two U.S. Air Force F-15C fighter jets from Eglin Air Force Base,
Florida, collided over the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Florida. The
Coast Guard’s new HC-144A and its crew located the first pilot and
directed his recovery. Both F-15C pilots were eventually recovered; regrettably
only one was recovered alive.
This search & rescue mission included two important firsts for the
U.S. Coast Guard’s new HC-144A Ocean Sentry Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
The incident marked its first search and rescue mission, and its first
use as an On-Scene Coordinator platform.
HC-144A No. 2303, from Aviation training Center Mobile, Alabama, was
diverted from a routine training flight and arrived first on scene to
the crash area, assuming the crucial role of On-Scene Coordinator—responsible
for leading the activity of several search and rescue assets (including
those of the Coast Guard, the Department of Defense and civilian partners).
Although not fully search and rescue-capable while undergoing Operational
Test and Evaluation of its mission systems package (including radar, an
electro-optical/infrared sensor and a communications suite), the HC-144A
enhanced the Coast Guard’s ability to execute a multi-agency rescue
The HC-144A’s bubble observer windows were important design features,
in that this allowed the aircrew to more carefully observe the area, including
directly below the aircraft, (which is not possible to do from the legacy
HU-25 aircraft). Although still undergoing integration and operational
testing, the HC-144A’s mission system collected Automatic Identification
System data, which in turn helped identify and communicate with civilian
vessels in the area, including the Good Samaritan (F/V Nina) which was
vectored in to help locate the downed airmen. Automatic Identification
System provided positive identification of assisting vessels and eliminated
the confusion often associated with hailing an unknown vessel.
The HC-144A is currently the only Coast Guard aircraft with Automatic
Identification System capability onboard. The HC-144A’s Flight Management
System enhanced the aircrew’s situational awareness by showing real-time
position maps, including an active surface plot populated with information
gleaned from other assets in the area, including Automatic Identification
System data. The HC-144A’s ability to sprint to a scene and then
fly slowly through a search pattern were important factors in this case.
The HC-144A’s long endurance enabled the aircrew to coordinate the
search and rescue at slow speed, ensuring excellent visual coverage of
the area. No. 2303’s communications suite allowed the aircrew to
interoperate with and coordinate the efforts of many partners, including
an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker and two other Air Force F-15s; the civilian
fishing vessel F/V Nina; and several Coast Guard District Seven and District
Eight assets. Other Coast Guard search and rescue units included an HH-60J
Jayhawk helicopter from CG Air Station Clearwater; a HH-60J and two HU-25C
Guardian jets from Aviation Training Center Mobile; an HH-65C Dolphin
helicopter from CG Air Station New Orleans; Coast Guard Cutter Coho and
a 41-foot Utility Boat from CG Station Panama City