The Coast Guard’s Long Range Surveillance aircraft fleet now possesses one of the most powerful tools in search and rescue today. All operational HC-130H (26) and HC-130J (3) aircraft are now equipped with the Rockwell Collins DF-430-F Multi-mission Direction Finding (DF) system, which has enabled Coast Guard aircrews to save 47 lives since its introduction to the service in 2006; a number of these SAR cases occurred after searches with older style direction finders were unsuccessful.
The DF-430 is a proven, off-the-shelf, multi-purpose direction finding system that can home on both the 406 MHz signal as well as the legacy 121.5 MHz signal; these two signals emanate from an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) when activated in an emergency situation. Older style direction finders could only detect the weaker 121.5 MHz signal, the range of which is approximately 5 miles. In comparison, Coast Guard aircraft have locked on to the more robust 406 MHz signal from up to 160 miles away (at altitude).
The DF-430 has demonstrated its capabilities numerous times in the field. On the night of April 11, 2007, the first HC-130H to carry the DF-430 system locked on to an EPIRB signal being sent from an overturned catamaran, the Paradox. Previous attempts to locate the vessel, made by an HU-25 Falcon jet not equipped with the DF-430, had failed. The HC-130H arrived on scene and vectored an HH-60J “Jayhawk” helicopter to complete the rescue, saving the lives of two crewmembers.
On February 1, 2009, Coast Guard Air Station Savannah received an EPIRB signal from the F/V Gladiator, which had become disabled approximately 72 miles northeast of Charleston, S.C. A MH-65C “Dolphin” helicopter was launched from Charleston and, using the DF-430 to track the signal, vectored directly to the scene. Upon arrival, the aircrew provided the Gladiator with a hand-held radio because no other means of communication were available. The ship’s crew stated that the Gladiator’s propeller shaft had sheered and none of its radios were functioning. The only means they had to alert the Coast Guard to their situation was the 406 MHz EPIRB on board. Using the radio provided by the aircrew, the Gladiator was able to contact another vessel for assistance.
Currently, 89 Coast Guard fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft are DF-430 equipped:
All Coast Guard aircraft are expected to be equipped with the DF-430 by 2012. The Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, N.C. is leading the installation effort.