In the Zone: Workhorse of the Pacific

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 monitor surveillance equipment for suspected of drug trafficking 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.

Crew members aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Barbers Point monitor surveillance equipment for suspected of drug trafficking 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.

The smell of coffee, sweat and hydraulic fluid permeates the air. Music echoes in the background: the beat gaining momentum as the night drags on. Workers in oil-stained coveralls and latex gloves swarm the hangar wielding tools befitting a surgeon’s operating table.

The hours grow long and the coffee brews stronger. The prickling sense of urgency lingers as grease-covered hands dissect the beast’s anatomy: every turn of the wrench is precise, calculated. Each stitch buys one more flight, one more mission and one more safe return.

This endurance race is all too familiar for the crew determined to prolong CG1720’s long-awaited journey to the boneyard.

“This is time consuming and difficult work,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Ramsey, maintenance supervisor. “I’ve been on deployments where in a 30-day period, the plane gets grounded twice. On other deployments, the plane gets grounded after every flight. It can be really maintenance intensive and it can wear on the crew because it seems like you just can’t catch a break.”

Ramsey and the other 10 members of this aircrew from Air Station Barbers Point are on a 14-day counter narcotics deployment in Central America. Time is a luxury they cannot afford to waste.

“We all understand the importance of getting this plane mission ready,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Marquez, an avionics electrical technician. “This aircraft needs to fly so that it can support the Coast Guard’s missions.”

Aircrews routinely conduct operations from South America to the Bering Sea conducting alien migrant interdiction operations, domestic fisheries protection, search and rescue, counter-narcotics and other Coast Guard missions at great distances from shore keeping threats far from the U.S. mainland or ensuring mariners return home.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Mandi Stevens, an aviation maintenance technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, reviews the loadmaster qualification syllabus aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane on a counter narcotics patrol in Central America, Jan. 24, 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 Mandi Stevens, an aviation maintenance technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, reviews the loadmaster qualification syllabus aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane on a counter narcotics patrol in Central America, Jan. 24, 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.

Whether at home or deployed in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, the crew works around the clock to ensure the plane can fly. During the two-week deployment, the crew worked 325 maintenance hours to get their bird off the ground.

Adaptability may be the Coast Guard’s unofficial motto as the service that continues to do more with less but, for this crew, it’s a necessity. Keeping this 28-year-old plane flying is a combination of hard work, determination and, yes, the adaptability of her crew.

“The work is challenging and a lot of times we come across problems we aren’t familiar with like overhauling a strut or conducting maintenance on the oxygen system,” continued Marquez. “We aren’t at home plate so it’s up to us to make sure the plane is safe and ready to go. A lot of it is learning as we go and being familiar with the manuals and maintenance procedure cards.”

Mistakes could cost them their lives so they are meticulous, ensuring everything is done by the book. Each step is carefully outlined, checked and rechecked.

Nothing can be left to chance: everything is life or death. The job doesn’t get done if the plane doesn’t fly and each person plays a critical role in keeping her off the ground. Those crews are lean. With around 36,000 active duty service members Coast Guard-wide, everyone is essential personnel.

“One big difference between the Coast Guard and other services is that we don’t bring extra bodies,’ said Lt. Eric Casida, aircraft commander. “Our bodies bring extra uniforms.”

The crew works through the night stripping down her landing gear to overhaul the left strut. Pieces of her spread across the white surface of the hangar floor. Rags lie scattered beneath her collecting the pink, oily substance seeping from her joints. This carefully executed surgery draws to an end. Piece by painstaking piece they put her back together again.

Morning light falls on her skin as they wheel her onto the runway. Now wearing green, the crew steps aboard and tests her wings for flight. They are off on the hunt…check out how the CG1720’s crew searches the Eastern Pacific Ocean for drug smugglers.

The CG1720 crew’s, and other HC-130 crews, mission is in support of the Department of Defense’s Joint Interagency Task Force South, conducting interagency and international detection and monitoring operations, and facilitates the interdiction of illicit trafficking and other narco-terrorist threats in support of national and partner nation security.

Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Ramsey, an aviation maintenance technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, inspects repairs made to an oxygen regulator aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane at Air Station Clearwater, Florida, Jan. 22, 2016. During a weekly inspection, members of the crew conduct checks on the entire aircraft and make necessary repairs to ensure mission readiness. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Ramsey, an aviation maintenance technician stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, inspects repairs made to an oxygen regulator aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane at Air Station Clearwater, Florida, Jan. 22, 2016. During a weekly inspection, members of the crew conduct checks on the entire aircraft and make necessary repairs to ensure mission readiness. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa E. McKenzie.

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