The U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer test starts with the equivalent of wrestling a linebacker in a hurricane, and gets worse from there.
Called the Multi—short for Three-Man Multiple Rescue Scenario—it’s the final test a U.S. Coast Guard airman must pass to become an Aviation Survival Technician (AST), an elite swimmer who leaps into water out of a helicopter and hauls drowning mariners to safety.
“The Multi is a fitness test, but it’s also a gut-check test,” says Senior Chief Scott Rady, a veteran AST—he saved lives during Hurricane Katrina—and school chief of the Coast Guard’s Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, NC. “Grown men are crying when they’re done with this, because they know they’ve overcome the last hurdle on their way to becoming an AST. It’s a big deal.”
Aspiring airmen have to pass a PT test: 50 pushups, 60 situps, 5 pullups, 5 chinups, a 1.5-mile run in less than 12 minutes, a 500m swim in less than 12 minutes, and four 25m lengths of the pool underwater.
Airmen train for 24 weeks—swimming in full gear, hauling bricks from pool floors, practicing aquatic judo—all while learning the technical aspects of helicopter rescues. “We usually start with a class of 24,” Rady says. “My senior class now has four guys in it.”
When it’s time for the Multi, airmen are summoned one by one, with no advance warning, to the training center’s specialized pool. No two tests are exactly the same. “Guys who take the Multi never tell the next class what happens,” Rady says. “That uncertainty is a big deal.”
Each airman suits up in full rescue gear and enters a simulated hellscape: wind, rain, waves, fog, rotor wash, screaming victims, maybe a sinking ship. Amid the roaring darkness, he jumps from a “helicopter” simulated on a platform 15 feet above the pool.
In a test of endurance and total-body strength, the airman has 35 minutes to save three victims, including a downed aviator he’ll have to free from a 28-foot parachute—effectively a sea anchor that could drag them under in a split second.
If the airman takes too long, he fails. If he gets locked up in a victim’s frantic choke hold, he fails. If he gets too tired from swimming through the waves and hauling bodies into baskets for helicopter retrieval, he fails.