Here is something I sometimes watch when there’s stressful news.

If you live near a coast of the US, you’ve probably seen many MH/HH-60/65 search and rescue helicopters in Coast Guard orange and white. They are nicknamed Tupperwolves by some crews: Tupper from Tupperware®, because they are more plastic than most aircraft, and wolf from the show Airwolf, which starred a heroic helicopter. These craft appeared in my childhood as fire trucks might have appeared in others’. YouTube provides us with many videos of them at work. They are full of danger but end happily through careful, altruistic collaboration.

The Coast Guard’s air-sea rescues are by teams of three: a pilot (including a basically inert co-pilot), who flies the helicopter, a flight mechanic/hoist operator, who raises and lowers the basket, and a rescue swimmer, who gets survivors into the basket. From this you can guess that the pilot must be a virtuoso, and the swimmer clearly a great athlete, but you might suppose that the hoist operator could be anyone who can push a lever. Not so. Watch a minute or two of the typical video above (you may skip at random; I particularly enjoy the part starting at about 2:10).

The hoist operator is the one doing almost all the talking, and she’s doing it because she’s the nexus of the whole operation. The pilot is indeed an expert, a real world-class hoverer, but he’s in a machine with a floor, and so, because he’s trying to stay over something drifting below him in heavy seas – instead of an abstract, GPS-defined point – he’s blind. He can act as a lookout for dangerous waves, and he can tell the hoist operator if she asks for something impossible, but basically the helicopter moves at her direction.

Meanwhile, the swimmer is generally off-radio because speakers and microphones don’t enjoy swimming without a facemask (and he would be inaudible in the spray and downwash anyway); he communicates with the hoist operator mostly by gesture. So running the hoist itself is really the least of her duties – probably the pilot could have the lever and she could give him directions. Her actual job is to have situational awareness of the entire rescue. She’s the one who integrates a picture of the whole operation (wave timings, the helicopter’s flight charactersitics, the swimmer’s actions, …) and makes the decisions about what’s going to happen next. She’s constantly handling ambiguity, making small plans, and ensuring that her partners have the information they need when they need it.

For example, one thing you start to notice as you watch these is that the hoist operators do a lot of subtle preventative work to avoid pendulum motions building up in the basket in the combination of wind and downwash. A swinging basket could destabilize the helicopter or slam the survivor against it when they came alongside, but the hoist operator’s only tools are the timing of their directions to the pilot and direct manipulation of the cable. This is enough: you never see out-of-control swinging.

This one has some after-the-fact remarks from the pilot (NVG means night-vision goggles).

I wasn’t being snide when I called the pilots world-class hoverers.

This one illustrates that a person standing among redwoods is still referred to as a swimmer on a deck, and that hoist operators often work lying prone.

At about 2:42 here, the pilot asks whether the swimmer is traversing, and from then on the hoist operator gives him updates on that. (Many survivors will be in shock or hypothermic, and thus behaving erratically while still looking and superficially sounding healthy.) Later, the hoist operator is concerned about cleanly breaking contact with the cliff – lifting too much from the inshore side would pull the swimmer and survivor along the rocks, but too much from the offshore side would cause a pendulum; as a complicating factor, downwash does strange things along irregular slopes.

Here we have the interesting twist of talking to the survivor on the phone.

Although it’s likely that this crew is merely operating briskly because of the good weather conditions, compared to the deliberateness of the other rescues it seems almost as if they’re in a hurry to get this rescue over with so they can run other minor errands in this one.

These help me when I’m feeling complicated about human nature, ethical intervention, the potential for good of various kinds of personal and organizational power, etc. I hope they might do the same for you.

Everyone now and then the internet gives you something you didn’t know you’d find fascinating. This is the best.