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The Coast Guard Air Fleet

Uniquely Coast Guard. Uniquely durable and resilient.

When the Coast Guard announced plans to add a new aircraft to its fleet in December 2018, it was big news: The service was moving from a years-long evaluation of a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS), launched and recovered from the deck of a National Security Cutter (NSC), into a new phase in which the system would eventually be deployed aboard every Coast Guard NSC. 

But the news also had a familiar ring to it, for a couple of reasons: The sUAS system, the ScanEagle, was hardly new to the service; it had performed well in evaluations dating back to 2012, when it was first deployed aboard the USCGC Stratton. An 8-foot-long fixed-wing craft with a range of up to 80 miles and endurance of about 20 hours, the ScanEagle is launched from the deck of a vessel by means of pneumatic catapult and lands with the aid of a tailhook. 

The ScanEagle has proved a valuable asset for the Coast Guard, identifying actionable intelligence and greatly increasing the domain awareness of cutter patrols. In deployments aboard the Stratton from 2016 to 2018, the ScanEagle participated in at-sea interdictions that recovered more than 18,100 kilograms of contraband, with a street value in excess of $289 million. The aircraft also provided overwatch assistance during boardings of several fishing vessels. On the heels of these successes, the Coast Guard has made the ScanEagle a permanent feature aboard the Stratton and plans to outfit four NSCs per year, beginning with the cutters James and Munro, until the NSC fleet is complete in fiscal year 2021. 

The ScanEagle program also offered an echo of past Coast Guard aircraft acquisitions, in that it didn’t begin with a concept tailored to the Coast Guard’s multi-mission posture. The ScanEagle’s first and primary users were the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps; the aircraft was first deployed to perform battlefield reconnaissance during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004.

The same is true of many aircraft that have become iconic representations of the Coast Guard. The HC-130 Hercules turboprop airplane, the Coast Guard’s long-range surveillance aircraft, began its service in 1956 as a cargo carrier for the U.S. Air Force. A newer addition to the Coast Guard’s fleet of medium-range aircraft, the HC-27, was originally developed as the Joint Cargo Aircraft to provide the Army and Air Force with short-takeoff tactical transports. The MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, the Coast Guard’s medium-range recovery workhorse, is an adaptation of the helicopter that entered service in 1979 as the Army’s Black Hawk and Navy’s Seahawk helicopter.

Understandably, the Coast Guard, with a budget equal to just over 1.5 percent of the federal defense budget, doesn’t always celebrate its reputation as the service that finds a way to do more with less. According to Capt. Tom MacDonald, who helps lead aviation acquisitions as the assistant program executive officer for aviation, the Coast Guard isn’t typically the service that sits down with a contractor, writes out its requirements on a whiteboard, and then receives an aircraft tailor-made for its 11 statutory missions – but there’s no denying the service’s knack for innovating solutions uniquely suited to its needs. “We’re very good,” MacDonald said, “at taking DOD [Department of Defense] platforms and adapting them to our mission set.”

As Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, pointed out in his first State of the Coast Guard address, it’s a skill set that has been increasingly put to the test, as intensifying global complexities have upped the demand for Coast Guard services while its acquisition budget has remained mostly stagnant. “Coast Guard men and women are doing more and more, in increasingly complex and dangerous environments, with aging platforms and infrastructure,” Schultz said. Still, he remained optimistic that the service “will remain strong, adaptive, and resilient to the challenges ahead.”

The people who tend the service’s air fleet share this optimism, and have applied uniquely Coast Guard ways of thinking to both improve and extend the performance of air assets, in many cases transforming 20th century platforms into cutting-edge aircraft that will serve the Coast Guard well into the 2030s. 

“Missionizing” the Fixed-wing Fleet 

In aviation, one of the clearest examples of a 20th century technology in need of updating is radar – specifically, as a tool for air traffic surveillance. With radar, a ship or plane’s identifying signature is often no more specific than a blip on a screen, and this lack of precision adds to the time and effort it takes for patrol aircraft to identify nearby ships or aircraft, basically by flying close enough to make visual or radio contact. 

Coast Guard airplanes – like all U.S. aircraft – are in the process of transitioning to a newer surveillance technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), in which an aircraft determines its position via GPS satellite and periodically broadcasts its digital signature, enabling it to be tracked through the airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration has required that all aircraft operating in controlled U.S. airspace be equipped with ADS-B Out (i.e., equipped to transmit their signature, if not receive those of other aircraft). 

The Coast Guard is updating all of its aircraft to communicate via these digital signatures, just one feature that will allow aircrews to communicate and work more seamlessly with a growing number of government and international partners over a wider area. The ability to communicate and share a common operating picture, in real time, is probably the most significant factor distinguishing the Coast Guard’s 21st-century air fleet from previous generations.

Each of the Coast Guard’s fixed-wing aircraft is undergoing a suite of modifications and updates that includes the installation of a “missionization” hardware and software package. Jointly developed with the U.S. Navy, this missionization package, called Minotaur, integrates inputs and outputs of the aircraft’s sensors and suite of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) components. Used across multiple platforms operated by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, Minotaur allows partners to share a common operating picture as data – aircraft and ship identifying signatures, multi-mode radar signals and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) imagery – are collected and shared in real time, allowing operators to identify targets for search and rescue, law enforcement, and intelligence-gathering missions.

A simpler way to think about missionization, MacDonald said, is to understand that each of the service’s airplanes comes to the Coast Guard as a sturdy, reliable aircraft capable of flying for a long time in an austere environment – but it’s not yet a Coast Guard asset. “What we need them to be able to do,” he said, “is operate in a maritime environment, and primarily in the search and rescue and law enforcement roles. We obviously use them for other things as well, but for the most part, imagine we’re flying over a big ocean and we need to be able to see what is out there, or find something … take that information in and then send it out, either to our surface assets or shore-based command center. Those capabilities add up to what we, in a general sense, call missionization.”

Here’s a brief look at what’s happening with each of the Coast Guard’s airplanes: 

The HC-130 Hercules. The Coast Guard received its first C-130 – the aircraft with the longest continuous production of any military aircraft in history, with more than 40 models and variants in service around the world – in 1959. It performs long-range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, and command and control functions. 

An Air Station Kodiak HC-130J Super Hercules aircrew takes off from Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii, Oct. 31, 2019.

An Air Station Kodiak HC-130J Super Hercules aircrew takes off from Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii, Oct. 31, 2019.

The service is in the process of retiring its older HC-130H turboprop aircraft – a version that first flew in 1964 – and acquiring new aircraft that will be missionized into HC-130Js, or “Super Hercules.” The C-130J has more advanced engines, propellers, and digital avionics, and increases the range of the aircraft by 40 percent and its top speed by 15 percent, while decreasing its takeoff distance by 15 percent. The Coast Guard’s unique version of the C-130J is the first in the world to feature a 360-degree surface-search radar. 

A Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft flies over Fort Adams, May 8, 2018, in Newport, Rhode Island

A Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft flies over Fort Adams, May 8, 2018, in Newport, Rhode Island

The HC-144 Ocean Sentry. The Coast Guard’s medium-range surveillance fleet includes 18 Ocean Sentries, used since 2009 for search and rescue, patrol, and transport missions. In 2014, the Coast Guard began a program called Ocean Sentry Refresh, to update the aircraft’s obsolete cockpit avionics suite: the electronics that include the digital displays and computerized flight-control, navigation, warning, fuel, and monitoring systems. 

The HC-144A’s legacy missionization system, mostly located on a pallet in the aircraft cargo bay, was also in need of replacement. “Fitting the Minotaur system in the back of this 144, and Ocean Sentry Refresh in the front of the aircraft, together makes what we call our HC-144B model, our Bravo model,” said MacDonald. The Coast Guard converted its sixth HC-144B aircraft in October 2019.


 A Coast Guard C-27J aircrew, assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento, flies along the California coastline during area familiarization training, Feb. 6, 2018.

A Coast Guard C-27J aircrew, assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento, flies along the California coastline during area familiarization training, Feb. 6, 2018.

The C-27 Spartan. The Coast Guard’s original acquisition plan called for a fleet of 36 Ocean Sentries, but Congress, in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014, directed the service to stop contracting for HC-144s and instead acquire and missionize 14 C-27 Spartan aircraft, to be transferred from the U.S. Air Force. The Ocean Sentry and the Spartan are similarly configured twin-engine turboprops, and will perform similar roles.

The C-27s coming into the Coast Guard will require extensive missionization work to allow them to more efficiently complete their primary missions and make them interoperable with other service assets. This work – which will transform the aircraft into HC-27J Coast Guard aircraft – is not yet completed. Six C-27s are now flying out of Air Station Sacramento, said MacDonald, but they are in a baseline configuration. “The missionization process is an extensive modification,” he said, “and requires a significant amount of engineering work to design it, install it, and make sure it is airworthy.”

The Dolphin and the Jayhawk

Coast Guard helicopters are probably the most iconic of the service’s air assets, often seen on the news or in the television show Coast Guard Alaska, hoisting people from the sea or from rooftops. Like all the service’s aviation assets, they’re worked hard and flown for long hours. Both Coast Guard helicopters – the H-65 Dolphin and the H-60 Jayhawk – have been around a long time and have undergone a series of updates and overhauls.

The MH-65 Dolphin. Normally stationed ashore, Dolphins are also the primary aircraft flown from the decks of medium- and high-endurance cutters, making them valuable assets for search and rescue, law enforcement, and surveillance. The Coast Guard currently operates a fleet of 98 MH-65 helicopters, which are undergoing an avionics upgrade that will transform them into the “Echo” version, the MH-65E. The H-65A, the “Alpha” version of the helicopter, first flew for the Coast Guard in 1985.


An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay conducts hoist training off the coast of Trinidad Head, Jan. 15, 2009.

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay conducts hoist training off the coast of Trinidad Head, Jan. 15, 2009.

According to Cmdr. Mike Brimblecom, MH-65E platform manager for the Coast Guard’s Office of Aviation Forces, this upgrade is more than an incremental step into the future for the Dolphin. “Ever since the Alpha model,” he said, “all of our gauges are what we call steam gauges – the classic needle-over-the dial, an actual gauge, where you tap the glass to see if it’s working, that type of deal. All of that has been replaced with modern glass cockpits.” The Dolphin Echo will have a “glass cockpit” – four multifunctional displays that can show crew members a variety of information.

The Coast Guard began its low-rate initial production of the MH-65E in December 2018. 

In addition to these avionics upgrades, the Dolphin is undergoing its second service life extension program (SLEP), this time enabling a helicopter that has flown 20,000 hours to fly for an unprecedented total 30,000 hours. The Dolphin’s SLEP replaces five major structural components: the nine-degree frame, canopy, center console floor assembly, floorboards, and side panels.

The MH-60 Jayhawk. The first of these medium-range recovery helicopters began service in the Coast Guard in 1990, aircraft designated as HH-60Js. Coast Guard Jayhawks began an upgrade and conversion program about a decade ago, and those improvements, completed in 2015, have transformed the entire fleet – now a total of 45 operational helicopters – into MH-60Ts. The MH-60T is designed to fly a crew of four up to 300 miles offshore, hoist up to six additional people on board while remaining on-scene for up to 45 minutes, and return to base while maintaining an adequate fuel reserve.

A U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk lands aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kidd during Exercise Northern Edge 2019.

A U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk lands aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kidd during Exercise Northern Edge 2019.

The conversion program introduced a number of capabilities similar to the Dolphin’s Echo upgrade, according to Lt. Cmdr. Brooks Crawford, the MH-60 platform manager for the Office of Aviation Services: a glass cockpit, GPS area navigation, upgraded radios, new sensors, terrain-mapping radar, and a more capable, night-vision-compatible searchlight. Equally important, Crawford said, were a number of structural modifications to the HH-60Js, which were nearing the end of their 10,000-hour service lives. “We bought ourselves another 10,000 hours of life,” he said. “Now our current fleet can go to 20,000 hours.”

Unlike the other services, the Coast Guard, through its Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, is in charge of certifying the airworthiness of its own air vehicles. Coast Guard MH-60Ts all have been certified airworthy up to 20,000 hours, Crawford said, “But it turns out we fly the heck out of our aircraft.” The Jayhawks have flown an average of 16,000 hours each, a fact that leads to the unavoidable question: What happens when they get to 20,000?

When the service began considering additional options for service life extension, Crawford said, it began discussions with the manufacturer, Sikorsky, to determine which parts might need replacement as the aircraft neared 20,000 hours. “We found out we don’t actually know,” Crawford said. “No one has gone beyond 20,000 hours before. … It’s a significant engineering effort, to figure out what to replace, because we don’t know what’s going to be replaced, and we don’t know what it is going to cost – and by the way, the people who made a lot of those parts don’t make them anymore.”

The service found another solution, which it had used to replace a pair of Jayhawks lost to crashes several years ago: converting Navy Seahawk helicopters. According to Crawford, the service now operates six Jayhawks converted from Navy hulls that had flown between 4,000 and 11,000 hours. Each conversion, said Crawford, costs about $12 million, compared to the $40 million price tag for a new H-60. “It’s a fraction of the price of a new one,” Crawford said. “This is currently our preferred option for sustaining the Jayhawk fleet.”

The Jayhawk’s Navy conversion program and the Dolphin’s 30,000-hour SLEP will take each aircraft into the late 2030s – and then it likely will be time for new rotary-wing platforms. What those platforms will look like, said MacDonald, will be determined primarily by the largest government buyer of helicopters: the Department of Defense, which recently launched discussions about what a Future Vertical Lift “family of systems” – rotary-wing craft that can fly faster, farther, and with seamless interoperability – will look like. 

“We’re ensuring we are at the table with DOD, and that they understand our requirements,” said MacDonald. “Are we going to be the big voice at the table that drives those requirements? My opinion is that we will be there to get everyone talking about the things we need – but the overall speed and range the DOD offers, what they will ultimately want, will rule the day.”

That will be nothing new. But by the time those Future Vertical Lift offerings have entered service in the Coast Guard, they will be – like all the service’s aircraft – unique, multi-mission assets, ready to serve for decades to come.

This article originally appears in the following edition of Coast Guard Outlook.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...