Miami has become the new New York over the past year, absorbing millions of residents from both the East and West Coasts. South Florida, known for its many temporary annual residents saw its yearly population sky rocket due to Pandemic restrictions imposed in other States. One other thing that has not changed in Florida, is the commitment of the Coast Guard’s Men and Women of Air Station Miami to their mission over the past year, despite the mounting challenges.
The Coast Guard Air Station, located in the township of Opa Locka in Miami Dade County, is a relatively mid-size Air Station situated within Miami’s Executive Airport. The Station operates a mixture of both fixed wing aircraft known as the HC144 “Ocean Sentry” patrol aircraft (5), as well as the MH-65E “Dolphin” helicopter (5). Both aircraft compliment the full range of the Coast Guard’s mission of protecting the sovereign borders of the United States as well as surrounding territories.
The Miami Air Station is in charge of the Coast Guard’s air operations in most of South Florida and the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard in this area as across the USA has 2 main missions – 1. Responding to distress calls at sea and rescuing when needed 2. Intercepting drug shipments that make their way from South America to the US via the ocean.
Though each aircraft is not exclusive to either mission, the MH-65E responds to most distress calls within its operational radius (which covers most of South Florida) while the “Ocean Sentry” deals with farther reaching distress calls and the majority of the Drug Interdiction missions. Both assets will overlap each others capabilities and work in cohesion when necessary to complete the mission.
With Hurricane “Season” upon the Southeast USA as well as the Caribbean, the Coast Guard is on its toes and always looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean for incoming threats. Air Station Miami responds not only to its sector, but assists in other areas as events unfold.
During our time at the Station we were on hand for 2 separate rescue events. The Station has a crew ready 24/7 in case of an emergency, when a call is made, depending on its nature, a crew on alert will get “launched”.
On the random Tuesday night that we were guests of the Station, we had packed up and gone home, in the middle of the night a single uncorrelated MAYDAY call was made over a radio that was pinpointed to an area at sea 30 miles from Stuart Florida. LT N. (full name withheld for security reasons) launched with his crew and MH65 to investigate. The MH65 crew started a search pattern and on the last leg of the search, the MH65’s Flight Mechanic noticed a flashing light in the dark ocean.
The Pilot spoke with Sector Miami which updated that a rescue boat launched to the location was still 2 hours from the scene. The crew decided to lower a swimmer and basket to recover the 2 men that had gone fishing and their dog. One of the survivors happened to have a GPS Navigation device with a flashing light on the device, this is what the MH65 Flight Mechanic spotted and provided the ability to identify them at night, the individual managed to send one call out on the boat’s radio just before their boat sank and they ended up on a dinghy raft. The crew recovered the survivors and the dog back to mainland Florida safely.
2 nights later, as we were preparing for a night shoot with one of the “on call” MH-65s, another call came in, this time an individual who had gone kayaking failed to return home, this sparked an alert launch to start Search and Rescue efforts, thankfully, an hour later, the search was called off when the individual was located safe and sound by his family. This is just another example of how active things can get on just a “regular” day.
Air Station Miami is also responsible for preventing shipments of illegal drugs and contraband from entering the US. Crews of Air Station Miami’s HC-144 Ocean Sentry Aircraft are recognized routinely for their assistance in locating and targeting the myriad of various drug craft attempting to make it to the US Coast – including Submarines (!!!).
In 2020 the Station was responsible for responding to 500(!!) separate rescues, on average that would mean almost 2 per day. Almost 250 people were directly assisted as a response to those rescue calls. Additionally, the Station preformed almost 60 counter drug missions. The Station personnel alone are responsible for the confiscation of almost 2 tons of illegal narcotics in 2020. So on any given day there is some type of operational tasking being thrown at the Men and Women of the Station.
Over the past year Ocean Sentry aircraft have acquired a new role, they are frequently used to transport COVID patients from the Caribbean back to the US mainland for treatment. This role demands careful protocols in ensuring both the patient’s as well as the crews involved safety.
While at the Station awards were handed out to various members of the outfit, including a Coast Guard member deployed to Iraq in 2007 was recognized for assisting a US Nay Special Ops operation at the time. This is just one more example of the unique experience some have as part of the service.
On our last day with the unit, training was in full swing with the MH-65 helicopters. Practicing the transport of underslung loads. With the Summer in full swing the Air Station keeps its watchful eye on potential threats approaching and continues to train for operational scenarios that may arise at an intense pace.
Special thanks to the USCG 7th District Public Affairs as well as the Miami Air Station Leadership and PA Team for allowing me access to the Station and its personnel.