Coast Guard Auxiliary Air Detachment Provides Vital Support To Coast Guard Units

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Henise

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Inspecting every surface of their aircraft, two men dressed in green Coast Guard flight suits prepare for their next mission. These men might not seem out of the ordinary, but they are not your typical Coast Guard pilots. These men who are about to embark on an important mission are members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Air Detachment-Flotilla 59.

For George McClellan, a grey haired and thick mustachioed 65-year-old retired police officer and long time pilot, originally from Long Island, N.Y., flying is in his blood.

“My father was a pilot in the Marines and was one of the first people to receive a civilian pilot license from the government. It was signed by Orville Wright,” said McClellan. “I’ve been flying since 1959 and have been involved in law enforcement for 43 years.”

As McClellan starts the engines of his small, green, twin propeller aircraft, it shakes and shudders as if coming to life. Taxiing toward the runway, he waits for final instructions from the airfield control tower over the radio. Cleared for take off, McClellan gently pushes forward on the throttles and the plane makes its way down the runway, picking up speed as it goes. Then, in an instant, the small plane is off the ground, climbing into the hazy, smoke-filled morning sky above.

Once airborne, the mission begins. Banking sharply to the left, the small plane feels surprisingly smooth and agile. Sitting beside McClellan, his older, white-haired co-pilot Harvey Saunders spots the tiny white dots that make up the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, Staten Island, and Beluga formation on the horizon. A cacophony of chatter begins to emanate from the headset: instructions pour in from air traffic control, the Bertholf, Staten Island, Block Island, and the co-pilot.

With the amount of conversation coming through the radio headset, it seems almost like a search and rescue operation.

But it’s not a SAR mission at all. The day’s mission is to provide aerial photo coverage for the first National Security Cutter Bertholf as it transits through the Chesapeake Bay. This is one of the many services that the Coast Guard Auxiliary Air Program provides.

Whatever the mission may be, members of the Air Detachment of Flotilla 59 at Smithfield, Va., are ready for it. These pilots and crewmembers bring with them a great amount of experience.

“Our crewmembers ages range anywhere from 45 years old to 82 years old. The least experienced of them has at least 2,000 flight hours, with the most experienced having 25,000 hours,” said Paul Woche, Fifth District staff officer for aviation-southern region and a retired Air Force pilot. “A lot of the pilots come from general aviation backgrounds flying 1 and 2 engine aircrafts and some from the military. I flew B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker aircraft in 157 combat missions during the Vietnam War.”

“These crews are out helping reduce the ever-increasing load of executing missions for the Department of Homeland Security,” said Lt. Cdr. Jim Elliot, Air Station Elizabeth City Auxiliary Air Program liaison. “They bring a wealth of knowledge and the Coast Guard receives immeasurable benefits.”

With co-pilot Harvey Saunders, a 75-year-old former Coast Guard storekeeper, McClellan and Saunders have had missions that included transporting prisoners and porpoises, spotting beached whales and helping locate vessels in distress.

“I’ve been flying with the Auxiliary and Harvey for about five years, and in those five years, we’ve done pretty much every mission that the Auxiliary Air has,” said McClellan.

“We keep pretty busy; we’ve flown eight missions and have logged 17 hours of flight time so far in June and the month has just started. That’s pretty normal, although some months are busier than others.”

Within the Fifth District-Southern Region, there are 20 aircraft and 102 personnel consisting of 32 pilots and 70 aircrew and air observers. These personnel support the Coast Guard Air Stations at Atlantic City, N.J., and Elizabeth City, N.C.

“Just as the Coast Guard Auxiliary as a whole is a force multiplier, so is the Auxiliary Air Program,” said Elliot. “The volunteers are out flying many of the same Coast Guard missions as their active duty counterparts at a fraction of the cost. Normal Coast Guard flights can range into the thousands of dollars for some missions while Auxiliary Air flights range in the hundreds.”

Originally established in 1945, the Aux Air program utilized private aircraft owned by flotilla members, but by 1950, a couple of Auxiliary units had active air units. Not until 1997 did the program become more active and organized, said Woche.

Members of the program augment many Coast Guard missions by providing such services as area safety patrols, familiarization tours, transportation of Coast Guard VIPs and other Coast Guard personnel, spare parts, and first light searches just to name a few.

“We insure that all Coast Guard missions are covered, even the ones that may seem of lesser importance,” said Woche.

A mission that is of national significance is the training they provide to the members of the National Capital Region Air Defense Team. The team is responsible for intercepting unauthorized aircraft and escorting wandering aircraft out of the NCR.

“We act as a training platform showing them how to handle encounters with small aircraft that happen to wander into the NCR,” said Saunders.

This training, called air intercept drills, allows the NCR to have a moving target on which to practice flight interception techniques.

“We perform maneuvers that show them the kind of things that these small planes can do,” added McClellan. “It’s important for them to become familiar with these small aircraft since the majority of the aircraft that happen to intrude the NCR are small ones.”

McClellan circles the plane right over the formation of cutters and small boats, getting closer and closer to the main focus of the day’s mission, the Bertholf. Hardly a shudder or a sign of turbulence comes from the plane as it begins to descend.

“I can get a lot closer if needed,” pipes McClellan over the headset. “Just let me know how close.”

And with that, he shows the capabilities of his small aircraft by bringing it so close that you are able see the faces of the men and women aboard the cutter.

Circling around the formation a few more times and following it through the Chesapeake Bay, the day’s photo op mission draws to an end. McClellan turns the plane around and heads back toward the airport.

“Landing gear’s down,” says Saunders to McClellan as they prepare to land.

McClellan maneuvers the plane to start its descent onto the runway. It makes a soft landing and heads slowly towards its hanger, the day’s mission at an end. But rest assured that for the members of the Auxiliary Air Program, it won’t be their last.

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