Coast Guard Auxiliary Aviation provides maritime and security support

22 October 2014 | Clearwater, Florida — Many Americans first learned of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary (USCGA) via the popular syndicated television show Sea Hunt, which starred former WWII Coastguardsman Lloyd Bridges. The syndicated series first aired in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Younger generations are now discovering Sea Hunt and learning of USCGA through reruns.

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Aviator Insignia

Recently, Ms. Constance O. Irvin, a District 7 USCGA Public Affairs Support Specialist, spoke to 20th Century Aviation Magazine about the importance of USCGA and U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Aviation (AUXAIR). She flies out of the Clearwater (Florida) Coast Guard Station.

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Aircrew Insignia

Ms. Irvin began the interview by pointing out that, “Members of USCGA willingly and eagerly provide private assets, including airplanes, and donate their time.” Connie indicated that, “Within U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary District 7, AUXAIR utilizes single and twin engine privately owned aircraft and helicopters.

With governmental resources stretched by ever expanding demands and budget limitations, USCGA efficiently supplements the parent service. In fact, a 2012 U.S. Coast Guard Newsroom article indicated that USCGA (AUXAIR) Aviation annually saves American taxpayers millions of dollars.

An RCAF CH-149 Cormorant hovers above the bow of HMCS Brandon, a Maritime Coastal Defence Vessel during a training exercise off Esquimalt Harbour, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo by 19 Wing Imaging, Corporal Joseph Morin. RCAF website image CX2003-0152-06c.

Perhaps not since World War II has the need for USCGA been greater. In recent months navies and coast guards worldwide have been tasked with responses to diverse situations.

Associated media reports over the past months include features on a disabled Russian container ship being towed away from the British Columbia coast after Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) and USCG vessels (CCGS Gordon Reid, CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier and USCGC Spar) and aircraft (a USCG Jayhawk and a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Cormorant and Buffalo) responded to the stricken craft.

Other newsworthy happenings include U.S. Navy and USCG officials implementing measures to prevent piracy in American waters, ongoing counter drug operations, rescues of boaters and sea creatures, and retrieving and delivering blood samples from a cruise ship.

RCAF CC-115 Buffalo of 442 TransportRescue Squadron at at Rockcliffe Airport on 1 July 2004. Public Domain image “DehavillandCC-115Buffalo01” via Wikipedia.
Actor Lloyd Bridges helping to promote a safe boating course circa 1970 – 1980 East Carolina University Libraries Call Number 559.XIII.A3.

Although AUXAIR is now an integral component of USCG and USCGA operations, this has not always been the case.

The Coast Guard Aviation Association’s Coast Guard Auxiliary Aviation Web page and the USCGA Aviation Manual provide a timeline and a description of growth and mission tasking. Summaries of the material are presented in subsequent paragraphs.

The Coast Guard Reserve was authorized by Congress on 23 June 1939, and at that time USCG was given a mandate to utilize civilians to promote safety on the nation’s navigable waters. On 19 February 1941 Congress amended the aforementioned legislation upon passage of the Auxiliary and Reserve Act of 1941. This legislation designated the Reserve as a military branch of the active service while the civilian section, formerly referred to as the Coast Guard Reserve, became USCGA.

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 308 receives instruction in signaling. An instructor points to drawings on a chalkboard as students observe circa 1941 East Carolina University Library Call no 559.IV.C.3.

An infrequently publicized fact is that some 50,000 USCGA members served during World War II. As Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany’s navy) U-boats regularly hunted and torpedoed tankers and freighters along the Gulf and Atlantic seaboard, and Imperial Japanese Navy submarines periodically shelled industrial coastal targets along the West coast, auxiliarists’ and their watercraft were employed to assist in the effort to patrol ports, intercoastal waterways and near-shore shipping lanes. General aviation aircraft and civilian pilots assisted USCGA ‘informally’ during World War II.

Public Law 451, which was passed by Congress in September 1945, qualified owners of aircraft for membership in USCGA. Public education, vessel examinations and search and rescue became the auxiliary’s primary missions.

Auxiliary operational assets assist in the training of helicopter crews. Photo by Auxiliarist Art Zack.

Ironically, the postwar period brought about cutbacks in funding and overall reductions in the number of USCG personnel, and aircraft and surface vessels available for search and rescue while at the same time the need for all was increasing. Prudently, USCG began to supplement the active duty force with USCGA personnel and equipment. Both soon proved their indispensability. Aircraft utilization also increased, and several Auxiliary Districts established aviation flotillas.


Auxiliary aviation during the Vietnam era did not experience rapid growth, but within this period it was found that light aircraft were effective for search missions because they could cover a larger grid in less time than waterborne surface craft. Light aircraft also proved valuable for checking and verifying navigation aids, and general aviation planes often provided cost efficient and swifter transportation between USCG stations than commercial airlines. Additionally, on the Great Lakes auxiliary aircraft were used for ice patrols and elsewhere served as training ‘targets’ to simulate flight characteristics of aircraft commonly employed for drug trafficking.

U.S. Coast Guard HC-130J in flight on 4 November 2018. USCG photo.

By 1991 auxiliarists were flying as observers aboard USCG HC-130 Hercules aircraft, and with the signing of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Act in 1996 AUXAIR expanded greatly. Under the bill AUXAIR was directed to assist USCG ‘in any mission or operation authorized by law and authorized by the Commandant.’ In essence USCGA aviation became, as Ms. Irvin terms it, “a force multiplier.”

AUXAIR possesses its own structure, which is separate from that of surface operations. Aviation auxiliarists must undergo specialized training and complete specific curricula to obtain qualifications. Study and successful testing can lead to certification as Pilots, Observers, or Air Crew.

AUXAIR aviators on the flight line. AUXAIR photo.

Pilots, who are first Federal Aviation Administration licensed aviators, must pass recurrent flight checks and undergo annual safety training. The three qualification levels for pilots are as follows: Aircraft Commander, First Pilot and Co-pilot. Minimum requirements for the different levels are measured by ‘Pilot in Command’ time and are 200 hours for Co-pilots, 500 hours for First Pilots, and 1,000 hours with an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) rating for Aircraft Commanders. Non-pilot aircrew must pass air operations training and egress/water survival training.

USCG Air Stations, based upon needs and crew and asset availabilities, issue operating orders for AUXAIR. Notably, while under assigned under orders USCGA pilots are considered USCG pilots and approved aircraft are considered USCG aircraft.

To tackle the many and diverse USGCA goals AUXAIR aircraft may be tasked with several simultaneous or sequential missions.

U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue Program Logo.

Overall, USCGA’s duties include the following: Maritime Domain Awareness and Marine Safety Patrols, Search and Rescue, Marine Environmental Protection, checking Aids to Navigation, Area Familiarization, Photographic Missions, USCG Exercise Support, recruiting for USCG, Recreational Boating Safety programs and Commercial Fishing and Vessel Exams. Referring to the latter Ms. Irvin noted that, in an effort to reduce accidents and drownings, “The number of commercial fishing and vessel exams are increasing, and we are regularly monitoring kayaks and other vessels in the Ten Thousand Islands area.”

Since the attacks on 11 September 2001 and subsequent USCG assignment to the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard has had to defend the United States and its territories while striving to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks. Therefore, one additional critical area of joint responsibility is Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security. This daunting and seemingly perpetual undertaking necessitates that the agencies involved be continually aware of extant and potential threats and vulnerabilities, work to prevent and mitigate threats, and respond rapidly and effectively to incidents.

Ms. Irvin estimated that “USCG currently has 45,000 personnel and USCGA about 32,000.” The latter number is impressive but the total remains too small considering the country’s burgeoning population, overwhelming need for services and the auxiliary’s ’24 hours a day, 365 days a year’ schedule. Considering the foregoing, interested readers are encouraged to explore the possibility of joining a local flotilla. Information may be obtained by visiting or telephoning (toll free) the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary at (877) 875-6296.


The author (John T. Stemple) thanks USCGA Public Affairs Support Specialist Constance O. Irvin for her kind assistance during the preparation of this article.

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