So You Want My Job: Coast Guard Helicopter Flight Mechanic

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 1, 2010 · 28 comments

in So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Well we’ve covered the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, and the Marines. Today we finally round out our tour of the armed forces by featuring a Coastie. Adam Sustachek offers us an inside look at life in the US Coast Guard. Thanks for the awesome interview, Adam!

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc).

My name is Adam Sustachek, and I’m from Oceanside, CA. I am 39 years old and joined the Coast Guard in 1991. I am an Aviation Maintenance Technician First Class (AMT1) and a Flight Mechanic on the Sikorsky MH60 helicopter. As an AMT1 I specialize in maintaining, repairing, and troubleshooting the aircraft’s engines, rotary and hydraulic systems, and repairing any damage to the airframe itself. As a Flight Mechanic I am qualified, as part of the flight crew, to deploy and recover the swimmer from the water, vessel, or land, recover any survivors, and give direction to the pilot while hoisting.

2. Why did you want to join the Coast Guard? What made your choose this branch of the armed forces?

Two years after graduating from high school I felt lost. I had held several different jobs from dishwasher to deli worker to security guard and attempted college but nothing felt fulfilling. I started to party quite a bit and realized I needed to get my butt in gear. I looked at different services but finally settled on the Coast Guard when my dad brought it up and took me to the recruiter. This was during Desert Storm, and I liked the idea of saving lives instead of taking them.

3. I think the Coast Guard remains somewhat mysterious for a lot of people because of its size and mission. Is the process of joining generally the same as for the other branches of the military? Does the culture of the Coast Guard differ from that of other branches?

The Coast Guard is the smallest branch of the armed forces. We became part of the Department of Homeland Security after September 11, 2001. Prior to that we were part of the Department of Transportation and before that the Department of Treasury. Our rank structure is the same as the Navy and our pay scale falls in line with that of the other services. We have been mistaken for a branch of the Navy and during wartime our assets that are assisting overseas may fall under their command. So this may be where the confusion lies.

Joining the Coast Guard is very similar to the other services. You go and see a recruiter, take the entry exam, go through a physical, sign the paperwork, and head off to boot camp. Once you graduate boot camp you will most likely head off to your first unit unless you’ve been approved to attend a rating school right out of boot camp. Your first unit will give you the opportunity to see what the Coast Guard is all about and what kind of job you qualify for and may want to pursue. Once you’ve figured that out you put your name on the school list and wait. Sometimes the list is really short, and you’ll leave right away. Other jobs, like aviation, may keep you waiting close to a year before you’re sent over to one of our air stations to complete your airman program for 6 months and then get to school. After graduating school you head off to your new unit as a new Petty Officer Third Class and start working!

The culture of the Coast Guard is the same as the other services but different. Our rank structure and customs and courtesies and benefits are virtually the same. We have the enlisted ranks, Chief’s Corp and Officer’s Corp. We wear a uniform, salute our officers, and respect our senior enlisted. We also have access to other military installations and their exchange and commissary stores. The big difference is that because we are the smallest branch of the armed forces, we tend to be more personable among our ranks. We are more like a family.

4. You serve in the Coast Guard as a Helicopter Flight Mechanic. How much choice do you get in what job you are assigned to? Do you apply for what job you want and how does that process work?

Our aviation rating schools teach the basics on how to repair aircraft. The flight training comes when the graduate gets to their first unit. When a person signs up to be in aviation and gets approved for school there comes the understanding that that person will perform as part of a flight crew no matter the type of aircraft they end up on. We are considered “fixers” and “flyers.” In most of the other services you are either one or the other.

Upon graduation I requested to be on helicopters versus fixed-wing aircraft and got it. As you end your tour at a unit, usually three to four years, you submit a resume with your picks of where you want to go next. The open spots are on what we call a “shopping list.” Sometimes you like your choices and sometimes you don’t. Lucky for us it’s always temporary. I am currently stationed in Sitka, Alaska, which I chose, for the second time. I have previously been stationed in San Diego, CA, Kodiak, AK, and Elizabeth City, NC. All of them good units of which I have fond memories.

5. Describe a “typical” day at your job.

Oh man, every day is different! Let’s see…I’m a Primary Quality Assurance Inspector, so I might be inspecting the work performed on the aircraft by the other mechanics throughout the day or, if I am the ready Flight Mechanic for the day, I may get launched 250 miles off shore to pull an injured crewmember from a tanker. Since we are a small service we tend to wear many hats at our units. No two days are the same.

6. What is the best part of your job?

The flying and performing search and rescue. The anticipation as you arrive on scene and pull into a hover. You sling open the cabin door and see the small light bobbing in the darkness below. You motion for the rescue swimmer to move towards the door and feel the cold salty spray of the ocean just thirty feet below and call out over the intercom, “Rescue checklist part 2 complete. Ready to deploy swimmer.” The pilot replies with “Roger, conn me in.” “Roger,” I say, “Forward and right 40”… get in the zone. What feels like an hour takes maybe half that. You complete the hoisting evolutions, close the door, and you’re on your way home, adrenaline still pumping. You assist the swimmer with stabilizing and comforting the survivor. There is nothing like the feeling of saving someone’s life.

7. What is the worst part of your job?

When they don’t make it. We launched on a case out of Kodiak, Alaska where a 5 year old boy had turned up missing in a remote village. We found him on the beach face down at the waterline. He had fallen off a ten foot cliff and couldn’t swim. We landed in a field behind the house, ran down, grabbed the boy, and jumped in the helicopter with him and his mom. We performed CPR all the way back to Kodiak but he was gone……

8. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

Great! The nice thing about our aircraft is that we don’t deploy much. In Kodiak, AK or Clearwater, FL you will deploy to remote locations for 2-4 weeks at a time but that’s it. Most other units with the MH60 may deploy up to 2-3 nights due to search and rescue, law enforcement, or mechanical issues.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job or about the Coast Guard in general?

Most people think that our assets stay within our local waters only. This is indeed not the case. We have small boats, ships and law enforcement teams that deploy all over the world just like the other services. We assist with enforcing maritime treaties, clearing shipping lanes of ice during the winter, and training the coast guards of other countries.

10. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

If you’re a boater, please make sure you have all the proper survival equipment onboard and take a boaters safety course. The ocean is unpredictable and conditions can change in an instant. It could mean the difference between life and death for you or your loved ones. Wear your life jackets and stay safe!

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nathan December 1, 2010 at 11:47 pm

From one CG airedale to the next, great answers and great photos!

Not mentioned–flight mechs are a humble sort–flight mechanics are the lynch pin of the entire rescue operation. Before the helo’s rolling, the flight mechs have inspected and prepped it for launch. We pilots get them on scene, and the rescue swimmer gets the glory, but it’s the flight mech who guides the pilots into position, works the hoist cable (not as easy at looks), and works the cabin. Then when we get back, the flight mechs get the aircraft ready for the next mission. You can do a rescue with only one pilot (we usually have two), and even without a rescue swimmer, but you can’t hoist anyone without a flight mech.

In the Coast Guard, we frequently stand duty with just one air crew: two pilots, a flight mech, and swimmer. Deployed, you may have just three flight mechs working to keep the helo up and running. We give our people a lot of responsibility and put them in circumstances where they have to make the calls about how to get the helo fixed or get the mission accomplished. It can be challenging, but very rewarding.

Thanks for speaking up for the rest, Adam.

From Kodiak,
Nathan K.

2 Marlon December 2, 2010 at 1:25 am

Inspiring to hear that you found something that really motivated you when nothing else would. Just the thing I needed to motivate myself.

3 Graham Wilson December 2, 2010 at 6:18 am

Awesome. Total respect for what you do.

I know that in Australia they use Rescue Swimmers, but in the UK, we have inshore rescue swimmers (lifeguards) only, they are managed under contract either as volunteer units, local authority employees, or contracted through the RNLI. The RNLI operates the majority of the offshore lifeboats. The UK helicopter-based search and rescue service is going through a major restructuring right now and being transferred to a civilian contractor.

Excellent interview, thank you.

4 Jason Lightfoot December 2, 2010 at 10:19 am

Adam is my cousin, I’ll let you in on a secret, we were supposed to join together, he did, I went surfing, sorry bro!!!! He is truly an amazing human, doing a truly thankless job, the USCG gets little to no recognition for what they do, they are the ones that protect this great country yet we hardly ever hear about it. All my love and respect to you cuz!!!

5 Random Guy December 2, 2010 at 10:28 am

This post could not have been timed better. I’m actually hoping to join as soon as I finish this school year, and AMT was the rating I wanted to go for. Excellent stuff; I’m really looking forward to it.

6 Paul S. December 2, 2010 at 11:22 am

Great article Adam! I served in the USCG from ’74 – ’78, enlisting for many of the same reasons you did. I was 19, going from one lousy job to another and flunking classes at a community college. My best friend’s dad was a Coastie and he suggested my best friend and I go together and speak to a recruiter. We ended up joining together and the CG straightened my a** out in short order! I learned the value of hard work, respect, responsibility, initiative and leadership. One of the best experiences of my life was serving on board the USCGC RUSH (WHEC 723) from ’77 – ’78, going on ALPAT and conducting search and rescue missions in the N. Pacific, Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea. When I got out in ’78 I went right back to college on the G.I. Bill and graduated cum laude from California State U. San Francisco in 82. Three years later I went to Santa Clara University and earned an MBA. Today I’m self-employed, running my own business since ’99. I’m convinced that if it wasn’t for the USCG and the values and experiences I left with after my enlistment was up, I never would have achieved any of this. And thanks, AoM, for remembering that the Coast Guard is indeed one of our armed forces!

7 David Chabner December 2, 2010 at 1:25 pm

The proof is in the pudding. Adam is married to one of my niece’s, and as a suspicious uncle, I watched him closely as he drew in into her life. What a man of integrity! If the Coast Guard played a part in that, hurrah for the CG in producing such a man of focused caring, excellence, and role model for those around him.

8 Chris Kavanaugh December 2, 2010 at 1:49 pm

USCG 1973-1979 seperated with a head fracture rolling a 44MLB .
I never went to a duty station without knowing at least one other coastie.It is a unique branch; created from multiple earlier organiszations ; revenue cutter service, lighthouse service, lifeboat service and capable of multitasking many government agencies wish to.
from day one you THINK. I was a E2 on airstation Kodiak. A helo came in with empty hydraulics in the nose landing gear that wouldn’t deploy, We were looking at setting her down in the bay.
I grabbed a truck, pulled mattresses from the barracks down by jewel beach and the old Billican club on the hill and drove back. A senior chief saw me, yelled for people to grab a mattress and we built a tmporary cradle.
I went from nonrate blackshoe to team member. then evrybody had to figure out how to sleep until we got new matresses LOL.

9 Don MacIntyre December 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Excellent interview Adam, your answers were concise and direct.
Being a former FM AND Rescue Swimmer, I saw the best of both worlds, and would have chosen FM had I been given a choice.
Semper Paratus.

10 Deanna December 2, 2010 at 3:24 pm

To Nathan: Thank you for your comment about how unsung a hero the Flight Mechanic really is. My husband is an AMT1 stationed in Clearwater, FL right now. He’s been a Coastie over 10 years now and I could not be an prouder of him. FM’s do such amazing work in so many different areas but receive very little credit for the excellent job that they do.
To Adam: Excellent Interview! Great job telling the world the real story of being a Flight Mech. Its a tough and dirty job, but very rewarding and worth every minute in the end. Conrgatulations!

11 ANDY NORRIS December 2, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Paul S.
I laughed hearing about how the Coast Guard straightened your a** out, and taught you the value of honor, respect, hard work, and the like. It’s a great story you tell, and I may have to share it with my under-achieving kids to maybe motivate them.

12 Dale Hubbard December 2, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Great interview. I was stationed with some of the saltiest dogs there were. One being a future MCP of the Coast Guard, Jay Lloyd. I learned from all of them and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my adventures and how lucky I was to be doing that work at 19. No job or employer has measured up since. A sentiment I share with most of the ex-coasties I know now. Keep up the good work.

13 Joanna Hiigel December 2, 2010 at 10:39 pm

As the wife of a CG pilot thank you – thank you for for the hours spent ensuring the helo stays in the air! Great interview.

14 Jody Blackwell December 2, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Great interview, Adam… I read it to Bobby, too… I’m gonna post it on my facebook page.

15 Adam December 2, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Thank you all for your kind words and thanks to Brett and Kate for the opportunity! It is truly an honor to serve this country in a capacity that I feel makes a real difference in peoples lives.

Jason- miss you cuz. Hope FL is treatin’ you well. I believe your exact words were “I’m gonna go back to Colorado to be a ski instructor.”

David- thank you for the comments. Didn’t know I was being eyed so closely during my courtship with Summer. ;)

Jody- Tell Bobby I said hello and hope you guys are doing well in Astoria.

16 Chris December 3, 2010 at 10:33 am

I am currently in the CG and I really enjoyed the article. I was looking at the Offical Coast Guard Blog and the article was talked about on their website. Keep up the good work.

17 Chris December 3, 2010 at 10:33 am
18 Bob Sustachek December 4, 2010 at 6:56 pm

As Adam’s father, I have to say I couldn’t be prouder of him. He is, like all our servicemen, a true hero. Adam represents what is good and virtuous in this country.
Adam, I am so glad you chose the profession that you did. It suits your courage and determination You make a difference … and most of the time in dangerous circumstances. We love you and miss you. We can’t wait until you come back home safe.

19 Daniel Toms December 5, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I’m a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Philadelphia and am glad to see the Coasties finally get their due in this series! Everything about the Coast Guard espouses what it is to be a real “man” (or woman – not to leave out the female Coasties who do just as good of a job!). They serve their country, save lives, and will sacrifice themselves if it will save somebody – true heroes. A shout out to the Coasties at Sector Delaware Bay – they’re all good people and are always glad to see us. I’m currently a qualified Auxiliary crew member and want to pursue a career in the Coast Guard once I’m done college (I want to shoot for the Surfman qual eventually) – what other job could a man who values honor, respect, and devotion to duty want more?

Semper Paratus!

20 Bob McLellan USCG, Ret December 5, 2010 at 6:44 pm


Nice job on the interview. I am a retired AMTC (1983-2005). Really miss it on the sunny days, but has you know we seem to always go out in the storms… Keep up the good work! The retirement is with the hard work you put in. God Bless you.

21 Jude Williford December 6, 2010 at 10:55 am

I have the joy and honor of being Adam’s mother-in-law…I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful person for my daughter to share her life and raise a family with.. We call him our own “rescue hero” .. Aside from watching him as a great father and husband, I’ve also observed his dedication and enthusiasm for his chosen career. Making a real difference, in this life, is our greatest contribution . .. gratefully I’ve added a “son” to my family who does that every day. ……..Love You!!

22 Hope Wright December 6, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Thanks for sharing that with us, Adam! I am going to report it tonight at my USCG Auxilioary Division meeting (Division 12, Sector NY) which will have several Aviators in attemdamce. We all appreciate the great job YOU and all our other Coasties are doing every day… and that is why we are in the USCG Auxiliary…to help with the Mission!

23 Julian Luna December 11, 2010 at 11:22 pm

GOOD Job on the article. Very detailed and well written. Wow and a father too. Good luck to you and Mindi

24 Adam December 13, 2010 at 7:10 pm

“GOOD Job on the article. Very detailed and well written. Wow and a father too. Good luck to you and Mindi”

Thanks Julian but my wife’s name is Summer…

Read more:

25 Christopher Souter December 15, 2010 at 12:19 am

Thank you guys for this article! I was on the fence on which division of the military to join. This just inspired me to give my CG recruiter a call!

26 michaelb1 December 22, 2010 at 10:02 am

I’m in the IT field in the Coast Guard. It is exactly like AMT1′s experience, except without all the adventure and death defying life saving work.

27 Luna December 27, 2010 at 3:11 am

SustacheK sorry for the oversight with Summers name. Luna

28 Richar Winn December 30, 2012 at 12:03 am

served 20 years from 76-97 and was a flight mechanic AD1 when i was medically retired for a back injury while hoisting in a rescue on the HH-3F. selected as first flight crew for naval helicopter of the year award with first selected coast guard astronaut bruce melnic. awarded air medal and achievement medal went on to fly and qualify on HC-131 as flight engineer, HH-52, HU-25,
recruiter, and HH-60J. I eat coast guard for lunch i really miss it!

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