Civilian Coast Guard Fliers Find Work Helpful, Perilous

Auxiliarists with Flotilla 4-8 conduct rescue basket training with a Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans MH-65 Dolphin helicopter. (Photo: 8th Coast Guard District)
Auxiliarists with Flotilla 4-8 conduct rescue basket training with a Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans MH-65 Dolphin helicopter. (Photo: 8th Coast Guard District)

When a leased single-engine plane plunged into Florida Bay in the early evening hours of Feb. 1, a perfect arrangement ended between the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and a successful businessman who loved to fly.

"They paid for his fuel and he got a sense of serving his country," said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Chad Bland about pilot Casey Purvis, 50, of suburban Lake Worth.

Purvis and Rob Fuller, 49, of Miami were killed in the crash, becoming the fifth and sixth members of the all-volunteer civilian group who have died nationwide since 1992. The pair, dubbed "High Flyers" for the dozens of hours they logged in the air using their own planes -- crashed while posing as drug smugglers east of Marathon while being pursued by a Coast Guard interceptor plane.

Their deaths highlight the increasing importance of the 34,000- strong auxiliary, which has become more involved in everything from law enforcement to training as the regular Coast Guard is increasingly strained.

"They're getting more hours now because they're allowed to do more missions," said Miami-based Chief Warrant Officer Johnnie Long of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The auxiliary, formed in 1939 as a volunteer group that performed safety checks for boats, still lists boater safety as one of its highest priorities.

But the group has expanded into aviation, and now counts 263 rated pilots and 294 observers nationwide, said Jack O'Dell, a spokesman for the Coast Guard.

Congressional legislation signed in 1996 allowed auxiliary members to work on any Coast Guard mission, with the exception of direct law enforcement or military operations. That led to more work for aviators, who are paid a stipend or fuel and maintenance for using their own planes.

Nationwide, auxiliary pilots flew 2,324 missions for a total of more than 10,000 hours last year, O'Dell said. That's up from 1,599 missions involving 6,217 hours in 1997. Fifty-four pilots and 78 observers in the Seventh U.S. Coast Guard District, which includes all of Florida, carried out 716 missions last year, logging 2911 hours from the Carolinas to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"If you think about it we're really doing the same job as the Coast Guard when it comes to keeping migrants from coming in or looking for damage to the reefs," said Shawn Meiman, who has flown his Twin Geronimo airplane for the auxiliary for about a year.

Meiman, 33, the owner of a Xerox copier dealership in Weston, said he gets air time, fellowship and the satisfaction of volunteer service from flying with the auxiliary.

Flying with the auxiliary is rewarding for other reasons, said Vince Magnotta, district staff officer for aviation for the Seventh District.

Last year, Purvis was commended for saving five lives through his participation in seven search and rescue operations, Magnotta said. Purvis also was responsible for the interdiction of 60 suspected illegal immigrants in 2000, he said.

The fact that Purvis was killed on a routine training mission illustrates the random nature of the crash, Magnotta said.

"All of these things were done without incident, without problems," he said.

"The accident was the type of flight that didn't have any of these complexities."

The National Transportation Safety Board in Miami is investigating the crash, and the Coast Guard probably will mount an internal investigation, a public affairs officer said.

Making use of the services of auxiliary pilots like Purvis and Fuller is a way for the Coast Guard to stretch resources that are increasingly strained, O'Dell said. It's a good way to reduce overtime at some Coast Guard stations, he said.

"There's no such thing in the Coast Guard as a 40 hour work week," O'Dell said. "There are certain places when the auxiliary can fill gaps. We like to say we're a rubber band stretched as far as we can be."

Copyright 2001 The Palm Beach Post. via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.

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