Coast Guard watches over Michigan's lighthouses from above

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Mackinaw City — The U.S. Coast Guard’s Air Station Traverse City calls itself “Guardian of the Great Lakes.”

The slogan is never more appropriate than in the winter, when Coast Guard aircraft help maintain essential navigation equipment for mariners. Buoys, beacons, range lights and sound signals must remain operational all year, as ships transporting fuel and other commodities ply the ice-bound lakes.

Two U.S. Coast Guard maintenance specialists wait on the deck of the White Shoals Lighthouse in upper Lake Michigan Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 to be lifted into a U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter. All Great Lakes lighthouses are automated and need maintenance and repair work throughout the year. 
John L. Russell, Special to Detroit News

As temperatures drop below freezing, the Coast Guard station also takes over the task of transporting crews to perform repairs on the dozens of lighthouses that ring the upper Great Lakes — something that's done by ships during warmer months.

ighthouses on the Great Lakes have been sold by the federal government to private individuals or nonprofits, the deed for each light allows the Coast Guard access at all times for repairs and maintenance.

Typically, Coast Guard crews visit lighthouses twice a year to check solar arrays, batteries, and light or signal functions, in addition to repair missions. 

“We have up to 30 flights each winter to drop a team onto a lighthouse or navigational aid that needs repair,” said Nathan Coulter, commanding officer at Air Station Traverse City.

 A recent call to Sector Sault Ste. Marie from a passing freighter on upper Lake Michigan informed the Coast Guard that the White Shoal Light was malfunctioning. 

In response, a four-man crew from Air Station Traverse City flew a MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter to St. Ignace to pick up a two-man crew and fly them to the 125-foot tall light, situated 20 miles west of Mackinaw City. 

Such missions require plenty of planning.

“Do you both have a change of clothes if we can’t pick you up later?” aircraft Cmdr. Lt. Matthew Keiper asked the lighthouse crew.

“Weather can always be a factor,” Keiper explained. “Preparation is the key to a successful mission and the question is asked during all flights.”

Upon arriving at the lighthouse, the pilots kept the helicopter hovering above the light, as a flight mechanic in the rear doorway surveyed the ice-encrusted structure.

John Axelson, an aviation maintenance technician 2nd class, lowered a basket as he leaned out of the helicopter's door, watching how the wind moves the empty container.

The helicopter hovered just feet from the light tower, moving ever so slightly in the wind. “Dropping a basket is well-choreographed,” Keiper said. “It’s critical to know what everyone is doing. Standardized dialogue between the pilot, co-pilot and crew is essential.”

“The pilot will listen to the flight mechanic’s voice command — ‘easy left ... hold … easy back' — telling the pilot to adjust the closure or drift of the aircraft slightly in one direction or another," he explained. "As aircraft commander, I am watching a live camera mounted on the lift motor and monitoring the entire operation.”

Hovering 10 feet from the lighthouse tower, the basket is gingerly lowered once with each man, and once with their equipment. With the crew and its gear safely placed at the lighthouse, the helicopter slowly rose back into the sky. 

The lighthouse had two cranes on its deck, making the maneuver with the basket especially tricky. “There is ice on the deck,” Axelson said later. “We needed to find a safe area to place the men.”

Despite the nerve-wracking nature of the exercise, he's enthusiastic about this work. 

“I love my job,” Axelson said. “Every job is different and has its own problems to solve. I’ve been lifting for about three years, it never gets boring.”

  Many lighthouses on the Great Lakes are now owned by private individuals or nonprofits. Lighthouses are sold at auction by the General Services Administration as excess United States property and part of the deed for each light allows the U.S. Coast Guard access at all times for repair and maintenance work.

Scheduled visits average twice a year to check solar arrays, batteries, and light or signal functions on all aids to navigation. The crews carry everything they may need to perform repairs and maintenance. 

“It’s a huge time-saver for the Aids teams,  we are safer and faster with the use of our helicopters,” said Cmdr. Nathan Coulter of Air Station Traverse City. “Our primary concern is the safety of mariners.”

White Shoal Lighthouse in upper Lake Michigan is seen on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. 
John L. Russell, Special to The Detroit News

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist in Traverse City.