Looking over the big open blue Pacific Ocean, it’s all for the U.S. Coast Guard to protect, guard, help the stranded and serve as law enforcement for both criminal and environmental concerns. It was on June 1, during a media flight in a bright-orange helicopter, the MH-65D, aka the Dolphin, that a Cessna 180 fixed-wing single-engine aircraft crashed into the hillsides near Solimar Beach. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department contacted the Coast Guard, asking for assistance to see if any debris had fallen into the ocean from what it feared might have been a midair collision, meaning that there may have been more than one plane involved. The Coast Guard responded, weaving a meticulous midair grid pattern formation for about 10-15 minutes over the coast off northern Ventura County. The aviation survival technician, aka a rescue swimmer, was charged with rolling back and forth across the helicopter in his seat to check the ocean for signs of debris. While there was no sign of debris from another downed aircraft in the water, the Coast Guard spotted three great white sharks cruising along the coastline.
That day’s flight crew comprised Joe Winters, aviation survival technician; Lt. Cmdr. John Ferreira, certified pilot sitting as copilot; and Tim Olah, 29, a Ventura resident and a certified pilot sitting as pilot that day. Olah has been serving in the Coast Guard for the last seven years. Ferreira and Winters were deployed from San Francisco on a two-week stay at Point Mugu, a regular routine whereby Coast Guard personnel go to Point Mugu for weeks-long stints throughout the year. The deployed personnel may stay on base in the barracks, formerly a motel for base guests. Olah, an East Coast native who also serves as the public affairs officer, and nine others are permanent residents of Ventura County and the region, to be closer to the Coast Guard’s new Point Mugu home since LAX, which had been the Southern California base for 54 years, didn’t renew the Coast Guard’s lease. In May 2016, the Coast Guard officially moved to its new home at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu.
“The Coast Guard at Naval Base Ventura County centralizes our aviation asset within our area of responsibility, allowing for greater service to the residents from Dana Point to Morro Bay,” Olah said. “From LAX it could take an hour and 15 minutes to get to Morro Bay. Now, we can reach basically anyone in the outer areas of responsibility within 45 minutes.”
Further, the Coast Guard, a branch of the U.S. military, now has a more symbiotic relationship with the Navy base as well.
“I think it just allows the Coast Guard to be injected into the framework the navy has already established, for personnelwise, child family services and a larger morale network,” Olah said. “The Central Coast doesn’t really have a large naval presence. The Coast Guard has all the resources at the base, with larger and better health facilities.”
Olah noted the importance of the Coast Guard being able to spread its proverbial wings by being able to expand at the Point Mugu base and build a new hangar for its two Dolphin helicopters, which come in at around $7 million each, and are named for the appearance of the marine mammal. Fun facts, the MH-65s, which were introduced to the military in the 1980s, operate in all weather conditions, a rare attribute of aircraft, and can reach up to 210 miles per hour. The Coast Guard has its main base for the California coast located in San Francisco, where it houses four MH 65s and does routine heavy maintenance on the aircraft. Because the Coast Guard is just establishing its presence in Point Mugu, it operates as a satellite/forward operating base to San Francisco, which is the main hub for Coast Guard District 11.
The U.S. Coast Guard is split into several districts across the country. District 11 covers 3.3-million square nautical miles of Pacific Ocean, extending from the California-Oregon border to Ecuador, including the states of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah; Lakes Tahoe, Mead, Powell, Havasu and Mojave; and nearly 60 other major inland lakes as well as the Colorado River System. Within the district, the Coast Guard also regulates 73 navigable waterways, 1,200 aids to navigation, 22 lighthouses and 578 bridges. Also, located within the district are three military and economically strategic ports, including San Diego, Los Angeles/Long Beach and San Francisco Bay. District 11 has 51 units, including patrol boats, boat stations, marine safety units and navigation aids, such as buoys. The district has 2,400 active-duty, reserve and civilian personnel, as well as 3,300 auxiliary volunteers.
The goal is to have Point Mugu operating on its own self-sufficient air station with four helicopters and 100 personnel within five years. The local air station at Point Mugu and its area of responsibility for the Central Coast, again, spans from Dana Point to Morro Bay. In the Ventura Area, the Coast Guard has the aforementioned air station satellite base Point Mugu, one small boat station in Channel Islands Harbor, two 87-foot patrol boats in each of the Channel Islands Harbor and Santa Barbara Harbor as well as the marine safety unit in Santa Barbara. Marine safety refers to pollution and environmental response.
In the last year, the Coast Guard crew conducted 921 sorties, aka missions, which can include anything from search-and-rescue cases to training exercises. Of those, 107 were search-and-rescue cases, and 40 lives received assistance or were saved. The Coast Guard also responded to three pollution cases and four law-enforcement cases, apprehending three smugglers on a panga (a small fishing boat), with 1,967 pounds of marijuana valued at $1.78 million. And that’s just the beginning for the Coast Guard establishing its air station at Point Mugu.
“Speaking for the 10 of us who started the establishment of this air station, being a founding member of the forward operating base Point Mugu is a great opportunity that none of us will forget and we look forward to serving the needs of local residents,” Olah said.
History of Coast Guard in California
The Coast Guard and Aviation date back to December of 1903 when two lighthouse keepers from the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Station helped carry materials to the launch site for the first successful heavier-than-air aircraft flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
The first permanent Coast Guard Station in Cape May, New Jersey, however, wasn’t opened until 1926.
Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco was completed on Feb.15, 1941, and is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Over the past seven and a half decades it has operated various rotary and fixed wing aircraft to conduct the 10 primary missions of the Coast Guard. In 1996, the Air Station received four HH-65 Dolphin helicopters, the predecessors to MH-65D operated today. In June 2016, Air Station San Francisco opened Forward Operating Base (satellite air station) in Point Mugu California due to the final closure of Air Station Los Angeles.
Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles was decommissioned in 2016 after serving Southern California residents for 54 years. Forward Operating Base flies two, MH-65D Dolphin helicopters and covers 350 nautical miles of shoreline that was the previous responsibility of Air Station Los Angeles. The base is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by deployed personnel from Air Station San Francisco.