One Air Station’s Herculean Efforts To Stop Drug Smugglers
Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki
April 3, 2019
It was completely dark in the middle of the Caribbean Sea on the
evening of October 3, 2018.
Dense bands of cloud shrouded the
moon, obscuring all light. Storms intermittently rumbled to life,
dampening the darkness with sheets of rain.
feet above the sea, a large white airplane sliced through the gloom,
its telltale orange stripe and Coast Guard shield obscured by the
Pilots and crew members inside the HC-130 Hercules
airplane did not mind the obscurity; in fact, it was a critical part
of their mission.
They had been sent into the black, windy
night to search for a particular vessel, a Panga boat suspected of
transporting cocaine northward. Beyond their “search box,” a
targeted area in international waters off Costa Rica, the aircrew
was armed only with the HC-130’s sensory equipment, years of
training and their own intuition.
Petty Officer 1st Class
Matt Lotz, a seasoned mission system operator aboard the Hercules,
utilized all three to locate the target. Wrestling with various
filters and scan methods, he used the plane’s installed camera to
spot and track the Panga boat down below, despite the pitch-black
Still hovering far overhead, the Hercules crew
initiated the “end game,” the final stage of the mission during
which aircrews help surface assets locate targets. Coast Guard
Cutter Donald Horsley, the nearest asset, steamed toward the Panga
and launched a small boat crew to close the final distance.
Little did the crews know, the end game would be rife with
difficulty that night.
“The small boat crew experienced some
technical difficulties,” said Lt. Patrick Spencer, aircraft
commander of the HC-130. “Matt thought outside the box. He figured
out a way to talk directly to the small boat so he could direct them
to the target.”
Acting as the boat crew’s aerial navigator,
Lotz guided them within 50 feet of the Panga.
October 3, 2018 - A small boat
crew from Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley pursues
suspected drug smugglers aboard a Panga boat in the
Caribbean Sea. The Coast Guard crew stopped the boat to
seize 600 kilograms of cocaine, a haul worth approximately
$17 million. (U.S. Coast Guard photo, courtesy Air Station
The pursuit was short, but lively, with the Panga crew leading
the Coast Guard team in wild arcs through the darkness.
the Hercules aircrew serving as their eyes in the sky, Cutter Donald
Horsley’s crew seized 600 kilograms of cocaine that night, a haul
valued at approximately $17 million.
“When we get to see the
end game, the actual drug bust, it gives the crew a sense of
accomplishment,” said Lt. j.g. Zachary Georgia, an HC-130 pilot at
Air Station Elizabeth City who routinely participates in Joint
Interagency Task Force South’s counter-narcotics missions.
The sense of pride and the exciting departure from routine are two
reasons that the air station’s members voluntarily deploy to Central
America each year, according to Georgia.
In 2018, HC-130
crews from Air Station Elizabeth City conducted more than 100 JIATF
South aerial patrols, directly contributing to the arrests of 34
suspected drug smugglers and the interdiction of 27,000 kilograms of
narcotics, worth over $745 million.
“Keeping these harmful
drugs off the streets of America is significant,” said Capt. Joseph
Deer, commanding officer of Air Station Elizabeth City. “Without
these intercepts and the deterrent presence of law enforcement
authorities, the flow of drugs into the U.S. would be exponentially
While working in Central America, the aircrews
operate from several different locations, and their patrol coverage
varies wildly during their deployments. When the crews receive task
direction from JIATF South, they are directed to search an expansive
area, to investigate a known target, or to insert themselves into
the end game of an ongoing case.
“Flexibility is key,” said
Petty Officer 1st Class Trevor Tufts, an aviation maintenance
technician in charge of the HC-130’s mechanical functions while
airborne. “We don’t actually know where we’re going until we get the
pre-mission brief each day. I’ve had the location change 10 minutes
While their predominant goal is to help
stop the trafficking of illicit drugs, the deployed Coast Guard
crews have to adapt to ever-changing circumstances on the fly.
“During my last JIATF mission, we were out looking for drug
smugglers, but we found a boat that had capsized instead,” Georgia
said. “So the search and rescue case took precedence.”
Guard aircrews work with a diverse array of entities and agencies
while deployed in support of JIATF South, including the U.S. Navy,
U.S. Air Force, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and law
enforcement agencies of surrounding nations. But according to the
Coast Guard crews, the HC-130 Hercules airplane is what truly
distinguishes them from their many teammates.
“We can offer
twice the range of some of the other planes working down there,”
Spencer said. “We simply have the best plane for the mission.”
Air Station Elizabeth City is home to five HC-130J Super
Hercules airplanes, the more advanced version of older HC-130H
airplanes, which Tufts said is an important distinction. The J-model
of the HC-130 touts increased air speed, increased flight time, a
camera equipped with infrared sensors, and a 360-degree surface
search radar, all features that help aircrews efficiently hunt down
Mission system operators like Lotz arguably
benefit from the airplane’s equipment the most; as the person
simultaneously communicating with JIATF South and other entities,
monitoring the radar for possible targets, recording footage of
action down below, and directing the movements of surface assets, he
said he appreciates the HC-130’s various trappings.
January 8, 2019 - (Top) A Coast
Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane crew from Air Station
Elizabeth City, North Carolina, conducts pre-flight checks
before departing the air station. The crew embarked on a
training flight during which mission system operators
practiced using the airplane's camera, radar and other
sensory equipment, as shown in the bottom image ... with
Coast Guard avionics electrical technicians Petty Officer
1st Class Lee Christensen and Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody
Blakley at Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, using
the radar aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane over North
Carolina's coast to spot fixed and unfixed objects, using
the camera to record footage of said objects, and other
procedures required of a mission system operator. (U.S.
Coast Guard photos by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne
“For an MSO, it’s our time to shine,” Lotz said. “I love it. I’d
do it forever.”
While only a fraction of Air Station
Elizabeth City’s 300 members deploy to Central America during their
tour, their commanding officer said the unit is fully committed to
supporting the JIATF South mission for the foreseeable future, and
that everything they accomplish is achieved through a group effort
by all five commands on base.
“We will continue to build on
the excellent program that those before us have put in place, ever
improving our training and equipment for those that follow in our
footsteps,” Deer said. “I am confident the 300 professionals at Air
Station Elizabeth City are up to the challenge.”
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