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Air Station Savannah plays key role in airspace security during SpaceX launches


SpaceX Crew-6 launch

The SpaceX Crew-6 launch underway March 2, 2023. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Pilots from Air Station Savannah’s Rotary Wing Air Intercept (RWAI) unit stood ready to take to the skies March 2 in the air station’s new MH-65E Dolphin helicopter to provide security support for the manned SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. While this is the first time that the new Echo model was deployed, it marked the seventh launch for which the air station has provided critical flight restriction enforcement since NASA resumed manned space flights in 2020.

All airspace surrounding a space launch is restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration. The highly trained RWAI crew is poised to fly in very close quarters and intercept any unfamiliar aircraft that might trespass into the restricted airspace during a launch. Pilots who fly for the unit possess exceptional flight skills and decision-making abilities as the mission dictates pilots fly in extremely close quarters with other aircraft in order to intercept them.

The upgraded MH-65E helicopter is also more qualified for the task – the Echo configuration automates more flight control functions through use of the Common Avionics Architecture (CAAS) and Automatic Flight Control systems, allowing pilots to set parameters like altitude limits to prevent accidental overclimb into uncontrolled airspace. This and other upgrades ensure that pilots are able to focus on flying the mission with heightened awareness.

“The Echo drastically increases situational awareness and allows for much more complex mission calculations,” says RWAI pilot Lt. Cmdr. Sam Ingham. “This creates larger safety margins in an inherently dangerous environment.”

According to Aviation Special Missions policy director Lt. Cmdr. Mike Gibson, Air Station Savannah has sent NASA-requested RWAI resources to every official U.S. Government human spaceflight launch as part of Operation Noble Eagle. The latest launch was supported by Lt. Cmdr. Felipe Guardiola, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Gonzales and Petty Officer 2nd Class Connor Covert.

“NASA and the Coast Guard have a great relationship, and we’re happy to come down and help where we can,” said Ingham. “Also, it’s cool to have front row seats to watch rockets go to space.”

The MH-65 Conversion and Sustainment Program regularly receives feedback from the operational fleet on how the capabilities of the upgraded Echo allow the crew to continually be safer and more efficient when executing the mission. “It’s really incredible to hear from these crews that the upgrades to the Echo model are increasing their situational awareness,” said Cmdr. Karyn Forsyth, acquisition program manager for the MH-65. “Crews have more confidence in CAAS and its capabilities, especially when performing these special missions.”

The Coast Guard short range recovery helicopter program delivered the fifth and final MH-65E to Air Station Savannah Jan. 18, making it the ninth air station to fully transition to the upgraded configuration.

For more information: MH-65 Short Range Recovery Helicopter Program page