La. Coast Guard copters get radio upgrades

By Paul Purpura

NEW ORLEANS — Widely heralded for saving about 7,100 lives by air after Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard is equipping its fleet of Dolphin helicopters with electronics the agency says will enable its crews to more effectively find people in distress.

The newly designated MH-65C is outfitted with radios that will allow air crews to talk directly with local, state and military agencies, and with infrared spotlights to enhance what the crews see in darkness with their night-vision goggles.

"The key point is, we're getting better," said Cmdr. Tom Maine, executive officer of Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans in Belle Chasse.

The Coast Guard has about 97 Dolphins at 18 air stations around the country that are getting the upgrade from the HH-65C model. Two of the unit's five Dolphins at Belle Chasse have been upgraded. The agency did not release the cost for the changes.

Aside from additional antennae, the HH-65Cs and MH-65Cs are indistinguishable to anyone familiar with the sleek, orange helicopters frequently seen in the New Orleans area sky. The new MH-65C copter does sound different than the HH-65C, said Lt. Josh O'Brien, a Dolphin pilot.

The tail rotor blades of the HH65C, enclosed in the tail fin, give off a distinctive high-pitch whistling or whining noise. But with the upgrade, some of the rotor blades have been removed and reconfigured, giving the copter a softer sound. O'Brien said it now sounds like "a leaf blower."

The MH designation reflects the aircraft's "multimission" capabilities, from search and rescue to homeland security, O'Brien said

Satellite communications have been added, with an antenna that crews call "the egg beater" because it looks like a large kitchen utensil.

"It allows us to talk anywhere in the world," O'Brien said.

Secure communications, or encrypted radio transmissions that cannot be monitored by others, also are part of the upgrade, "which aids us in our law enforcement," O'Brien said.

The helicopter's communications suite also allows crews to speak to agencies they couldn't reach directly before, from the National Guard to local fire and police departments, he said.

The MH-65Cs are equipped with infrared lights on the airframe, including one atop the tail fin. Infrared light is invisible to the naked eye, but it is greatly enhanced with night-vision goggles.

"It's like the sun at night" with the night-vision goggles, O'Brien said.

For a search and rescue mission, the copters are better able to locate people in trouble, the Coast Guard said. Before the upgrade, air crews were able to track radio signals to a general location, a capability that remains.

Now, new radio equipment gives the crews the latitude and longitude of a digital beacon signal's location, along with a pointer that gives pilots a general direction of flight. Mariners are equipping themselves with the digital beacons that when activated send a continuous signal, which the Coast Guard can now track.

Maine called it "a huge leap forward from old technology."

Copyright 2009 Times-Picayune

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