The mentor of Coast Guard aviation
- April 9, 2015
- / Matt Irvin
- / government
The Airbus jetliner assembly line being built in Mobile isn’t the only aviation operation grabbing international attention. Inside a 13,500 square-foot building near the regional airport is a Coast Guard flight simulator that’s as close to flying as it gets without leaving the runway. The one-of-a-kind HC-144 simulator is one of many trainers at the Aviation Training Center in Mobile, the center of the universe for all things aviation when it comes to the Coast Guard. The activities at the 221-acre, 55-building ATC Mobile is considerable. One of the largest Coast Guard aviation bases, it’s the aviation development center responsible for training pilots and aircrew and setting standards for all Coast Guard aviation activities. [caption id="attachment_21356" align="alignright" width="300"] The HC-144 full-motion simulator in Mobile has drawn the attention of CN-235 customers, who would like to use it.[/caption] Like many of the military bases in this region, this Department of Homeland Security agency is a major education center. It’s where pilots transition to specific aircraft types, and where they return once a year to hone their skills and learn of new tactics and procedures for search and rescue, disaster response and national security. This nearly 50-year-old base also is an operational air station that responds to everything from drug interdiction to saving boaters to natural disasters in the Gulf Coast region. ATC Mobile is adjacent to Mobile Regional Airport, 13 miles west of downtown, and shares two runways with the commercial airport. It has hangars, offices, a health care center and a base exchange, plus fitness and recreation facilities and buildings housing simulators. The base has four HC-144A, one HC-144B, seven MH-65D and four MH-60T. The HC-144 Ocean Sentry is a twin-engine fixed-wing medium-range maritime patrol aircraft. The MH-60 Jayhawk and MH-65 Dolphin helicopters are used in search and rescue. Lt. Jonathan Hofius, a pilot stationed at the base, said the operation has a $17.5 million annual budget for training center operations and maintenance. ATC Mobile is one of the largest non-industrial employers in Mobile County, generating nearly $98 million in payroll for its 561 active duty and civilians. At the heart of what it does is aviation. And when it comes to flying for the Coast Guard, all eyes turn to Mobile to set the standards. It’s a unique role for the base, said Hofius. “New aircraft manuals are written here, and syllabi for standards are developed here,” said the lieutenant. “It’s a great asset to have.” Coast Guard pilots who come to ATC Mobile for training already know how to fly. Some served as pilots in the military who finished tours and opted to continue flying with the Coast Guard. Others trained with fledgling naval aviators at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla., across the state line. After training at Whiting, all the Coast Guard pilots except for C-130 crews are sent to Mobile to train on USCG aircraft. About 165 pilots transition each year at ATC Mobile. After completing transition training, the new Coast Guard aviators go to one of the two dozen Coast Guard air stations in the country, including one in New Orleans. But while they may be moving on to other bases, they aren’t through with Mobile. Transitioning and standardization training for the HC-144 and the two helicopters takes place at ATC Mobile. For the HC-130s, these duties are conducted at air stations in Elizabeth City, N.C., and Clearwater, Fla., but even these bases are under the “command and control” of ATC Mobile, under the leadership of Capt. Thomas MacDonald, said Hofius. [sidebar] HC-144 The twin-turboprop HC-144, built by Airbus Military, has brought new capabilities to the USCG’s maritime patrol mission. Based on the CN-235, its high-wing design allows for ramp-loading of mission-specific pallets, and the plane has an advanced, all-glass cockpit and high-tech sensors. The HC-144, built in Spain, has taken over the mission of the now-retired HU-25 Guardian jet. With the phase-out, the HU-25 simulator at ATC Mobile will be donated to Enterprise State Community College’s Alabama Aviation Center, said Bernstein. The donation will allow students to learn the technology involved with these machines. “It’s just a way of giving it to someone who can use it,” said Lt. Alex Bernstein, an HC-144 instructor at ACT Mobile. [/sidebar] For Coast Guard aviators, their first time in Mobile ends up not being their last. Once a year, some 850 pilots return to ATC Mobile for a week of proficiency training, and another 1,200 aircrew members come to the base for training updates on Coast Guard operations and weapons. For the pilots, it means time at the controls of simulators, a far less costly approach than actual flying. They give the pilots almost limitless opportunities to practice emergency procedures, up to and including situations that in the real world would put pilot, crew and aircraft in jeopardy. ATC Mobile has simulators for each of its aircraft, and while they may look like amusement rides, proficiency is no laughing matter. It’s possible for a pilot to be kept from flying in the wake of a poor simulator performance. “These guys come in prepared,” said Lt. Alex Bernstein, an HC-144 Ocean Sentry pilot and instructor who operates the HC-144 simulator at ATC Mobile. That HC-144 simulator itself, built by Aero Simulation Inc., of Tampa, Fla., is a huge asset for ATC Mobile. The $29 million machine, designed and built for the Coast Guard, is a full-motion simulator. While the plane entered service with the Coast Guard in 2006, the simulator only went into operation last December. It required a new 13,500 square-foot building at the ATC to house it. Since then, it’s gained international notice. The HC-144 is built by Airbus Military and is based on its CN-235 military transport, flown by a number of nations. Some of those countries have inquired about procuring time in ATC Mobile’s simulator for their own pilots, Bernstein said. While training is a primary mission of ATC Mobile, the base also serves as an operational Coast Guard air station. It’s part of New Orleans-based Coast Guard District 8, which covers an area from Sabine Pass, Texas, to Apalachicola, Fla. Last year, Hofius said, ATC Mobile conducted 180 search and rescue missions, about one every other day. Mobile-based aircrews, flying the HC-144, support a range of maritime missions, including law enforcement, response to environmental disasters and patrols of territorial waters against incursions by foreign fishing boats. These crews also support Homeland Security missions, such as ports and waterways security around critical infrastructure. [sidebar] The Coast Guard’s mission is unique within the nation’s military branches. While the others are prohibited from domestic law enforcement, the Coast Guard is in the thick of it. It’s part military, part law enforcement agency, part regulatory agency, and the cavalry in time of need. Established in 1790 as the United States Revenue Cutter Service, it was part of the Treasury Department until 1967, when it became part of the Department of Transportation. It became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. It can be placed in the Department of Defense during times of war. The Coast Guard has 11 missions: ports, waterways and coastal security; drug interdiction; aids to navigation; search and rescue; living marine resources; marine safety; defense readiness; migrant interdiction; marine environmental protection; ice operations; and other law enforcement. [/sidebar] ATC activities • Ship-Helicopter training branch, which serves all flight-deck-equipped cutters. • Sensors Training Branch, which develops procedures and training for the C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). • Rescue Swimmer Standardization Team. • Gulf Strike Team at the airport is part of the National Strike Force, along with teams in the Atlantic and Pacific. It responds to threat situations, including oil and hazardous substance leaks, weapons of mass destruction and other threats to public health and safety. • ATC officers make more than 100 visits to other bases annually. Gulf_Coast_Aerospace_Corridor.com is a website created in 2008 to highlight aerospace activities along the Interstate 10 corridor between New Orleans and Northwest Florida. It includes reference material, job postings, a daily aerospace newsfeed and weekly column. In 2011, the website teamed with several journalists to create the Gulf Coast Reporters’ League, which writes and publishes an annual book about aerospace in the region. The first book was published in June 2011. In September 2013, the League launched an eight-page quarterly aerospace newsletter, which became a bimonthly in August 2014 after the League published the fourth edition of the annual. All the books can be found at: www.gulfcoastaerospacecorridor.com/gcacbooksall.html; and all the newsletters can be found at www.gulfcoastaerospacecorridor.com/gcacnewslettersall.html.