[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2007]
In the five and a half years since coming on line, the USCG Hitron program has interdicted over $8 billion dollars worth of illegal drugs destined for retail market in the US.
There are only eight Agusta A109E helicopters in the Hitron program, and they only claim the go-fasts, not the mother ships. That’s $1 billion per helo. That’s $333 million and change per member of the three-man helo crew.
Each ARH (Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter) is equipped with an M240 machine gun and an RC50 precision rifle. Hitron pioneered NVG (night vision goggle) operations for the Coast Guard. I’ve seen them at work, and it’s a good thing I can’t tell you hardly anything else about it because you’d think I was writing science fiction.
You talk to the aviators underway on Munro and they persist in saying it’s just a job. It’s like a mantra with Coasties, I heard it on Alex Haley, too. But with this job, the aviators prefer not to have their names published. The drug lords have enough money to have a very long reach. So for today we’ll call them Starsky, Hutch and Huggy Bear. Don’t blame me, they picked their own noms de guerres.
LCDR Hutch is a USCG Academy graduate, was a ship driver for 2 years before going to flight school, and came to Hitron after over 2 years as a flight instructor. LTJG Starsky flew Blackhawk medivac helicopters for the US Army in Iraq for 14 months, and returned later for 2 months more before transferring to the CG. AMT2 Huggy Bear, the gunner, joined the Coast Guard right out of high school and began as a helo mechanic. Like professional aviators anywhere in the presence of civilians, they are very matter of fact and low key. Excitement in the cockpit is just one of many things that can get you killed in the air. They do like this particular helo, though. “We’re always yanking and pulling on this aircraft,” Huggy Bear says. “It does things no other aircraft would do.” “Without any doubt of a power requirement,” Starsky adds, which was a concern of the HH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopters, now equipped with a redesigned engine and soon to replace the Agusta helos.
They train with two large go-fasts, Fountain boats purchased specifically for this purpose, in the St. John’s River in Jacksonville. The boats start out slow, says Hutch, 10-20 knots, simple turns, a warm up, which ratchets up to high speeds, 90-degree turns, stops, starts, use of weapons. The whole idea of the training is for our aviators to be better than any go-fast driver. “No go-fast driver will throw anything as good at us as our guys do in training,” Hutch says. Go-fast drivers are an expendable commodity for the smugglers and they aren’t as a rule expert boat handlers.
In the meantime, our gunners are training to fire at an erratically moving target from a moving platform that may be constantly changing its vector. Not quite the same as standing still at a firing range, both hands on the pistol, aiming at a stationary paper bullseye. No wonder they have to practice as much as they do.
Hutch walks me through a typical go-fast interdiction (on one patrol, he had two within four days of each other). It begins with a SURFPAT, or a routine surface patrol launched from the back of a USCG cutter. They spot a target. They try to call it on Channel 16 in English and in Spanish, they come alongside to announce their presence, they try to hail them on a speaker. If it’s night they light up the CG logo on the helo, they’ll turn on the blue light, they’ll sound a siren (“it’s very loud and obnoxious”). As with the small boat boardings, they try to determine the nationality of the go-fast. If they can’t, they will order the go-fast to stop, again in English and in Spanish. Meanwhile, back aboard the cutter down in Combat, once again, there is a long checklist which involves a whole bunch of communication with people on the beach to ensure all the legal i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.
If the helo is unable to determine nationality, and if the go-fast refuses to stop, permission is granted from on high to issue warning shots. The gunner will fire a very obvious stitch of shots across the go-fast’s bow. If the go-fast still refuses to stop, the gunner will target the engines. Our gunners are very good shots. In one interdiction, Hutch’s gunner took four shots to disable three engines. This fired at a boat moving very fast over water from a helicopter moving even faster through the air. “Sometimes they just stop when they see us,” Hutch says.
After the go-fast stops on its own or we stop it for them, the helo remains on scene until the cutter’s small boats arrive to take custody of the suspects, the contraband and the boats. The helo returns to the cutter and both aviators and the gunner spend about two and half hours filling out the forms for the case file. They’ve got the forms on a flash drive, and regard the process as pretty painless. And worth it. “I’ll get subpoened in a case,” Hutch says (he just got one this morning), “and then a month before trial I’ll get an email saying they pled guilty.”
“If we do our job properly,” Starsky says, “if we operate at a hundred percent efficiency, we put ourselves out of a job.”
“Unfortunately,” Hutch says, “it looks like there’s still a lot of job opportunity out there.”
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