26 June 2008
The United States Coast Guard's HC-144A 'Ocean Sentry' is finally coming on-line and preparing to enter full service in 2009. Although the aircraft is still in the final stages of testing and isn't considered 'fully-operational', its still having a positive impact on Coast Guard air operations as it flies missions that leverage the full capabilities of the twin-engine medium cargo aircraft while training crews as fast as possible for the upcoming service entry.
The Ocean Sentry is a derivative of the European Aeronautics and Defense Systems (EADS) CASA CN-235-300 twin-turbo medium cargo/transport aircraft fitted to carry sensors, search radar, an advanced communication suite; and making up the heart of the equipment--a Mission Systems Pallet (MSP) that integrates all aircraft systems with a two-place operators' station inside the cargo compartment. The roll-on, roll-off MSP allows the aircraft to transmit and receive both classified 'Secret'-level and unclassified information to other assets including surface vessels, other aircraft, law enforcement and shore facilities. These abilities allow the HC-144A to be fully integrated into larger Coast Guard systems etc. to give everyone a 'big-picture' view. When the MSP isn't aboard, many of the aircrafts sensors can still be used and are operated from the cockpit by the pilots.
The first Ocean Sentry aircraft was accepted by the Coast Guard in Seville, Spain on 16 Dec. 2007. This acceptance ceremony was a long time coming as the HC-144A is just one of many individual programs plagued by delays, massive cost overruns and larger problems associated with the Coast Guard's initiative--collectively known as DEEPWATER-to upgrade multiple systems that are reaching obsolescence or mandate major upgrades to continue their mission (s). Deep Water is primarily focused on replacing or upgrading surface ships, but also includes the purchase of a fleet of 36 mission capable HC-144As by 2020 to replace the aging HU-25 Falcon fan-jets. To date, only one MSP has been (officially) delivered and accepted for operational use and is currently being flown aboard HC-144A, serial # 2303. It was officially accepted by the CG on 10 March 2008 after undergoing about one year of testing as part of the Developmental Test and Evaluation (DT&E;) program. Other Lockheed Martin produced MSPs are being tested now and should enter service soon.
As of this writing, the HC-144A has responded to two missions of note-one from being in the right place at the right time and the other being tasked specifically to leverage the new aircraft's capabilities, size and flexibility.
The first noteworthy mission occurred on Feb. 20, 2008 when an HC-144A was in-flight over the Gulf of Mexico on a scheduled training mission. After two USAF F-15Cs collided off Florida's Gulf Coast the HC-144 crew responded immediately and headed toward the location of the mayday call. LCDR Travis Burns, one of the pilots for this mission said they were actually led to the crash scene by an F-15 who formed up on their wing. Burns, said that although they used their on-board sensors during the mission, the primary sensors used were the old fashioned ones-the eyes of the pilots and mission aircrew. Burns said, "All the sensors in the world are great, but it really came down to the basics (for us)-- the MK1 eyeball and having the ability to use it…just having the bubble windows for use by the observers in the back made a big difference as the observers were able to see a green flight suit in a blue-green ocean as we went low and slow." Burns spoke glowingly about the HC-144s capability in this regard and compared it to his 9 years of flying the HU-25 and that aircraft's higher airspeeds and conformal windows that limit observers' ability to track objects in the water. The low and slow capability of the Ocean Sentry also played in their favor as they dropped down to identify a surface vessel steaming near the crash scene. A quick ID of this vessel allowed the crew to use their VHF-FM radio to contact the ship and request they render aid/rescue. Burns, a Flight Standardization Officer in the Ocean Sentry training unit at Mobile, AL, said they remained on-scene for 30-40 min. before turning SARCAP over to an HU-25. Unfortunately, one of the F-15C pilots died from his injuries.
The second mission came as a direct tasking from Commander of Coast Guard District Eight and occurred on June 19, 2008 as the Coast Guard continued to respond to massive flooding in the US's Midwest states. The mission included taking senior Coast Guard officials and maritime industry representatives on an over-flight to observe the extent of the flooding and how best to collectively respond to the affected areas. Industry representatives were able to gain a better understanding of how the floods would impact shipping and commerce along areas of central and eastern Iowa and northeast Missouri. According to a Coast Guard press release, Rear Adm. Joel Whitehead, CDR of Coast Guard District Eight, selected the HC-144A for this trip, 'because he believed the aircraft's longer ranges, ability to fly slower and the passenger capacity would best suit the needs of the mission.' Also affecting the selection of the HC-144 over other CG aircraft was the limited availability of HU-25s.
Once again the bubble windows fitted to the left and right rear-observer stations allowed those aboard to view the devastation first-hand and remain safely in the aircraft. The CG said, 'the Ocean Sentry's ability to fly at slower speeds allowed for more effective aerial assessment and increased time on scene.' CDR Nash said the use of the full mission pallet wasn't necessary during the over-flight, but it was used for crew training and to demonstrate capabilities to the senior CG leaders aboard both to and from the devastated area.
So far a total of eight HC-144A aircraft have been ordered and were ordered in two batches. The first order was for three aircraft and the second for five. Currently three have been delivered (serials # 2301-2303) to Coast Guard Aviation Training Center (Mobile, AL) and are now 'fully-involved' in an Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E;) period. A fourth aircraft, serial # 2304, was accepted on 19 June 2008 and is being configured for operational use at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C.
One of the things that could be seen as negatively affecting the HC-144A program is a current shortage of fully-trained flight crews. This includes both pilots and aircrew members who act as MSP operators and aerial observers/loadmasters. The three aircraft on-station at ATC Mobile are flown daily, sometimes multiple times per day, as training of crews progresses at a fast-clip. CDR. Doug Nash, Senior Officer for the HC-144A program at ATC Mobile stated, "We have five qualified pilots-total that can fly this plane!...and we have four more pilots being trained in Spain." Qualified observers and MSP operators are in even more of a shortfall right now though. Nash said, "They are actually more shorter-manned than we are."
Right now the HC-144A program and the success they are seeing through a relatively smooth aircraft shake-down and training process is considered, 'the one positive thing about Deep Water', said a senior Coast Guard officer. However, with success comes more demand. Considering the limited airframes and crews available, CDR Nash said he is trying to 'manage expectations' so that mission creep doesn't occur. This will allow people to be trained in a timely manner and ready for the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) date of 1 Feb. 2009. That is the date he is required to have a full crew and aircraft ready at all times to respond. The HC-144A is expected to meet both the IOC date and the Sept. 2009 date in which the first operational unit will stand-up at ATC Mobile. Until then, those involved with the Ocean Sentry are going full-steam ahead and have every notion of not just meeting, but exceeding expectations.