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One of the US Coast Guard’s most recognizable aircraft must be the Eurocopter MH-65 SRR Dolphin. A gloss-orange streak racing toward danger, rescue or both, one look at an airborne Dolphin shows what the Coasties are all about in a visual and visceral way. This chopper’s been screaming Semper Paratus for decades.
In 1979, it was selected as the new short-range recovery (SRR) air-sea rescue helicopter, replacing the Sikorsky HH-52A Sea Guard. Delivery began in 1984. The MH-65 normally carries a crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic and rescue swimmer.
The Dolphin boasts a Fenestron anti-torque tail rotor. It is certified for operation in all weather and nighttime operations, with the exception of icing conditions. The MH-65 is the primary Coast Guard aircraft used aboard certified cutters during deployments. In 2007, the MH-65 began replacing the old turboshafts with twin 853 hp Arriel 2C/2C2 engines. The MH-65 saves 40 percent in fuel while offering more power. It provides a cruise speed of 148 knots and a range of up to 350 nautical miles. Onboard armament includes a single 7.62 mm machine gun, a 7.62 mm rifle, and a .50-caliber rifle, aka “shoulder-fired precision weapon,” for disabling the engines of smugglers’ or traffickers’ boats.
The latest upgrade underway to the Echo variant bears the name MH-65E and extends the life of the MH-65 into the 2030s while bringing it into compliance with a larger Department of Defense initiative called the Future Vertical Lift Program. The upgrade gives the MH-65E a glass cockpit with touchscreens, allowing pilots to manage the wide inventory of functions and switch between them instantly. According to pilots now flying it, the Echo version offers more precise navigation and increased fuel savings, and allows them call up or manage info and systems while keeping a hand on the aircraft controls. The Echo upgrade also has a digital weather radar installed. The avionics upgrade is called the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS).
In February, CGNR 6533 was delivered to Air Station Atlantic City in New Jersey. It was the 58th of 98 MH-65s being upgraded to the Echo variant. For 2022, $17 million is budgeted for these upgrades.
Last September, when Hurricane Ian struck Florida, these upgrades proved invaluable, according to crews who flew search and rescue missions during the crisis. Pilots cited the value of the multifunction displays in maintaining situational awareness and control of the aircraft when hoisting survivors out of difficult situations. Crews also lauded the new weather radar and the Bingo fuel-system alert system (providing the time to head home based on remaining fuel), allowing them to maximize air time.
So, the next time you hear that distinctive droning blade-slap and look up to see an orange streak en route to hazard or mayhem, be thankful for that crew and appreciate the evolution of the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter.