EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Any time President Barack Obama leaves the White House for another city in the United States, helicopters from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City serve as his eyes in the sky.
Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the missions of the Coast Guard changed around the country and specifically at the Atlantic City air station. In addition to their traditional search-and-rescue work in the Atlantic Ocean, the air station at the William J. Hughes Technical Center also is responsible for protecting the airspace when the Commander in Chief leaves Washington, Capt. Pete Mingo, air station commander, told The Press of Atlantic City.
"Out of this unit we also support a component that protects restricted air space over the capital," Mingo said. "As a function of that mission, we also send teams of aircraft and people on the road for national security events."
As part of the station's ongoing homeland security mission, the station also provides aircraft and crews for security patrols in Washington. The Atlantic City station took on the mission in 2006, Mingo said.
Over the years, the station has performed 42 homeland security missions, as well as nine diverts/scrambles in the Washington area, records show.
"Since 9/11, they have taken on critical homeland security missions, on top of traditional search-and-rescue and drug interdiction," said US Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd. "Those duties have added substantially to their workload without the corresponding resources or funding to offset."
The facility opened in 1998 and is the product of a merger of Air Station Brooklyn, New York, and Group/Air Station Cape May. The facility is the newest and largest single airframe unit of the Coast Guard's air stations, according to the agency's website. The 69,200-square-foot facility is home to 10 MH-65D Dolphin Helicopters, which cost more than $9 million when purchased new.
The air station, which has a $7.5 million operating budget, is responsible for overseeing the coastlines of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, including interior bays and rivers such as the Chesapeake, Delaware, Hudson and Long Island Sound. Salaries there total about $10 million a year, according to a report on the economic impact of tenants at the Tech Center.
The more than 220 people who work at the facility answer about 120 calls for help per year from boaters in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Each year is a little different. After Sandy there was a downturn in the number of rescues," Mingo said. "Part of that is testament to the equipment that the Coast Guard and the boating public have. We've gotten a lot smarter about what we bring with us. Some of them are mysterious callouts over the radio, some of them are simple tows, and (others are) for sinking boats."
In October 2006, the Coast Guard was allocated $66.5 million for the National Capitol Region Air Defense mission, which allowed the Coast Guard to assist the Air National Guard in protecting the airspace over the nation's capital.
The funding also allowed the construction of additional hangar and office space at the facility, and covered relocation expenses for more than 70 additional air crew and support personnel.
"If the president goes to Palm Springs for a period of time, we will send a team of folks and we will grab a few folks from other regions," said Mingo, who is retiring in May. "We put together the team that will protect that location. This is the hub of it; we have three regional locations -- one in Detroit, one in Savannah and another in New Orleans."
During those missions, the station secures and patrols the airspace over the locations.
After each mission, Joey Abercrombie, of Norcross, Georgia, and the other mechanics inspect each helicopter.
"When a helicopter gets back, we wash it, do our inspections," Abercrombie said. "It takes about 35 to 40 minutes to turn it around for the next flight."