Seconds before one of the pilots hit the switch to fire up the twin engines of the Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry search and rescue airplane Monday, it was 87 sticky degrees outside at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod.
Inside the belly of the plane, with its main door still wide open letting in the humidity, and the air conditioning turned off, it felt even hotter.
One crewman, 24-year-old Jonathan L. Ruelle of Miami, Florida, dressed in a long-sleeved green flight suit and heavy black boots, used a red hand towel to wipe the sweat off his face as he helped prepare the back of the plane for takeoff. Crewman Ruelle explained that power is diverted from the air conditioning during takeoffs and landings. He said it would be more comfortable once the plane was airborne.
Now, with the two propellers of the Ocean Sentry spinning, fumes from the aircraft's engines wafted through the open door.
Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry
Length: 70 feet
Height :27 feet
Wingspan: 85 feet
Fuel Capacity: 9,300 pounds
Maximum Flight Time: 10 1/2 hours
Maximum Altitude: 25,000 feet
Maximum Speed (high altitude cruising): 235 miles/hour
Maximum Speed (low altitude patrol: 220 miles/hour
Minimum Patrol Speed: 130 miles/hour
Maximum Passenger Capacity: 39
Maximum Cargo Weight: 9,000 pounds
Manufactured by Airbus North America
A minute later, one last crewman, 25-year-old Kelly S. Marsh of Mobile, Alabama, hopped aboard the plane and fastened the door shut. He explained that he had been outside making sure the plane wasn’t "leaking or smoking." It wasn't.
With the pre-flight checklists completed, the 70-foot long aircraft, with its 85-foot wingspan, began to taxi.
At the controls during takeoff were Lieutenant Benjamin R. Oliver and his co-pilot Lieutenant Arthur P. Mahar. Both men are brand new to Cape Cod.
They are among what will eventually be 24 pilots at the Air Station Cape Cod qualified to fly the new medium-range twin-prop airplanes, which will, one at a time, replace the base's aging HU-25 Falcon jets.
The Falcon jets, first introduced in the mid-1980s are coming to an end of their useful life. Replacement parts are expensive and are getting harder to find.
Given the Air Station's mission—which is search and rescue and observing the region's fishing fleet—the Ocean Sentries are just a better tool for the job, said Coast Guard Commander David A. Husted of Sandwich. Cmdr. Husted has been the chief operations officer at the Air Station for the past year. He is helping to oversee the transition from the jets to the HC-144 Ocean Sentries on the Cape.
"The 144s fly slower than the Falcons and at lower altitudes, which is excellent for search and rescue when you're scanning the water for a swimmer," he said. "They can stay aloft more than twice as long and they burn about half the fuel."
The phasing out of the Falcon jets is a nationwide initiative by the Coast Guard.
Cape Cod is set to receive the first of four new Ocean Sentries sometime in the fall. But this past Sunday, the air station received one on loan from Miami, Florida. It was here just in time for this week's christening of the new hanger that was built for the new aircraft at Air Station Cape Cod.
The 144 will be here for two weeks to allow the Cape flight and ground crews to get used to the aircraft.
Just after 1 PM Monday, with a final "okay" from the flight tower, the pilots sent the aircraft hurtling down the runway and into the air.
Sitting between the two pilots on a jump seat for most of Monday's flight was Lieutenant Commander Kevin C. Berry of Sandwich, who has been stationed at Air Station Cape Cod for three years.
He was on board to get Lieutenants Oliver and Mahar accustomed to flying over Cape Cod, pointing out the landmarks they can use to navigate by sight.
While they have each logged hundreds of hours in the cockpit of the 144, this was the pilots' first time at the controls over Cape Cod.
Besides the pilots, there were five crewmen aboard in addition to an editor and photographer from the Enterprise.
Once in the air, the pilots banked the aircraft to the right, over the lumpy green carpet of trees below, and circled back around to the air station's runway to perform what they called a "touch-and-go," which entails landing the aircraft, slowing it a bit, then gunning the throttle, and taking off again without stopping. They would perform several touch-and-goes during Monday's flight.
Touch-and-goes are fast, loud, and jarring. The crewmen, all bucked securely into their seats in the back of the plane, took it all in stride. One chomped on an apple while gazing out one of the aircraft's windows.
The Ocean Sentries can take off and land on shorter runways than the Falcon jets. Instead of using brakes to stop the aircraft after landing, the propeller blades rotate to provide a blast of backward thrust. This will come in handy at airports such as those in Provincetown and Hyannis, Commander Husted said. The tires on the aircraft are soft and spongy so it can land on uneven surfaces, including grassy fields, which is another feature that makes the Ocean Sentry a versatile aircraft.
After the plane climbed into the air following its third touch-and-go, it headed out toward Cape Cod Bay. It passed over the east entrance of the Cape Cod Canal and then the Sandwich Boardwalk, which, from 500 feet in the air, appeared impossibly long and delicate.
For three hours, the plane and its crew crisscrossed over the Cape and its waters. From the air, the expansive Provincetown dunes looked otherworldly, the shallows off Nantucket were jade-green and the distance between Woods Hole and Martha's Vineyard appeared to be an easy swim.
Whales surfaced in Cape Cod Bay with a spray of water from their blowholes, a powerboat with inner tuber in tow cut a white, looping pattern through the dark waters of Mashpee Pond, and dozens of colorful blankets and umbrellas dotted the sands of countless beaches.
The Ocean Sentry cruised high over the rippling waters of Buzzards Bay and low over the sandy dunes at the tip of the Cape. It passed over Plymouth, with its nuclear power plant, Onset's densely moored harbor, and even took a quick trip to New Bedford where the pilots performed a touch-and-go on a short airstrip there.
The inside of the aircraft is essentially a six-foot tall tube. It is painted gray and black with a row of red nylon seats along one side, which can be folded up against the wall. There are four crew seats bolted to the floor surrounding a console just behind the cockpit. Two more crew seats are located toward the back of the plane. These two seats have windows that protrude like bubbles from the side of the aircraft, which allow a crewman to pier directly down into the water during search missions.
The floor at the back of the aircraft is actually a ramp that can be lowered to load or unload the plane. It can be opened while in flight to drop emergency supplies, such as lifejackets or an inflatable raft to swimmers in distress. It can also be opened during search operations to provide crewmen with an even clearer view below the plane.
Crewmen Ruelle and Blake Lang, 34, demonstrated how the ramp operates toward the end of Monday's flight. The two men, who have worked together in Miami for years and were only here for a few days to deliver the plane, belted themselves (and the Enterprise photographer) into special harnesses that attach to the plane's floor and then pushed the button that opened the ramp. The crewmen seemed at ease as they made their way to the end of the ramp and sat, their feet dangling in thin air.
Even though one crewman remarked that they weren't flying "that fast," the roar of the wind was monstrous.
The one advantage the old Falcons have over the new Ocean Sentries is speed. A Falcon can jet out to an emergency scene at 460 miles an hour. The Ocean Sentry's maximum speed is just about half that: 235 miles an hour. But endurance trumps speed for the Coast Guard, Commander Husted said. Once jetting to an emergency at top speed, the Falcon can only remain in the air for three or four hours until it runs out of fuel. The Ocean Sentry, on the other hand, can remain aloft for 10 1/2 hours. Seeing that Air Station Cape Cod's coverage area stretches from just south of New York City all the way up to the Canadian boarder, and hundreds of miles out to sea, that endurance can come in handy.
Once the plane was back on the ground at Air Station Cape Cod, it taxied past the new hanger that would be at the center of this week's celebration, to a portion of the runway where a ground crew was awaiting its arrival. Within minutes of landing, refueling was underway. Members of both the flight and ground crew were inspecting the 144, both inside and out. Besides flying the plane, the flight crew also serve as its mechanics.
"They're fixer/flyers," Commander Husted said. "They do it all. Just like the new aircraft, they are very versatile. "