Eyes in the sky: one air station’s Herculean efforts to stop drug smugglers

A Panga boat suspected of smuggling led a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircrew and a cutter boat crew on a wild chase int he middle of the Caribbean Sea last October. With the Hercules aircrew serving as their eyes in the sky, the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley seized 600 kilograms of cocain that night. The crews of voluntarily deploy to Central America each year in support of Joint Interagency Task Force South find a sense of pride and departure from their normal routine.

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Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki

A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., conducts pre-flight checks before departing the air station, Jan. 8, 2019. The crew embarked on a training flight during which mission system operators practiced using the airplane's camera, radar and other sensory equipment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.
A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., conducts pre-flight checks before departing the air station, Jan. 8, 2019. The crew embarked on a training flight during which mission system operators practiced using the airplane’s camera, radar and other sensory equipment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

It was completely dark in the middle of the Caribbean Sea on the evening of Oct. 3, 2018.

Dense bands of cloud shrouded the moon, obscuring all light. Storms intermittently rumbled to life, dampening the darkness with sheets of rain.

Five thousand feet above the sea, a large white airplane sliced through the gloom, its telltale orange stripe and Coast Guard shield obscured by the shadows.

Pilots and crew members inside the HC-130 Hercules airplane did not mind the obscurity; in fact, it was a critical part of their mission.

They had been sent into the black, windy night to search for a particular vessel, a Panga boat suspected of transporting cocaine northward. Beyond their “search box,” a targeted area in international waters off Costa Rica, the aircrew was armed only with the HC-130’s sensory equipment, years of training and their own intuition.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Lee Christensen and Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Blakley, avionics electrical technicians at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., practice using the radar aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane over North Carolina's coast, Jan. 8, 2019. Christensen trained Blakley in using the radar to spot fixed and unfixed objects, using the camera to record footage of said objects, and other procedures required of a mission system operator. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Lee Christensen and Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Blakley, avionics electrical technicians at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., practice using the radar aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane over North Carolina’s coast, Jan. 8, 2019. Christensen trained Blakley in using the radar to spot fixed and unfixed objects, using the camera to record footage of said objects, and other procedures required of a mission system operator. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

Petty Officer 1st Class Matt Lotz, a seasoned mission system operator aboard the Hercules, utilized all three to locate the target. Wrestling with various filters and scan methods, he used the plane’s installed camera to spot and track the Panga boat down below, despite the pitch-black night.

Still hovering far overhead, the Hercules crew initiated the “end game,” the final stage of the mission during which aircrews help surface assets locate targets. Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley, the nearest asset, steamed toward the Panga and launched a cutter boat crew to close the final distance.

Little did the crews know, the end game would be rife with difficulty that night.

A small boat crew from Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley pursues suspected drug smugglers aboard a Panga boat in the Caribbean Sea, Oct. 3, 2018. The Coast Guard crew stopped the boat to seize 600 kilograms of cocaine, a haul worth approximately $17 million. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Air Station Elizabeth City.
A small boat crew from Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley pursues suspected drug smugglers aboard a Panga boat in the Caribbean Sea, Oct. 3, 2018. The Coast Guard crew stopped the boat to seize 600 kilograms of cocaine, a haul worth approximately $17 million. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Air Station Elizabeth City.

“The [cutter] boat crew experienced some technical difficulties,” said Lt. Patrick Spencer, aircraft commander of the HC-130. “Matt thought outside the box. He figured out a way to talk directly to the [cutter] boat so he could direct them to the target.”

Acting as the boat crew’s aerial navigator, Lotz guided them within 50 feet of the Panga.

The pursuit was short, but lively, with the Panga crew leading the Coast Guard team in wild arcs through the darkness.

With the Hercules aircrew serving as their eyes in the sky, Cutter Donald Horsley’s crew seized 600 kilograms of cocaine that night, a haul valued at approximately $17 million.

“When we get to see the end game, the actual drug bust, it gives the crew a sense of accomplishment,” said Lt. j.g. Zachary Georgia, an HC-130 pilot at Air Station Elizabeth City who routinely participates in Joint Interagency Task Force South’s counter-narcotics missions.

The sense of pride and the exciting departure from routine are two reasons that the air station’s members voluntarily deploy to Central America each year, according to Georgia.

In 2018, HC-130 crews from Air Station Elizabeth City conducted more than 100 JIATF South aerial patrols, directly contributing to the arrests of 34 suspected drug smugglers and the interdiction of 27,000 kilograms of narcotics, worth over $745 million.

“Keeping these harmful drugs off the streets of America is significant,” said Capt. Joseph Deer, commanding officer of Air Station Elizabeth City. “Without these intercepts and the deterrent presence of law enforcement authorities, the flow of drugs into the U.S. would be exponentially higher.”

Suspected drug smugglers aboard a Panga boat flee from Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley's small boat crew in the Caribbean Sea, Oct. 3, 2018. An HC-130 Hercules airplane crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., spotted the Panga boat and directed the boat crew to its location. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Air Station Elizabeth City.
Suspected drug smugglers aboard a Panga boat flee from Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley’s small boat crew in the Caribbean Sea, Oct. 3, 2018. An HC-130 Hercules airplane crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., spotted the Panga boat and directed the boat crew to its location. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Air Station Elizabeth City.

While working in Central America, the aircrews operate from several different locations, and their patrol coverage varies wildly during their deployments. When the crews receive task direction from JIATF South, they are directed to search an expansive area, to investigate a known target, or to insert themselves into the end game of an ongoing case.

“Flexibility is key,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Trevor Tufts, an aviation maintenance technician in charge of the HC-130’s mechanical functions while airborne. “We don’t actually know where we’re going until we get the pre-mission brief each day. I’ve had the location change 10 minutes before departure.”

While their predominant goal is to help stop the trafficking of illicit drugs, the deployed Coast Guard crews have to adapt to ever-changing circumstances on the fly.

“During my last JIATF mission, we were out looking for drug smugglers, but we found a boat that had capsized instead,” Georgia said. “So the search and rescue case took precedence.”

Coast Guard aircrews work with a diverse array of entities and agencies while deployed in support of JIATF South, including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and law enforcement agencies of surrounding nations. But according to the Coast Guard crews, the HC-130 Hercules airplane is what truly distinguishes them from their many teammates.

“We can offer twice the range of some of the other planes working down there,” Spencer said. “We simply have the best plane for the mission.”

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Blakley, an avionics electrical technician at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., receives radar training aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane over North Carolina's coast, Jan. 8, 2019. Blakley is training to become a mission system operator, the crew member responsible for operating the airplane's radar, camera, and other communications equipment during search and rescue cases and drug interdiction missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Blakley, an avionics electrical technician at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., receives radar training aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane over North Carolina’s coast, Jan. 8, 2019. Blakley is training to become a mission system operator, the crew member responsible for operating the airplane’s radar, camera, and other communications equipment during search and rescue cases and drug interdiction missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.

Air Station Elizabeth City is home to five HC-130J Super Hercules airplanes, the more advanced version of older HC-130H airplanes, which Tufts said is an important distinction. The J-model of the HC-130 touts increased air speed, increased flight time, a camera equipped with infrared sensors, and a 360-degree surface search radar, all features that help aircrews efficiently hunt down drug smugglers.

Mission system operators like Lotz arguably benefit from the airplane’s equipment the most; as the person simultaneously communicating with JIATF South and other entities, monitoring the radar for possible targets, recording footage of action down below, and directing the movements of surface assets, he said he appreciates the HC-130’s various trappings.

“For a [military service obligation], it’s our time to shine,” Lotz said. “I love it. I’d do it forever.”

While only a fraction of Air Station Elizabeth City’s 300 members deploy to Central America during their tour, their commanding officer said the unit is fully committed to supporting the JIATF South mission for the foreseeable future, and that everything they accomplish is achieved through a group effort by all five commands on base.

“We will continue to build on the excellent program that those before us have put in place, ever improving our training and equipment for those that follow in our footsteps,” Deer said. “I am confident the 300 professionals at Air Station Elizabeth City are up to the challenge.”

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