By Ernie Stephens | July 1, 2007
The Hueys and crews of Space Gateway Support provide security and logistics for America’s human and robotic space venturers — tasks that have been transformed in the post-September 11, 2001 world.
ON THE MORNING OF MAY 22, THE PHONE rang in an old hangar at Patrick AFB, about 10 nm south of Cape Canaveral, Fla. Within minutes, helicopter N420NA had been pulled from its hangar and a pilot wearing a royal blue flight suit was lighting off the engine.
I had barely gotten my camera out when the old white Huey — call sign Security 1 — lifted from its dolly and hurried toward what, for 50 years, has been America’s gateway to the Final Frontier, the barrier islands that are home to the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral AFS.
I would later learn its mission was to intercept an airplane that had flown into the restricted airspace around Kennedy. This was a particular concern. A week earlier, NASA’s orbiter Atlantis had been rolled out to Pad 39A (the same site from which the first men on the Moon began their journey in 1969) in preparation for a June 8 launch to the International Space Station. Atlantis, mated to its twin, 149-ft-tall solid rockets and 154-ft-tall liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen tank, rested on a barren stretch of Florida coastline, a collection of more than 1.1 million lb of fuel and explosives and a $1 billion or so of government hardware sitting out in the open.
Such is a day in the life of NASA Aircraft Operations, Kennedy’s aviation wing. Its mission is to provide airborne security and logistical support to Kennedy and the adjacent air force station (from which unmanned, satellite-bearing rockets are launched). America’s "gateway to space," but "the Center" to those who work there, Kennedy and the integral Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge cover 140,000 acres. The air force station has another 15,804. Together, they house thousands of workers, "routine" and exotic hazardous materials, and some of the most expensive and sensitive national security assets the United States owns. In helping to protect all that, Air Operations’ four Bell Helicopter UH-1Hs can stay very busy.
"Our aircraft are used in support of the Center," said Chief Pilot Bud Murray. A veteran helicopter driver with two tours in Vietnam under his belt, Murray has a substantial amount of time in U.S. Army UH-1s and Sikorsky Aircraft CH-54 Skycranes. "It’s not the same thing everyday," he said, not letting on that his comment was a gross understatement. There are no regular days.
The list of duties performed by the Aircraft Operations Unit is relatively long and very diverse. Their most basic job is that of airborne security for Kennedy, which is surrounded on nearly all sides by water, and veiled by a layer of restricted airspace. Citing national security, Murray and his personnel wouldn’t discuss the nature of all things they are charged to watch over, but the center’s population of about 25,800 workers, 900 buildings, and fleet of space vehicles rank very high on the list. They must also keep a watchful eye over the 15,000 visitors who obtain permission to watch shuttle launches from inside Kennedy’s security perimeter.
The people charged with managing and flying NASA’s security aircraft are not NASA employees. In fact, the security forces on the ground, while armed and empowered to make arrests, are not government employees, either. Murray and an army of others work for Space Gateway Support, LLC, (SGS) a private company contracted by NASA to serve as the primary service contractor for Kennedy and the air force station, as well as Patrick AFB.
SGS, a joint venture between Northrop Grumman and Wackenhut Services, was created in 1998 to bid on a contract to be resident manager of what the company calls the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. (The state of Florida also runs a commercial space launch operation from the air force station.) SGS is responsible for nearly every aspect of the facilities’ day-to-day operations. From janitorial services to airport management and from grounds-keeping to accounting, it’s SGS that supports America’s ability to carry out space missions from the East Coast. In the case of air ops, SGS employees fly and maintain aircraft that belong to NASA.
Security flights concentrate on highly sensitive areas and equipment on Kennedy, but that doesn’t mean they are only concerned with the Center. Being on a cape almost entirely surrounded by rivers, lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean equates to a lot of waterways that must be watched. "We use our [FLIR Systems Ultra 7500 forward-looking infrared sensor (flir)] to clear the area and make sure people are not where they shouldn’t be," especially during a launch, said Murray, referring to the high amount of pleasure boat traffic on eastern Florida’s waters. "We have to keep a certain area clear and use the helicopters to see everything."
Special weapons and tactics (SWAT) officers assigned to the facilities, although they are SGS employees, possess the same authority as a federal officer in matters concerning the area. These highly trained SWAT teams regularly fly aboard the unit’s helicopters and are skilled at operating the flir, the Spectra Lab SX-16 search light, and some heavy (but classified) weapons that can be attached to special, external mounts just outside of the aft cabin doors. They make no secret about being authorized to use deadly force to protect people and spacecraft. Make no mistake about it: They are locked, loaded and open for business.
The Huey’s two-bladed rotor system seems to be at odds with the unit’s security mission. The deep thumping of a UH-1H’s planks are pretty loud, but stealth is usually not a part of their game plan. It’s all about deterrence. "We’re not trying to sneak up on anyone," Murray said. "We want people to know we’re there."
To help get more security personnel to the right place, NASA’s helicopters are equipped with an odd combination of communications gear. Standard aviation communications and navigation gear consists mostly of the old Army transceivers used during their aircraft’s former military lives. On the other hand, the communications gear used to talk to ground personnel and neighboring public safety agencies is much newer, and uses bandwidths and encryption technology that Murray was not at liberty to reveal.
Seeing to the physical security of the facilities and their personnel and equipment includes being available to fight fires, which is why all of the unit’s Hueys are equipped to carry an external water bucket. Because the Kennedy Space Center is also a wildlife preserve, said Bob Bryan, manager of airfield services, which includes Aircraft Operations’ helicopters, SGS also helps government fish and wildlife authorities "protect those areas by monitoring wildlife populations."
The rest of the unit’s mission list is rounded out by an assortment of tasks a helicopter can be helpful with, such as helping boaters in distress, searching for missing people, monitoring traffic around the facility, and performing medevac operations off the Cape during space launches. (Local emergency medical services aircraft handle medical flights off the cape when the Center is not in launch mode.)
At the controls of NASA’s veteran fleet of military-hardened helicopters is a veteran corps of nine military-hardened pilots. Murray, who did one combat tour each in the Army’s 128th Assault Co. and the 478th Heavy Lift Co. makes no excuses about his preference for Army-trained rotorcraft pilots. "You can’t beat the training the Army gives," he said. "They have a lot of helicopter experience doing the kinds of things we do here."
All of the aircraft operations’ pilots fly an average of 30 hr a month. They are dual-rated in their Hueys, as well as the unit’s 11-passenger Gulfstream 2, which is used for various VIP transport missions. It, too, is kept at the Patrick hangar.
"I like flying the G-2," confessed Murray, who cut his aviation teeth in helicopters back in the 1960s. "I had a helicopter strapped to my [bottom] for a long time, so it’s fun getting to fly a jet."
With safety being a priority, all pilots receive regular check rides in house in their Bell products. They also visit CAE Simuflite twice a year for recurrent training in the G-2.
Keeping NASA’s aging fleet of UH-1Hs ready to fly is a six-man squad of experienced A&P mechanics led by Dennis Camacho, chief of aircraft maintenance. An Air Force aviation mechanic from 1965 until he retired as a chief master sergeant in 1993, he worked for another company before SGS absorbed it in 1998. He’s been caring for the unit’s aircraft ever since.
"We do almost everything right here," explained Camacho as he pointed out a service area behind the G-2.
They have embarked on a complete makeover of the NASA helicopters. When I visited, two Hueys were at US Helicopter in Ozark, Ala. being converted to Huey 2s.
That upgrade includes refurbishing and modifying the main cabin to receive a new tail boom, and replacing the T53 powerplant with an 1,800-shp Honeywell T53-L-703. The rotor blades will be swapped with the wider Bell 212 set and a new drivetrain will be installed. The Bell-approved Huey 2 upgrade promises to deliver a significant increase in power and a new lease on life for the aircraft. A full-scale avionics refit is also in the works.
Eurocopter AS-350B-3 Astar
Engine Manufacturer: Turbomeca
Model: Arriel 2B
Power Rating Takeoff shp 848 Max continuous 730 Transmission Rating Takeoff shp 590 Performance Vne (kt) 155 Hover in ground effect (HIGE) (ft) 13,285 HIGE ISA+20C (ft) 10,675 Out of ground effect (HOGE) (ft) 11,200 HOGE ISA+20C (ft) 8,480 Rate of climb (fpm) n/a Weight (lb) Max Gross 4,960 Empty - std aircraft 2,561 Useful load 2,399 Useful load with full fuel 1,447 External load 3,086 Gross with external load 6,172 Range (nm) Max fuel 362 Max Payload 362 Aux fuel, no reserves 683 Endurance, std fuel,/no reserve 4.5hr
Eurocopter AS-350B-2 Astar
Engine Manufacturer: Turbomeca
Model: Arriel 1D1
Power Rating Takeoff shp 732 Max continuous 625 Transmission Rating Takeoff shp 590 Performance Vne (kt) 155 Hover in ground effect (HIGE) (ft) 9,850 HIGE ISA+20C (ft) 7,050 Out of ground effect (HOGE) (ft) 7,550 HOGE ISA+20C (ft) 4,720 Rate of climb (fpm) n/a Weight (lb) Max Gross 4,960 Empty - std aircraft 2,561 Useful load 2,399 Useful load with full fuel 1,460 External load 2,557 Gross with external load 5,512 Range (nm) Max fuel 362 Max Payload 362 Aux fuel, no reserves 683 Endurance, std fuel/ no reserves 4.5hr
Engine Manufacturer: Rolls Royce
Power Rating Takeoff shp 650 Max continuous 557 Transmission Rating Takeoff shp 425 Performance Vne (kt) 175 Hover in ground effect (HIGE) (ft) 16,000 HIGE ISA+20C (ft) 14,300 Out of ground effect (HOGE) (ft) 14,400 HOGE ISA+20C (ft) 11,600 Rate of climb (fpm) n/a Weight (lb) Max Gross 3,100 Empty - std aircraft 1,591 Useful load 1,509 Useful load with full fuel 1,077 External load 2,000 Gross with external load 3,750 Range (nm) Max fuel 267 Max Payload 197 Aux fuel, no reserves n/a Endurance, std fuel/ no reserves 2.0 hr
Robinson R44 Raven 2
Engine Manufacturer: Lycoming
Power Rating Takeoff shp 260 Max continuous n/a Transmission Rating Takeoff shp 245 Performance Vne (kt) n/a Hover in ground effect (HIGE) (ft) 8,950 HIGE at ISA+20C (ft) n/a Out of gorund effect (HOGE) (ft) 4,500 HOGE ISA+20C (ft) n/a Rate of climb ( fpm) n/a Weight (lb) Max Gross 2,500 Empty - std aircraft 1,506 Useful load 994 Useful load with full fuel 810 External load n/a Gross with external load n/a Range (nm) Max fuel 348 Max Payload n/a Aux fuel, no reserves n/a Endurance, std fuel,/no reserve 4.0hr
AgustaWestland 119 Koala
Engine Manufacturer: Pratt & Whitney of Canada
Power Rating Takeoff shp 1,002 Max continuous 872 Transmission Rating Takeoff shp 900 Performance Vne (kt) 152 Hover in ground effect (HIGE) (ft) 14,600 HIGE ISA+20C (ft) n/a Out of ground effect (HOGE) (ft) 10,700 HOGE ISA+20C (ft) n/a Rate of climb (fpm) n/a Weight (lb) Max Gross 5,997 Empty - std aircraft 3,152 Useful load 2,845 Useful load with full fuel 1,781 External load 2,200 Gross with external load 6,944 Range (nm) Max fuel n/a Max Payload n/a Aux fuel, no reserves n/a Endurance, std fuel/ no reserve n/a
Engine Manufacturer: Rolls Royce
Power Rating Takeoff shp 813 Max continuous 701 Transmission Rating Takeoff shp 674 Performance Vne (kt) n/a Hover in ground effect (HIGE) (ft) 12,200 HIGE ISA+20C (ft) 7,900 Out of ground effect (HOGE) (ft) 10,400 HOGE ISA+20C (ft) 6,000 Rate of climb (fpm) n/a Weight (lb) Max Gross 5,250 Empty - std aircraft 2,598 Useful load, 2,652 Useful load with full fuel 1,795 External load 2,646 Gross with external load 6,000 Range (nm) Max fuel 328 Max Payload n/a Aux fuel, no reserves n/a Endurance, std fuel,/no reserves 4.0 hr