U.S. Coast Guard – Florida
HC-144A tail number 2308 (c/n C179) shares the ramp at Air Station Miami with MH-65D tail number 6606 (c/n 6801) on August 31, 2008. The Dolphin is one of five produced by the Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, using Green airframes procured from American Eurocopter (AEC).
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west and south, Florida’s coastal areas are perhaps the most densely populated in the nation and no part of the state is more than 60 miles (96.5 km) from one of the aforementioned bodies of water. According the US Congressional Research Service the state of Florida ranks second, behind only Alaska, with 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of coastline. Additionally, it has more than 11,000 miles of rivers, streams & waterways and some 7,700 lakes and 4,500 islands that are larger than 10 acres in size and more than 900,000 registered watercraft.
Headquartered in Miami, Florida, the US Coast Guard’s Seventh District is responsible for four Air Stations located in Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico and more than 15 percent of the service’s aircraft. Mariners operating along Florida’s inshore and offshore areas, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean are protected by two of the coast guards largest and busiest air stations.
MH-65D tail number 6529 (c/n 6172) on the ramp at Air Station Miami on December 27, 2016. The Dolphin was one of eight to receive special paint schemes to commemorate the Coast Guard’s Aviation Centennial. The scheme was originally carried by the service’s HH-65As when they first entered in service.
Air Station Miami – “Aviation Excellence Since 1932”
Originally commissioned at Dinner Key alongside Biscayne Bay in June 1932, Air Station Miami was relocated to Opa-Locka Airport in North Miami on November 20, 1965. Renamed Opa Locka Executive Airport in 2006 and operated by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, the airport was known as Naval Air Station Miami from 1940 until 1955 when it became a Marine Corps Air Station. That facility was formally closed in 1959 and the majority of the property was transferred to Dade County in 1962. Air Station Miami occupies a 51-acre parcel on Opa Locka Executive Airport, and hosts five tenant commands that include Tactical Law Enforcement Team (TACLET) South and the Seventh District TACLET Training Team. The station is under the command of Captain Michael E. Platt, who became the 35th Commanding Officer of Air Station Miami on July 21, 2017.
Air Station Miami’s area of responsibility (AOR) covers 1.8 million square miles and starts at Charleston, South Carolina on the Atlantic coast and includes the Florida Keys and the entire Caribbean basin. The station’s primary missions include Search and Rescue (SAR), Maritime Law Enforcement, Alien Migrant Interdiction, National Security and Environmental protection.
At one time known as ‘The Busiest Air Sea Rescue Unit in the World’, Air Station Miami had as many as 21 aircraft assigned in 1991. Currently the station operates five Airbus Group HC-144A Ocean Sentry Medium Range Surveillance (MRS) aircraft and five Airbus Helicopters Eurocopter MH-65D Dolphin Short Range Recovery (SRR) helicopters. Plans to assigned a pair of Sikorsky/Schweizer RU-38B (Sikorsky model SZ-38B) Manned Covert Surveillance Aircraft (MCSA) were cancelled in November 2014 when the project was terminated.
Miami’s MH-65Ds and HC-144As typically fly around 8,000 hours annually and are forward deployed 455 days away from home station (DAHS) each year (365 HC-144A and 90 MH-65D) to numerous locations where they are tasked with identifying and interdicting narcotics and illegal migrants and SAR. The station’s personnel include 71 officers, 255 enlisted personnel and 13 civilian employees.
Miami has operated the Dolphin since the first HH-65As arrived in 1989 to replace the station’s Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguards. At one time as many as ten Dolphins were assigned, however; the fleet was reduced following the establishment of Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) in Jacksonville, which assumed much of the station’s drug interdiction responsibilities. The station received HH-65Bs in 2005, transitioned to the HH-65C in 2008, the MH-65C in 2009 and finally the MH-65D in 2013.
HU-25D tail number 2114 (c/n 418) taxies at Air Station Miami on June 21, 2010. The Guardian was later transferred to Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas and was the last example in service with the Coast Guard. Retired on September 23, 2014 the Guardian was subsequently delivered to the North Valley Occupational Center at Van Nuys, Airport, California, for use as a training aid.
The first Dassault HU-25A was assigned in October 1982 and the station received first HU-25C, which was operated as an airborne interceptor, on May 30, 1988. Beginning on February 7, 2002 it transitioned to the HU-25D and conversion to the HC-144A began in March 2010. The station achieved initial operating capability with the HC-144A on October 1, 2010 and the last Guardian departed Opa Locka on June 2, 2011.
During Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, which ended on September 30, 2016, the air station’s HC-144As and MH-65Ds respectively flew 5,699.7 and 3,274.1 hours. The MH-65Ds and crews spent 90 Days Away from Home Station (DAHS) and six Deployed Days at Sea (DDAS) while the HC-144As spent 288 DAHS. The aircraft flew 362 SAR missions that resulted in 100 lives saved and 318 lives assisted and were directly involved in the interdiction of 12 vessels carrying 459kg of cocaine and 2,571 migrants.
HC-130H tail number 1706 (USAF serial 83-0505) on the ramp at Air Station Clearwater, Florida, on October 15, 2013. Delivered to the Coast Guard in August 1984 the Hercules is one of seven that will be passed on to the US Forest Service.
Air Station Clearwater – “Anytime, Anywhere”
The US Coast Guard’s largest and busiest Air Station is situated on the northwest side of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, Airport on a peninsula that juts into Old Tampa Bay. The air station was commissioned on October 29, 1976 and replaced Air Station St Petersburg, which had been located at Albert Whitted Airport. The move from the facility in downtown St. Petersburg, which had been commissioned on March 1, 1935, was dictated by the Coast Guard’s decision to assign four HC-130Bs to the air station, which then operated four Sikorsky HH-3F Pelicans. On September 14, 1976 the HH-3Fs were relocated to the new facility, which is located nine miles (15 km) north of St Petersburg and seven miles (11 km) southeast of Clearwater. The air station’s two large hangars were previously operated by the Fairchild Hiller Corporation. Construction of the airport, which is owned and operated by Pinellas County, began in March 1941. Pinellas Army Airfield was activated on April 9, 1942. Turned over to the county in December 1947, it became Pinellas International Airport and assumed its current name in 1958.
The HC-130Bs were later replaced by HC-130H Long Range Surveillance (LRS) aircraft and from 1991 to 1993 Clearwater operated the service’s sole EC-130V High-Endurance Surveillance (HES) aircraft. Under a proof-of-concept project, the aircraft was equipped with the AN/APS-125 radar, rotodome and mission systems from a US Navy Grumman E-2C Hawkeye.
Air Station Clearwater’s Area of Operations includes the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean basin, and the Bahamas. Its assets currently include ten MH-60T Medium Range Recovery (MRR) helicopters and four HC-130Hs. The Hercules fleet currently comprises the service’s last remaining 1500 series and three 1700 series HC-130Hs. The large number of aircraft assigned is dictated by the station’s requirement for supporting Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT).
Begun in 1983, the joint. Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Government of Bahamas partnership combats drug and migrant smuggling to and from the Bahamas. The Coast Guard’s anti-narcotics and migrant smuggling missions are flown from bases at Great Inagua International Airport and the US Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center at Andros Town Airport, Bahamas. In 1987 Clearwater took on the responsibility to provide helicopters and personnel to support the OPBAT mission. Coast Guard flight maintenance and ground personnel from Air Station Clearwater routinely deploy to Andros Island and Great Inagua. The station also deploys its HC-130s deployed in support of Joint Inter Agency Task Force South (JIATF-S) operations in the Caribbean.
MH-60J tail number 6024 (BuNo 163824) awaits its next mission at Air Station Clearwater, Florida, on April 4, 2013. The Jayhawk was the last MH-60J to undergo conversion to MH-60T configuration. It was inducted into the modification line at the Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on May 14, 2013.
Clearwater was the last of nine air stations to receive the HH-60J in 1993 and it subsequently retired the Coast Guard’s last HH-3Fs in May 1994. At one time the station was assigned a complement of 12 HH-60Js. It was also the final station to begin the conversion from the MH-60J to the MH-60T in 2012 and that transition was completed in May 2013. The air station is scheduled to replace its HC-130Hs with six HC-27J Medium Range Surveillance (MRS) aircraft and Spartans will begin operations in 2019.
Around 80 officers and 440 enlisted personnel are assigned to Clearwater. Captain Capt. Edward Sandlin assumed command of the Air Station on July 1, 2016. Air Station Clearwater’s helicopter aircrews fly an average of over 400 Search and Rescue cases each year along the coasts of Florida, the Bahamas, and beyond. Its primary missions include law enforcement, search and rescue, alien migration interdiction, environmental protection, and military readiness. Clearwater’s statistics for FY2016 include 384 SAR cases that resulted in 182 lives saved and 250 lives assisted. The MH-60Ts flew a total of 6417.3 hours including 2139.6 in support of OPBAT. In support of OPBAT three MH-60Ts, flight and maintenance crews were deployed for 365 days for a total of 1,095 DAHS. The station’s HC-130Hs flew a total of 3663.3 hours and one aircraft and personnel was DAHS for 135 days in support of Joint Interagency Task Force – South. Throughout the year Air Station Clearwater was responsible for the interdiction of 14,955kg of cocaine, 4,765.5lb of marijuana and 946 migrants.
MH-60T tail number 6045 (BuNo 164804) lifts off from runway 9/27 a St Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, Florida, for a deployment in support of Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT) on April 4, 2013. Delivered to Clearwater on February 13, 2013, the Jayhawk was the third of six former US Navy SH-60Fs converted to the MH-60T configuration by the Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina and previously carried BuNo 164804. The Jayhawk is currently assigned to Air Station Traverse City, Michigan.
Established in 1983, OPBAT is a multi-agency, international drug interdiction effort focused on stopping the flow of illegal drugs from South America and the Caribbean to The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and the United States. On March 21, 2013 the Coast Guard dedicated a new $20 million hangar at the Great Inagua International Airport, Bahamas. The 17,500 sq ft facility replaced an older building that was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Nearly 40 Coast Guard and around 20 DEA personnel support OPBAT.
MH-68A tail number 1095 (c/n 11095) conducts hover checks at Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, Florida, on August 6, 2002. The Coast Guard leased eight Agusta A109E Power helicopters that were assigned to Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron Ten (HITRON 10). The first example was delivered in November 2000 and deliveries were completed in August 2001. The unit, which was formally commissioned as the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) on May 19, 2003, transitioned to the MH-65C in early 2008 and later received MH-65Ds.
Helicopter Interdiction Squadron (HITRON)
Although located within the Coast Guard’s Seventh District HITRON reports directly to US Coast Guard Headquarters. The squadron was originally known as Helicopter Interdiction Squadron Ten, when it was activated at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama, in 1998. It initially operated two MD Helicopters MD902 Explorers as part of a proof of concept demonstration, under the non-standard designation MH-90 Enforcer. The unit moved to Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2000 and subsequently received a fleet of eight Agusta A109E Power helicopters that were operated under the designation MH-68A Stingray. HITRON assumed its current identity on May 19, 2003, when it was formally commissioned at Cecil Airport. HITRON was the Coast Guard’s first unit authorized to employ Airborne Use of Force (AUF) in support of the drug interdiction mission. Initially tasked with interdicting and stopping suspected drug-laden, high-speed vessels known as ‘go-fasts’, HITRON’s mission has expanded to include Homeland Security, and it now conducts counterdrug and counterterrorism missions. Its aircraft and crews make regular deployments aboard aviation-capable Coast Guard cutters deployed to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean. In January 2008, the unit exchanged eight leased Agusta MH-68A helicopters for the first MH-65Cs and the Stingrays were returned to Agusta Aerospace when the lease expired in March. The unit began its transition to the MH-65D variant in December 2010 and has operated a full complement of ten Dolphins since 2012. Captain Michael Campbell assumed command of the squadron on June 15, 2017. Cecil Airport is operated by the Jacksonville Airport Authority (JAA) and was originally known as Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Cecil Field. Commissioned in 1941 the facility closed in 1945 but reopened in 1948. The facility formally closed in 1999 and turned over to the Jacksonville Port Authority in 2000.
Editor’s note: Tom Kaminski’s article about the Coast Guard’s aviation presence in Florida is quite timely. The people and aircraft detailed in this story were active in disaster recovery efforts in Texas and Louisiana in response to Hurricane Harvey. Barely two weeks later, their home turf of South Florida and adjacent waters was about to absorb a direct hit from Hurricane Irma (two days after this article was published). The men and women of these Coast Guard air stations have enough on their minds during a catastrophe, never mind that there’s the added pressure of knowing that their own families, friends and homes might need their professional assistance too. Our best hopes and wishes go out to these Coast Guardsmen and all those who are impacted by the Atlantic Hurricanes this season. – K. Kula