U.S.C.G. Air Station San Juan

I started my aviation career shortly after graduating from Harwich High School (Cape Cod, MA) in 1967 by joining the U.S. Coast Guard.  After months of training, I reported to my first duty station,  USCG Air Station San Juan in Puerto  Rico. After additional training I received my air crew wings and became a flight mechanic / SAR on the HU16E Albatross (goat). My years with the U.S.C.G. was certainly some of the great years in my life and a great start to what was to become.

My first introduction to Antilles Air Boats. VS-44 "Excambian" was the neighbor next door.
Naval Air Technical Training Center - NATTC - Millington, TN  /  Aviation Structural Mechanic School 1968
Returning to San Juan. Flying over Ramey A.F.B.
B-52 / Strategic Air Command
Naval Air Technical Training Center - NATTC - Millington, TN  /  Aviation Hydraulic Mechanic School 1968
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Brooklyn Air Station
Miami Air Station
San Juan Air Station
San Juan Air Station
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photo credit: Mr. Rafael A Power Pietranoni

Searching for an "overdue to destination" vessel or aircraft can be a daunting task. You conduct large search patterns based on known information. You may fly at a higher altitude to gain a better perspective of  the water below.  A perfect search day would be clear skies and no wind but that was very rare. Any wind would cause white water and the crew needed to be very diligent in the methods of searching those waters. I have been on search's  with multiple  aircraft searching from sunrise to sunset without the anticipated find, You know when you search that if you take your eyes away for a moment that could have been the moment, the opportunity to change from search to rescue.  I was proud to be part of crews that understood the task and took it very seriously.

  • It was rare but some guys arrived with less than a stellar attitude to be a Coast Guardsman. I remember on one 

    occasion we were on an extended search. I was positioned on my secured stool at the rear fully opened hatch and had my safety harness secured to the upper bulkhead. I had a full unobstructed view of the search area.  On the opposite side of  aircraft was another crew member at the opened half hatch. Under the hatch, against the bulkhead was a 25 man life raft at the ready for deployment in the event it was necessary. The crew member to my back was not always looking at the water below and continued to be distracted. I told him more than once to stay focused. At one point he was looking out the hatch while fidgeting with the "D" ring on the 25 man life raft. Once again, I reminded him of task at hand. Then it happened... while positioned on my stool  I was being pushed out the hatch by the 25 man life raft being inflated inside the HU16. I immediately grabbed my six inch knife from my ankle holster and started punching holes in the raft before I was dangling outside the aircraft.  This particular crew-member had other entries in his personnel file... this new entry was his last. He was  released from the U.S.Coast Guard. He didn't face any major departure issues. It was a just  go home...                                           thank you but no thank you. ​

  • On one occasion, we got dispatched to look for an overdue aircraft that based on the flight plan departed from Georgia to San Juan. Once the aircraft was long overdue, aircraft from Miami and St. Petersburg Air Stations were included in the search. One the second day of searching the aircraft was located. The aircraft was found on the ramp at an airport in Texas. It seemed that the pilot told his wife he was going to San Juan and filed as such but went to Texas to meet his girlfriend.  U.S.C.G. had searched for two days with cutters and aircraft  because the wife called for help. She did not stand by her man. The U.S.C.G. used this case as well as others to go after individuals for restitution. 

A San Juan specific stencil and red spray paint was kept in the HU16 interior cabinet to  inconspicuously  let other Air Stations know when we visited. It was reciprocal until Command decided ...enough.

There were many happy feet      appearing in/on      HU16's  for awhile.    (inside a wheel well, or under a nav table, etc.)

Upon arrival in San Juan I received not one but 2 nicknames. I was fresh out of "A" school so you didn't have much choice when given a name by your superiors. The first was "Ski" for my Polish ancestry. My name didn't end with ski but that didn't seem to matter. When I arrived the only pair of work coveralls in inventory was 2 sizes to big for me. I certainly looked goofy. Someone thought "Zero" from the Beatles comic strip would be appropriate. Couldn't shake it until I departed San Juan.
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April 29, 1969
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We got the call that a fishing boat was taken on water and immediately dispatched the HU16 "Goat" with pumps to assist. 

A 25 gallon drum included a self sufficient pump and hoses that would be dropped.

Lowering pumps from a helicopter is very controlled and precise. Dropping pumps from an aircraft was always a  tricky maneuver. The drum with the pump would be positioned at the rear hatch on a small platform. A long trail line was attached to the drum and would follow the drum. The drum would be dropped to enter the water just beyond the vessel with the trail line crossing the bow. The pilot descends to about 100 feet, lines up with the vessel and pulls back power to about 100 mph. While giving the aircraft a little left wing down and a bit of a crab to allow me to see the upcoming vessel. 

In my headset I hear "drop, drop, drop"

This was not my first drop and my previous drops were considered text book.  This particular drop was not text book. It was a drama and a tragedy at that. 

The drum made contact against the forward starboard bow.

You can only image the boats crew's relief to see the approaching aircraft coming to their aid when out of the sky comes a projectile crashing into the already distressed vessel.

Fortunately, we had additional pumps and we made another run with much better results. The pumps were put into service and the vessel returned to port for repairs including the additional damage brought on by the U.S.C.G.

Upon return to the San Juan station I was informed that I was now the first U.S.C.G airman (search & rescue) to receive a new billet of

"BOMBARDIER"

A few photos taken away from the San Juan Air Station. 

Cape San Juan Light was an area of Puerto Rico near Fajardo. The light was operated by the Coast Guard and that gave us access to the beaches that were part of the secured property. 

Dale Briscoe was a Coast Guardsman that not only went through training with me but got stationed in San Juan together.

Commercial airline flights from the States to Puerto Rico  for the most part were being flown by DC-8 and B707 aircraft. Both had four engines. It was procedure that if any aircraft lost an engine the U.S.C.G. Air Station dispatched a HU16 Albatross to be airborne and follow the flight in to Puerto Rico International Airport. Needles to say these aircraft loosing one engine had little impact on their ETA into San Juan. The Albatross on the other hand... we would get airborne and watch them fly right by, if they had not already landed.  Semper Paratus!

A day of searching for a local fishing boat ended  with an extended stay at the Barbados Hilton.  The questionable mechanical put us on the ground until a part came from San Juan. Will elaborate later.

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Nelson Rockefeller / Admiral Smith - U.S.C.G.
Barbados Hilton
Barbados Hilton
Barbados Hilton
Bridgetown, Barbados
AM2 Rex Barton fueling a Goat
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Cape San Juan Light
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Cape Cod Air Station
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< U.S.C.G. Air Station San Juan - rec-room. The single men lived in the hangar along with the on-duty section. The station had 4 duty sections. Each section included sufficient manpower to dispatch search & rescue aircraft for a 24 hour period. The rec-room not only included the pool table and ping pong table (shown) but included full length movies shown every night. I was one of a few that not only ran the movies but went to the Navy Base film library.to choose the films. The Navy changed them out periodically. We had lots of critics on movie choice. I realized early on... make friends with the guy that ran the Navy film office got better films. Nothing worse than having the duty section showing up for the evening showing and all you have is the "Wizard of Oz". It was not only the film but I had to keep the old projector working every night which including making parts. Even though I was happy to help beyond my regular duties it become somewhat frustrating to be THE movie guy. When someone else was taking care of the movies and had a problem... I was summoned even if I was not on base. The SHOW must go on.

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