Public Service

Airborne Law Enforcement: Guarding the Final Frontier

By Ernie Stephens | July 1, 2007

Police

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

MD 530F

Engine Manufacturer: Rolls Royce

Model: 250-C30M

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

Model: IO-540

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

Model: PT6B-37A

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

Bell 407

Engine Manufacturer: Rolls Royce

Model: 250C-47

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

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