Sunday, August 11, 2013

Coast Guard veteran Larry Rogers loves flying

Larry Rogers, now 66, and his oldest grandson, Ethan, age 4, sit outside an abandoned barn on the prairie-like property near his house. Said Ethan: “When I grow up, I want to join the Coast Guard like you.” 
Photo Courtesy/Credit:  Jennifer Rogers Spinola, Butte County Post

Branch of Service: U.S. Coast Guard 

Years of Service: 1967-1971

Locations Served: South Carolina, Alaska

Quote: “We were flying by the seat of our pants and moonlight on water.”

It was love at first sight.

Many of the folks in Belle Fourche know U.S. Coast Guard veteran Larry Rogers for his gunsmithing skills and jobs at local gun shops like the Buckstop and former Triggers operation, but not everybody realizes his long-standing love affair with planes and flying.

“I worked at the local airport when I was in high school,” said Rogers, a Virginia native who’s been smitten with flying and aircrafts since childhood. “I was the kid who washed and fueled airplanes and traded my money for flying lessons.”

Rogers rented a Piper Colt, among other planes, and was hooked for life.

So hooked, in fact, that when he received his draft notice at the start of the Vietnam War, he joined the Coast Guard instead — and landed a front-and-center spot in the SAR (search and rescue) crew because of his flight experience.

“I liked the mission of the Coast Guard,” said Rogers. ‘They sink ‘em, we save ‘em.’”

Rogers went to New Jersey for boot camp and served a short time in South Carolina in communications, dispatching boats to disabled ships.

He then trained at the Naval Air Training Center in Tennessee, learning both piston engine maintenance and jet engine maintenance — unlike Navy recruits at the center, who were only required to learn one.

After training, he was sent to a remote base on Annette Island, Alaska, which many Coast Guard recruits considered barren, cold, and mind-numbingly isolated.

Rogers, on the other hand, loved the raw, pristine beauty of mountainous Alaska, with its fire-orange sunsets and breathtaking snowcaps — and what he called the “wild, untamed” spirit of the place.

“I spent a lot of time hunting, camping, hiking, and exploring,” he said. “There were no cigarette butts, soda cans, or trash. You’re the only one who’s been there in a hundred years.”

The weather was tough, yes, and the isolation sometimes difficult, but Rogers said, “You learn how to cope.”

“You learn how to dress, how to have fun,” said Rogers. “You make your own fun. I learned to entertain myself there. I read a lot and started a gun collection. It’s what you make of it. Alaska is still the Last Frontier. It’s beautiful. It’s free.”

Rogers served as search and rescue air crewman and co-pilot to begin with, and volunteered for extra air time. “All aviation duty was volunteer,” he said. “I just liked flying so much that I signed up for every airplane going out.”

In between medevacs, searching for lost hunters, and resupplying light houses, Rogers flew search and rescue in what he and others have labeled “the worst weather in the world.” His flights were often in a Sikorsky HH52-A helicopter or an HU16-E Grumman Albatross.

“There’s wind. There’s snow. There’s rain, rain, rain, and you’re flying at night," he said. "The weather changes in a moment from bad to worse. And when people get injured or sick, it seems like the weather’s never good.”

As far as memorable search and rescue missions go, Rogers said he recalls several.

There was the one where a Russian sailor had broken his back, and after making the 60-70-foot hoist, the litter was taken under the deck, leaving the boat still tethered to a helicopter.

There were the calls for “a boat on fire,” which quite often turned out to be nothing more than the midnight sun just over the curve of the horizon, sparkling deep orange-red through the boat windows.

But the one Rogers remembered the best was a medevac on Prince of Wales Island, one of a series of remote islands off the Alaskan archipelago.

The call came in from a new logging camp that Rogers said “wasn’t even on the map.”

A pick-up truck had badly wrecked, leaving a father and two boys (around age 8 and 10) with head injuries and unconsciousness.

And before that, they still had to pick up the local doctor at a second location. That pickup was at the Indian village of Metlakatla on another separate island.

The mission meant taking all of the passengers to the hospital in Juneau. That was a good 200 to 300 miles up the coast.

“And we had to find this place at night,” said Rogers. “It was all visual. Through the clouds, with no aids to navigation. No GPS. We were flying 200 feet off the water and electronic navigation devices on aviation didn’t work at that altitude.”

Rogers called it, with a laugh, flying by “the seat of our pants and moonlight on water.”

The helicopter crew headed to Metlakatla, picked up the doctor, and then started on the west side of Prince of Wales Island to work their way up the heavily-forested coast.

“We came around the point of a mountain and could see another mountain coming up out of the water on the left,” said Rogers.

“On the right, we could see moonlight on water and came up on three pick-ups with their headlights illuminating a man-made gravel bar they had pushed out of the water just so we could land. We landed on that gravel bar. And again, all of this at night,” he said.

After the father was sedated and both unconscious boys stabilized, the mother and grandmother wanted to go along to the hospital, too. That meant that Rogers and the crew had no time for last-minute weight calculations whatsoever. They just had to take off and pray.

Rogers spent his time in Alaska doing similar calls: boats that had sunk, body retrieval (“the worst,” he said), taking mail to lighthouses. They carried people like lighthouse maintenance crews to “little spots of land where they stayed there for a year, nothing else around for a hundred miles, and the rest ocean.”

He left the Coast Guard in 1971 and obtained a degree in forestry. He worked for International Paper for five years and the U.S. Forest Service for 30 more as a timber sale administrator.

Rogers transferred to Spearfish with the Forest Service in 2004, retired in 2007, and decided to stay in Belle Fourche. He earned a B.A. in history in and started a master’s degree in 1987.

Rogers married Doris Lambert in 1972 and was widowed in 1996. He has two grown daughters, and more recently, two young grandsons, both of whom also live in Belle Fourche.

He is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church. He is a member of Disabled Veterans of America because of hearing loss from the close proximity of jet engine roar to the helicopter cockpit. He’s also an NRA-certified firearms instructor and part-time gunsmith. He enjoys raising chickens and riding his Harley, an ’04 Dyna Wide-Glide, for bike aficionados.

When he’s not out riding, it’s a safe bet you can find Rogers flying balsa wood model gliders or hiking the ridges and pastures behind his cabin with his two dogs and four-year-old grandson by his side—almost like he used to in Alaska.

Story and Photo Gallery: