With his helicopter blades spinning less than 10 feet from a vertical rock wall, Lt. Matthew Schwab’s margin for error was dangerously small.
For his most daring mission, the search and rescue pilot had quickly and safely transported his team from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., to a jagged rock chute on Mount Stuart, the state’s sixth-highest mountain.
The flight was imperiled by strong winds, high altitude and smoke drifting south from forest fires in Canada.
Once he arrived, Schwab positioned the chopper over the survivor. A rescuer dropped 120 feet down, placed a harness around the man and hoisted him out of the danger zone.
Schwab’s crew performed lifesaving procedures to open the victim’s airway on the way to the hospital. The man made a full recovery.
“It is the best feeling in the world when your team comes together to overcome exceptional hazards to save someone’s life,” Schwab says.
But there’s another layer to the story, and it starts before Schwab was hovering perilously over a stranded climber.
Schwab, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former search and rescue pilot who is now stationed on the USS Bonhomme Richard, is an Eagle Scout. He says Scouting prepared him for the rigors of academic and military life.
I contacted Lt. Schwab by email to learn more about his story and ask him 5 Quick Questions. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Bryan on Scouting: Did growing up as a Scout in Washington state mean you did a lot of incredible outdoors activities?
Lt. Matthew Schwab: I was very fortunate that my troop, Troop 4100, was always out exploring the North Cascade mountains and Olympic National Park.
Washington state offers every outdoor activity a Scout can dream of. The unique landscape offered rock climbing, whitewater rafting, glacier climbing, snow camping and many other high-adventure activities.
In Cub Scouts, we would go snow camping in the Mount Baker Wilderness. When I joined Troop 4100, I completed two 50-mile hikes, one which started by Mount Baker and went east through the rugged peaks, and another that went across glaciers in the Olympic Mountains.
BOS: You graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2010. How did being an Eagle Scout help you in Annapolis?
Schwab: Scouting prepared me for the rigors of academic and military life at the U.S. Naval Academy in ways I didn’t immediately recognize.
The academy is an incredibly difficult school, both to get accepted to and also to graduate from. But working up through the ranks in Scouts means a Scout has already experienced what it means to dedicate themselves to difficult tasks, to mentor others, to set a goal and work for it, and to work well with others.
It’s for this reason that the academy looks for young men and women with Scouting backgrounds, particularly those who have earned the rank of Eagle Scout. I found that many of my classmates at Annapolis were Eagle Scouts as well.
BOS: What was the journey from the U.S. Naval Academy to the search and rescue team at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island?
Schwab: Flying mountain rescue helicopters is the result of years of preparation: two years of flight school getting my wings, one year learning how to fly the MH-60R helicopter, three years training and flying combat operations, and then two years flying at Whidbey Island.
Even experienced pilots and air crew are not immediately comfortable conducting difficult mountain rescues when they first arrive at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s search and rescue team. However, after many hours of training and flying constantly difficult environments, pilots and air crew gain the proficiency and comfort they need.
BOS: How did you stay prepared for the demanding role of search and rescue pilot?
Schwab: It doesn’t happen all at once. Staying focused on a goal, growing each day and focusing on what you can accomplish right now will allow you to slowly handle more and more difficult positions.
Throughout my training, I found that it was easy for me to get overwhelmed at first and realized that I was looking too far into the future. Once I learned to focus on one or two days at time, I was able to excel in college and flight training and was able to stay confident in my abilities.
By keeping your goals in the future and your mind focused on today, you can achieve anything.
BOS: What advice would you give to Scouts thinking of a career in the military?
Schwab: I would recommend that Scouts really find what their calling is before joining.
For me, that was to be a pilot. For many, they want to join the military to see the world, work on their education, be a Navy SEAL, work on helicopters or jets, or to be a soldier or Marine.
The military has many opportunities for individuals to grow and to step out of their comfort zone. I would recommend that Scouts talk to their leadership, experience various military units and talk to service members to hear their stories.