December 1, 2012
By Alton K. Marsh
Photography by Chris Rose
With only a sliver of the moon showing on September 17, 2012, the drug boat zoomed through the darkness carrying 60-pound bales of cocaine—2,460 pounds in all. Above it the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard MH–65 helicopter tracked its movement with the aid of night-vision goggles, flying only 50 feet above the darkened sea. Like the boat, its lights were off.
Approaching the target from behind, the three-member crew identified it as described to them by the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. An admiral a thousand or more miles away was contacted for permission to use force—and the game was on. The gunner opened the door and installed an M240 machine gun and a 31-pound Barrett M107 .50-caliber sniper rifle on canvas straps that cushion the guns from the vibration of the helicopter.
As the helicopter drew alongside, the noise of its twin engines masked by the boat’s multiple outboard motors, the checklist called for turning on a flashing blue light beneath the helicopter and illuminating the U.S. Coast Guard logo on the tail. The blue light identified the helicopter as law enforcement. A call was made on marine VHF channel 16 to stop, but the boat continued.
It was time to stitch the sea.
Stitching sprays a line of 7.62-millimeter, copper-clad, full-metal-jacket rounds in front of the go-fast boat—every fifth round is a tracer. In one continuous burst the gun is raised and lowered three times, like a garden hose watering plants. As is typical, the boat crew ignored the bullets, continuing on in the knowledge that the drug cartel might kill their families if they dump the drugs too early. On one intercept, a boat crewmember was seen talking on a satellite phone, leading Coast Guard officials to assume that he was calling the cartel. That’s not what happened this time.
Out came the M107, custom designed for military operations by Tennessee manufacturer Ronnie Barrett. A sighting system picked out the closest of the boat’s motors and a round was released from the muzzle, easily finding its target; all four crewmen jumped into the sea, not wishing to see a second engine explode. The Coast Guard never fires on the crew unless it appears a weapon will be raised in the direction of the helicopter. “We’ve had them pick them up, raise them above their heads, and throw them into the water. They do it very slowly,” said a gunner who asked not to be identified.
When the cutter arrived, the crewmen—clutching Coast Guard life preservers—and their $10 million cargo were brought aboard. There was no effort to save the boat. “They become artificial reefs,” said Cmdr. Rich Hancock, the operations officer for the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) in Jacksonville, Florida.
Missions aren’t always that easy. Often the boat is rolling in heavy seas, while winds batter the helicopter and spray blocks the gunner’s view of the engines. A gunner recalled his worst flight ever. His name also is withheld.
“It was December 2011, and the fast-boat was 90 miles away. There was a cutter between us and the boat, so we stopped to refuel and went on to interdict. Coming back we were only 65 miles from our ship and decided to bypass the cutter [where they had refueled].
“We were 15 miles out when a thunderstorm popped up with strong downdrafts, and we could either go around it or pass through it. We were low on fuel and went through the edge of it. The downdrafts were rocking the helicopter. That’s the first time I got off the helicopter and kissed the deck,” the gunner said.
Flying across a horizonless sea at night, even with night vision goggles, requires strong instrument skills. “The instrument skill required…it doesn’t get any harder,” Hancock said. “We fly the helicopter completely out of trim. We do flat turns around the boat. We don’t want to get the rotor arc into the line of fire.”
“It’s the most challenging mission I’ve ever flown,” said HITRON Commanding Officer Capt. Donna L. Cottrell. When pilots rotate out of HITRON, they often get their first choice of assignments, a pilot said.
In August and Sep-tember of 2012 there were six fast-boat chases involving post-mission landings on cutters that were in six-foot swells and at their maximum pitch and roll limits. In one case, a Coast Guard helicopter flew backwards 35 to 75 feet above the sea at night to keep contact with an evasive boat, yawing and sliding around turns to keep the weapons on the target.
Here’s the quick summary of how to make it to HITRON. “Go to high school, get good grades; go to college, get good grades again; and apply for officer candidate school. Or you can go to the academy right out of high school,” Cottrell said.
“When you come out of the academy or officer candidate school, you have to get selected for flight school. More likely, you’ll go to a ship for a couple of years. You’ll go to [U.S.] Navy flight school, which is a year and a half at Pensacola [Florida]. After that you will go to a regular air station—like New Orleans, Savannah, Detroit, Los Angeles—doing search and rescue. You’ll be a co-pilot first and later an aircraft commander. After that you can apply for HITRON,” she said.
At HITRON training follows the same routine, first with co-pilot duties, then mission commander, then as an instructor training the approximately 15 new pilots HITRON needs each year.
Even the training can be difficult. The MH–65 “…can be extremely unforgiving,” Hancock said. “It is more difficult in the hover than the MH–60,” Cottrell said. “It doesn’t have the same power margin.” The H–60 is made by Sikorsky and is used by the Coast Guard for search and rescue. Still, Cottrell and Hancock said, they are doing just fine with their 1985 and 1990s MH–65 helicopters. New transmissions would add power, but there isn’t money in the budget for that. What really concerns them are the aging cutters that need to be replaced. That’s where the helicopters are based.
Once you make it, you may one night hear your gunner say, “Over deck, clear down,” and feel relief as a probe on the bottom of the helicopter locks into a waffle-shaped steel plate filled with holes on the deck. Perhaps you’ll want to kiss the deck occasionally.
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