Helicopters of DC


US Coast Guard: Air Station Atlantic City


A set of armed Coast Guard helicopters play a role in the air defense of Washington, DC. If a small, private airplane comes too close, this is what is sent up to identify, make contact, and if necessary shoot it down.

Aircraft Type

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Washington, DC has a multi-layered air defense system. This includes (but I’m sure isn’t limited to):

This is why there’s also a contingent of Coast Guard helicopters on standby at National Airport that offer several key characteristics to complement this air defense system. Able to fly quickly or slowly, the helicopter is well suited for intercepting small general aviation aircraft, a need that was dangerously illustrated in 1994 when a single engine Cessna was crashed into the White House. After quickly vectoring towards an approaching aircraft, the Dolphin could then match its speed and attempt to make radio or visual contact. There’s even a digital message board on the side of the aircraft that can display large scrolling text.

But, if the need arises, these helicopters also have the armaments needed to shoot down an unresponsive craft. Specifically, the crew has a mounted machine gun and a single shot anti-material rifle (basically, a 50 caliber sniper rifle that can disable a vehicle’s engine block with one shot). These weapons aren’t usually visible since they remain in the cabin with the crew, but can be brought to bear when the side door is opened.

This armament program originated in the 1990s to enable interdiction of fast boats smuggling drungs into Florida. The capability is demonstrated in this Coast Guard video, as well as in the boat chase scene in Bad Boys 2, but … yeah, I can’t really recommend that as a good use of your time or anything.

The specific unit that patrols the Air Defense Identification Zone around Washington is part of Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, but is based out of the General Aviation terminal at National Airport, next to Terminal A.

Viewing Tips

Anytime you see an orange Coast Guard helicopter over DC, it’s from this unit. They’re easily seen taking off and landing from DCA airport as well. And if you’re in Terminal A (Southwest Airlines FTW), they are often on standby outside of the hangers right by Gates 2-4.


Coast Guard HH-65C

Photo Credits