Business Jets in the US Coast Guard

One of the only known publicly released photos of the Cessna Citation in USCG livery during its evaluation in 1973. Photo: US Coast Guard

When most business jets roll out of their factories, they have relatively luxurious lives ahead of them. Private aviation is filled with resourceful owners in the form of wealthy individuals or corporations, and these premium aircraft typically fly a modest number of hours annually as they visit destinations like Miami, LA, and Teterboro. Between private flights, they tend to be regularly pampered with meticulous detailing, inside and out.

In the early 1970s, however, the US Coast Guard decided to explore the use of business jets in a decidedly more punishing role known as medium-range search, or MRS. This role encompassed search and rescue, enforcement of laws/treaties, and maritime environmental protection missions. It took place in harsh ocean environments and extreme weather conditions, and accordingly, it would subject this relatively new aircraft category to some of the most demanding flying to date. Business jets appealed to the Coast Guard as they blended a wide range of capabilities with a fast cruise speed that would expedite their time on station.

Prior to the interest in business jet platforms, the role had been fulfilled by the antiquated Grumman HU-16E Albatross. First flown in 1947, the large flying boat first entered Coast Guard service in 1951. After decades of punishing operations in saltwater environments, the Coast Guard established a finite service life for the Albatross wings, and it became clear the fleet would need to be updated with a replacement.

In 1972, the Coast Guard Aircraft Characteristics Board recommended evaluating replacement options encompassing turboprop, turbofan, and turbojet-powered aircraft. Subsequently, the Coast Guard leased one IAI Westwind and one Cessna Citation business jet to explore the latter two categories. Each was painted in the Coast Guard livery and assigned a fleet number.

One of the only known publicly released photos of the Cessna Citation in USCG livery during its evaluation in 1973. Photo: US Coast Guard

The two jets soon began flying evaluation missions at a variety of locations. In addition to establishing whether the aircraft were suitable for the required mission profiles, the evaluation team also assessed the size of each jet. The board eventually determined that despite exhibiting outstanding performance and flexibility, the Westwind and the Citation were too small for the proposed mission.

A rare photo of the US Coast Guard Westwind in flight. Photo: US Coast Guard

Faced with an ever-lengthening evaluation process, the Coast Guard determined an interim solution would be necessary. In 1976, they acquired seventeen Convair C-131A piston airliners from the US Air Force. These were redesignated HC-131A for Coast Guard service and temporarily placed into service to fulfill the MRS role.

Ultimately, however, the Coast Guard was won over by the benefits offered by business jets. After analyzing the findings of the earlier suitability study, they determined that a larger-cabin, turbofan-equipped business jet would best suit their needs. They conducted a secondary analysis that compared the deHavilland DH-125, the Rockwell Sabre 75A, and the Dassault Falcon 20. The French Falcon 20 would eventually win the competition, and in February of 1982, it entered service as the HU-25 Guardian.

Coast Guard Dassault Falcon
Ultimately, the Dassault Falcon won the Coast Guard contract, and a fleet of 41 HH-25 Guardians filled the MRS role between 1982 and 2014 when the EADS HC-144A Ocean Sentry turboprop replaced them.

This would be one of the first examples of business jets being repurposed to fulfill roles that are more tactical than luxurious in nature. Other militaries and governments would follow suit, employing various business jet types in capacities such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), surveillance, flight training, navaid calibration, and others. The resulting variety of niches in which these jets soon operated underscored the versatility and efficiency of the category, above and beyond that of executive jet travel.

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