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How the U.S. Coast Guard Works

        Science | Branches

Coast Guard Ships and Aircraft
The most important pieces of equipment used by the Coast Guard are the naval vessels they use to patrol U.S. waterways. All Coast Guard ships longer than 65 feet are cutters. Originally, a cutter was a specific kind of ship, but now every ship of that size is a cutter, no matter what its configuration. Coast Guard ships are given names, prefaced by the designation USCGC (United States Coast Guard Cutter). Each Coast Guard ship also has an alphanumeric designation. The code starts with a W (the letter assigned to all CG ships during World War II). The next letters represent the endurance of the ship -- how long it can operate at sea without stopping for fuel and provisions. HEC stands for High Endurance Cutter, and MEC stands for Medium Endurance Cutter. Other codes are used for ice breakers, buoy tenders and other types of cutters. A numeric code completes the specific designation for a given ship. For example, the USCGC Alert is a Medium Endurance Cutter, so its designation in WMEC-630. The USCGC Maple is a buoy tender with the designation WLB-207.

The United States Coast Guard Cutter bouy tender Maple moors in Juneau, Alaska, for a scheduled port visit.
Photo by Roger Wetherall/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard Cutter buoy tender Maple moors in Juneau, Alaska, for a scheduled port visit.

The Coast Guard's largest ships are the Hamilton Class cutters, 378-foot ships intended for duty on the high seas. There are 12 in service. Reliance Class cutters, in both 270-foot and 210-foot versions, operate as Medium Endurance cutters. These ships may be equipped with a helicopter landing deck, as well as crews to support the helicopters. Below the 65-foot cutter threshold, there are some smaller workhorses. The 25-foot Defender Class boats are designed for fast, flexible responses to a variety of situations, and can be transported on a boat trailer. The 47-foot Motor Life Boat is a steadfast tool for search and rescue missions. The boats are virtually unsinkable and self-right themselves after capsizing.

The Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team Anchorage demonstrates its ability to defend a stationary target against a water-based aggressor on board two of their Defender Class boats.
Photo by PA2 Sara Francis/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team Anchorage demonstrates its ability to defend a stationary target against a water-based aggressor on board two of their Defender Class boats.

Aircraft are used by the Coast Guard to perform search and rescue, spot smugglers and illegal immigrants and transport people and supplies. Most Coast guard aircraft are helicopters. For medium range missions, the Coast Guard relies heavily on the Sikorsky-built HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter. Shorter missions are suitable for the HH-65A Dolphin, built by Aerospatiale of Texas. While both helicopters are usually based on shore, they can operate from the larger cutters equipped with helipads. One notable feature of the Dolphin is an advanced automatic flight control system. The helicopter can be set to automatically hover at a certain distance above the ground or ocean surface, and can even be set to conduct certain preset search patterns [Source: Global Security]. Both helicopters are due for an extensive modernization program to extend their service life further into the 21st century. The Coast Guard also uses a number of fixed-wing aircraft, including the RU-38A surveillance plane, the HC-130 Hercules transport and the HU-25 Guardian jet.

An HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, Ore., retrieves a rescue swimmer during a rescue pick-up drill.
Photo by PA3 Adam Eggers/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
An HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, Ore., retrieves a rescue swimmer during a rescue pick-up drill.

We'll look at how to join the Coast Guard and what Coast Guard life is like in the next section.

The USCGC Eagle
The Coast Guard employs a special ship for training Coast Guard Academy cadets and conducting goodwill trips around the world. The USCGC Eagle is a steel and wood square-rigged sailing vessel (the only one in service in the U.S. military). Built in Germany in 1936, the ship was taken by the U.S. after World War II as part of Germany's reparations.


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