Wet Weather Warriors: USCG Air Station Port Angeles

Located on the tip of a three-mile-long sandspit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just a few miles south of the Canadian border in the Pacific Northwest, U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles is responsible for an unusually broad range of missions. Not only do air station personnel conduct normal Coast Guard search-and-rescue (SAR) work, coastal law enforcement operations, and fisheries patrols, they also have responsibilities related to border enforcement, interdiction, and homeland security. Additionally, they perform mountain rescues in nearby Olympic National Park in support of the National Park Service and local rescue agencies.

Training is key to competence in this demanding environment. Flight crews at Port Angeles train with USCG boats and cutters on a regular basis. Skip Robinson Photo
Training is key to competence in this demanding environment. Flight crews at Port Angeles train with USCG boats and cutters on a regular basis. Skip Robinson Photo
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Now distinguished as the U.S. Coast Guard’s oldest continuously operating air station, Air Station Port Angeles was commissioned on June 1, 1935, becoming the first permanent Coast Guard Air Station on the Pacific Coast. In September 1944, the station officially became Coast Guard Group Port Angeles, operating various fixed-wing multi-mission aircraft (the last of which was the Grumman HU-16E Albatross seaplane, finally retired in 1973).

Port Angeles’ first helicopter arrived in 1946, a piston-engine Sikorsky HO3S-1G that had little capability, but served to train crews in rotary-wing flight. Five years later, a much more capable Sikorsky HO4S (a variant of the civil S-55) arrived, providing the ability to hoist multiple people into its cabin.

In 1965, the station leaped forward to the turbine-powered and amphibious Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguard. The long-lived, reliable and much-loved Seaguard flew for decades and rescued countless people from the frigid coastal waters. In 1988, the Aérospatiale (now Airbus Helicopters) HH-65A Dolphin twin turbine arrived in Port Angeles, along with its advanced SAR avionics suite.

A crew practices a rescue mission over the Olympic Mountains. The unit has completed rescues with the Dolphin at over 6,000 feet above sea level. Skip Robinson Photo
A crew practices a rescue mission over the Olympic Mountains. The unit has completed rescues with the Dolphin at over 6,000 feet above sea level. Skip Robinson Photo

The re-engined HH-65C arrived in July 2007, marking a significant improvement in aircraft capability and emergency single-engine flight performance. Shortly afterward, in May 2008, the HH-65C was replaced by the multi-mission MH-65C, with an upgraded avionics suite, and the ability to mount weapons for the Coast Guard’s Airborne Use of Force (AUF) mission. In June 2012, the air station upgraded to the most recent version of the Dolphin, the MH-65D, and currently operates three of the model.

Meanwhile, in June 2010, Coast Guard Group Seattle and Group Port Angeles merged, creating Sector Puget Sound and Coast Guard Air Station/Sector Field Office (CGAS/SFO) Port Angeles. CGAS/SFO Port Angeles has logistical and administrative oversight over four 87-foot (26-meter) patrol cutters, one 110-foot (22-meter) patrol cutter and three small boat stations.

A challenging environment

CGAS Port Angeles operates in three distinct regions, known as areas of responsibility (AORs), covering 3,500 square miles (about 9,000 square kilometers). These include the rugged and secluded coastal area (western AOR), the heavily populated Seattle/Tacoma area (southern AOR) and the San Juan Islands (northern AOR).

Together, the areas encompass Washington’s northwestern coast, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Mountains, and Puget Sound. Within the AORs are a large number of transiting commercial ships and navy vessels of all types and sizes. Washington state is also a haven for private power boats, sailing boats, and kayaks, and is second only to Florida in the number of boats registered per capita. With marine activity taking place around the clock, CGAS Port Angeles receives a steady stream of calls for assistance with its cutters, small boats, and helicopters.

The operational area for U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles includes Seattle's waterfront and harbor facilities. Here, an Airbus MH-65D flies past Seattle's Bay Pavilion. Skip Robinson Photo
The operational area for U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles includes Seattle’s waterfront and harbor facilities. Here, an Airbus MH-65D flies past Seattle’s Bay Pavilion. Skip Robinson Photo

The operating environment is a challenging one. Due to CGAS Port Angeles’ location on a small peninsula offshore, temperature differentials during the summer months create low-level advection fog that covers the air station. Because the fog layer typically extends only 100 to 200 feet (30 to 60 meters) above ground, the station operates under a waiver during the summer that allows crews to launch below standard weather minimums to conduct routine patrol flights.

More challenging weather arrives during late fall and winter, and often persists through the spring. From October through as late as June the area can endure long rainstorms and fog patterns. There are also distinct microclimates within the air station’s three regions; for example, there can be extreme turbulence in the Everett Area as winds wrap around the Olympic Mountains and then collide in the skies above.

There is also strong onshore flow, with winds routinely in excess of 25 knots, and a marine push with dense fog. Offshore can be even worse, with 50-knot winds, 20- to 30-foot (six- to nine-meter) seas and rain cells with rapidly developing fog. With these conditions, icing is a major concern, and because the MH-65D is not equipped for de-icing, crews regularly practice low-level flight under special visual flight rules (VFR).

The base's cavernous hangar keeps the aircraft dry during the wet winter months. Skip Robinson Photo
The base’s cavernous hangar keeps the aircraft dry during the wet winter months. Skip Robinson Photo

The Pacific Northwest’s diverse microclimates and constantly changing weather mean that a calm, sunny day in Port Angeles could be a wet, windy day in Seattle. Preflight weather planning plays a significant role in executing SAR cases, and flight crews must continually re-evaluate weather conditions in flight. Meanwhile, flying west of Port Angeles presents its own challenges, as airports and aviation fuel are scarce. Although the air station has established two fuel caches to extend its helicopters’ range and endurance, access to them can be limited in poor weather, so fuel planning becomes critical.

Flight crews have time pressures to contend with as well. For victims in the water, the cold ocean temperatures translate to the rapid onset of hypothermia and short survival times. For ocean SAR cases, or even wet-weather cliff rescues, time is of the essence to bring a victim to safety.

Continuous training

Because of these demanding operating conditions, Port Angeles is a competitive first-tour destination for new Coast Guard helicopter aviators coming out of flight school. Consequently, a large percentage of flight hours are spent on continued training for these new pilots. Port Angeles’ challenging AOR exposes rookie pilots to a variety of situations, helping to develop them into well-rounded and competent aviators. In addition to flying in diverse environmental conditions, Port Angeles flight crews also get practice navigating a range of airspace types, from Class B airspace to military operating areas, as well as Canadian airspace.

Flight crews at Air Station Port Angeles wear dry suits year-round as water temperatures remain cold throughout the year. Skip Robinson Photo
Flight crews at Air Station Port Angeles wear dry suits year-round as water temperatures remain cold throughout the year. Skip Robinson Photo

Flight mechanics (hoist operators) and rescue swimmers come to Port Angeles from other air stations or direct from their schoolhouses. Rescue swimmers at Port Angeles must contend with very cold water, cold air temperatures, strong winds, and rough ocean conditions — all of which challenge their ability to stay mentally and physically focused during a rescue operation. Add in low visibility, rough seas, and fuel concerns, and hoist operations can quickly become extremely challenging for everyone involved.

CGAS Port Angeles trains hoisting with different small boat stations and a variety of Coast Guard surface vessels, including 45-foot (13-meter) small boats, 47-foot (14-meter) surf boats, 64-foot (20-meter) patrol boats, and 87-foot (26-meter) cutters. Training is done in controlled calm waterways and in the open ocean, where wave actions and winds make it much more challenging.

The waters off Washington state regularly see 20- to 30-foot (six- to nine-meter) swells in the wintertime, and to prepare for emergencies during these conditions, the air station conducts “high sea hoisting” training flights with small boat stations. Through regulation, Coast Guard training scenarios are restricted to 15-foot (4.5-meter) seas, but even with this limitation, dangerous situations can develop if proper flying techniques are not maintained.

To give flight crews additional resources, some attend the Coast Guard’s twice-yearly Advanced Helicopter Rescue School near U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, Oregon. The school gives crews training and procedures for particularly difficult operations, and then these techniques are passed down to newer duty pilots.

After over 30 years of use by the U.S. Coast Guard, the H-65 series aircraft has proven itself to be an extremely reliable airframe. Skip Robinson Photo
After over 30 years of use by the U.S. Coast Guard, the H-65 series aircraft has proven itself to be an extremely reliable airframe. Skip Robinson Photo

USCG Port Angeles crews also train regularly for vertical surface (cliff-side) rescue operations, as well as mountain rescues in neighboring Olympic National Park. From sea level in Port Angeles, the Olympic Mountains rise to elevations of nearly 8,000 feet (2,440 meters), and with the MH-65D being a main gearbox torque-limited aircraft, hoisting at these altitudes demands considerable skill, as well as precise crew coordination.

Selected USCG Port Angeles pilots undergo specialized training at the U.S. Army’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS)
in Colorado, where they learn advanced power management
techniques. The air station also conducts regular training with Olympic National Park rangers and rescue teams, giving everyone involved the opportunity to coordinate on rescue procedures, communications, equipment utilization, and asset capabilities.

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The air station’s crews typically respond to multiple mountain SAR cases throughout the year, with most of these during the summer months. In one instance, an MH-65D crew hoisted an injured climber from an elevation of 6,300 feet (1,920 meters) in the Olympics. This was not only the highest altitude helicopter rescue accomplished in the mountain range, but also the highest altitude MH-65 Dolphin rescue to date. To accomplish this mission, the flight crew conducted extensive pre-flight planning and removed excess weight from the helicopter, while also carrying a minimum fuel load.

Cooperative relationships

Normally, USCG Port Angeles is assigned two 40-day helicopter cutter deployments a year, sometimes as far away as East Asia, the polar regions, and the Caribbean. Typically, these deployments are on 210-foot (64-meter) medium-endurance cutters, but they can also be on larger ships. To maintain their readiness for deployment, Port Angeles pilots are required to maintain deck landing qualifications and work with a variety of vessels, from the 210-foot cutters to 378-foot (115-meter) high-endurance cutters, 418-foot (127-meter) national security cutters, and the Coast Guard’s Polar Star icebreaker. Flight crews also work with U.S. Navy ships of all types, plus Canadian Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

The cockpit of the H-65 continues to evolve. The next version - the E model - will get a major avionics upgrade. Skip Robinson Photo
The cockpit of the H-65 continues to evolve. The next version – the E model – will get a major avionics upgrade. Skip Robinson Photo

Port Angeles’ proximity to the Canadian border provides air station crews with the opportunity to train alongside Canadian military assets, including the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Leonardo CH-149 Cormorant rescue helicopters and the Royal Canadian Navy’s Sikorsky CH-124 Sea Kings. The air station also cooperates with the Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Mounted Police for law enforcement, ferry systems, border patrol flights, and SAR missions.

Another form of international cooperation can be found in the Shiprider program, officially known as Integrated Cross-Border Maritime Law Enforcement Operations (ICMLEO). Shiprider involves Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats and cutters crewed jointly by specially trained and designated Canadian and U.S. law enforcement officers. These officers are authorized to enforce the law on both sides of the international border to prevent smuggling and human and material trafficking.

Whether through such international relationships, or its close ties to local first responders, cooperative relationships play a large role in CGAS Port Angeles’ success.

“Our operational success is facilitated through rigorous flight training,” explained Capt. Mark Hiigel, the air station’s commanding officer. “The most important element to overall unit success is understanding that even though our helicopters are the most visible part of our operations, it’s made possible through a robust network of support staff and close ties with our local, state, federal, tribal, and international agencies.

A MH-65D works around a USCG 210-foot cutter. The ships, boats, and aircraft of the USCG work together to keep the U.S. safe. Skip Robinson Photo
A MH-65D works around a USCG 210-foot cutter. The ships, boats, and aircraft of the USCG work together to keep the U.S. safe. Skip Robinson Photo

“The men and woman of CGAS/SFO Port Angeles have proven themselves many times over and have accomplished many rescue missions in treacherous conditions that without their dedication would have cost innocent people in danger, their lives.”

2 thoughts on “Wet Weather Warriors: USCG Air Station Port Angeles

  1. Great article on a Coast Guard Aviation gem!!!The H-65C arrived the summer of 2006 and we had that hoist at 6300′ that year. The next year we had a hoist from 6900′ from the same mountain. Great photos Skip!!!!!dan

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