The helicopter gunner is blasting the engines from a smuggler’s
speedboat, leaving it dead in the water for a small boat crew to
board. Catching only the endgame of this airborne interdiction belies
the complexity of the operation. It is as incomplete an experience
as only watching the last moves of an intricate chess game.
helicopter operations are familiar to U.S. Coast Guard vessels,
more than just guns are added to the equation when they are armed.
A host of new procedures, protocols and working conditions become
imposed with this capability.
Aboard the USCG Mellon, a 378-foot high-endurance cutter, a National
Defense reporter witnessed the actions of the first U.S. law enforcement
unit authorized to employ airborne use of force, or AUF. A three-man
team from the helicopter interdiction tactical squadron, or HITRON,
accompanied the Mellon on a deployment through Central America.
“I requested HITRON ever since I got this boat,” says
Capt. Mark Campbell, the Mellon’s commanding officer. “Everybody
wants it, but there’s not enough to go around.”
The squadron has been expanding cautiously since its inception
in 1998. First formed with a handful of pilots, there are now 31
who fly armed interdiction missions for the Coast Guard.
The interdiction team consists of a modified MH-68 helicopter,
two pilots, a gunner and a civilian mechanic from Agusta, the company
that is leasing the aircraft to the Coast Guard until 2007.
Formed to chase smugglers in small speedboats and disable them
with non-lethal gunfire, HITRON is the only operational Coast Guard
aviation unit equipped and authorized to use force. It is the squadron’s
only mission—an oddity in a service with a culture of cross
Other Coast Guard air units are responsible for multiple tasks,
including search-and-rescue, fishery law-enforcement, aids-to-navigation
and counter-drug-surveillance missions.
Integrating the helicopter into the cutter’s operations takes
a mix of diplomacy, as well as training. Especially when first introduced,
tensions between pilots and ship’s crews are oft cited by
both sides, and evident in behind-the-scenes conversations. As training
progresses, however, the divisions close. When there is a job to
do, especially a complex one with inherent dangers, everyone must
get along. Training increases familiarity—and ideally, mutual
respect and confidence.
Campbell is nonplussed by the initial distance between the pilots
and his crew, noting that such tension is normal. “They’re
the newest members of the family,” he says in an interview.
“The same is true for a new commander, executive officer or
engineering officer. When someone’s new, there’s going
to be the same apprehension.”
During the pre-deployment workups, the junior officers wait to
be impressed. Notified that pilots have brought footage of previous
missions, one junior officer cracks: “Of course they did.”
But when the helicopter lands for the first time, other crewmembers
are awed just by the sight of it. Hands waiting to lash the HH-68
to the deck make crude, appreciative comments—cracks usually
directed at calendar girls or hotrods. There is lots of wishful
talk of the possibility of “morale rides” in the chopper,
as is sometimes done with other aviation units. (There will be none.)
Even the ship’s cooks, smoking cigarettes on the fantail,
speak in fond tones of the increase in ability, and hope the go-fasts
try their luck against the new platform. “Even a small bust
will let them know we’re out there,” says one.
The relationship between HITRON and the rest of the Coast Guard
is improving as the concept matures, says the patrol’s aviation
detachment commander and pilot, Lt. j.g. Josue Maldonado. He says
the pilots’ reputation as “cowboys and guinea pigs”
stems from the actions of the earliest members, often former Army
Apache pilots who relished having powerful, agile craft. Their attitude
and aerial antics—such as buzzing the bridge as close as 30
feet—infuriated captains and executive officers, making others
predisposed to dislike the pilots. These days, operating under strict
doctrine, the pilots’ reputations are improving.
Maldonado takes care to be polite and accommodating. He is careful
not to deliver edicts to the captain, but instead poses a weighted
range of options. “It’s a tactful exchange of ideas,”
he says with a smile.
HITRON doctrine is still being tweaked. With more helicopters in
the fleet preparing to become armed, HITRON crews are still guinea
pigs, even if their pilots are losing the cowboy moniker.
Since the Mellon never before hosted HITRON, the preparatory drills
between the cutter crew, boarding teams and the newly arrived helicopter
crew take on a new importance. The equipment needs to be checked,
and the crew needs to know who is doing what while they’re
in action. Day and night missions must be practiced before the team
can run real patrols.
The clock is ticking. Since the Mellon is leaving from San Diego,
there is limited amount of time to train before it reaches an area
of interdiction operations.
The helicopter and cutter crews must re-qualify for a host of skills,
including touch-and-go landings and crashes on deck. The crew must
become proficient at tying the chopper down after it lands. Unlike
the standard Coast Guard helicopter units, the HH-68 lacks the gear
that secures the aircraft by inserting a metal probe into the flight
deck, like a key in a lock. Canvas straps are used instead, and
practice is required.
The HH-68 is cramped, but also maneuverable and boasts plenty of
power. It can fly, and be compelled to hover, on one engine.
“Agusta bent over backward to make this aircraft work,”
Unlike other Coast Guard aircraft, the rotors are not foldable,
meaning the blades must be removed to fit inside the Mellon’s
retractable hangar. The blades can’t be removed safely under
heavy weather. That leads to agonizing decisions over the helicopters
disposition before storms, a choice between losing operational time
and possibly losing the aircraft entirely.
Most coordinated actions on the Mellon—from HITRON missions
to landing to refueling—involve a risk assessment model designed
to obtain input from the crew, from the junior officers to the captain.
Planning, crew fitness, environmental conditions and the complexity
of the plan are all evaluated.
There is a scramble to put training missions together before the
trip south begins. This places stress on the ship crew, and the
pilots struggle against weather and time constraints. Adding to
the frenetic pace are troubles with the gas turbine engine, coordinating
ship refueling from the U.S. Navy and a large storm front that plays
havoc with every facet of the schedule.
That training is key, since new equipment will be used in an unfamiliar
mission. “The learning curve is pretty steep,” notes
Lt. Marc Alden, the Mellon’s operations officer and intelligence
The first daytime training workup, done while in port in San Diego,
reveals a number of problems with equipment, mostly relating to
the lack of communication between the HITRON pilots and the vessels.
During the debriefing, attended by 28 crewmembers and the two HITRON
pilots, questions arise on who will take the lead in any action.
The boat crews want to know how much independence they have to take
the set steps that dictate the use of force.
“The helicopter is the preferred mode of disabling or warning
fire,” advises Campbell. Still, he continues, if there is
a situation, he trusts his crews to make decisions. Other officers
assure the crews that, if the situation arises when shots are being
fired and the captain has any doubts about the steps being taken,
he will be in contact.
Crewmembers trained for deck firefighting also must practice. They
drill on the day the chopper lands, reacting to a simulated crash
on deck. The ship heads into the wind for all landings, so in case
of a catastrophe, the fire will be blowing aft, which is where the
crew wants it. They hose the hypothetical oil fire off the back
of the ship, while other members man rescue boats to retrieve anyone
who was blown or jumped overboard.
Those in metallic, fireproof gear grab a pilot, who plays the part
of a limp, unconscious victim, and carry him to safety. If the fire
can’t be contained, the crew is ready to roll the helo off
the deck. The drill ends, and life on board the ship continues.
It is the first of many more drills involving the crew, including
refueling, both with the rotors on and off, called “hot”
and “cold” refuels, respectively.
The pilots, Maldonado and Lt. Michael McWilliams, both flew for
the Army, while the gunner, Rick Studeville has a long career working
search and rescue for the Coast Guard. Officially, Studeville is
an aircraft maintenance technician who is trained in helicopter
rescue, but he jumped at the chance to become a HITRON gunner. “I’ve
always been good with guns,” he notes, chain smoking off the
back of the ship’s fantail. “And I’ve always had
a good time hunting.”
Life on board for fliers and crew differ greatly. The pilots must
carefully watch their sleep schedules, while crewmembers can pull
absurdly long shifts when their circumstances demand it. The cross-trained
crew is almost never without a task. Any free time away from watch
or on duty is spent studying to qualify for more jobs, and higher
rank. Members must be ready for a myriad of circumstances, including
war. During the narcotics patrol, the crew participates in combat
The pilots must be ready to act, but have little to do until the
afternoon, when they prepare for their first of two daily flights.
Seasickness must be conquered through willpower, since any drugs
will affect their balance and disqualify them from flight. Getting
off-hours sleep on board is made difficult by the constant noise
of clanging doors, piped announcements and loud conversation. During
a missile drill, they sit in the hangar and wait for it to end.
Synchronizing their schedule with the ship’s—which
includes early morning musters that the pilots must attend—is
another diplomatic effort.
HITRON crews, generally, cannot obtain waivers to jettison rules
that govern how often they fly. In a life-or-death situation, it
is understood that the rules for search-and-rescue helicopters can
be relaxed. If a HITRON crew flies over its limit and a fixed-wing
patrol aircraft spots a drug boat, there is nothing it can do but
let it go if flight time has been exhausted.
In search-and-rescue missions, how the HITRON crew can react depends
on the experience of the aviation crew. Their options are fairly
limited, since the HITRON helicopters lack hoists and other SAR
equipment, but the crew can drop water pumps or lifeboats if the
situation demands it.
The aviators aboard the Mellon noted that some Coast Guard pilots
view getting under way with a ship as a chore that takes them away
from their more comfortable shore stations, and their families.
HITRON pilots say their attitudes are more accommodating because
they have chosen this line of work. Also, they note that their presence
increases the chance of a major bust, which increases morale.
For now, other Coast Guard helicopters can only watch go-fast boats
helplessly, which demoralizes the crew. “Sometimes, the go-fast
guys flip off the pilots,” says Maldonado. “You can
see people’s shoulders slump when they come back without being
able to do anything.”
Campbell recalls a previous tour, during which an unarmed HH-65
chased a go-fast boat, and could only watch as it threw its contraband
overboard. It then proceeded to outrun their chase boats and out-endure
the helicopter’s fuel limit. He dubs it a “partial victory,”
since the contraband was seized, but the perpetrators and their
boat were freed to make the run another day. With HITRON aboard,
he wants the victory to be total.
The Mellon creeps steadily south-southeast, and the open water
allows the large-scale rehearsal of an interdiction mission. These
are needed to work out the procedures between the pilots, the cutter
and the chase boat crews that board any go-fast that has been compelled
to stop. “Unity is a big piece out here,” Campbell says.
“Just to launch a boat and a helicopter takes a lot of people.”
Weather delays and fuel contamination caused by debris from the
Mellon’s worn fuel lines and paint flakes have frustrated
the crews. Everyone is eager to see the helicopter fly.
The first full interdiction rehearsal on the Mellon takes place
at dusk. The chopper sails out to more than 20 miles from the cutter,
a fraction of what a real sea chase could entail.
Air interdictions are complex undertakings. They are a carefully
choreographed dance involving more than what is seen on the water.
Before acting on a suspected boat, communication with agencies in
Washington, D.C., is established.
Coast Guard units are considered military assets until a law enforcement
At that time, a call is placed to the applicable district headquarters—in
the Mellon’s case, District 11, headquartered in Alameda,
Calif. The district then contacts USCG headquarters, which in turn
gets in touch with all the players, from foreign diplomatic representatives
to designated U.S. officials. Since the creation of the Department
of Homeland Security, fewer agencies are involved in this consultation,
but senior officers on board say overlapping responsibilities still
necessitate the involvement of many from within DHS.
While this communication relay occurs, the helicopter is covertly
watching the go-fast boat, if necessary at high altitudes. With
the ability to act at night, using night vision equipment, a helicopter
can get closer to a go-fast without being detected. The lightless
helicopter can disappear into the inky darkness, with the dim glimmer
of the night-vision goggles in the cockpit easily mistaken for stars,
even while hovering as close as 50 feet. Behind the wheel of a wind-whipped
go-fast boat powered by four outboard engines, smugglers are often
Once word is given from the district, the helicopters presence
is made known, and a progression of steps is followed to make the
go-fast stop. That includes flybys, warning shots and finally, the
targeting of engines by the gunner, wielding a laser-sighted .50-caliber
rifle that is balanced and fastened on a thick rope.
Warning shots are loosed from a 7.62 mm M240 machine gun, while
the .50 caliber is used to knock out engines. The machine gun fire,
Studeville says, to the pilots feels like someone is slapping the
back of their heads. He, on the other hand, feels nothing but slight
recoil. “Don’t ask us if we want permission to use our
guns,” McWilliams advises the Mellon’s captain and executive
officer over a plate of spaghetti. “That’s pretty much
what we live for.”
All incidents are captured on thermal sensors and video, which
is time coded to be used in prosecuting legal cases. If a smuggler
dumps any illicit cargo, markers are dropped for possible retrieval.
While the helicopter pursues its quarry, the boarding teams have
gathered weapons from the arsenal and donned safety equipment. To
launch the pursuit boat, the cutter slows and makes course adjustments
to account for wind and wave swells, and the boat is lowered from
the side on winches and hand-held lines.
A worn, orange ladder drops and, one by one, the boarding crew
climbs down 11 feet into the craft as its hull slaps against the
waves. The action of the cutter against the water creates a suction
that keeps the pursuit boat pressed against the side, but it takes
deckhands working ropes and pulleys to keep the platform stable
The five-man team in the boat climbs onto the go-fast to secure
people, contraband and communications equipment once the speedboat
is stopped. At that point, the speedboat will be destroyed by whatever
gunfire the captain deems appropriate. Often it is the Close-In
Weapon System anti-missile machine gun rising from the ship’s
stern. Other than reams of paperwork, the interdiction would then
After eating, it’s time to head to the combat information
center for the official debriefing. Other than a smattering of communication
problems and procedural streamlining, the drill is a success. “I
love this stuff,” says Campbell. “I can’t wait
to get into this for real.”
More drills are planned—more deck landings are practiced
and a daytime go-fast pursuit is simulated. The communications problems
are working themselves out, and the flight crews get practice at
refueling. Step-by-step, the drill cards get filled, and the requirements
for actual operations fulfilled.
Excitement among the crew grows, especially after target practice.
Studeville notches two .50-caliber hits on an orange buoy bobbing
a thousand feet behind the stern. During similar night-fire exercises,
tracer rounds from the M240 skip and bounce hundreds of yards across
the waves, illuminating the white froth from the impact of 7.62
mm bullets. “That’d convince me to stop,” notes
Campbell wryly, watching from the stern with most of the ship’s
crew, many holding digital cameras.
Their adversaries on this patrol are drug smugglers, and the two
opponents adapt and react to each other the way predators and prey
often do. Smuggling operations, worth billions of dollars, are not
run by novice seamen. Experienced boaters and fishermen are tapped
to make the drug runs, sometimes tearing through the water on four
outboard motors for a dozen hours, relying on cocaine or crystal
methamphetamines to stay awake.
Smugglers are hard to pick up on the ship’s radar because
of their low profile, which makes aerial reconnaissance the best
way to spot them. In response to helicopter units, many use ocean-blue
tarps as camouflage, but nothing can hide the long wake left behind
by the go-fasts.
The cutter, as a predator, also changes its appearance. It manipulates
its lighting to appear as a smaller vessel at night, or shuts down
all light sources and drifts through an area—lowering its
profile enough to allow smuggling boats to show themselves. Daily
intelligence briefs from federal agencies direct the operations,
with varying levels of detail. The pilots typically fly twice a
day, sometimes seeking a specific target provided during the brief,
sometimes looking for radar images, most often just seeking that
The Coast Guard’s eastern Pacific area of operations encompass
an enormous section of the ocean, the equivalent of more than the
continental United States. To patrol this area, the Coast Guard
has less than a dozen assets. “Imagine a cop in Minnesota
trying to catch someone in Florida,” Campbell says.
Finally, the drills are complete, and the Mellon crew and HITRON
team are sanctioned to operate together. They are still rough around
the edges, but the ship’s officers figure that two daily flights
should help make their actions routine.
Assembled on the flight deck for quarters, the entire ship’s
crew stands at attention. The captain takes a cordless microphone
and addresses the crew. He passes along the news that their hard
work has paid off.
Campbell tells those who don’t know that Operation New Frontier
is the Coast Guard’s answer to speedboat smuggling—matching
ships with armed helicopters to disable the speedboats with gunfire.
“We are now qualified for Operation New Frontier missions,”
he says, and nods happily as applause and hoots rise from the crew.
With qualifications and paperwork behind them, the HITRON package
has become operational. Steaming south past the Baja peninsula of
Mexico, the crew of the Mellon waits for their prey.
It is finally time to go hunting.