make on-scene decisions, willing to take warranted risks, for the saving of lives and property. I’m very proud that, on that night, they took every risk necessary to save those lives. And they knew that I would have their back.  Savannah is a forward leaning unit.  We wanted to get those people off that vessel, and we went to great lengths to do that. We will use fire hoses to rescue, we’ll land on the side of that overturned ship (which one of his helicopters actually did!), even though not approved. We’ll take that risk for the saving of life.  That culture, that trust. You may not see that in every unit,” he said.

Commander Erickson was then asked what might be the best memories of his Savannah tour, due to wrap-up soon.  “I’ll most remember all of the success that my people have had. My most enjoyable moments are pinning on an enlisted promotion and signing my name to a promotion certificate. That has been more enjoyable than I would ever have imagined,” he said.  Then, referring back to the heroics of the GOLDEN RAY and other meritorious rescues, he spoke of the enjoyment and pride he felt in “parading my people around who were involved in those great successes (media interviews, service club appearances, etc.).”  While he approved and arranged those appearances and meetings, he also ensured that the focus, the spotlight, was always solely on his people. He wanted the recognition to go exclusively to the members of his Air Station team who, through their superior performance, in the air and in the water, resulted in numerous lives saved.

An additional memory: the Coast Guard’s 295-foot Barque EAGLE made a visit to Savannah during his tenure here, permitting invited guests to travel aboard this majestic sailing vessel, from Tybee Island (GA) several miles in to the docking at Savannah’s downtown riverfront. Commander Erickson made the trip in with his seagoing brethren, giving him another vivid Savannah experience. “Standing on the deck of the EAGLE,  and watching three helicopters from my unit do multiple low passes, giving those on board ample photo opportunities, and just knowing that those Coast Guard pilots were having one of the best days of their life, that was really special,” he recalled. Even the federal government shut down (January 2019), with its temporary lack of pay for personnel, made his list of Savannah memories. “That was hard, but we came together as a family. So, even though it was tough for our folks, there were some positive memorable moments during that period,” he said.

And there was one public relations event while serving here in Savannah that remained firmly in Erickson’s mind.  It was the time he flew a local graduating senior to a reception at his school (May 2019).  That student was Tyler Bland.  His dad, Commander (retired) Chad Bland, a good friend of Erickson’s, was a fellow Coast Guard pilot, a classmate of his at Purdue, and who had been in the same C-130 unit together at the Aviation Logistics Center.  Tyler was graduating from Benedictine Military School (“BC”) in Savannah and, most importantly, had been accepted to attend the Coast Guard Academy, the very reason Erickson was permitted to take him on the flight!  He picked up Tyler and flew him from the Air Station to land right on the school grounds, the first time a helicopter had ever done that.  As he landed, “the entire school was chanting his name. He got out of the helicopter and fellow students picked him up over their heads, and everybody’s yelling ‘Tyler Bland, Tyler Bland.’  It was a joy to see them embrace Tyler as if he’d been there his entire life, even though he’d only attended for two years (CG dad had retired and moved to Savannah to work for Gulfstream),” remembered Erickson.

Then they all went into a near-by campus building for a brief ceremony, at which time Erickson presented Tyler with a certificate acknowledging his acceptance to the Academy, all the more special for this senior, since his school had a very definite military emphasis and tradition.  Erickson then returned to the helicopter with Tyler and flew back to the Air Station.  He later learned from some of the teachers that the event had been a very unique and exciting one, and that the students would be talking for some time about the day a Coast Guard helicopter actually landed at their school carrying a very special passenger, who was one of their own. Erickson hoped that maybe one day, one of those BC freshmen might recall that moment, and consider a rewarding career as an aviator in the Coast Guard.

CDR Brian Erickson shakes hands with Mr. James Clark, President of South Carolina State University during a static display and signing of a MOU between SCSU and USCG to increase partnerships.

Now, shifting from the present, and requesting that he look back to recall and summarize lessons-learned throughout his exceptional career-to-date, Commander Erickson was asked if he thought great leaders were born or made?  “I think they’re made,” he responded. “Some people may not be capable of great leadership just because of the way they’re wired. I think the right kind of influences in their up-bringing, and then along their pathway as adults, are probably what creates top-caliber leaders. Simply put, great leaders learn how to become great leaders from great people.” Erickson went on to say that “great leaders routinely possess great character, which includes integrity and responsibility, all elements necessary to comprise a person’s solid moral compass and positive outlook.  And, as such, those are the leaders who are willing to take calculated risk. Failing to do that can often cause a lack of innovation, even success, within the organization and its missions.”

With his defined set of great leader traits in mind, the Commander was then asked to think back to someone he had worked for, or with, who exemplified those qualities. Without any hesitation, the name Jason Tama came to mind.  Captain Jason Tama is currently the Captain of the Port and the Commander of Sector New York, “the Super Bowl of Coast Guard Sectors,” said Erickson. “More flag officers come from Sector New York than from any other sector assignment, a testament to the caliber of those selected to lead that demanding sector,” he added. “Captain Tama is one of the smartest leaders I’ve ever met.  He has an uncanny ability to recognize what’s important and what’s not, and he effectively separates the two. Additionally, he has a great sense of humor. He was the ‘fun-est’ boss I ever worked for,” recalled Erickson.  His job, back then, was demanding an required long hours, but he (Captain Tama) “made it a really good time.”

Captain Tama was Erickson’s supervisor during much of his time in the Office of Budgets & Programs at Coast Guard HQ in D.C. (2015-2017).  When Erickson was asked for the key advice from Captain Tama that he most remembered, it was this: “Everything’s gonna be OK.” “Getting excited about something that doesn’t matter, he said, is just noise,” recalls Erickson.  “The times I think about him are when my staff comes to me panicked over something.  My reaction back to them is a very calm, non-panicked one. That’s my way of attempting to calm them down, so that we can all rationally think through the problem and find a solution.  Captain Tama was really good about doing that.  Even with very important things back then, that to me, were critically important, like potential budget reductions, or dealings with Congress or late reports, he just made us all relax, calm down, and remind us that everything’s gonna be OK.  Let’s get through this, he’d say, and figure out what needs to be done,” remembered Erickson, reflecting on the obvious impact that important advice had on him, and especially so during his command.

Captain Brian C. Erickson, United States Coast Guard.

Savannah was Erikson’s first Coast Guard command.  He was asked what he would miss the most?  Without hesitation: “The joy of my peoples’ successes.  I honestly enjoy seeing my teammates reach their dreams, achieve their own individual definition of success, whatever that may be. And, honestly, that’s whether I’ve had any impact on it or not,” said Erickson. “And I’ll miss the comradery, the military comradery of an aviation unit,” he added on a concluding personal note.

The next career step for Commander Erickson will be one-year of study (2020-2021) at MIT’s highly-regarded Sloan School of Business in Boston, to earn his Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. You’ll recall that he had already earned one master’s degree at Purdue University several years earlier. This MIT tour is considered to be a senior service school assignment.  Once again, as with Purdue, he had been competitively selected, becoming the only Coast Guard officer chosen in 2020 to participate in this prestigious MIT Sloan Fellows program.

As indicted, Commander Erickson has been selected for promotion to Captain, with the planned pinning-on of that higher rank in August (2020). Following his MBA year, he anticipates that his next assignment with the Coast Guard would most likely be a Headquarters (D.C.) staff position, but if there is a service need, an O-Six (Captain) command at a larger Air Station having multiple aircraft types.  If the staff assignment comes first, then with his distinguished record, Captain-level command would most certainly follow.

During his command time in Savannah, he feels that he “tried to be really people focused, making sure that they were given all the tools and all the opportunities to succeed.”  And, that he did. Captain Erickson leaves command here with, he estimates, 35 lives saved or assisted, and a total of 2,600 Coast Guard flight hours (plus 2,500 civilian hours), during his service years to-date.  He is a bright, highly respected officer, pilot, and leader.  We wish Captain Brian Erickson all the very best as he continues with his impressive United States Coast Guard career.