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The Coast Guard’s Vertical Leap

Centennial of Naval Aviation

On a March 19, 1991 orientation flight from Elizabeth City, N.C., an HH-3F took off with a three-person crew – pilot Lt. Rob Austin, co-pilot Lt. Michael Curphey, and flight mechanic AD2 Suki Patterson.  “That’s what it says on my nametag but my real name is Susan,” Patterson said. She remembered that at the time the Coast Guard was the only service in which an aircraft mechanic served as a regular member of a flying crew and that she was following a family tradition, her father having been a Coast Guardsman, also. “The flight mech has the best seat in the house,” said Patterson, “situated next to the right-hand cargo door, where the hoist is located and capable of being adjusted in so as to be looking in or out.”

HH-3Fs performed thousands of rescues. Coast Guard crewmembers took pride in calling themselves “Pelican Pushers.” The ability to use the Pelican as a rescue platform was enhanced in 1984 when Congress required the Coast Guard to resurrect and strengthen its rescue swimmer program, sending out each HH-3F with at least one rescuer on board. When the present-day HH-60J Jayhawk was chosen in 1986 as the replacement for the HH-3F, many Coast Guardsmen welcomed the newer technology and greater flexibility of the HH-60J. But they missed the Pelican’s amphibious capabilities and its greater roominess and volume-carrying capacity. The last Pelican was retired from the Coast Guard on May 6, 1994.

While original Deepwater plans would have replaced the HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters with the smaller AB-139, limitations with the newer helicopter that left it unable to complete some of the projected future missions led to a plan to upgrade existing HH-60Js to MH-60T standard. The helicopters will be modernized with new power plants and avionics, an Airborne Use of Force package, and improved radar and optical sensors and used as medium range responders for offshore operations. They will also be armed to provide a shore-based aviation surveillance capability, and are capable of detaching aboard National Security Cutters (NSC) and Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC). Modernizing the HH-60s rather than purchasing new helicopters will also save $500 million.

Two Coast Guard HH-65C Dolphin helicopters from Air Station Miami fly in formation over the Atlantic Ocean. The most numerous helicopter in the Coast Guard today, the HH-65 has been improved through a number of modifications into the HH-65C. Coast Guard photo by PAC Dana Warr.

The most numerous helicopter operated by the Coast Guard in recent times is the HH-65 Dolphin, a French design that makes extensive use of composite materials, prompting Cmdr. Peter Prindle to nickname it the “plastic puppy.” The service’s decision to buy an Aerospatiale aircraft in preference to a Bell model caused some debate in Washington, especially when Aerospatiale (known today as American Eurocopter) assembled all 96 Dolphins in Grand Prairie, Texas, just down the interstate from the Bell plant. The HH-65A first flew in 1980 and, after technical delays, entered service at New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1985. At one time, the HH-65A model had a less than 50 percent mission capable rate and was widely criticized for being underpowered (with twin, U.S.-manufactured 740-shaft horsepower Lycoming LTS-101 turboshaft engines and 39-foot rotors) and difficult to support because of its lack of commonality with other U.S. military helicopters. A variety of Coast Guard efforts and programs overcame these challenges and the Dolphin has had a successful career.

A new lease on life has been provided to the Dolphin fleet with the addition of new digital display units and other changes that caused the change to the HH-65B designation. The helicopters are also undergoing engine upgrades, HH-65C designating an HH-65B re-engined with Turbomeca Arriel 2C2-CG turboshaft engines that provide substantial power, flight control, and flight safety improvements. In the longer term, a series of modernizations and improvements planned for the helicopters of the fleet will allow them to take on their role as Multi-mission Cutter Helicopters, with planned upgrades ending with the MH-65E designation.

One of the finest hours for the Coast Guard was the rescue of Katrina survivors. USCG photo

Reflecting the changing roles and missions of the Coast Guard, the service acquired eight MH-68 Stingray helicopters to interdict drug smugglers in fast boats, but the aircraft later took on homeland security roles. The fast Stingrays, based on the Agusta A109 but fitted with state-of-the-art sensors and communications, were the first of the modern Coast Guard helicopters to be armed, but will not be the last, as portions of both the HH-60 and HH-65 helicopter fleets will also be armed for homeland security duties. HH-65s have now taken over the HITRON role.

While Coast Guard helicopters have saved countless lives over the decades, perhaps Coast Guard aviation’s finest hour in recent years was in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Coast Guard helicopters were first on the scene after the storm passed, plucking survivors from rooftops, roads, and disabled vessels all along the Gulf Coast, but most visibly in New Orleans. By the time rescue operations were suspended, Coast Guard helicopter crews were estimated to have saved more than 12,500 lives. The image of HH-60 JayHawks and HH-65 Dolphins hoisting survivor after survivor from rooftops will be imprinted upon the American consciousness for a very long time, but today, Coast Guard helicopters are also taking on new roles and missions.

Coast Guard aviation has grown to encompass about 18 percent of all Coast Guard personnel, with 190 aircraft at 28 air stations. Coast Guardsmen have been involved in missions as noteworthy as the rescue of hundreds of people from the burning ocean liner Prinsendam in the frigid waters of Alaska and the seizure of thousands of tons of marijuana and cocaine headed to the U.S. through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. With Coast Guard helicopters now increasingly armed, the homeland security mission has been added to the duties of the helicopters foreseen by pioneers like Kossler and Erickson.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...