“America First” remains an empty slogan, judging by an absence of White House and congressional interest in replacing the Coast Guard’s fleet of increasingly antique helicopters.
It’s a tribute to the Coast Guard’s pragmatic can-do attitude that aging Sikorsky MH-60Ts well beyond their original intended service limit are still doing well at a variety of tough missions. Most recently, Coast Guard personnel played essential roles in rescuing Americans whose homes were smashed by series of powerful hurricanes, a life-and-death responsibility that depends on reliable equipment.
That the helicopters are capable of so much — so far, at least — is a testimonial to the hard and smart work outlined in a story last week by The Daily Astorian’s Edward Stratton (“Maintenance never stops for Coast Guard helicopters,” Sept. 19). Locally, Air Station Astoria’s three MH-60Ts have all logged more than 13,000 hours in the air — 3,000 hours longer than they were meant to. Keeping each safely flying requires 24.4 hours of maintenance for every hour in flight. To the surprise of no one who lives here, corrosion is a main issue, with the aircraft subjected to climatic extremes in this salty place.
Colin Murphey’s photographs accompanying our story are remarkable for showing just how well local Coasties care for these aging helicopters. With recent classic car shows in Seaside and Ocean Park freshly in mind, the attention lavished on the MH-60Ts is reminiscent of a car fanatic restoring their mechanical baby not just once, but over and over and over again.
Shockingly, the Coast Guard has been directed to keep these already well-used aircraft flying at least until 2035 — by which time they will in many cases be decades older than the brave pilots and crews we’ll expect to operate them. This is a travesty and ought to be unacceptable to all Americans and our elected leaders.
Always among our most successful and cost-efficient federal agencies, the Coast Guard currently is housed in the vast Department of Homeland Security, to which is was moved after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. It makes a certain amount of sense to place it in that bureaucracy, as it almost by definition is tasked with defending our coasts. However, it also performs many tasks that aren’t related to national defense. In our area, it is perhaps most famous for search-and-rescue missions, but also is key to maintaining aids to safe navigation, overseeing commercial shipping in various ways, and a host of other functions.
Though it no longer part of the armed services run by the Pentagon, our story described how the Coast Guard is lumped with the Army and Navy for purposes of procuring a next-generation helicopter, perhaps the Army’s Future Vertical Lift. This strategy may in part be a deliberate effort at economizing by Coast Guard leadership. But it shouldn’t have to be left in the position of waiting to ride the coattails of the Army or anyone else.
We live in complicated times, in which America’s coastlines face growing climatic threats. We are, in a way, gaining a new coastline to defend as arctic sea ice retreats and creates an active new shipping channel through the Arctic Ocean. Illicit drug shipments and refugee crises will be doing nothing but increasing along our southern border. To deal with all this, plus unforeseen emergencies, will require much of the Coast Guard. And it deserves much better than hand-me-downs from the military.
President Donald Trump and his supporters are attached to the “America First” mantra. Where better to start than to really stand up for the Coast Guard, which saves lives right here at home? For a fraction of a percent of the Pentagon’s budget, we could provide advanced equipment and support — and raises — for the brave men and women who defend our shores and waterways. We should immediately do so.
Waiting until 2035 for basic equipment isn’t an acceptable option.