Trading in a jet for a propeller airplane might seem to some a step backward. But after a quarter-century of flying the Dassault Falcon HU-25 Guardian on sea patrols, the U.S. Coast Guard is exchanging its jet fleet for a turbofan, built by EADS CASA of Spain: the HC-144A Ocean Sentry.
According to Coast Guard officials, what the Ocean Sentry lacks in speed (276 mph tops versus 650 for the Guardian) and altitude (30,000 feet versus 42,000), it makes up for in endurance, lower operating costs, and superior sensors.
“This is the perfect platform,” says Ron McIntire, Coast Guard project manager for the Ocean Sentry. “If we’d had a couple of these things during Hurricane Katrina, we’d have been a lot better off.” The airplane far eclipses the sensor capabilities of the Guardian; the Ocean Sentry’s equipment options include direction-finding gear that can pinpoint a signal 125 miles out, surface search radar, and an electro-optical infrared surveillance system.
The sensor package also has multiple communications channels, and allows the crew to receive and send classified data to other aircraft, ships, and stations on shore.
Also important is the Ocean Sentry’s ability to loiter; it can stay aloft for eight to nine hours, compared to the Guardian’s four. Though both carry about the same amount of fuel (10,000 pounds), the Ocean Sentry burns it at half the rate. With significantly easier maintenance, the Ocean Sentry’s per-hour operating cost comes to less than $1,000, compared to the Guardian’s $1,500 to $1,800. A hydraulic-operated rear ramp also allows the Ocean Sentry to deliver bigger cargo and more troops, and a belly bubble window lets the crew do something not possible on the Guardian: look below the aircraft.
The window proved its worth last February, when crewmen on an Ocean Sentry training mission (without the sensor package) used it to spot an F-15C pilot whose fighter had collided with another F-15C over the Gulf of Mexico. The crew radioed the pilot’s location and directed his rescue. (The other pilot had been killed.)
“I thought the window was geeky at first, but those things are amazing, one of the best features,” says Lieutenant Commander Christopher Buckridge, who trains HC-144A pilots at the Coast Guard’s air station in Mobile, Alabama. The Coast Guard now has five of the $34 million Ocean Sentries. Plans call for a total of 36 by 2020, when the last of the 21 Guardians will be retired. The swap-out is part of the $24 billion, 25-year Deepwater program to upgrade the Coast Guard’s ships and airplanes.
The old jet, which entered service in 1983, “is near and dear to my heart,” says Buckridge, who has flown the Guardian for 15 years. “You can get on scene very quickly, report back, and the planners could have time on their side and be more proactive.” With the Ocean Sentry, he says, “at first, I couldn’t get over the fact that it was so slow. We’re going slower in this aircraft but we have much better situational awareness. It is fun to fly.”