In the zone: In the sky and on the hunt

Editor’s note: This blog is part of an ongoing Coast Guard Compass series titled “In the Zone”, which documents the service’s efforts to combat transnational organized crime networks in drug transit zones throughout the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Please click here to read more blogs from the men and women serving on the frontlines “in the zone.”

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie

Crew members aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Barbers Point use aircraft surveillance equipment to monitor as a small boat from USCGC Campbell (WMEC 909) intercepts a 30-foot panga carrying drugs in the Eastern Pacific, Jan. 25, 2016. The Hercules crew located and tracked the panga and coordinated with the Campbell crew who interdicted the vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

Crew members aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Barbers Point use aircraft surveillance equipment to monitor as a small boat from USCGC Campbell (WMEC 909) intercepts a 30-foot panga carrying drugs in the Eastern Pacific, Jan. 25, 2016. The Hercules crew located and tracked the panga and coordinated with the Campbell crew who interdicted the vessel. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

What is a typical workday? Is it eight hours slouched behind a desk answering the phone and writing emails? Or is it meeting after meeting with PowerPoint? Does it involve a 30-minute lunch break where coworkers have halfhearted conversations while watching the clock tick slowly toward 5 p.m.?

A typical workday doesn’t exist for a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane crew.

This 11-member team from Air Station Barbers Point works nine to 10 hours a day in a metal tube 97 feet long and 10 feet wide. Their workplace soars thousands of feet above the water’s surface. Conversations are transmitted through headsets that muffle the reverberating hum of four engines. Eyes are always searching, straining to find a shadow the size of a dust particle in a computer screen filled with shades of gray.

This job is anything but ordinary.

From the moment wheels leave the runway until they touch down again, this aircrew is on a unique mission: they are on a 14-day counter-narcotics patrol in Central America.

The aircrew acquired a target bearing approximately two eight one at five point five.

The plane circles its prey moving closer with each passing turn. Its white exterior camouflaged in the clouds.

They’ve spotted an alleged go-fast. It is about 30-feet long with two outboards riding low in the water and cruising. Three people are on board the vessel with bales visible on the starboard side.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Lecher, an avionics electrical technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, monitors the surveillance equipment aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane while on patrol in the Eastern Pacific, Jan. 25, 2016. Military patrol aircraft search for drug traffickers around the clock in an attempt to reduce illegal drug activity in the region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Lecher, an avionics electrical technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, monitors the surveillance equipment aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane while on patrol in the Eastern Pacific, Jan. 25, 2016. Military patrol aircraft search for drug traffickers around the clock in an attempt to reduce illegal drug activity in the region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

This aircrew is hunting for suspected drug runners.

Shortly after the aircrew spotted the suspected smuggling vessel, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Campbell from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, gave chase as the suspects allegedly jettisoned their cargo. The Coast Guard men and women retrieved more than 1,870 pounds of cocaine jettisoned in the chase worth nearly $28 million and apprehended the three suspects without incident. All this thanks to their eyes in the sky; an aircrew dutifully and patiently searching, monitoring and coordinating the end game.

U.S. military, law enforcement agencies and regional partner-nation law enforcement agencies patrol the waters in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific on a year-round basis in an effort to detect, monitor and interdict illicit traffickers.

Operation Martillo (Hammer) includes the participation of 14 nations working together to counter transnational organized crime and illicit trafficking in coastal waters along the Central American isthmus. This operation is just one component in the U.S. government’s whole-of-government approach to countering the use of Central American littorals as transshipment routes for illicit drugs, weapons and cash.

“No one realizes how many people and assets are involved in a mission like this,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Mandi Stevens, an aviation maintenance technician and airplane sensor system operator. “When the American people learn about drug busts in the news, it’s the Coast Guard cutter they see. They only hear about Coast Guard aviation conducting search and rescues, but we are also heavily involved in drug interdictions.”

Drug interdiction is a collaborative effort between Joint Interagency Task Force South, a national task force under U.S. Southern Command, U.S. and multi-national law enforcement agencies.

The aircrew’s job is to locate the vessel and use aerial surveillance equipment to record as much information about the target as possible including location, speed, direction of movement and visual confirmation of any drugs onboard. That information gets passed to the nearest assisting vessel which races toward the target to intercept it before it reaches shore. The aircrew must then maintain visual of the target until the assisting vessel arrives on site, which could be hours or days.

Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Canales, an avionics electrical technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, reviews the day’s search pattern aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane while on patrol in the Eastern Pacific, Jan. 25, 2016. Each day the crew receives a new search area in their attempt to curve illegal drug trafficking throughout the region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Canales, an avionics electrical technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, reviews the day’s search pattern aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane while on patrol in the Eastern Pacific, Jan. 25, 2016. Each day the crew receives a new search area in their attempt to curve illegal drug trafficking throughout the region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

Once intercepted, the aircrew moves to the next target connecting dots over the Pacific.

Increased threats in our hemisphere required the Coast Guard to create a new Western Hemisphere Strategy with the following priorities: combating networks, securing borders and safeguarding commerce.

“This isn’t a new mission for us,” said Lt. Eric Casida, aircraft commander. “But our efforts have been more focused to fall in line with the Commandant’s new Western Hemisphere Strategy.”

The Coast Guard removed more than 319,185 lbs. of cocaine and 78,262 lbs. of marijuana in fiscal year 2015, which runs from Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015. Those removals were valued at $4.4 billion wholesale based on DEA estimates for average drug prices for fiscal year 2014.

Through unity of effort, the Coast Guard along with its federal and international partners provides enhanced international maritime law enforcement capabilities enabling greater safety, security and economic success.

Of known drug shipments, it’s believed that 97 percent are transported via maritime means. Through the Coast Guard’s role as America’s premier maritime security force, servicemembers seek to better understand, identify, aggressively pursue and prosecute transnational organized crime networks in the Western Hemisphere.

“As long as people want illegal drugs in the U.S., people are going to try to smuggle it in,” said Casida. “And we’ll be there continuing the mission.”

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2 Responses

  1. William F Hoover says:

    Great article about a great job well done.
    I love being able to read articles like this.
    Thanks,
    An Old Coastie.

  2. Lisa Moletzsky says:

    Well written article and well deserving in the information that is given! HC 130’s go out and do amazing things without others knowing the importance of their missions. Thank you for your service! Be safe and God bless!