The Coast Guard’s longest-serving aviator reflects on opportunities in the service for meaningful work, transferable skills.
Before retiring this year after 36 years of service in the US Coast Guard (USCG), Rear Adm. Melvin Bouboulis served as commander of Coast Guard District 13. There, he was responsible for all USCG operations throughout the Pacific Northwest, which includes more than 4,400 miles of coastline, 600 miles of inland waterways, and a 125–nautical mile (nm) international border with Canada.
As a Coast Guard aviator, Bouboulis flew all his aviation field assignments as an operational pilot and participated in the historic Hurricane Katrina response in 2005. He is qualified on the MH-65 Dolphin (A, B, and C models), MH-60 Jayhawk, and HC-130 Hercules aircraft, accruing more than 4,000 total flight hours. He holds private, commercial airplane, helicopter, and airline transport pilot licenses.
At the time of his retirement, Bouboulis was the longest-serving Coast Guard aviator, earning him the distinction of being the service’s 26th Ancient Albatross.
ROTOR: What, if any, issues related to rotorcraft is Coast Guard District 13 facing today, and are other districts facing the same issues?
Bouboulis: The issues facing rotorcraft in District 13 are similar to the issues in other districts and, really, the Coast Guard at large. We’re looking at our asset laydown, our aircraft are aging, and we’re talking about future vertical aviation. The Department of Defense’s solution to future vertical aviation is still in progress. So, maintaining our aircraft and siting them in the right places is probably the biggest challenge we have today. We’re not doing anything in District 13 to change the siting, but the Coast Guard is looking at how we maintain our fleet of rotary-wing assets and how we put them in the best places.
There’s also going to be a concerted effort to change the structure of the Coast Guard or the fleet status where we’re going to increase the number of Sikorsky H-60s we have and decrease the number of 65s. The H-60 has greater endurance and capabilities in some areas, and the Airbus MH-65 is now 35 years old, so we’re going to maintain it for another 15 years. I think decreasing the number of assets we’re trying to maintain will help us, as we can use the current inventory of parts and airframes we have to sustain those lower numbers.
How are you dividing your fleet between ship-based and land-based aircraft?
All of our new cutters—the national security cutter, the polar security cutter, offshore patrol cutters that are shipboard capable—will be designed to handle the H-60. We initially bought a Navy variant of the H-60 that had blade-fold and tail- fold capability. But due to the lack of use we had on those systems and the maintenance and sustainability challenges, we removed most of those capabilities. Now, we’re putting that tail-folding capability back in. Whether the aircraft have the equipment and can actually do that will depend on where they’re stationed or are aboard ship.
The MH-65s will continue to deploy, I expect, throughout their lifetime. We’re using 60s for airborne use of force and are looking for them to perhaps take on some of those other armed missions that we’ve used the 65 for in the past.
How long might it be before the fleet change takes place?
I don’t have particular time frames. I would say the MH-65 is still planned to be flown into the mid-2030s. It’s going to be close to a 50-year-old aircraft when we’re done flying it. And we’ll drift the number of MH-65s down as we bring more H-60s into the fleet, which I see staying indefinitely.
As we expand the fleet, we do have older airframes, but we’re getting new, 20,000-hour airframes. And we’re doing a modified service life extension program [SLEP] where we get used airframes from the Navy, and then we convert those to Coast Guard airframes. So we do have a means of refreshing the 60 fleet. And again, future vertical aviation will inform what we’re going to do beyond the 2030- to-2035 time frame.
Your district includes Oregon and Washington, known for treacherous seas and weather. The Coast Guard used to have the mentality that you have to go out on a mission, but you don’t have to come back (survive). How have you changed that mindset in the Coast Guard?
I’ve been doing this for 30-plus years and flying well over 20 years. And I’ve had my fair share of harrowing cases, events, and weather situations. That mantra really is old-school. I think we’ve matured as an organization as we’ve endured some mishaps along the way.
We have a robust and committed safety management system within the Coast Guard, particularly within aviation. We took a real hard look at ourselves, I would say in the 2007 to 2015 time frame, where we had a rash of mishaps that was a little surprising for us. We looked hard at aviation and purposefully changed that philosophy.
As an aviator, I always approached every case like it was my mom or brother out there, and I can say, I’ve lived the change of that mantra.
We were authorized to press the limits of the aircraft, even damage the aircraft if there was a likelihood of saving lives or reducing pain. But then, the underlying responsibility you have to your crew and really to the American public is to be good stewards of those resources, bring the crew back, bring your aircraft back so you can go out and go again.
If you go out and lose an aircraft and a crew, you’re done—and I would consider that a mission failure. There’d be those times, too, where I’d have to look critically, and I’d say, even if it was my mom or my brother, “Not today. We have to live to fly again.”
One of the biggest problems facing commercial rotorcraft aviation is pilots who fly into IMC. Coast Guard pilots are known for being safe. How does the Coast Guard prepare its pilots to work in adverse weather, and what can the commercial industry learn from you?
It’s interesting, because I think we’re learning as much from the commercial industry [as they are from us]. [That being said], just by our mission profile, we’re probably exposed to the risk of going inadvertent IMC more than some others. We train pretty rigorously on that.
Like the commercial industry, we have annual proficiency checks where we test things that we can’t do in the aircraft. We get our instrument tests done, and then we practice some instrument flight and navigation off radar and those types of things. And we have procedures in place for when you go inadvertent IMC.
Obviously, the situational awareness depends on your action. But you turn around and try to get back and establish VMC, or you have some type of exit strategy where you know to climb on a safe bearing, get up to a certain altitude, and pick up an approach or get radar handling to help. Maybe you work with air traffic control or the [mission] controllers to get you back to VMC.
For some of our missions, we plan on going in instrument conditions.
I think we probably need to practice a little more often purposefully going into IMC out to a point with ATC coverage, establish a radar scan, and then do a due-regard letdown and descend, and step down until hopefully you can make visual conditions again.
Does it help that you’re dual-crewed so that the pilots can bounce thoughts back and forth between each other and work different parts of the panel?
Oh yeah, I think so. The H-60 is designed for dual crew, so we fly them all the time. The MH-65 is designed for single-pilot operations, but we require dual pilots in instrument conditions.
And I will tell you, it’s highly beneficial, if not critical, to have that other trained pilot, who’s there to help distribute the workload with radar, radio communications, monitoring conditions, or just backing you up on your approaches.
We do some interesting stuff. We’ll do IMC approaches down to the water into a coupled hover, and bring an aircraft down and break out at a hundred feet, or come into a hover at 50 ft. and then see if we can see the water. That’s pretty intense stuff. And while we have a lot of automated systems that will help with that, it’s always good to have somebody backing you up and maintaining that awareness.
How does the Coast Guard interact with other government or law enforcement agencies?
The Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions. We do everything from law enforcement to environmental protection to protecting living marine resources. Of course, search-and-rescue is one of those vital missions. And in all those, we work with other federal, state, and local agencies.
We operate globally, but for most of our operations, particularly in District 13, we work with all the federal partners, state, local folks, and tribal organizations. I can think of numerous examples where we’ve either worked for or helped an agency, such as finding lost climbers in Olympic National Forest. Law enforcement agencies have also asked for our help providing surveillance of nefarious activity.
We also work with Canada on a regular basis, for search-and-rescue, environmental response, and law enforcement. We’ve helped evacuate firefighters from encroaching fire.
The USCG is starting to do much more with simulators. How have you used simulators in training your crews?
We’ve been using them since I entered aviation. Their quality and fidelity have only improved over time, to the point where they’re on par with commercial simulators. We’ve expanded their use to not only our helicopters but our fixed-wing fleet, as well.
We can now use simulators for airborne use-of-force missions to couple the flight mechanic or air gunner position with the cockpit or pilot portion of the simulator, so you can have two simulators running at one time and conduct practice runs, intercept maneuvers, fire warning shots, and those types of things.
The commercial industry is experiencing a shortage of pilots and mechanics. Is this affecting the Coast Guard, and what’s the service doing to maintain the level of staffing needed to conduct missions?
We’ve had challenges, but the Coast Guard is an exceptional organization that has meaningful, important missions. I’d encourage anyone who wants to do something meaningful, to seek adventure and opportunities, to consider the Coast Guard.
But there’s no way around it. The shortage in commercial aviation is growing. We continue to try to incentivize people to come into the service, and we train well, but retention is a concern.
I think the Coast Guard—and all the armed services—needs to look at its compensation systems and make sure we’re continually competitive on the commercial side. Again, I think the value or the importance of the mission helps us with retention.
One of the other things we try to do is train people and—it may sound counterintuitive—get them their civilian credentials so they can transition to the commercial workforce after leaving the Coast Guard. The idea is, if we keep people through a full 20-year career or even beyond and they’re still young enough to go out into the commercial world, we can actually be a feeder into the commercial aviation industry.