When the Aviation Survival Technician  (AST) rating was established originally as Aviation Survivalman (ASM) in 1969, its focus was almost exclusively on the inspection, maintenance, troubleshooting, and repair of systems and equipment found aboard Coast Guard aircraft, the majority of which were associated with aircrew safety (oxygen-delivery, aircrew rescue kits, protective clothing, dewatering systems). But the rating, which was sometimes erroneously referred to as “Aviation Survival Equipmentman,” underwent a radical transformation in the mid-1980s following the 1983 sinking of the M/V Marine Electric and the loss of 31 members of its crew (just three survived), due in large part to the Coast Guard’s lack of rescue swimmers.

In light of a 1984 Congressional mandate to create a “helicopter rescue swimmer program,” the Coast Guard was faced with the challenge of finding the most timely and effective method of creating an operational cadre of rescue swimmers. Rather than establishing a new rating, the Coast Guard decided in June, 1984 to expand the rating most closely associated with survival at sea, Aviation Survivalman, to include rescue-swimming responsibilities. Because many veteran Coast Guard personnel in the ASM rating lacked either the physical capabilities or the requisite passion and interest to serve as rescue swimmers, those at the E7 paygrade or higher were exempted from the new and highly rigorous training program. (Those below that rate were given the opportunity to change to another rating.)

The dividends of the Coast Guard’s resolute determination to create a rescue-swimming program as quickly as possible came less than a year after the announcement of the changes to the ASM rating, when a man suffering from hypothermia after his boat had capsized was saved by rescue swimmers based at Air Station Elizabeth City on May 4, 1985.

Although the Aviation Survivalman rating was redesignated Aviation Survival Technician in 1999, the training regimen and duties remained the same. In addition to 18 weeks spent at the rating’s “A” School (also in Elizabeth City), Coast Guard personnel seeking qualification in the AST rating must also attend a four-week EMT course hosted at the Technical Training Center in Petaluma, California and pass a National Registry EMT test to prove they can deliver essential life-support measures once they have performed their initial job of sea rescue.

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