They loved it. They hated it. It was the only jet ever to join the U.S. Coast Guard’s air fleet. The HU-25 Guardian, usually called the Falcon, gave aircrews a combination of stellar performance and unexpected limitations.
Able to climb rapidly from sea level to 42,000 feet – ideal for surveillance duty – the Guardian spent part of its career restricted because of its avionics suite to a less impressive altitude of 28,000 feet. Sleek, stable, fast, and agile, the HU-25 was also occasionally a maintenance headache. Still, as Capt. Samuel Creech, commanding officer of Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi, observed, when the last Falcon was retired at Corpus Christi, Texas, in a Sept. 23, 2014, ceremony, there was “not a dry eye in the place.”
After 32 years of operation, the last Falcon, an HU-25D, numbered 2114, made its last flight on the date of the ceremony and now the new Airbus HC-144A Ocean Sentry twin-turboprop maritime patrol aircraft is replacing the HU-25 Guardian.
It’s easy to measure statistics of the Falcon, like the wingspan of 53 feet 6 inches or the impressive top speed of 466 knots, but it’s a tougher proposition to nail down traits that separate an ordinary aircraft from one that wins a special place in the hearts of Coast Guard flyers and maintainers.
The HU-25, derived from France’s Falcon 20 business jet – initially named the Mystère 20 – was special because it did so much and crews liked it so much. It stalked drug smugglers. It patrolled the nation’s sea approaches. One version, the HU-25B, located and analyzed oil spills in the Persian Gulf following the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein. The Falcon did a little bit of everything and, yes, a Coast Guardsman once gave one of them a swift kick with his boot in frustration over a mechanical issue, but if they ever make a movie about the HU-25, its minor failings will be left on the cutting room floor, overwhelmed by applause.
Cmdr. Tom Seckler, who participated in the Desert Storm oil-spill operation, remembers being asked of the HU-25: “What kind of bomb does it carry?” It didn’t. It carried an Aireye sensor, built around a side-looking radar that, said Seckler, was “optimized for oil-spill detection.” Seckler added, “I don’t know another aircraft that could do what this airplane did.”
After 32 years of operation, the last Falcon, an HU-25D, numbered 2114, made its last flight on the date of the ceremony and now the new Airbus HC-144A Ocean Sentry twin-turboprop maritime patrol aircraft is replacing the HU-25 Guardian. Time will tell where the HC-144A will fit in the large panorama of Coast Guard aviation history.
A “Duck out of Water”
The story of Coast Guard aviation begins with aviation itself: A member of the Life-Saving Service, predecessor of the Coast Guard, watched Orville Wright make humankind’s first controlled, powered flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on Dec. 17, 1903.