Taking a Coast Guard Mission To New Heights

By PA1 John Edwards

A helicopter, flying low and fast over the nation’s capital, changes its direction with surgical precision. The crew aboard scan’s the skies for their target. They are in pursuit of an aircraft that has entered the restricted airspace over Washington, D.C. Their mission: interception.

Although it may sound like a scene from a movie, it is in fact just another day on the job for crewmembers from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., who have recently been tasked with conducting the Coast Guard’s National Capital Region (NCR) air defense mission. The bright orange colored helicopters that are so common to coastal community residents and beachgoers across the nation are now becoming a familiar sight in the skies over D.C.

In a small ceremony held on Sept. 25, 2006, the Coast Guard officially assumed responsibility for the Rotary Wing Air Intercept (RWAI) mission from Customs and Border Protection.

“The Coast Guard’s unique authorities and competencies as both a military service and a federal law enforcement agency enable us to assume permanent responsibility for executing the vital mission of protecting the National Capital Region airspace for the Department of Homeland Security in support of NORAD’s multi-layered air defense mission,” said Admiral Thad W. Allen, commandant, U.S. Coast Guard.

Part of that multi-layered air defense mission has the Coast Guard working directly under the direction of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and partnering with other federal, state and local agencies to protect critical infrastructure and personnel. “We work alongside countless Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security assets to provide safety and security to not only the federal government and entities within Washington D.C., but its citizens as well,” said Lt. Zach Mathews, pilot at Air Station Atlantic City. “This mission also protects the pilots of general aviation aircraft who may have inadvertently flown into the ADIZ whether due to mechanical or electronic malfunction or by simple confusion,” he said.

In order for the pilots and crew of the air station to accommodate this full time mission into their already busy schedules of search and rescue and law enforcement, the unit has been outfitted with four additional HH65-C Dolphin helicopters on top of its previous total of six and has increased its permanent party staff from 80 billets to160. Although the increase is critical to mission success, the personnel at the air station face challenges resulting from an increased mission load.

“The strain from going from 80 to160 people in the hangar requires that additional training flights must be scheduled in order to keep these folks current with there semi-annual minimums,” said Mathews. Crews must perform a set number of flight maneuvers, approaches to the water, rescue hoists and swimmer deployments to maintain their flight ready status. The RWAI training is now a part of that mandatory semi-annual minimum.

RWAI training is held weekly at the air station with the help of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Members of the Auxiliary help Coast Guard air and boat crews all across the country train every day for optimal mission readiness, and this is no exception. Auxiliary pilots’ volunteer their time and their aircraft for these air intercept drills in order to help improve the pilot’s response times and to give them a moving target on which to hone their flight interception techniques. The techniques used in interception are taught to the pilots by instructors from the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center (ATC) in Mobile, Ala.

For the last three years, ATC Mobile has conducted intercept training at its facility for Coast Guard pilots. Training consists of learning how to intercept targets-of-interest at night using night vision goggles and classes on intercept terminology and missions. Additionally, pilots must learn and practice techniques that place them extraordinarily close to other aircraft.

“The mission is so unique that we actually operate under a Federal Aviation Administration waiver because we get so close to the other aircraft,” said Lt. Jeff Graham, RWAI instructor at ATC Mobile.

The focus of this intensive training is to get to the target as quickly as possible. “RWAI flights focus on how to get the aircraft off the ground, up to altitude and to the target as expeditiously as possible,” said Graham. “It focuses specifically on launch procedures, vectors and how to execute the appropriate intercept maneuver depending on the target’s position and speed,” he said.

The training provided by ATC Mobile has been utilized prior to the full time duty of the NCR air defense mission. Coast Guard pilots have participated in intercept ready missions such as the 2006 Superbowl, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the G-8 Summit and in support of space shuttle launches.

“The primary objective of any interception is to determine intent,” said Cmdr. Jacob Brown, NCR operations officer. “If they will listen to us and are compliant, we can turn them away from the D.C. area and they would no longer be a threat. If they are going out of their way to not listen to us, they may have ill intent and it’s our job to determine that,” he said.

To determine the intent of the targeted aircraft, air crews use various methods of communication. “The primary means of communication is going to be the lighted sign board that gives specific directions to the pilots of the aircraft,” Brown said. “We will try and raise them on the radio at 121.5 MHZ and we also use International Civil Aviation Organization signals like rocking the wings or flashing our navigation lights,” he said. “Using these communication tools is going to be a big part of determining if they are compliant.”

By incorporating intensive training and the Coast Guard’s core mission to protect the citizens of the United States, the NCR air defense mission is a natural fit. As the face of the world changes, so too must the Coast Guard change in order to meet today’s challenges. Known mostly as guardians of the sea, the public recognizes the images of the bright orange helicopters saving the lives of helpless mariners, but now as the citizens of D.C. look to the sky, they will see those same guardians taking their mission to new heights.

A Coast Guard helicopter signals the pilots of a Coast Guard Auxiliary air unit during a National Capital Region air defense training mission over Atlantic City. The Coast Guard Auxiliary acts as a target of interest during the NCR training evolution.

A Coast Guard helicopter signals the pilots of a Coast Guard Auxiliary air unit during a National Capital Region air defense training mission over Atlantic City. The Coast Guard Auxiliary acts as a target of interest during the NCR training evolution.

A Coast Guard helicopter passes over Washington during a National Captial Region air defense training mission. The Coast Guard has been tasked with intercepting low flying, slow speed aircraft in restricted air space over Washington, D.C.

A Coast Guard helicopter passes over Washington during a National Captial Region air defense training mission. The Coast Guard has been tasked with intercepting low flying, slow speed aircraft in restricted air space over Washington, D.C.

An HH65 Coast Guard helicopter passes by the Washington Monument during a National Capital Region air defense training mission. Coast Guard air crews have participated in air intercept missions for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the G-8 Summit and the Superbowl. USCG photo by PA1 John Edwards

An HH65 Coast Guard helicopter passes by the Washington Monument during a National Capital Region air defense training mission. Coast Guard air crews have participated in air intercept missions for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the G-8 Summit and the Superbowl.
USCG photos by PA1 John Edwards

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2 Comments

  1. Jay says:

    Great article! Informative, but where are they stationed at? Atlantic City or in Washington? Loved the photos too. Good job PA1 Edwards

  2. John says:

    From Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J.