AUXAIR: Coast Guard’s volunteer ice hunters

1st Coast Guard District News
Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta Disco

NEW YORK – Coast Guard Auxiliarist Ron Kaplan arrived at the fixed-base operator (FBO) bright and early on a cold dark February Saturday morning dressed in a sage green flight suit with matching bomber jacket, glasses and neatly groomed blondish-gray hair and goatee. He walked in, with a black business briefcase in tow, and was greeted by the manager as if they’d known each other for a lifetime.

Immediately Kaplan, Flotilla 12-07 Commander and aircraft commander, set to work gathering weather and air traffic for the day’s flight then disappeared into the hanger where he readied his Piper aircraft, the Malibu Mirage. The mirage part was that we’d be flying over the icy Hudson River wishing we were headed to the warmth of Malibu, Calif.

Shortly thereafter, Auxiliarist Lou Volpato, Division One Commander, first pilot and designated ice observer, arrived dressed in the same sage green flight suit wearing soft white hair done in a crew cut fashion, full of energy and eager to begin the mission.

NEW YORK – U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliarists Lou Volpato; Division One Commander and first pilot, left, and Ron Kaplan; Flotilla 12-07 Commander and aircraft commander from the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Air division, stand next to Kaplan’s aircraft Malibu Mirage in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., Feb. 1, 2014. Kaplan and Volpato flew along Long Island, New York Harbor and Hudson River, N.Y., conducting ice observations in support of Operation Reliable Energy Northeast Winter. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco.

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliarists Lou Volpato; Division One Commander and first pilot, left, and Ron Kaplan; Flotilla 12-07 Commander and aircraft commander from the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Air division, stand next to Kaplan’s aircraft Malibu Mirage in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., Feb. 1, 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco.

The pilots’ mission today was in support of the 2013-2014 icebreaking season known as Operation Reliable Energy Northeast Winter (RENEW). The Coast Guard’s domestic icebreaking operations, which are intended to facilitate navigation within reasonable demands of commerce, minimize waterway closures during the winter, while enabling commercial vessels to transit through ice-covered critical channels. Along for the ride was a video journalist from NBC Nightly news and myself.

We held a brief planning meeting inside the FBO discussing the purpose of our mission including any weather or emergency situation we might encounter before we boarded the small six-seater plane already wearing our lifejackets.

“Just remember that you are part of the crew so if you see something that seems out of the ordinary, make sure you speak up,” Kaplan said to us as we settled into our seats rigging our harnesses with the new attitude of importance for our crew designation.

At the beginning of the runway, the two native New Yorkers from the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Air division, AUXAIR, sat harnessed in the their front seats volleying back and forth over their headsets their responses while going through the preflight checklist as they toggled switches and moved levers. Within a matter of minutes the aircraft was racing down the tarmac. We sat in the back staring out of the windows with smiles on our faces when we felt the brief pressure of becoming airborne as the plane climbed into the sky.

We flew along the southern coast of Long Island and over the icy waters of NY Harbor before making a right turn heading north along the Hudson River in search of the areas that had the greatest amount of ice impacting commerce traffic.

“We’re seeing a lot more ice on the river this year than we have during the last few years,” said Volpato.

NEW YORK - Coast Guard Auxiliarists Ron Kaplan and Lou Volpato provide an aerial view of the Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay breaking ice on the Hudson River, N.Y., Feb. 1, 2014 in support of Operation RENEW. The CG AirAux conduct flights over the Hudson River to provide daily updates of the ice conditions on navigable waterways including areas known as choke points where ice gathers making transiting on the river difficult for ships delivering petroleum products such as home heating oil. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco.

Coast Guard Auxiliarists Ron Kaplan and Lou Volpato provide an aerial view of the Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay breaking ice on the Hudson River, N.Y., Feb. 1, 2014 in support of Operation RENEW. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco.

AUXAIR is utilized for ice reconnaissance during Operation RENEW because of their availability, efficiency and cost effectiveness. The aircrew is able to cover a large area in a relatively short amount of time and report back the findings of ice impact, which greatly help with the planning and coordination for the deployment of the Coast Guard’s icebreaking cutters.

Information gathered from these daily over flights is then updated on the Sector New York Homeport website where mariners can view daily ice reports of waterway conditions, over flight photos, and additional ice related content, which is vital to commercial vessel traffic including ferries.

During the two-hour transit, Volpato gave us his best tour guide narration for key landmark areas such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Indian Point Energy Center along with the major bridges connecting New York to New Jersey, which the AUXAIR uses to reference major ice impacts along the river.

From our vantage point, we observed several choke points, which are areas where ice tends to gather heavily and impact vessel traffic. Also, we observed one of the Coast Guard’s icebreaking tugs, Sturgeon Bay, transiting north on the Hudson River breaking ice along the main navigable path to ensure it remains open to commercial shipping traffic.

Ice reconnaissance is just one of the many missions the AUXAIR conducts during their flights over the icy covered Hudson River. Additionally, the aircrew searches for anything out of the ordinary that may be visible from the vantage point of the air.

“We see things you wouldn’t normally see from a boat and it makes operations more efficient,” said Kaplan, who explains that often times the AUXAIR may be on patrol and could be diverted to assist with a search and rescue mission, pollution response or coastal security over flights.

The AUXAIR pilot program is an operational program through the Coast Guard Auxiliary that authorizes certified pilots to volunteer their aircraft for use as facilities and can serve aboard other AUXAIR aircraft as Aircraft Commander, First Pilot, and Co-Pilot.

The pilots’ training is standardized making it easier for them to serve aboard any airframe since they don’t have designated crews.

“You would never know that Ron and I have only flown once together!” Volpato repeated smiling as we emptied the aircraft of our personal gear and rescue life raft.

For both Kaplan and Volpato who have had no prior military background, but had both wanted to serve, this was their answer for how they could give back to their country.

“We’re doing something to give back to our country and it’s such a rewarding feeling to be able to do that,” said Kaplan.

Volpato added “we could be sitting at home spending time with our families, but we choose to be out here where we can make an impact and they support our decision because they know how much it means for us to be doing this.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary is the Coast Guard’s all volunteer work force. Established by Congress in 1939, the Auxiliary’s primary mission is recreational boater safety, but they also contribute to the safety and security of our citizens, ports, waterways and coastal regions, as directed by the United States Coast Guard.

For more pictures, click a photo.

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