Lieutenant Commander Che Barnes sadly died doing what he loved most: saving people's lives and flying. He and his crew were in a C-130 Hercules when there was a mid-air collision between them and a Marine helicopter off of the San Diego coast on 10-29-09 while he was on a search and rescue mission. Che was a really great person and I'm sure we will all remember him for what he did best. Che has flown numerous rescue missions and saved many people's lives, but sadly lost his own, along with his crew and 2 Marines.
The Coast Guard's motto is "Semper Paratus" which means Always Ready. The USCG Rescue Swimmers motto is "So Others May Live". All I can say is that Che risked his life proudly so others may live.
I'm going to miss him.
Here is the interview I did with Che in February of 2009
I first met Lt. Cdr. Che Barnes in 2007 when my dad and I went to see the IAC (International Aerobatic Club) practice flying at the Tracy airport. One of the pilots was this really nice guy who said he flew for the Coast Guard. He spent a bunch of time telling me all about his plane and stuff. Then in 2008 at the Pacific Coast Dream machines car and airshow in Half Moon Bay, the Coast Guard flew in a C-130 – and Che was the pilot! Because he is a very busy guy and had to go out on many deployments, it took a while before we could hook up for an interview. I really lucked out with this interview because I got a great tour of Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento too!
What got you interested in flying?
"It was something that I was into when I was very young like maybe eight years old and the first time I remember I saw cropdusters near our farm and I thought that was something else. I think it was. I remember looking in the cockpit of an Aeronca Champ that some guy built and thinking that's what I wanted to do and I really wanted to fly. Then my dad took me to a few air shows and I was hooked. Sounds familiar huh?
"My first airplane ride was in an airliner at about seven or eight years old and that was something else. I was really excited. I remember seeing the airplanes taxiing around from the terminal and just I just wanted to get in one. That just whetted my appetite even more I think a pilot saw me peeking into the cockpit and he said, 'Hey, want to come in and check it out?' And they showed me the cockpit and that really added to my interest!
"The other part of my story is there was a guy who had built a plane and he took me on a ride. I was about your age and I could barely reach the rudder pedals. That was the first time actually flying. I think in the United States were really lucky to have general aviation and actually taking flying lessons is a pretty achievable goal if that's what you wanted. I grew up on a small farm and I didn't by any means have at an excess of money and I was highly interested in taking lessons and for summers I’d work for the farm for five bucks an hour and I was able to work all week. The cost of one-hour lesson was like $70 so for one week I earn about $70 and then on Saturday or Sunday I'd take a lesson. And this is when I was about 14 or 15 years old. So I ended up soloing on my 16th birthday which is quite an accomplishment but at the time I didn't realize it. I think my instructor made sure that it happened. Looking back I was extremely lucky to have parents that supported me but it was achievable, I could make it work and make enough money to buy lessons while I was still in high school. Where else in the world can you do that?
Were your parents okay with you flying?
"Yeah, I think my mom was mystified why I was so interested in flying but they both supported me and encouraged me to follow my interests to the point where they let me solo when I was 16 years old and continue get my pilots license when I was 17. My first passenger was my grandfather which I don't know what he was thinking! He was the first passenger I took up! He did want to go but who knows, maybe they all talked together and said okay was going to go first as my first passenger. But eventually I took my whole family flying.
"It was a pretty remarkable experience although financially at that time I'm 17 years old 18 years old and looking at college and also the idea of having money to fly and get my commercial in the civilian world was cost prohibitive. But that's one of the reasons why was interested in the military and I knew that flying for the military, I'd have a little more choices about what I was going to fly and the missions I would be on. I applied to the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. All those forces had airplanes and that was my criteria. For the Air Force the Navy you need a nomination from my senator or congressman to go but I couldn't get a nomination. But I did get an appointment to the Coast Guard Academy and you don't need a nomination for that. It was just a straight application and competition. The Coast Guard Academy is statistically harder to get into, they accept a smaller percentage of applicants but they don't have the nomination process.
"So I got accepted to the Academy and I decided to go. It was a lesson in being persistent. My whole goal was to fly and it was a four-year program at the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard of course is a maritime service so I got to get all this exposure to ships and not too much exposure to aviation but after you graduate there's a mandatory two-year tour on a ship. Mine happened to be out of Alameda California before going to flight school. So that six years with a lot of work before I got to actually be flying.
"So the different path to flight school is first you have to be an officer. The only service where that's not the case is the Army. With the Army you can go from high school to flight school but you’ll only fly helicopters and that's actually a really neat opportunity if that's what you're interested in. For all the other services you have to have a college degree and for the most part get a commission. There’s different ways to get commissioned; you can go to college on your own and apply for officer candidate school and then from there to flight school. The Coast Guard is not going to give you a guarantee, except for the Blue 21 program, but you can go to OCS and then go serve in the Coast Guard if you're medically qualified, you're smart and a hard worker, you can go to flight school. There's no guarantee but if you don't go for it won't get it. There are some people who did two tours on ships before they got into flight school but again that's persistence.
"Another thing about flying with the military is that you're an officer first and a pilot second. I could tell you stories about neat flying experiences that I've had but keep in mind if you think you're going to join the Coast Guard and fly everyday that's not what they need. They need leaders and managers and people who know how to work with people, and people that know how to write. So you're an officer first. You've done flight school, get to your first air station, and there like, 'Welcome to Air Station Sacramento, you’re the morale officer now. Here's your account, go audit this account.' 'Hey I thought I was supposed to fly!?' But now the priority is to run the air station. This is true with every service. The job is not full-time flying. With an airline, they fly a lot more every month but that's all they do, they’re full-time pilots. With the Coast Guard and other services you don't fly nearly as much but you get a lot more responsibilities and more neat flying opportunities. I think it's pretty neat!
"If you fly everyday, I don't care who you are, if you do something everyday it's eventually going to start getting tiring and it turns into just a job. Where the Coast Guard I get to do all kinds of really neat things. I’ve met a lot of really great people. I've learned how to work with people in run an organization, evaluating people all that stuff. And when you go to the Academy and OCS, that stuff that they concentrate on, if you're good at that and you go your first unit even if it's not flight school at first. The worst thing to do is just to think all I did to get flight school so not to work very hard. If you do that you're never going to get the flight school. If you're on a ship and you're working really hard on the ship, at some point someone will say, “Son, where do you want to go?” Make sure you save flight school! I think that's how good organizations work and I think military organizations fall into that category
So how long have you been in the Coast Guard and are you going to stay in it?
"I went to the Academy 1992 and graduated in 1996 so I've been officer for 12 years and been in the Coast Guard for like 16. The military is changing the way they view flight school commitments. I know guy who joined the Air Force and was in the Air Force for five years after college. He flew B-52s and then went out and joined the airlines. Those days are kind over now. When you go to flight school in the military, you're looking at a 10 year service commitment. So be aware of that. The reality is if by the time you do something for 10 years and are pretty good at it, you know the organization. I was kind of at the point where I could get out or stay in and I stayed in and I'm looking at retirement in 20 years and it just makes less and less sense to get out and also the job gets more rewarding the better you get at it.
"The big reason people get out of the military I think is family life. The Coast Guard’s not that bad, you have to move every four years. You do deploy if you fly helicopters - you might deploy for 60+ days on the back of a ship. The C-130s will deploy for a couple weeks or maybe three weeks at the most that's not that bad. When you talk to these guys in the Navy and they’ve been deployed for 6 to 8 months or the Marines and Army guys and Air Force, they deploy into theater for a year or more. And those are the things that when you're young you don't care about that at all but as you get older and have a family it gets harder on your lifestyle. I'm lucky I live close to the area where I grew up. My brothers live nearby. Other pilots stationed here, their families are 1000 or more miles away. It's a different lifestyle. I think people that if people grew up in it, it makes it bit little easier but I grew up in the same place my whole life so the idea of moving every four years is still something I guess I'm getting used to It took some getting used to.
"In 2011 my four years are up here and I don't know where I'll be going then. It’s not necessary to be flying your whole career. I might be looking to going to a staff job anywhere from Washington DC to some command center in Alameda or possibly Boston Miami, different places in the country review staff work and that's an important part. The Coast Guard needs people to run the bureaucratic aspect of the organization but then they know how the operation level works. If you have that experience, you’re more valuable. So that's another choice that pilots find themselves in. Do I want to fly my whole career and be limited with my promotability or do I want to go serve in a staff job? But I have to say that after standing duty for 10 years, a staff job sounds kind of nice!
So at first you flew helicopters but why did you transition to C-130s?
"Well, I always wanted to fly airplanes so I flew Falcons in Puerto Rico. The Falcon 20 is made by Dassault. They put them in Puerto Rico and I flew them for two years and the budget structure changed so they pulled them out. So they gave me an opportunity to transition to helicopters because they had too many fixed wing pilot.
"I always wanted to fly and to fly with the military is to do something exciting. At first I wanted to be a fighter pilot and another thing about that is when I went to the Academy my eyes started to go. Back then, you had to have 20/20 to be a fighter pilot and it was very questionable about whether I'd even get to flight school and that was another reason that I stayed in the Coast Guard. I thought about transferring over to fly fighter planes but I failed the medical examination for the Navy and the doctor said, “son you will never fly with a military.” And that was pretty tough.
"So went back to the Coast Guard office and said hey I just failed a physical and the yeoman/office manager said okay we’ll have to get your waiver and it’ll take a couple of weeks and that was that! I was waivered and I was flying a month later. If I was in the Navy or the Air Force I don't think that would've happened. So that's another thing about the Coast Guard, it's a small flexible service and things like that happen.
"If you look at Hurricane Katrina and what happened, there was no one who anticipated it. They anticipate a lot more now. Whenever there's a hurricane, a lot of things have been set up, but when that happened there was a bunch of Coast Guard pilots who saw people in the water, on rooftops, and they took it in their own hands and went into action and did the right thing. They were empowered by the organization to do that. They didn't have to get permission from very high in the chain of command and they just knew the Coast Guard was about saving lives and that's what they did. That kind of culture makes a Coast Guard special. Yeah, the day I got the waiver I was like “wow the Coast Guard is the way to go!”
So Che, please share some of your Coast Guard experiences, cool stories and adventures.
"I wanted to get some excitement so I went to the helicopter training and then reported to Air Station San Francisco. I hadn’t flown the helicopter that much and the key piece of flying anything well is to have good instrument scan. That means you should be a look at the issuance and without any reference to the outside fly safely in an instant in case something happens. And I didn't have that. I hadn't developed it yet. So this was one of the scariest flights I've ever had even to this day I still think of it.
"So I was flying with a very experienced pilot and we were doing training off Bodega Bay and the ceiling was coming down to about 300 feet and we had to do something called the manual approach to hover. I was going to practice them and you basically fly, or were flying on instruments because it's so dark out. We had night vision goggles but since it was so overcast there was no moonlight or starlight or horizon and for night vision goggles you need at least a little daylight. I think the approach had goggles up anyways. So I started this approach and I'd lost my instrument scan at the bottom. In the bottom is basically where you're slowing down to near zero air speed and you want to come to hover at 50 feet. 50 feet is not that much! I'm used to flying around at 500 and the radar altimeter came down through the 50 foot mark and the other pilot came on the controls and pulled in a bunch of collective to arrest the rate of descent and I think we came down maybe to 30 feet or so but at this point I was so far behind the aircraft.
"He recovered and gave me the controls back and at that point all I wanted to do was climb! But the ceiling was like at 200 so if I climbed too much you’d disappear into the clouds. There was a buoy flashing and if I went up too high, it would disappear. So then you have to descend. You don't want to climb in instrument conditions so it was very unnerving to stay so low. It was under 200 feet with us in this fairly restricted in visual environment and we eventually climbed up through the cloud deck. I wanted to climb to the moon! I just wanted to get high and get safe and I knew at that point that if that guy did not take the controls, I would've put that thing in the water. So my conclusion was and that was what training was for but after that every time I flew I practiced my instrument scan because I knew I'd have to be good or I possibly wouldn't survive. So that was one of the scariest flights and that has paid off because all the other scary flights I've ever had were in essentially the same conditions as that but I was able to fly. Doing ship landings at night with a 210 foot cutter which is tiny, trying to do an approach using instruments, coming to hover and then trying to land on it with zero visibility, zero horizon, and all that stuff was very intense flying. If you’ve got horizon you're good but at night with no horizon it's pretty sketchy.
"This leads me to another case where I was in the right seat and it was at night and there was a guy that was injured on a tugboat off Point Reyes. We went out there and I remember flying over this fog layer and seeing the glow in the fog and that was the boat that we had to go down to and the only way to do it was to fly on instrument approach. We were trained to fly these instrument approaches down as low as 30 feet over the water without seeing the thing and that's pretty intense flying. I remember descending down into the fog at night and I'm on instrument and the altimeter is ticking down towards the water and I'm thinking “I can't believe were doing this! This is just crazy! I can't believe were doing this!” Were not ILS and there's no airport down there, this just water. We had radar and toward 300 feet and can’t see anything, just fog and darkness at 200 feet still nothing hundred feet nothing and then finally at like 75 feet the flight mechanic was looking straight down and you said I think I can see some white caps and it 50 feet was when we started pulling the collective, transitioning into this hover which was more of an air taxi at this point still completely on instrument and the other pilot is like okay I got them on radar come to the setting. We were still completely instrument flying 50 feet over the water in the dark in fog to thick bay area marine layer fog. I remember thing started getting brighter and then out of the fog emerged this tugboat all lit up. The thing about helicopters as they fly just like airplanes above about 40 knots, or when you start hovering it's a completely different dynamic. Every input you put in requires an input and then you have to take it out and do another correction. We can fly a helicopter on instruments and balance the hover because there is too much going on. All these little deviations in pitch and roll and attitude you can see it on the attitude indicator but that doesn't translate to what's going on, you really need to kind of have a reference point and the best thing is horizon. Well in the fog with no horizon it's hard to do. Now throw in there a tug boat that's moving in seas back and forth and up and down with a mast that's 30 feet high and that's moving back and forth and now were supposed to hover over this mast. You can be looking down at this mast coming at you, going away from you, and you're trying to hover with no horizon, I’ll just tell you that's the hardest thing I've ever done. I don't know how you do it, you just try as hard as you can.
"So anyway we decided to put the swimmer down onto his boat and we wanted to get the injured guy into the basket so we first put a swimmer down to help the man and I was doing my best to hold a steady hover in those conditions and I look up to my right and I saw something - it was the swimmer! Basically because the ship was moving back and forth and I was moving the helicopter back and forth, he started swinging at on the end of the cable up enough where I could see him and at that point flight a mechanic said, 'Abort!' 'Abort the hoist!' We pulled the man in and ended up throwing the rope down to the boat and they held the rope attached to the swimmer to help stabilize him and get him down. So we ended up getting guy off the ship and got them to safety. That was another case where I was really glad it was over.
"Those night hoist cases were the hardest. There was another case where we were taking then injured crewmen off a ship and it was like was like 50 to 70 knot winds on the surface and we wanted to get out there before dark. It was a super tanker and I was like” this is going to be easy it's a super tanker and it's not dark yet.” By the time we got out there I'd looked at the seas and that tanker was taking waves over its bow. This is a super tanker taking blue water over the bow. And so this is like 50 foot seas or more just crashing over the thing and this thing looks like a little rubber ducky in a bathtub. When I saw that from 1000 feet or so coming in and I thought oh this is going be hard. One thing about the Coast Guard is you train for stuff that you will do in your career. You can join the Air Force and fly and train for air combat and never get in a dogfight. If you do, you just point, find a target on your radar screen and shoot a missile at it and that's how you fight these days anyway. And probably never have that opportunity. Well it's not like that in the Coast Guard. So that day seeing that ship in those conditions and there's a guy injured on that ship, and you have to be smart about it and have to do a risk evaluation you don't want us crash your helicopter trying to save this guy and he may die anyway. You have to be smart and they train you on this. But guess who's making that decision? You are you don't have your boss or someone to talk to. The command is not making the decision you are. Again that is a rare thing and probably more unique to the Coast Guard then any other service.
"So there I was, I made an approach to the ship and this thing was surging through the waves 40-50 foot surges coming straight up listing left and right, port starboard and we decided to put a weight bag down and a basket down for this guy to get off the bridge wing of the ship. So we have a trail line with a weight on it and we put that thing down and he basically went straight back because the winds were so strong. And we determined that we could not get that weight bag down, the winds were just too strong. So now what? So we decided let's put the swimmer down. He's pretty heavy, weighs more than the weight bag and if we can get him down he can guide the process. And these swimmers, those guys are fearless! I mean they will do pretty much anything if you asked him to do it. They will do it and as pilot your the one who has reign them in. So he went down and the ship was just moving around a tremendous amount and it was getting darker to the point where I started to lose the horizon reference that’s so critical. I had night vision goggles to but eventually I think the swimmer said he was looking down the smokestack of the ship that's how much it was moving! We aborted that attempt into said it was too dangerous to try to put this guy down on this little flat part of the ship. This next time we just put the basket down and we had to go 1/2 helo lengths ahead of where we wanted the basket to go down because the wind was pushing this basket back. We ended up getting it on the deck and then finally it's on the deck. Finally it's on the deck and we see the guy put his sea bag in the basket - you know - all his luggage! So I guess it was good practice because we pulled that up and then let it down to get him. So I thought it was over but then we get to do it again and this time pulled him up. I don't think he realized how difficult it was but we got him up and flew him out of there.
"But we got him up and we flew out of there. And while we were hovering I just remember putting in these really large collective movements as the ship surges and you're trying to anticipate the big waves and the helicopters going up and down 40 feet at a time. The ship is like 1000 m long and the giant waves hitting the bow, going over it and seeing in hovering over the ship is that's happening it was one of most incredible sights I've ever seen. So it's times like that that have a pretty high job satisfaction but pretty neat.
"There's another case where there was a guy who sailboats I sank and he was in the life raft hundred miles out and it was daytime so that was pretty easy we just flew out there and found him with his sailboat. We put the swimmer down and we thought we'd be all right so we flew back. This is a Japanese guy this was about four years ago and this guy was heading to Tokyo in a little boat. That was easy but very satisfying.
"There was another time when we were in the helicopter and were going to do the air show at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. This was about three years ago and were going to do a flyby and a hover demonstration and we were orbiting in a holding pattern waiting for the air traffic controller to clear us in for the show and we hear a Mayday call about some guy who just ditched his plane right outside the airport. So we flew right out to the east of the airport and there was the guy out there in the mud who was wading through the mud. So we put the swimmer down and picked him up and the landed right there at San Carlos Airport in the middle of airshow - that was pretty neat. It was a real rescue for the airshow!
Che bringing the C-130 into the Pacific Coast Dream Machines in Half Moon Bay
"That was the first time I'd seen an airplane ditch. So now I’ve been flying the C-130s for about a year and a half. This guy ditched his airplane outside of Half Moon Bay and it happened to have been very close to us as we were in the area. Air traffic control told us about it and we found this guy on top of the plane. We marked position with smoke and by the time we got the back of our airplane opened up, his airplane sank and he was treading water. So we threw out a life raft so we put smoke out in life raft down. We put in an emergency call and the radio and got all the rescue assets which happen to be two Air Force helicopters, Blackhawks, training with the Coast Guard at the time. They were low on fuel but they managed to get out there and take a look and they found the guy, pulled him up and took him to the Air Station San Francisco. So that was pretty rewarding. There was a once in a career thing to see them drop a life raft on someone, especially in the cold water, and save their life. There've been a lot of cases where someone goes in the water and were never seen again - we are looking for them but never find them. It's not super frequent but there are a lot of cases where that happens
"I've had a lot of neat experiences on shipboard operations. I've also been involved with drug interdiction. The war on drugs is still going on. The Coast Guard's primary missions are search and rescue and homeland security. They also do law enforcement, fishery patrols enforcement and anti-drug patrols in the war on drugs. Right now it’s mostly down in South America and they’re trying to smuggle drugs from Colombia over the Eastern Pacific and into Mexico or Guatemala and from there up into the United States. So the Coast Guard does patrols to try to catch these guys. That's a constant all year long effort both in the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean. There's also been cases, mostly in the Caribbean, were people from Cuba or the Dominican Republic trying to get to Puerto Rico and they’ll take these little unseaworthy vessels and rafts and try to get across. It’s a testimony of how desperate these people really are and these people will risk dying at sea.
"There was one case where we are on drug patrol down south and we got recalled in there were 80 people on the boat trying to get from Ecuador, one of the poorest countries in South America, to Mexico and their boat broke. They never showed up and their families knew about it so they called the Coast Guard and eventually the Coast Guard went to look for them and they found this boat dead in the water with 80 people on board. A helo came and they hovering next to them and the people started throwing empty water bottles out into the water to show the Coast Guard that they had no water. So we went back to the ship and the ship found them, took them all on board, and saved their lives. I'll never forget seeing something like that. We take so much for granted here in the United States but here are these people who will risk their lives and all their possessions are in a plastic bag or little backpack. If we didn't find them they would've just died. So things like that is what the Coast Guard about. So we do a lot of administrative work, a lot of busy work, a lot of standing around on duty, but then something like that happens then you think, “hey this job is pretty gratifying after all!”
So Che, how did to get to a point where you can fly a Pitts and do aerobatics on your days off?
"So like I said, I was always an airplane nut and even though I was flying helicopters I still wanted to fly fixed wing and aerobatics had always been I guess part of the dream – the desire to fly. To me aerobatics is like the most pure and a natural progression. It's not the cheapest pastime and I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it. It's not easy and it took a long time to save up to be able to do it. I do think I could use a little more free time to be able to fly that plane! I haven't really done any contests in a like year and half. I've just been maintaining it. I'm learning that it's hard to do a full-time job and a full-time aerobatics hobby at the same time. I'm planning on competing this year if I get the plane back from getting that wings redone. It's a Pitts S1T. The one thing about civilian flying compared to the Coast Guard. Civilian flying doesn't have the same kind of rules that the Coast Guard and military have. So with like our helicopter, if we have this engine indication, then we must land. We have rules that are there because they’ve been written in blood. But when you have your own airplane or renting a plane in general aviation those rules aren't there and you can have enough rope to hang yourself. I've noticed you maybe can have something wrong with the plane and you might be tempted to fly anyway so I think being a good pilot is all about safety and understanding the different things and all the different things that cause an accident, like if you're tired, or it so late in the day, if it's bad weather. Not one thing causes an accident. It's all these little things that add up to cause an accident and as a pilot you have to be able to identify those things. They see one little thing you think maybe it's okay then you see a second little thing your doing, and then we see a third little thing, you decide it's not a good a day to fly or land and spend the night somewhere. The reason the Coast Guard's and military rules are there is because people have died.
"When I was in flight school there was a little note in the T-44 of the little King Air thing. It said that if there's a wing on fire ditch the aircraft immediately regardless of the distance to this a suitable runway. So basically if your wing caught on fire and you’re over the water and there was an airport three or 4 miles away, put it in the water. That's a pretty profound statement especially if you're in an airplane with a wing on fire and there's a runway right there, but the reason they put that in there is that that actually happened. A guy had a wing fire and he was trying to make it to the runway and eventually burned the wing off while trying to make the runway and everyone was killed. And so those are the benefits of institutional learning. You fly with the military or the airlines, all those lessons have been put in one place so that someone can learn from it. Not so much so in general aviation. They're trying to do it to an extent but there is also not the institutionalization of the all these instances in general aviation that are really reported always close calls, like someone says, “Wow, was close!” But in GA you don't usually hear that stuff.
Che took me and my dad on a tour of Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento and it was really cool! Did you know that the Lockheed C-130 is the longest produced airplane in history?
It was great seeing Che and going on a awesome tour of Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento. The Coast Guard is a great organization and I think I may want to join them when I'm old enough - unless I become a fighter pilot!
This is the plane Che was flying the day he died
photos by my dad and I