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USCG HITRON First Night Interdiction Mission


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USCG HITRON Aircrew won the ALEA Aircrew of the Year Award at the recent ALEA Conference in Charlotte.  




Mission narrative:


Deployed aboard The U.S. Coast Guard 210' Cutter Diligence (the smallest flight deck equipped ship in the U.S. inventory with the equally smallest flight deck) in early 2003, the HITRON aircrew of LT Craig Neubecker-Pilot, LT Shawn Koch-Co-Pilot and AET1 William Greer-Aviation Gunner, were on patrol in the Pacific flying the MH-68A Sting Ray helicopter. Some 250 miles west of Costa Rica, they received an intelligence report of a “go-fast” drug smuggling vessel in the area. Go-Fasts are high-speed, multi-engined boats usually carrying several tons of illegal cargo. Unfortunately, the darkness & weather at the time meant detection of the go-fast would be nearly impossible & as of date, not a single go-fast had been stopped at night. With weather of 700' overcast, 1 mile visibility, rain showers, confused seas & 0% moon illumination, Neubecker & crew weighed the risks, but came to the conclusion that the intelligence was so strong that it warranted they at least give the mission a try.

The crews donned their NVGs & with Neubecker at the controls, were airborne in less than 10 minutes. Flying MH-68A-call sign Sting Ray 13, they launched at near maximum ship pitch/roll limits & were barely able to make out a visible horizon. Their NVGs were filled with static as they struggled to intensify the limited starlight as the Diligence quickly disappeared into the darkness.

As Neubecker flew, Koch navigated Sting Ray 13 & scanned the sea with radar & NVGs as Greer searched for the go-fast with the FLIR. The crew completed an expanding square search to no avail, & then began a 40 nm trackline search, as a last ditch effort before returning to the Diligence. 37 miles down the 40 mile search, Greer located a faint disturbance in the water with the FLIR about 5 miles in front of the helo. Neubecker & Koch could not see the disturbance & requested Greer give them heading commands towards it. Once they closed some distance, Greer was able to confirm that the disturbance was the wake of a vessel. Greer continued to vector the pilots, which was made more difficult by the fact that the target was so faint that the FLIR would not lock onto the target or autotrack, which meant Greer had to manually track the target.

Nevertheless, Greer vectored the pilots up the wake & when they were within a mile of the go-fast, they could finally make it out with the NVGs. Once Neubecker & Koch could see the go-fast with the goggles, Neubecker covertly closed upon the go-fast from the rear and began the reconnaissance phase. With the helicopter completely blacked out, & the go-fast’s 4 outboard engines roaring, the go-fast crew had no idea they were under surveillance. Koch handled all communications & relayed info to the cutter for permission to engage. This process was made even more difficult when the infrared filtered SX-5 searchlight burnt out after just a few seconds of use, leaving the crew to rely on the FLIR & the static filled NVGs to observe the vessel & made it extremely difficult for the crew to see the vessel. Neubecker kept the helicopter within 200' of the go-fast to not lose sight of it, as the crew waited for permission from the cutter to engage the suspect vessel. The process took some 20 minutes, consuming valuable fuel the helo needed, as the go-fast sped further & further away from the Diligence, the crews only safe landing area.

Permission was finally granted & Neubecker flew the helicopter within 100' of the go-fast’s right side as Koch began the signaling phase by turning on the blue lights, siren, & the Coast Guard logo light. Koch also attempted to hail the go-fast crew in English & Spanish over both the helo’s public address system & marine channel 16 & ordered the go-fast to stop. The go-fast’s crew was completely surprised & swerved away from the helicopter but failed to stop. Having ignored the warnings to stop, Neubecker ordered Greer to prepare for warning shots. Neubecker paralleled the go-fast’s course and gave the order to commence fire. Greer fired three “stitches” of tracer warning fire in front of the fleeing go-fast. The go-fast crew ducked for cover & slammed their throttles closed. The startled crew stayed under cover for a few seconds as the go-fast coasted to a stop, but the crew quickly rose & began running once again at full speed & began to jettison their illegal cargo. Having exhausted all signals for the go-fast to stop, Neubecker ordered Greer to prepare for disabling fire as the interdiction phase commenced.

On all previous go-fast interdictions, the go-fast had simply turned the boat towards the nearest point of land & ran full-speed in a straight line hoping to outlast the helicopter’s fuel supply & ditch the boat & flee once onshore. But with no land for hundreds of miles, this go-fast crew instead decided to do everything they could to either shake the helicopter or force them to fly into the water. As Neubecker maneuvered the helicopter into position for Greer to use .50 caliber disabling fire on the go-fast’s engines, the go-fast began a series of extreme & violent evasive maneuvers. Greer was able to quickly get off one shot and take out one engine before the go-fast turned directly towards the helicopter, taking away a safe shot for Greer.

The go-fast then began a series of hard turns & donuts, primarily to the left which forced Neubecker to stay in a hard left banking turn, precariously close to the water in order to get Greer into a safe firing position. This maneuver is difficult during the day, but under the NVGs with no illumination, it was extremely dangerous & began to induce vertigo on Neubecker. After getting a few shots off, twice Neubecker asked Koch to come on the controls and roll the helicopter straight & level so he could regain his bearings. The go-fast then began several hard figure eight maneuvers to continue to prevent Neubecker & crew from firing. In response, Neubecker, Koch & Greer tried hovering at a set point away from the go-fast, so that when the go-fast would come back around, Greer would take a shot. This however, meant he only had about a fraction of a second to safely get the shot off, so after a couple of shots this approach was abandoned.

Finally, Neubecker had Koch turn off all of Neubecker’s radio receivers in order to concentrate exclusively on the conning commands given by Greer. Neubecker then pulled in tight on the go-fast, & shadowed it maneuver for maneuver flying tight form on the go-fast only 25-50' above the water until Greer fired 18 rounds, leaving the go-fast running on one engine. Neither Neubecker, Koch or Greer could determine which engine was left running, so Greer quickly zoomed the FLIR in on the rear of the boat & determined that the right center engine was still running. Putting down the FLIR controller & picking back up the rifle, Greer finished the last engine with one shot. Now at bingo fuel, the helicopter crew dropped a datum marker buoy, infrared strobes & chemsticks next to the dead in the water go-fast, and turned towards “home.”

Koch expertly navigated the helo back to the Diligence using GPS & TACAN. Once they relocated the Diligence, they now had to land the helicopter on the pitching, rolling, blacked out flight deck as the low fuel lights began to illuminate. Koch prepared the helicopter for landing as Neubecker began the final approach to the boat. Just as Neubecker touched the helicopter down, a crunch was heard, as the helicopter settled to the flight deck. The SX-5 on the belly of the MH-68A only clears the deck by a few inches, and with it burnt out, the crew could not tell if it was stowed or not. Pointing down slightly, the SX-5 was crushed against the flight deck upon landing.

Greer & the Diligence crew quickly refueled the helicopter, removed the SX-5 wreckage & cleared the deck of the FOD it created, as Neubecker & Koch briefed the cutter’s Captain & prepared to return to the go-fast. The helicopter crew still had to vector the Diligence’s small boat boarding team to the go-fast to take the suspects into custody, or the mission would have all been for naught.

Launching again, this time with Koch on the controls, Sting Ray 13 returned to the last known point of the go-fast, only to find that it was not among the field of IR strobes and chemsticks. The crew quickly began a search, and after 15 minutes, discovered the go-fast some two miles way repairing the go-fast’s engines. The go-fast crew this time dove into the sea when the helicopter arrived on scene, obviously not prepared to be shot at again. Sting Ray 13 vectored the boarding team to the go-fast to take the suspects into custody and then began marking the debris field of where the go-fast crew had begun jettisoning their cargo of drugs. The next day, upon searching the go-fast, it was discovered that the go-fast crew had two new power heads, two new outdrives, & four new props onboard, and had been able to get one of the engines restarted for a few minutes before it permanently expired. This explained the two-mile difference in the go-fast’s location, and also illustrated that this crew was not going to stop, and had the means to repair themselves and run again.

In total, 6,083 pounds of pure, uncut cocaine were recovered from the go-fast with a street value of over $194.6 million. All four go-fast crewmembers eventually pled guilty, and are currently guests of the Federal Penal system. Neubecker, Koch & Greer dramatically completed the first night use of force interdiction, & the tactics & techniques they used are now used to train other crews at HITRON. LT Neubecker, LT Koch & AET1 Greer also completed the first landings of the MH-68A Sting Ray on U.S. Navy & Royal Navy vessels effectively tripling their range, a technique now employed by all HITRON aircrews.

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I spent six years in the Coast Guard with much of that in aviation.  I participated in many SARs in both fixed and rotary wing and never had an experience like that of Sting ray 13.


I guess I was born fifty years too soon.


:unclesam:  ::2thumbsat:: This is Pierre.  He got his temporary transfer to Alberta.

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