|The mentor of Coast Guard aviation
The Coast Guard aviation center at Mobile Regional wears many hats, and a full-
motion simulator developed for the HC-144 Ocean Sentry has attracted a good deal
of international attention...
By Matt Irvin
The Airbus jetliner assembly line being built in Mobile isn’t the only aviation operation
grabbing international attention. Inside a 13,500 square-foot building near the
regional airport is a Coast Guard flight simulator that’s as close to flying as it gets
without leaving the runway.
The one-of-a-kind HC-144 simulator is one of many trainers at the Aviation Training
Center in Mobile, the center of the universe for all things aviation when it comes to
the Coast Guard.
The activities at the 221-acre, 55-building ATC Mobile is considerable. One of the
largest Coast Guard aviation bases, it’s the aviation development center responsible
for training pilots and aircrew and setting standards for all Coast Guard aviation
Like many of the military bases in this region, this Department of Homeland Security
agency is a major education center. It’s where pilots transition to specific aircraft
types, and where they return once a year to hone their skills and learn of new tactics
and procedures for search and rescue, disaster response and national security.
This nearly 50-year-old base also is an operational air station that responds to
everything from drug interdiction to saving boaters to natural disasters in the Gulf
ATC Mobile is adjacent to Mobile Regional Airport, 13 miles west of downtown, and
shares two runways with the commercial airport. It has hangars, offices, a health care
center and a base exchange, plus fitness and recreation facilities and buildings
The base has four HC-144A, one HC-144B, seven MH-65D and four MH-60T. The
HC-144 Ocean Sentry is a twin-engine fixed-wing medium-range maritime patrol
aircraft. The MH-60 Jayhawk and MH-65 Dolphin helicopters are used in search and
Lt. Jonathan Hofius, a pilot stationed at the base, said the operation has a $17.5
million annual budget for training center operations and maintenance. ATC Mobile is
one of the largest non-industrial employers in Mobile County, generating nearly $98
million in payroll for its 561 active duty and civilians.
At the heart of what it does is aviation. And when it comes to flying for the Coast
Guard, all eyes turn to Mobile to set the standards. It’s a unique role for the base,
“New aircraft manuals are written here, and syllabi for standards are developed
here,” said the lieutenant. “It’s a great asset to have.”
Coast Guard pilots who come to ATC Mobile for training already know how to fly.
Some served as pilots in the military who finished tours and opted to continue flying
with the Coast Guard. Others trained with fledgling naval aviators at Naval Air Station
Whiting Field, Fla., across the state line. After training at Whiting, all the Coast Guard
pilots except for C-130 crews are sent to Mobile to train on USCG aircraft. About 165
pilots transition each year at ATC Mobile.
After completing transition training, the new Coast Guard aviators go to one of the
two dozen Coast Guard air stations in the country, including one in New Orleans. But
while they may be moving on to other bases, they aren’t through with Mobile.
Transitioning and standardization training for the HC-144 and the two helicopters
takes place at ATC Mobile. For the HC-130s, these duties are conducted at air
stations in Elizabeth City, N.C., and Clearwater, Fla., but even these bases are under
the “command and control” of ATC Mobile, under the leadership of Capt. Thomas
MacDonald, said Hofius.
For Coast Guard aviators, their first time in Mobile ends up not being their last. Once
a year, some 850 pilots return to ATC Mobile for a week of proficiency training, and
another 1,200 aircrew members come to the base for training updates on Coast
Guard operations and weapons.
For the pilots, it means time at the controls of simulators, a far less costly approach
than actual flying. They give the pilots almost limitless opportunities to practice
emergency procedures, up to and including situations that in the real world would put
pilot, crew and aircraft in jeopardy.
ATC Mobile has simulators for each of its aircraft, and while they may look like
amusement rides, proficiency is no laughing matter. It’s possible for a pilot to be kept
from flying in the wake of a poor simulator performance.
“These guys come in prepared,” said Lt. Alex Bernstein, an HC-144 Ocean Sentry
pilot and instructor who operates the HC-144 simulator at ATC Mobile.
That HC-144 simulator itself, built by Aero Simulation Inc., of Tampa, Fla., is a huge
asset for ATC Mobile. The $29 million machine, designed and built for the Coast
Guard, is a full-motion simulator.
While the plane entered service with the Coast Guard in 2006, the simulator only
went into operation last December. It required a new 13,500 square-foot building at
the ATC to house it.
Since then, it’s gained international notice. The HC-144 is built by Airbus Military and
is based on its CN-235 military transport, flown by a number of nations. Some of
those countries have inquired about procuring time in ATC Mobile’s simulator for
their own pilots, Bernstein said.
While training is a primary mission of ATC Mobile, the base also serves as an
operational Coast Guard air station. It’s part of New Orleans-based Coast Guard
District 8, which covers an area from Sabine Pass, Texas, to Apalachicola, Fla.
Last year, Hofius said, ATC Mobile conducted 180 search and rescue missions,
about one every other day. Mobile-based aircrews, flying the HC-144, support a
range of maritime missions, including law enforcement, response to environmental
disasters and patrols of territorial waters against incursions by foreign fishing boats.
These crews also support Homeland Security missions, such as ports and waterways
security around critical infrastructure.
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