A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

The Modern Era: 1976 – 1994

A systematic organization and expansion of Coast Guard aviation capabilities and facilities to accommodate operational requirements continued. A Coast Guard “Group” concept, in support of multi-mission responsibilities, greatly enhanced efficiency and effectively employed people and assets. Group Commands were established to coordinate the efforts of Coast Guard stations, patrol boats, aids to navigation and other functions within a given geographic area. The Group provided operational, administrative, supply, and engineering support. In some situations, Coast Guard Air Stations were an integral part of the Group and the Commanding Officer of the Air Station was also the Commanding Officer of the Group. In other instances an Air Station was a separate entity, and supported multiple groups.

In order to meet operational commitments four HC-130 aircraft were placed on the west coast of Florida. Because of airport limitations, Air Station St. Petersburg was moved to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport to accommodate C-130 operations. Air Station Clearwater was established in 1976. The Coast Guard Air Station serving Southeast Alaska was moved from Annette Island to Sitka which was more centrally located in the area of responsibility. The Air Station/Group Humboldt Bay was commissioned in June of 1977 in response to a multi-year initiative by local residents to gain a year round aviation search and rescue facility for Northern California. Air Station Sacramento, California was established in September 1978 to provide HC-130 operations on the West Coast of the United States.

Based on the recommendations of the Coast Guard Aircraft Characteristics Board and the Medium Range Search Aircraft Evaluation Project, a requirement of forty-one turbojet aircraft to replace the HU-16 was established. The HU-25 Falcon was ultimately selected. Because of procurement delays, seventeen HC-131 aircraft were obtained from the U.S. Air Force as an interim replacement. The HU-25 came on line in February 1982. The Aerospatiale HH-65 was chosen as the Short Range Recovery helicopter replacement for the HH-52. The HH-65 became operational in November of 1985.

In the early years of Coast Guard Aviation, the US Coast Guard trained its enlisted aviation personnel at Navy schools. Aircraft and aircraft equipment increasingly became Coast Guard specific. “A” school graduates did not see a Coast Guard aircraft until they reached their first Air Station as an E4 Petty Officer.  There also existed a difference in maintenance philosophies between the two services. There was a need for Coast Guard specific aviation technical training conducted at a common training site. The concept was approved by the Commandant and money was appropriated in FY 76 Budget. Construction of the Coast Guard Aviation Technical Training Center (ATTC) began in July of 1976 at Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The training center has continued to evolve to satisfy Coast Guard requirements.

In 1984 a helicopter Rescue Swimmer program was established to expand marine rescue capabilities. It evolved from its initial mission of open ocean rescue to its now extensive capability to assist people in distress in virtually any environment in which the Coast Guard operates. CDR Bruce Melnick became the first Coast Guard Astronaut to launch into space in 1990 and in 1991 a Coast Guard Air Detachment was formed and deployed to the Middle East during Operation DESERT STORM.

The off-shore fishery zone around the United States had been expanded to twelve nautical miles from shore in 1967. The establishment of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation Act in 1976 created a 200-mile fisheries zone off the coasts of the United States increasing the law enforcement area of responsibility significantly.  The Coast Guard concentrates surveillance and enforcement efforts in the active fishing areas protecting designated marine life as well as ensuring compliance with international agreements governing certain fisheries off the U.S. coasts. Aviation plays a prominent role. A mix of long range and medium range aircraft patrol the areas and report locations to cutters on fisheries patrol. A mix of high and medium endurance cutters, with helicopters embarked are used to monitor foreign vessels for compliance with procedures as agreed upon.

The start of maritime drug smuggling was prompted by a demand for marijuana in America that could not be met by the land supply from Mexico. Initially marijuana smuggling was conducted by a large number of entrepreneurs, usually Americans, using fishing vessels, sailboats and cabin cruisers. By 1976 large amounts of Colombian marijuana were reaching the United States in “mother-ships.” These large vessels carried bulk shipments of marijuana to prearranged points off the U.S. Coast. The ships moored far enough away from shore to avoid notice, and off loaded their cargo to small boats and fishing vessels that could smuggle the drug ashore less conspicuously and avoid detection. Cocaine was not considered a problem until 1982. Because of its existing maritime assets the Coast Guard became the primary maritime enforcement agency for the war on drugs. The initial small commitment continued to grow throughout the period, at first defensive in nature and then offensive. In 1986 the mission was expanded to include air-interdiction operations. Aviation played a vital role in the drug interdiction operations. When Admiral J. William Kime became Commandant in 1990 he believed the mission distribution of the Coast Guard should be more balanced. Drug interdiction operations were cut back and de-emphasized.

In 1980 the Mariel Cuban Exodus began. What was initially a massive rescue operation became an illegal immigration interdiction problem. This was followed by regular patrols of the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. The role continued to increase and by 1994 this operational responsibility absorbed a large portion of Coast Guard maritime and aviation assets in what was called operations ABLE MANOR and ABLE VIGIL. Alien interdiction has continued as a Coast Guard mission and over the years the number of countries from which illegal immigration is generated has increased significantly.

The aging of assets, the acquisition of additional mission responsibilities and the dynamic increased emphasis and expansion of law enforcement activities left the Coast Guard well short of budgetary needs. When Admiral John B. Hayes became commandant in 1978 he was deeply concerned as to the age of the cutter fleet, aircraft, and shore facilities as well as a shortage of personnel to carry out the missions. He embarked on a program to convince the Secretary of Transportation, the President, and the Congress that this was a serious problem. Secretary Adams was receptive and his replacement Neil Goldschmidt became fully convinced of the inadequacy of financial resources.  President Carter was persuaded to support modernizing the Coast Guard and increasing the budget by fifty percent. A roles and mission study was initiated. Unfortunately the nation’s economy eroded and the serious budget deficits precluded any additional funding.

With the advent of the Reagan Administration certain key appointees wanted to convert the Coast Guard into a civilian agency and privatize as many Coast Guard functions as possible. They believed the private sector could manage the functions better, at less cost, and favored dismantling the Coast Guard. One of these appointees was Darrell Trent, the Deputy Secretary of Transportation. Admiral Hayes stated that it was never clear as to the degree of collaboration between Mr. Trent  and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis but that he found himself cut off from making his case to anyone outside the Department.  The Roles and Mission study, initially designed as an analysis to support budget requirements, was used by Mr. Trent and the Office of Management and Budget to question the fundamental reason why the Coast Guard existed.  The Commandant realized that the Coast Guard was fighting for its survival.

Every recommendation and virtually every conclusion of the study was fought over. In those instances of reduction or elimination an honest and pragmatic appraisal was made to identify missions and units that could be decommissioned with the least overall impact on Coast Guard operations. The Commandant then advised the Secretary that he felt the closures were not worth the money the administration would save in face of the anticipated political reaction. This proved to be true. Compromises were reached and many of the closures did not occur.

It was also clear that decisions as to the demilitarization of the Coast Guard had been made prior to any evaluation. Aware of this one of Admiral Hayes’ initial strategic objectives, after becoming Commandant, had been to explore the Coast Guard’s national defense responsibilities and to cement more firmly the services’ relationship to the Navy and Department of Defense. This proved extremely beneficial. A memorandum crafted through a collaboration of the Coast Guard, the DOD and the Presidents’ National Security Advisor stated bluntly that in evaluating the Coast Guard’s military readiness mission, care should be taken that the Coast Guard’s contribution to national security should be in no way be adversely affected. 

The all out assault on the Coast Guard had been blunted but the budget wars would continue. During the next four years, Admiral James S. Gracey’s tour as Commandant, the attempts to privatize Coast Guard functions would continue. He had to deal with the Grace Commission and the continued hostility of the Office of Management and Budget. It was not until the mid to late 1980s that significant support was forthcoming from the Secretaries of Transportation. Significantly contributing to the problem was the fact that Coast Guard appropriations were included in the overall Transportation Department appropriations.  On numerous occasions the Congressional appropriation committee would divert appropriated funds to other Department of Transportation functions and the full Coast Guard budget would not get supported.  Obtaining sufficient funds was always a problem.

Admiral Paul Yost chose a pro-active approach during his years as Commandant.  Relationships with the other military services were emphasized and for the first time Coast Guard aviation participated in air interdiction of drug smuggling. Assets to accomplish this were obtained and what was once a small operational mission represented 25% of the Coast Guard budget by 1989.

A military-led coup overthrew the government of Haiti in 1991. An increase in illegal migration took place as a result. Initially the numbers were small but by the end of the following year it had become a major problem. Haitian migrants were interdicted and returned directly to Haiti. Coast Guard patrols of the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba were maintained. During 1994 a mass exodus of migrants from Cuba again took place. The U.S. Government did not want a repeat of the 1980 Mariel Boat Lift so interdiction operations were begun in the Florida Straits. The Coast Guard found itself engaged in two major operations occurring at the same time. A total of forty-six cutters and fifteen aircraft were involved in these operations. 

Search and Rescue

Search and rescue continued to be a primary responsibility of Coast Guard aviation during this period. The commissioning of Coast Guard Air Station/Group Humboldt Bay marked the completion of the Aviation Development plan initiated in 1962. Ten new Air Stations had been added, five had been relocated, and two decommissioned. Frank Erickson’s idea of Coast Guard Stations equipped with helicopters on the maritime coasts of the United States had come to pass. The capability of the helicopter increased exponentially. The HH-52 had come on board followed by the HH-3F. These were followed by the HH-65 and the HH-60J. The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program established in 1984 has been an outstanding success. The Rescue Swimmers have performed some truly remarkable feats. A copy of the first Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to a Rescue Swimmer is included within the Rescue Swimmer entry in this section of the timeline. Narratives of specific heroic exploits of Coast Guard aircraft crewmembers are much too vast a subject for presentation in this type of format but the magnitude of their achievements is amazing. Individual recognition awards may be viewed on the Coast Guard Pterodactyl website. The Coast Guard does not break down rescue statistics into surface and aviation units but the combined statistics are astonishing. During the nineteen years, 1976 through 1994, the Coast Guard saved 101,729 lives and $48.5 billion dollars in property. These figures do not include the lives saved in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 and the Alien Migrant Interdiction operations of 1993 and 1994. 

The Modern Era