Defense Media Network

Interview: Coast Guard Ancient Albatross Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore

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Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore is the U.S. Coast Guard’s 22nd Ancient Albatross – the longest-serving aviator officer. He has flown both rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, gone to war as executive officer of a 28-member aviation detachment to Bahrain during the first Gulf war, and served as Chief of Aviation Forces.

Today, Blore is commander of the Pacific Northwest’s District 13, dealing with a unique mix of civil, commercial, and military security and safety issues, multinational maritime cooperation and some of the nation’s roughest seas and weather.

He recently spoke with Defense Media Network senior writer J.R. Wilson on the role of aviation in Coast Guard operations.

Defense Media Network: What does your designation as the officer “Ancient Albatross” mean?

Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore: It’s an honorary title that applies to the pilot on active duty with the earliest date of designation as a pilot. I continue to interact with our aviators, primarily Coast Guard, but also Navy and Marines, mentor younger pilots, talk with our aviation experts about best practices and so on. Being able to keep that connection with aviation has meant a lot.

Do you still fly?

I do not. In the Coast Guard, it’s rare, if not impossible, to maintain flight status in the higher ranks. I do get to fly, just not as a pilot.

Were you rotary or fixed wing?

I started in rotary, in a Sikorsky, deploying primarily into the Carribean for drug and illegal immigration missions. After about seven years, I moved into fixed wing, flying the Falcon fanjet, primarily for oil spill surveillance.

I participated in the Exxon Valdez oil spill and flew in Desert Storm. I flew Falcons for eight years, then concluded my active flying career back in Sikorskys.

What role do you see aviation, especially from District 13, playing in the Coast Guard’s expanded mission in the Arctic?

Basically, we have few aircraft designed to operate up there or facilities to operate from – a pretty limited Arctic capability. And there is a long lead time for many of these assets, such as Arctic-capable aircraft. That is not a good place for the United States to be capability-wise.

It comes down to what is our national policy, our national vision for operations in the Arctic. We need to come to grips with that first, then decide what agencies and assets need to be involved.

What changes do you see in District 13 aviation in the next decade?

We have three main helicopter stations – Port Angeles [Wash.], Astoria [Ore.], and North Bend [Ore.] – and a fourth facility at Newport, Ore. Other than upgrades, improved avionics and such, the helicopters should remain about the same, with the H-60s and H-65s.

In about a decade, we will get the Ocean Sentries [HC-144 medium-range maritime patrol aircraft], which will restore a capability we haven’t had for a long time, which is to do more offshore monitoring of fisheries and deep offshore rescue and surveillance. We currently do that with C-130s out of Sacramento, but they have to come quite a ways north to do that. So we’re looking forward to getting the 144s, which will be a significant change in aviation for us.

Do you see a role for unmanned air vehicles in the district’s missions?

Headquarters staff is working a variety of UAV ]unmanned aerial vehicles] projects; CBP is flying the Predator 2 and is looking at a maritime version. There also are some rotary wing UAVs, such as the Fire Scout the Navy has that headquarters is looking at, plus some modified Scan Eagles and such.

One of the issues here and elsewhere in the Lower 48 is airspace regulations and making sure we don’t have conflicts with other aircraft. But if you want to start that kind of activity, this is probably a good part of the country for it because we don’t have a lot of low-flying aircraft offshore.

What about lighter-than-air platforms – tethered or free-flying, manned or unmanned?

To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t used anything like that for the past two or three decades in this area of responsibility. With lighter-than-air, weather is very important, both because icing increases weight and because winds can come up very quickly. It’s hard to keep a ferry on course on the water, so you can imagine the problems for lighter-than-air. You can always recall a UAV, but lighter-than-air would be very challenging in this area of responsibility.

What are your thoughts on the recent spike in Coast Guard aviation accidents?

We studied that for about a year, trying to find common threads. It was not easy, because it was not obvious. I think we have a much better handle on it now.

It’s also put a lot more gravity into the role of Ancient Albatross, as the role has expanded to mentoring aviation commanding officers and meeting with air stations.

Being out here in the field, I have more flexibility than some of the headquarters officers to get out and speak with aviators and visit air stations. But it is a joint effort we have all been doing and there are a number of aviation flags who have been involved, getting in front of this effort as a community.

From what I understand, one of the big surprises was who was involved and the types of flights they were making.

Most of the mishaps occurred during routine training missions or transport flights rather than the dark and stormy night scenario. So being a little too relaxed on the routine mission does not serve you well.

But it is as much – if not more – a problem with aviation leadership. Our organization needs to set the right priorities and maybe we have been sending the wrong signals, both in terms of accountability and complacency.

Experienced aviators should be held to a higher standard – and if you don’t meet that higher standard, then you must be held accountable. If you don’t use good judgment in the aircraft, even if there is only a minor mishap, it should be a wake-up call. And if a senior aviator is not held accountable, then you send the wrong message to others.

In talking to these crews, I’ve seen a feeling that, finally, senior leadership is paying more attention. And I think we have made it easier for the crews to speak up when they do see a problem.

One unique aspect of Coast Guard aviation is the maintainers also are aircrew – they don’t just turn wrenches and watch the aircraft take off, they are onboard for every flight. To what extent were they affected by these mishaps?

The issues we’re addressing affect the pilot community a bit differently, although we need to address both pilots and maintainers.

There are huge advantages to the fixer-flyer program, but also huge challenges. The masters of the air in the enlisted community are chiefs, but once they hit that level and move on to E-8 and E-9, they’re also shop chiefs and know the most about maintenance.

That’s the equation that has changed over the years, based on the number of hours of maintenance put into these aircraft for every hour of flight. In the H-60, for example, we’re doing about 25 hours of maintenance for every hour of flying.

So while I do believe strongly in the fixer-flyer program, the junior enlisted will be doing as much flying as fixing, while the senior enlisted will be spending a lot more time on the hangar deck, where the expertise is needed for quality assurance.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...