By Nicole J. Groll
Editor’s Note: Throughout the year, the Coast Guard sends its men and women out to assist mariners in hazardous situations. Some of that assistance comes by air.
BOURNE, Mass. — Freezing rain? Teeth-chattering temperatures? Limited visibility? Coast Guard aircrews are still ready to fly.
At Air Station Cape Cod, aviation maintenance and electronic technicians work around the clock to ensure the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters are ready to launch. But there is one thing the maintenance crews and pilots cannot control: winter weather.
“The weather here is worse than the two tours I did in Alaska, icy and bitter cold,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew “Sully” Sullivan, an aviation electronic technician who transferred to Cape Cod from Sitka, Alaska.
“Icy weather conditions are considered 14 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit or below with visible moisture in the air,” said Lt. Tyler Dewechter, a Jayhawk helicopter pilot at Air Station Cape Cod.
When the forecast calls for visible moisture, the risk of flying gets more challenging for the pilots and crew. Visible moisture can limit the pilots’ ability to fly as high as required in order to use the aircraft’s instruments.
According to Dewechter, the difficulty with flying around Cape Cod is that these conditions often occur at all altitudes. The air base is landlocked, and none of the runways extend into a body of water where there would be fewer obstacles in the flight path.
“To safely fly, we need to have a 300- to 400-foot ceiling and at least a one mile visibility,” Dewechter said.
According to Lt. Ben Wolhaupter, another Jayhawk pilot, a flight ceiling is when the sky is covered by at least 80 percent cloud coverage and is measured by the height of the layer of clouds above the ground.
“For example, if one looks outside on a foggy day, the ground to the line of fog is called the ceiling,” Wolhaupter said.
According to Dewechter, Cape Cod’s cold weather often requires precise visual navigation under very low ceilings and low visibility to safely navigate from the airfield to the scene of a search-and-rescue case.
Depending on the weather, pilots can either rise above the moisture in the air or fly under it thanks to joint policies and procedures of the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration in order to fly during search-and-rescue cases in severe weather that would ground commercial aircraft.
The Jayhawk is also the only search-and-rescue helicopter in the Coast Guard’s fleet from Maine to northern New Jersey able to deal with icy weather, because it is equipped with both engine anti-ice and blade deicing systems.
Both anti-ice systems are spread out on the outside of the helicopter and around parts of the rotor blades, windshield and engines.
Sullivan said the anti-ice detector for the engines is mounted on the starboard engine and provides information to the anti-icing system. The blade deicing system is in the rotor head and tail rotor, and it activates only if enough ice has accumulated.
“Ice buildup adds extra weight and changes the aerodynamics of the helicopter,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeremy Reed, another aviation electronics technologist at the air base.
Reed said wires run along the rotor blades and an electronic pulse is sent out when there is ice buildup, melting it and keeping the blades in working order. When the system is activated, the pulse hits two blades at a time to not upset the helicopter’s weight.
“If all four blades are done at the same time, it could knock the helicopter out of the sky,” Sullivan said.
A Jayhawk helicopter crew generally includes two pilots, a flight mechanic and an aviation survival technician. The flight mechanic is qualified on all the components of the helicopter necessary to keep it flying.
During a normal flight, the side door remains closed, but during a rescue operation, it is open so the flight mechanic can operate the hoist. In order to keep warm and battle the winds of the rotor blades, the flight mechanic wears multiple layers of clothing.
“We know we are going to be cold and wet,” said Reed. “Between the rotor blades pushing heavy winds down on us to the sea spray being kicked up because of the winds from the blades, it is inevitable.”
Flight mechanics may wear up to three layers under their aircrew dry coverall. This suit has rubber neck and wrist seals to keep the aviator warm and the water out. It doesn’t replace having the helicopter’s heater running though.
“We are willing to sweat to make sure our aircrew stays warm,” Dewechter said.
The pilots do not have to worry about the cold weather coming in from the open door during operations; they are protected in the cockpit. However, in addition to flying in the frigid conditions, pilots have to make sure there is enough fuel to return home when the anti-ice system or heat is flowing through the aircraft.
“Under standard flying conditions, the heat and anti-ice system cannot run at the same time,” Dewechter said.
The pilots and crew must consider weight and fuel consumption. The weight of individuals in the helicopter consumes a set number of fuel gallons. Running the heaters for the crew and survivors consumes additional fuel as well.
According to Dewechter, difficult decisions must be made to balance the need for the anti-ice system and the additional fuel burn of the auxiliary power unit on the helicopter to warm survivors pulled from the water.
But that’s not the only challenge where fuel is concerned.
“When icing conditions are present, certain locations are no longer available for landing and close attention must be paid to fuel management and weather conditions in order to make sure we can land safely following a rescue,” Dewechter said.
When an aircrew is returning from an off-shore search-and-rescue case and freezing rain is pounding down on the helicopter, the crew knows the anti-icing systems will keep the ice to a minimum for a safe return home. Coast Guard aircrews are trained and know what to do and how to perform their missions in the ever-changing and always challenging New England weather.
Nicole J. Groll is a petty officer third class in the U.S. Coast Guard