Aviation News Journal
US Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod
Text and photography by Rogier Westerhuis
Air Station Cape Cod (ASCC) is part of the US Coast Guard’s 1st District, one of six districts of the USCG’s Atlantic Area. Headquartered in Boston, the 1st District is responsible for Coast Guard activities in the north-eastern United States from the Canadian border down to northern New Jersey.
Air Station Cape Cod operates a fleet of
three EADS HC-144A Ocean Sentries and
three Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawks.
Its area of responsibility (AOR) reaches as far west at Lake Champlain, NY, and covers 2,000 miles of coastline in a part of the United States notorious for its winter weather. ASCC is home to approximately 200 staff supporting a fleet of three Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawks and three EADS HC-144A Ocean Sentries. Its mission is “to protect life, property, and the marine environment in service to the public and country” and its main roles include search and rescue (SAR), maintaining aids to navigation, protection of living marine resources, and homeland security.
The history of ASCC dates back to 1925, making it the oldest continuously operating USCG aviation unit. In that year, an air station was established on Ten Pound Island near Gloucester, MA. Its aviation assets were relocated to Salem, MA, in 1935 before moving to its current home on Cape Cod, MA. ASCC was commissioned in August 1970 on Otis Air Force Base, which until 2008 was home to various US Air Force active duty and Air National Guard units. When the last F-15Cs belonging to the Massachusetts Air National Guard left Otis, the USCG became the sole operator of aircraft and helicopters permanently based there and assumed control of the aviation facilities. In 2013, the base, which is also home to various other defence agencies and organisations, was renamed Joint Base Cape Cod.
Search and rescue is the main task for the MH-60 Jayhawk. As each of the four crew members play a critical role in search and rescue operations, this is a mission that is trained for almost daily and involves support from other shore-based US Coast Guard units.
The Sikorsky MH-60J Jayhawk entered USCG service in 1990. Forty-two were initially ordered to replace the ageing Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican, which had served the Coast Guard for over twenty years. The MH-60 Jayhawk is a medium-range recovery helicopter, based on the UH-60 Blackhawk but optimised for SAR, one of the Coast Guard’s oldest missions. This role also includes minimizing loss of life or injury, providing aid to persons in distress, and avoiding damage to property.
The author spoke with Cmdr. Brian Kudrle, who has over 4,400 hours on the MH-60, and asked him about the helicopter and its suitability for SAR: “The helicopter is outstanding and fits the whole Coast Guard mission-set really well! With an effective range of 270 nm and 6 hours’ worth of fuel, we can conduct rescue missions far from base and this endurance allows a long ‘on-scene’ time and time to conduct searches. This is particularly relevant in our AOR, which is one of the largest in the US.” The MH-60 can be based on board two classes of Coast Guard cutter and, as Cmdr. Kudrle explains, can also be refuelled from suitably equipped boats: “If we are unable to land on a vessel, we have the option to refuel in flight through helicopter in-flight refuelling (HIFR) by hoisting a refuelling hose up to the hovering helicopter.”
The waters of New England are marked by navigational aids (NAVAIDs) as part of the US Aids to Navigation System, and maintaining this network is another critical USCG role that the Jayhawk supports. These NAVAIDs can be anything from lighthouses, beacons, fog signals, and buoys, all of which need maintenance and repairs. Cmdr. Kudrle continues, “There are thousands of navigation aids all around our AOR. If there is a rock in the ocean, there is a light or lighthouse on it. We provide logistical support to Coast Guard ATON [Aids to Navigation] teams and fly their personnel, tools, and equipment to locations difficult to reach by boat.”
The MH-60 provides logistical support to Coast Guard ATON (Aids to Navigation) teams, transporting their personnel, tools, and equipment to hard-to-reach locations such as lighthouses.
Although the protection of living marine resources is a role mainly conducted by the EADS HC-144 Ocean Sentry, the MH-60 is used for this as well. Helicopters have the benefit of being able to hover if needed and can dispatch law enforcement officers onto suspect vessels. Other tasks flown by the MH-60 crews include Secret Service operations, marine safety and environmental protection missions, and law enforcement in support of coastal security. They also simply ‘fly the flag’ to show that there is USCG presence around ports and waterways.
An MH-60T undergoing intermediate-level maintenance. Normally one Air Station Cape Cod MH-60T is down for maintenance with the remaining two airworthy.
The MH-60 crew typically consists of two pilots, a flight mechanic, and an aviation survival technician (AST). The flight mechanic – an aviation maintenance technician who has received additional training to be part of the flight crew – ensures that the cabin is secured, operates the winch, and directs the pilots during winching operations. The AST is specialised in a variety of areas, all related to life support, with one aim: “to preserve life when all other safety measures have failed.” In addition to their well-known role as a rescue swimmer, the AST is able to provide urgent medical care, and is also responsible for the serviceability of rescue and life-support equipment and for training aircrew in survival techniques.
The motto of the AST is, “So Others May Live.” ASCC MH-60 crews fly between 240 and 300 hours annually, of which approximately 80% is dedicated to SAR.
Third Class Aviation Maintenance Technician Herbert Pitts and First Class Aviation Survival Technician Ed Bizorik taking a moment for themselves between training exercises.
The mission capability of the MH-60 is supported by an integrated package of sensors and radar. Much of this system was upgraded as part of a comprehensive modification and Service Life Extension Program. Work on the first helicopter commenced in 2007 and the last of 45 modified airframes – designated MH-60T – was delivered in 2016. The MH-60T has an Electro-optical Sensor System (ESS) located in a turret under the nose. The EES consists of daylight and infrared cameras – with the capability of overlaying both images – and a laser rangefinder. A Primus 700A weather radar, in a radome on the nose, also provides terrain mapping and a variety of search functions. The MH-60T’s DF-430 multi-mission direction-finding equipment is capable of receiving all current international distress frequencies and can home in on the location of these transmissions. Information collected by these sensors and radar is presented to the crew via a Rockwell-Collins Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS), an all-glass cockpit system consisting of five 6” by 8” multi-function displays (MFDs.)
Other improvements carried out at the same time included the addition of Airborne Use of Force (AUF) equipment, which consists of Kevlar ballistic armour, mounts for a .50-calibre precision rifle and a 7.62-mm machine gun, and a Rockwell-Collins AN/ARC210 radio that allows air crews to communicate with a wide range of other agencies. The AUF mission was assigned to various air stations but has now been centralised and is no longer conducted by ASCC.
The HC-144 is used for a variety of missions. Search and rescue is the primary mission with the secondary mission priorities depending on where they are based. The additional focus for the HC-144s based at Air Station Cape Cod are patrols to protect living marine resources.
In 2003, the Coast Guard, looking to replace its fleet of HU-25 Guardian Falcons, ordered the HC-144A Ocean Sentry, a medium-range multi-purpose surveillance and maritime patrol aircraft based on the EADS/CASA CN-235-300M. The first three airframes, equipped with mission sensors and communication equipment specific to the USCG, were delivered to the Coast Guard Aviation Repair & Supply Center in 2007. After two years of testing and training, operational capability was achieved in 2009. The HC-144 is used for a variety of missions. SAR is the primary role and secondary missions include marine environmental protection, drug interdiction, and immigration control, as well as serving as on-scene commander for homeland security missions and undertaking basic transportation tasks. The aircraft’s low fuel burn gives it a long endurance, and its versatility is further enhanced by its ability to take-off and land in short distances, and operate from rough and poorly prepared runways.
Lt Jordan Hopson, an HC-144 pilot, gives us an insight into the tasks it performs, “Our [secondary] mission is ‘Living Marine Resource Patrols’ and in particular fishing patrols. During these missions we monitor fishermen who are local to the area, but we are also on the look-out for foreign fishing boats which might illegally fish in our waters. We fly these missions almost daily. We’re specifically interested in boats that are not using their Automatic Identification System. We then aim to visually identify the names of these vessels which we might then photograph or video. We mark their GPS location which is overlaid onto a map [to determine if they are fishing in an approved area]. Every month we identify a number of rule-breakers whose details get passed on District Command for further follow-up.”
The HC-144 is great at flying low and slow and has the capability of dropping rescue equipment, dewatering pumps, and radios – making it particularly useful in the search and rescue role
In regard to the SAR role Lt Hopson continues, “The aircraft is well equipped for SAR. Our maximum cruise speed is 220 knots, which means we can reach a search area quicker [than the MH-60]. Once we are in the area, we can fly low and slow and talk to the crew on board the vessel and prepare them for the arrival of our helicopters. We have a typical endurance of seven hours. Bubble observer windows on each side of the aircraft fuselage give our crew great visibility. This helps greatly during our searches. Once we’ve located the victim or vessel in distress, we can direct other boats or helicopters to it. We can drop flares to mark its location and we can drop rescue equipment, dewatering pumps, and radios. We typically do that from a height of 200 ft flying at 120 kts. Day or night. Our downside is that we can only ‘better’ someone’s situation, we can’t pick people up.” Whenever there is an SAR mission that is further than 100 miles offshore during the day, or 75 miles at night, an Ocean Sentry will be sent to the rescue area to relay messages between the helicopter and onshore units.
A typical HC-144 mission is flown by a crew of six – two pilots, two mission system operators, a loadmaster/dropmaster, and a basic aircrewman (or woman.) The loadmaster/dropmaster is responsible for the correct loading of the aircraft and successful dropping of survival and other equipment. They further support surveillance and especially rescue missions by looking out of the aircraft’s two bubble windows. Like the flight mechanic on the MH-60, the loadmaster/dropmaster and basic aircrewman are normally aviation maintenance technicians who have received additional training. ASCC HC-144 crews spend approximately 50% of their time on Living Marine Resource Patrols and get deployed to places such as Puerto Rico and Central America to support anti-narcotics operations.
The aim is for crews to fly approximately 300 hours per year, but the winter weather of the north-eastern US makes that a real challenge.
The Coast Guard is upgrading its HC-144s to further improve their mission effectiveness. This is known as the Ocean Sentry Refresh project and changes the designation of the type from HC-144A to HC-144B. Air Station Cape Cod will be one off the last air stations to receive the modified version.
Even in its most basic configuration the HC-144 carries an impressive sensor and communication package, similar to that of the EADS CN-235M but adapted to meet USCG specifications. In the cockpit the crew benefit from a Rockwell-Collins Flight2 integrated avionics system that integrates the aircraft’s various flight, navigation, communication, and surveillance systems in a user-friendly glass cockpit environment. This is similar to the systems used in the Jayhawk and in other USCG aircraft. Mounted in a white radome under the aircraft’s fuselage is a Telephonics APS-143C(V) multi-mode maritime surveillance radar. This radar is optimised for finding small targets and can detect and track objects in poor weather conditions. It has integrated IFF interrogator capability and – especially useful for SAR missions – direction-finding modes. A FLIR Systems Star Safire III electro-optical/infrared sensor system – mounted on the nose of the aircraft – is used for surveillance tasks or SAR and can locate small vessels or even a person floating in the water, in poor weather and at night. Further systems include an automatic identification system which is particularly useful during patrols focused on protection of living marine resources, where identifying fishing and other vessels is key.
What really enhances the Ocean Sentry’s flexibility and its already excellent surveillance and maritime patrol capabilities is the Lockheed Martin Mission System Pallet (MSP). The roll-on/roll-off MSP can be quickly and efficiently installed or removed from the aircraft, and was developed to offer Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) facilities. It allows the two Mission System Operators to operate the aircraft’s comprehensive radar, sensor, surveillance, and communication package. These operators are able to monitor, collect, and share up-to-date mission data with a variety of other airborne, seaborne, or shore-based sources. They can also direct the flight crew to optimize their flight profile and can share information with the crew through the in-cockpit MFDs. A real benefit compared to legacy systems is the ability to email images directly to other users, which might negate the need for further visual identification of a target. In the past this might have a required a helicopter or vessel to attend.
The MH-60T cockpit is equipped with a modern Rockwell-Collins Common Avionics Architecture System. This is an all-glass cockpit system consisting of five 6" by 8" multi-function displays.
Most UCGS air stations face their own set of weather challenges, from hurricanes to extreme winter conditions. The weather in the ASCC AOR is no exception. Cmdr. Brian Kudrle explains, “Weather is always a factor. In the winter months we have to consider freezing levels and the associated risk of icing. In the summer our flights may be affected by marine fog layers, which could force us to fly an instrument approach as low as 50 ft above the water in order to conduct a rescue. Worst of all are conditions in which we might encounter embedded thunderstorms.” Big winter storms known as “nor’easters” are another feature in this part of the United States, bringing a combination of high winds, high tides, and lots of snow. Cmdr. Kudrle continues, “The MH-60 has a great de-icing system allowing us to fly in weather that others might find insane. We have good redundancy systems, and the helicopter is very robust. During a rescue we can rely on the Automatic Flight Control System, which means that we can focus more on the actual mission [rather than the basics of flying the helicopter itself].” This has proven to be a real benefit especially in poor weather conditions. As Cmdr. Kudrle says, “Managing risks can be a challenge at times. Waiting for conditions to improve goes against the nature of many pilots’ ‘type-A personality’ and their drive to get the job done.”
First Class Aviation Survival Technician Ed Bizorik gives directions to the flight mechanic, who passes these instructions on to the pilots, while he is being lowered into the water near a dummy victim.
Another task unique to ASCC, and immediately linked to the weather in this part of the United States, is medevac (medical evacuation) especially from the nearby islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Here the Coast Guard steps in when the weather is too bad for the commercial medevac companies to fly. Lt Hopson remembers one of these missions, “It was a dark night in January with a bad snowstorm affecting the area. A woman was wounded in an accident on Martha’s Vineyard and needed urgent medical care, which could only be given on the mainland. In order to conduct the flight, we had to first de-ice the aircraft, land on a runway that was still covered in snow and affected by poor visibility to then fly the patient and a couple of nurses with medical equipment to Hanscom Air Force Base just outside Boston. It was challenging, but really rewarding to get this woman to hospital. I made the conscious decision to fly for the Coast Guard and not the military. I wanted to save lives, instead of taking them. This aircraft [the HC-144] was my first choice and I love flying it!”
Without a further Service Life Extension Program the majority of MH-60s will reach the end of their service life in 2028. To avoid this significant drop in capacity the USCG recently launched the MH-60T Sustainment Program, which involves replacing the hulls and some key components such as rotor blades and electrical wiring. To date the USCG has ordered 30 new hulls from Sikorsky, the first was due to be delivered early 2023 followed by one each month thereafter. Through the MH-60T Sustainment Program the Jayhawk is set to continue service into the 2030s.
The Coast Guard has also embarked on the Ocean Sentry Refresh (OSR) project, upgrading its 18 HC-144As to further improve their mission effectiveness. Each aircraft will receive an upgraded flight management system and be equipped with the Minotaur mission system. Aircraft that have undergone the OSR are designated HC-144B and so far, 13 have been delivered (August 2022). At the time of the author’s visit, ASCC was not yet equipped with the HC-144B and will be one of the last units to receive the model with the first delivery expected in 2023.
ASCC is a small but effective aviation unit that plays a significant role in supporting Coast Guard operations in the north-eastern part of the United States. With the two types of aircraft flown being further future-proofed, ASCC is well placed to continue its long history of supporting the USCG with aerial capabilities for many more years to come.
To minimize time on the ground the MH-60s
can be refuelled between flights with their
engines still running
F/V Atlantic Destiny
On the evening of 8 March 2021, a distress call was received by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fishing vessel Atlantic Destiny with its crew of 31 was in serious trouble due to a fire in the engine room that had left the boat without power and the ability to steer. To make matters worse, they were approximately 125 nm south of Nova Scotia and 200 nm due west of Cape Cod, in the dark and in the middle of a violent winter storm. The situation was dire, but the crew was still fighting to save the ship. Cmdr. Brian Kudrle was in command of one of the two MH-60Ts dispatched from Cape Cod to support the Canadian Armed Forces Search and Rescue with the rescue mission that had been launched when the distress call came in.
Cmdr. Kudrle shares what happened, “The Canadian Air Force launched an [AgustaWestland CH-149] Cormorant and a [Lockheed CC-130H] Hercules which were first to arrive on the scene. In the meantime, we sent two of our helicopters to assist with the operation.” When the CC-130 arrived on the scene the fire seemed under control, but the ship was taking on water and already listing to one side in 30-ft waves.
ASCC also sent an HC-144 Ocean Sentry to the scene to assist. Upon the arrival of the Ocean Sentry the CC-130H crew became the on-scene coordinators. Cmdr. Kudrle continued, “The Cormorant crew lowered two SAR technicians onto the vessel before starting to evacuate the first of its 31 crew. The Cormorant crew hoisted six crew members off the vessel, before a technical malfunction forced it to return to Nova Scotia. Due to a risk of the helicopter having to ditch en route, we followed the Cormorant to safety. The second Jayhawk continued with the evacuation and retrieved eight crew members. When we returned to the scene we lowered a dewatering pump onto the boat, before retrieving a further 13 fishermen.”
Whilst the two Jayhawks recovered to Yarnmouth, Nova Scotia, a second Cormorant arrived to rescue the remaining four fishermen and two SAR technicians. They had been fighting a losing battle to save the vessel. Unfortunately, the Cormorant experienced technical difficulties with both its winches. As a result, the last six occupants were picked up by a rescue boat launched from a Canadian Coast Guard fisheries patrol vessel instead.
Cmdr. Kudrle continued, “[During the rescue] we had to fight 50–60-knot winds, 30-ft waves in the dark. The boat was tossed around like a rubber duck in a bathtub, the situation made worse by the fact that the boat was stationary. Some key flight data is projected in our NVGs [night-vision goggles], so there is no need for us to constantly look into the cockpit. One of the most challenging parts was getting the [rescue basket] trail lines onto the vessel, and we lost a number of lines. Freezing spray was a further concern and we faced pitch oscillations of up to plus and minus 20 degrees. This was the hardest flying I ever had to do in a helicopter, but all the crew were rescued. This serves as a great example of the working relationship that we have with our Canadian counterparts.” The boat sank in the morning.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank LTJG Dylan Block, Lt William Martin, Cmdr. Brian Kudrle, Lt Jordan Hopson, E-5 Stephen Rodgers, and everyone else from ASCC who assisted with this article.