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.
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Washington, DC has a multi-layered air defense system. This includes (but I’m sure isn’t limited to):
- A number of short range missile launchers (located at the White House, Navy Yard, Joint Base Bolling, and Andrews Air Force Base).
- Medium range surface-to-air missiles located farther out (for instance, at Fort Belvoir and along Clara Barton Parkway.
- F-16s from the Washington, DC Air National Guard that remain on standby at Andrews Air Force Base in case they need to be scrambled to respond to a threat. But jet fighters with air-to-air missiles aren’t always a good fit.
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.
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.
- Video - ABC7 Segment about the unit and showing a demonstrated interception
- Wikipedia - Eurocopter HH-65 Dolphin
- NORAD News - No room for failure - Coast Guard aviators protect D.C., pilots
- USCG Aviation History - 2006: Coast Guard Assumes National Capital Rotary Wing Air Intercept Mission
- USCG Aviation History - 2003: Airborne Use of Force – Coast Guard Arms HH-65C and HH-60J Helicopters