COAST GUARD Air Station San Francisco (CGAS SF) is enclosed on three sides of San Francisco international airport, located on its north side. Primarily a search and rescue (SAR) facility, you might think its location, surrounded by hundreds of incoming and outgoing airliners, prevents helicopters being launched at a moment’s notice. Not the case. Careful planning and co-operation between the airport authority and the Coast Guard has meant that to date not one rescue call out, or airline flight has been delayed due to conflict of interests.


The Coast Guard facility has operated from its present position since February 1941, with its first aircraft being a PBY-5 Catalina and two RD-4 Dolphins. Over the years many upgrades and changes to airframe types have come and gone. Today the facility flies four HH-65C Dolphin helicopters.

Prior to their arrival, the facility flew HH-60J Jay Hawks. At first glance, this might seem like a retro move. After all, the HH-60J is more powerful with a greater payload and longer endurance. Lt Cdr Andrea Sacchetti, HH-65C Commander and the Station’s Operations Officer explained: «The HH-65C is classed as a Short Range Recovery (SRR) helicopter and as most of the missions flown from the station are to incidents or events in and around the [San Francisco] Bay area, a long-range, heavy-lifting helicopter is not generally needed.» This was first recognised in June 1996 when the HH-60Js were exchanged for the more cost-effective HH-65B Dolphins based at CGAS San Diego.

The B-variants involved have subsequently been exchanged for the upgraded C-model.


Contrary to many assumptions, Coast Guard Stations are not operated on behalf of the US Department of Defense (DoD) or the US Navy, but are now funded by and operated for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This change occurred during March 2003 when the then funding agency The Department of Transportation transferred assets to the DHS. At the time of the change, extra duties were also placed on the Coast Guard organisation and today its annual budget of S8.7 billion for FY 2008 reflects the increased role and extra duties now within its tasking.

Search and Rescue remains the primary mission for all Coast Guard Stations. Secondary missions tend to differ from station to station. In the case of San Francisco’s facility, working with law enforcement agencies around the Bay area is the main secondary mission. This involves looking for illegal activities such as drug interdictions or marijuana plantations.

During 2006, the facility’s highest profile mission involved working with ground-based law enforcement officers, which uncovered a drugs haul valued at $15 million. This was just one capture out of 138 counter drug sorties flown by the CGAS between June 2005 and June 2007.

Other less high profile, but important missions include policing shipping into and out of San Francisco’s busy port. As with all US agencies, intelligence gathering is undertaken discreetly. During any flight from the Air Station, aircrew are ever watchful for terrorist threats. If required to physically check or intervene in a situation the Coast Guard helicopters are used to transport law enforcement officers to trouble spots around the Bay.

Though normally stationed ashore, the HH-65Cs are also tasked with ship-based duties and embark aboard Coast Guard cutters and icebreakers. For 256 days in FY2006 at least one San Francisco-based helicopter was embarked onboard a Cutter in the Pacific Ocean.

An HH-65C will primarily conduct SAR when embarked on a Cutter. When afloat on icebreakers they are often used to pre-navigate the ship through ice channels (looking for thinner ice) and track icebergs.

In times of war, Coast Guard personnel are deployed to work alongside the US Navy. At least one Coast Guard Cutter is currently deployed to the Persian Gulf, complete with embarked helicopter and crews. As Lt Cdr Sacchetti explained: «The deployed Cutter and its HH-65C can be selected from any particular station. Crews are taken from a wide variety of locations to minimise disruption at one single location.»

On Station

San Francisco’s HH-65s must be airborne within 30 minutes when standing the SAR alert. Helicopters can be called to an incident anywhere along a 300-mile (482km) stretch of Californian coastline, from Point Conception in the south to Fort Bragg in the north. Any point within the area of responsibility can be reached in 45 minutes when flying at 175 knots (maximum speed).

Missions flown over land can be extended by landing to refuel at many of the local airports around California.

Loaded with 1,9001b of fuel, with a fuel bum rate of 6001b per hour, an HH-65C has an endurance of three hours depending on conditions. Over the sea, endurance is more critical. If available, a cutter will be used to land on for refuelling. With sufficient planning time the helicopter can be refuelled from a suitable ship while hovering using the Helicopter In-Flight Refuelling Rig (HIFR). The HIFR rig is winched up from the vessel, plugged into the helicopter’s receptacle and fuel is passed at high pressure. Without HIFR, overwater endurance is generally rated to be approximately 100 miles (160km) depending on weather and winds at the time.

Pilot Training

In FY2006, the San Francisco facility flew more than 1,750 missions, all tasked by Sector 11, Coast Guard Command, which covers the whole of California. At CGAS San Francisco, a helicopter is on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. A staff of 18 aircraft commanders and four co-pilots man the alert roster at CGAS San Francisco. A crew comprises pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic and rescue swimmer, although missions can be flown with just one pilot.

Coast Guard pilots undertake an 18-month training programme at the US Navy flight school at NAS Pensacola, Florida. The course includes six weeks of ground school and 100 hours flying the T-34C Mentor.

Graduates who choose to fly rotary-wing move on to fly the TH-57 Sea Ranger and those who choose fixed-wing either fly the C-130 Hercules or the HU-25 Falcon.

An incentive to study is in place. Generally the top student of each course will get to fly the aircraft of his or her choice, unless at the time of graduation there is a particular shortage within one type and then postings are made accordingly.

Under the previous system, all graduates were posted to a Cutter for two years before being granted a flying tour. Today, graduates get posted to a flying tour for three years, four in the case of San Francisco.

Each crewman is tasked with up to seven duties each month, centred on a five-day week, 7am to 3pm working day. In a one-month period, each pilot is on duty for a 24-hour period within the five-day working week, backed-up by a standby crew, fit to fly, living within two hours travelling time of the station.

Experienced helicopter pilots who served with the Army, Navy or Marine Corps can join the Coast Guard as qualified pilots on entry, known as Direct Commission Aviator entrants.

Rear Crew

Rear crew on the HH-65C are normally a flight mechanic and a swimmer. During high profile rescue missions, the swimmer is usually seen being lowered by the hydraulic hoist and applauded for his or her actions.

At any time during winch operations if the hoist’s 6001b (272kg) maximum weight is exceeded, or the cable becomes dangerously snagged, the pilot or flight mechanic can cut it — a fact constantly on the mind of the swimmer, but not widely realised by the public. CGAS San Francisco saved or assisted in saving 48 people in 2006 and capturing more than 80 illegal migrants.

Aircrew at CGAS San Francisco can only fly because of the effort of 70 engineers and technicians of various trades who keep the helicopters serviceable. The maintenance team undertook over 41,000 man-hours of minor, intermediate or condition-based servicing in 2006. Every four years, each HH-65C undergoes depot-level maintenance at the Aviation Repair and Supply Center at Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The helicopter is stripped back to its basic shell, corrosion checks are made on the airframe and new parts are fitted where necessary. Each airframe takes four months to complete.

Future Operations

In 2007, the Coast Guard received funding to begin the next upgrade of the Dolphin to HH-65D-model configuration. The funds were allocated as part of the ongoing $25 billion, 25-year Deepwater programme.

D-model modifications will include a service-life extension to refurbish the airframe, tail drive shaft and anti-torque device. Type designation of the Dolphin will change to the Multi-Mission Cutter (MCC) helicopter to reflect the additional capabilities of the D-model upgrade.

Further studies are underway for a subsequent HH-65E-model upgrade, featuring a strengthened landing gear, new radar and a C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) suite. The HH-65E will also be armed.


The US Coast Guard ordered 96 HH-65 Dolphins in 1984 fitted with the Honeywell LTS-101-750 engine. At the time, this engine offered a limited power growth potential, and after constant mission growth requirements and almost one million engine hours, it could no longer meet the Coast Guard SSR requirement. Eventually a planned upgrade from HH-65B to HH-65C standard became an enforced move due to continued engine-related failures in the B version.

A General Accounting Office (GAO) report revealed that in the period between October 2003 and August 2004 crews reported 150 in-flight, potentially life-threatening failures with the HH-65B engine and its associated management control system. This led to an edict by the USCG Commandant imposing operational restrictions to the fleet of 84 aircraft.

The whole fleet gained new Turbomeca Arriel 2C2-CG engines in a $350 million upgrade. Upgrade work was carried out over a three-year period at the Coast Guard’s Aviation Repair and Supply Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the American Eurocopter facility in Columbus, Mississippi. The final conversion was delivered by July 2007.

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