By RICHARD F. BELISLE
9:14 PM EST, December 2, 2012
Serving aboard U.S. Coast Guard cutters was not a good fit for David Cooper and his queasy stomach.
“It wasn’t the pitch, it was the roll that did it,” said Cooper, 67, who retired Saturday after a long career flying helicopters for the Coast Guard for nearly 18 years, then 15 more years in Maryland State Police helicopters in Cumberland, Md.
One day on a rescue mission, a Coast Guard helicopter flew over his cutter on its way to the rescue. It was an epiphany. From then on he would fly, not sail.
He signed up for flight school, and by 1971, he was flying helicopters on Coast Guard search-and-rescue missions.
Cooper, who lives on Mountain Lake Road in Hedgesville, recalled a rescue involving a small Soviet freighter that broke up in the Caribbean when he was stationed there. The ship’s bow sank first. The crew was hanging on to a railing in the stern.
“We got them all off but one guy, who was missing. We searched until dark but couldn’t find him. We came back the next day and saw him clinging to a big beam. He was Filipino and said he was Catholic. He said he prayed all night for the sharks to get him because he didn’t have the courage to let go of the beam and drown himself. That would have been suicide.”
Cooper recalls five accidents in which Coast Guard pilots and crew members died flying missions.
By the time he retired from the Coast Guard in 1988 as a lieutenant commander, Cooper had logged more than 7,500 hours flying various Coast Guard helicopters.
For some years afterward, he flew for the Forest Service and hospital-based medevac helicopters in Spokane, Wash.
In 1997, he joined the Maryland State Police Aviation Command and was assigned to fly helicopters in Cumberland, the town in which he was born.
Cumberland and Salisbury, Md., on the Eastern Shore are the two MSP helicopter sections that fly the fewest missions because of low populations, he said. His work schedule was three days a week, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“Sometimes I felt like a firefighter waiting around for something to happen,” he said.
Many flights in Cumberland stemmed from auto and all-terrain vehicle accidents involving drunken drivers, he said.
The normal routine from Cumberland was to fly up to 30 miles south of the state line into West Virginia and north into Pennsylvania. Flights could be extended upon request.
Nearly two decades of flying over the ocean prepared Cooper for flying into tight spots in the unpredictable weather and mountainous terrain of Western Maryland.
He recalls two instances when his experience paid off. One involved the rescue of three workmen trapped on the platform on a 1,000-foot-high smokestack that was under construction in Moundsville, W.Va. The other involved the night rescue of a man caught in fast-rising waters in Sideling Hill Creek.
Both required tricky flying and maneuvering so the flight medic could lower a basket to the victims.
“Sitting over a burning tower didn’t stress me out,” he said. “You train for it and you do it.”
Cooper commuted from home to Cumberland.
He and his wife, Vicki, have a grown daughter, Katherine.
Cooper’s retirement plans are fluid.
“I’m a member of the Civil Air Patrol and I’ll do some flying for them,” he said.
Cooper should fit right in because the Civil Air Patrol flies search-and-rescue missions.
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