Acquisition Update: HC-144A Ocean Sentry in its First Search & Rescue Mission
February 21, 2008
On Feb. 20, 2008, two U.S. Air Force F-15C fighter jets from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., collided over the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Fla. The Coast Guard’s new HC-144A and its crew located the first pilot and directed his recovery. Both F-15C pilots were eventually recovered; regrettably only one was recovered alive.
This search & rescue (SAR) mission included two important “firsts” for the U.S. Coast Guard’s new HC-144A Ocean Sentry Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
For the HC-144A, the incident marked its first SAR mission, and its first use as an On-Scene Coordinator (OSC) platform.
HC-144A No. 2303, from Aviation training Center (ATC) Mobile, Ala., was diverted from a routine training flight and arrived first on scene to the crash area, assuming the crucial role of OSC—responsible for leading the activity of several SAR assets (including those of the Coast Guard, the Department of Defense and civilian partners).
Although not fully SAR-capable while undergoing Operational Test and Evaluation of its mission systems package (including radar, an electro-optical/infrared sensor and a communications suite), the HC-144A enhanced the Coast Guard’s ability to execute a multi-agency rescue mission.
The HC-144A’s bubble observer windows were important design features, in that this allowed the aircrew more carefully to observe the area, including directly below the aircraft, (which is not possible to do from the legacy HU-25 aircraft).
Although still undergoing integration and operational testing, the HC-144A’s mission system collected Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, which in turn helped identify and communicate with civilian vessels in the area, including the Good Samaritan (F/V Nina) which was vectored in to help locate the downed airmen.
AIS provided positive identification of assisting vessels and eliminated the confusion often associated with hailing an unknown vessel.
The HC-144A is currently the only Coast Guard aircraft with AIS capability onboard (it is unknown whether any of the DoD assets had AIS capabilities).
The HC-144A’s Flight Management System enhanced the aircrew’s situational awareness by showing real-time position maps, including an active surface plot populated with information gleaned from other assets in the area, including AIS data.
The HC-144A’s ability to sprint to a scene and then fly slowly through a search pattern were important factors in this case.
The HC-144A’s long endurance enabled the aircrew to coordinate the SAR at slow speed, ensuring excellent visual coverage of the area.
No. 2303’s communications suite allowed the aircrew to interoperate with and coordinate the efforts of many partners, including an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker and two other Air Force F-15s; the civilian fishing vessel F/V Nina; and several Coast Guard District Seven (D7) and District Eight (D8) assets.
Other Coast Guard SAR units included an HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter from CG Air Station Clearwater; a HH-60J and two HU-25C Guardian jets from ATC Mobile; an HH-65C Dolphin helicopter from CG Air Station New Orleans; Coast Guard Cutter Coho and a 41-foot Utility Boat from CG Station Panama City.