PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - It’s not the kind of mission the Coast Guard is generally known for, but given their core mission of saving lives, perhaps the rotary wing air intercept mission in Washington, D.C., should be.
Since 2006, Coast Guard aviators and enlisted personnel from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., have been rotating into Washington, D.C., with the task of preventing small, general aviation aircraft from violating the 30 nautical mile ring around the capital known as the “Special Flight Rules Area.”
Coast Guard Air Defense Facility Washington, D.C., is made up of MH-65D Dolphin helicopters, and personnel are drawn from a pool of 60 aviators and 175 enlisted members stationed at CGAS Atlantic City. It’s a very unique mission, according to Cdr. Andrew Dutton, the unit’s operations officer.
“This unit has one mission, and what makes this unit interesting from a Coast Guard perspective is that the helicopters assigned here are under the tactical control of NORAD exclusively,“ he said. “We cannot be used for traditional Coast Guard missions such as rescue or homeland security, so we are very mission focused, 24-7, to dissuade and deter would be violators, and defend the airspace.”
Dutton said the nature of the mission makes the Coast Guard uniquely suited to carry it out. Unlike Department of Defense assets, the Coast Guard has Title 14 authority, allowing it to enforce federal criminal and civil laws, where it has jurisdiction to do so.
“Every mission that we have here starts out as a national defense concern,” Dutton said. “Is someone bent on attacking the infrastructure of Washington, D.C., harming our leaders, or starting a war? Fortunately, all of our missions involving an SFRA incursion quickly morph into a situation where the SFRA violator is not intent on causing damage, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t broken 20 different federal laws and regulations. So while the Air Force can metaphorically breathe a sigh of relief, that doesn’t mean federal law enforcement like TSA, Secret Service, or the FAA have lost interest. The Coast Guard can seamlessly transfer from Title 10 authority right into Title 14 authority more easily than DoD agencies could."
The Coast Guard’s focus on saving lives is another reason the service is suited for the mission, Dutton added. The majority of the tracks of interest they respond to are general aviation pilots who simply make a mistake or fail to do the proper flight planning.
“We give honest people a fighting chance to comply with the rules and get out of harm’s way before they unwittingly do damage to themselves or others,” he said. “So, in a sense, you could say it’s commensurate with our other life-saving missions. We’re out there to save you from yourself if you haven’t done your homework and you’re flying near the D.C. area.”
Dutton said the mission is busy, but there are slow days and busy days.
“We have some feast and famine, “he said. “We have some months where we have up to 12 cases and then we have other months where we have as few as three.”
Lt. Cmdr. Zac Mathews, MH-65D aircraft commander, has performed the rotary wing air intercept mission on and off since the mission began in 2006. He said in that time he’s seen the impact his unit has had in the Capital.
“It’s interesting to me to see the differences in the amount of traffic that we used to intercept when we first started this mission to what it is now,” he said. “Based on those levels, I see that we’ve had a tremendous impact.”
Part of the impact comes from informing general aviation pilots of where they can and can’t go in the NCR.
“It’s not like the way it used to be before 9/11,” Mathews said. “There are several ‘no-fly’ areas, and just to get in here there are lengthy procedures and protocols that need to be followed. There’s been a heightened awareness (among the General Aviation community) of what you are no longer allowed to do without following explicit procedures to fly into the National Capital Region.”
Mathews said that most of the calls they get end up being general aviation pilots who are simply lost and nothing more nefarious than that. But while it could be easy to dismiss a call as just another lost pilot, he said the stakes involved won’t let them have that luxury.
“You can’t do that,” he said. “Because you never know what the criteria of the track of interest is. Every launch is different. It could be general aviation, it could be someone who doesn’t know where they are or who’s lost communications… or it could be something more sinister. We treat them all the same.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Vogt, MH-65D flight mechanic, said it’s the Coast Guardsmen manning this post that make it so successful.
“There are other agencies that have done this mission, but the mentality of the Coast Guard is to take a job and make it better,” he said. “We’ve done what I believe is an excellent job with it.”
Dutton agreed, noting that the Coast Guardsmen assigned to this mission must maintain about twice the level of qualifications that their counterparts are required to maintain elsewhere in the Coast Guard. He also said the Coast Guardsmen are deployed to the mission for about a third of the year.
“We have more days deployed away from home station than any other Coast Guard aviation unit,” he said. “I’m proud of them for that.”
Although it requires more training and time away from home, Mathews said he enjoys the mission, calling it “fast and exciting.”
“It’s a roller coaster,” he said with a grin. “No scenario is ever the same. The flight profile that we fly in this mission is very dynamic, very unusual. It’s not what we typically train for in a rescue role.”
Mathews said the pilots have to take a lot of different factors into account when they fly. Pilots must avoid restricted airspace and commercial traffic while flying at a track of interest coming into the NCR. And that’s all before they catch up with the TOI.
“Once you get on-scene with the TOI, we have an intercept maneuver that we conduct that’s a lot like a roller coaster… that allows us to come up safely along the TOI and evaluate it for its characteristics or information that NORAD needs to determine a course of action,” he said. “It’s fast and exciting.”
“If you ever get tired of flying around this airspace, it’s time for you to switch jobs,” he added.
Mathews said he and the other Coast Guardsmen assigned to D.C. are proud of the mission they do.
“It makes me proud to do the job that I do,” he said. “The fact that the Coast Guard and the men and women who do this mission are respected enough to perform it makes me want to come into work in the morning. It’s amazing what we’re allowed to see and fly over, the monuments and the history here, so it’s very important.”
Vogt said he agreed.
“It’s a serious job we do down here,” he said. “You have to be ready to take a call at a moment’s notice. You always want to do better, to excel. You can stick helicopters out here, but unless you have the right people to do it, it’s not going to work.”
“There’s no room for failure,” he summed up.