Airmen on Boats

Photo Story By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Bates

Senior Airman Amanda Stinson’s patrol vehicle doesn’t have any tires.

In most other ways it’s similar to the patrol cars on base. It has a powerful engine, flashing lights, a radio and even a steering wheel.

It just doesn’t have those tires. Or any brakes.

Luckily, she doesn’t need them.

Stinson’s patrol vehicle is a boat and she spends her days patrolling the shoreline alongside MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., as part of the 6th Security Forces Squadron’s Marine Patrol Flight.

“I never thought I’d be driving a boat as an Airman,” she said. “But it’s a great job and I love being out on the water.”

Still, it’s no joy ride. The job was born of necessity and not as a leisure activity. In the aftermath of 9/11, the base conducted a threat assessment and identified the 7.2 miles of coastline as a vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

“We have a lot of coastline here,” said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Velez, noncommissioned officer in charge of the boat section. “Base officials said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

At first, the Coast Guard assisted with patrols, but the manning and time needed to conduct the operation full time was too much for the local Coast Guard station to contribute long term. So, base officials asked the 6th SFS if it could take on the job.

We are all about detection and deterrence. Our best tool is presence, making sure people know we’re out there.” — Tech. Sgt. Christopher Velez

“The squadron decided to step up and take on this mission,” Velez said. “Of course, we had no idea what we were doing. I mean, Airmen on boats? There’s no operations manual for that.”

Base officials again turned to the Coast Guard for help.

“They’re the pros, so we asked them if they could give us some training and point us in the right direction,” Velez said. “Once they stopped laughing at the idea of the Air Force using boats, they were more than happy to help.”

The services have built a strong rapport on the joint effort.

“Of all the services, I never expected to work with the Air Force,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Cross, with the Coast Guard 7th Division, District 7. “It’s really turned out to be a great relationship and the Airmen are really eager to learn what we have to teach them.”

Squadron leaders picked several Airmen to make up the new boat section and, after basic boating and water safety instruction from their Coast Guard counterparts, the Airmen headed out to sea.

They found out just how rough this new mission was going to be.

“Oh man, we were definitely wet behind the ears,” joked Velez. “All we had was a glorified fishing boat with no cover, and the elements just beat us up. If it was hot, you were hot. If it was cold, you were freezing and if it was raining, you just got soaked.”

However, the mission needed doing, and the new boat section was determined to get it done. The Airmen would note what things worked and what didn’t, and what they needed and what they didn’t.

“Obviously a better boat was up there on our list,” Velez said. “But we also recommended other things, like equipment, how many people we’d need, things like that.”

People listened. The boat patrol grew, seeing more and better equipment and its people better trained.

The squadron didn’t just get one new boat, they got three.

“These new boats are amazing,” Stinson said. “The cabins are closed off from the elements, they have state-of-the-art equipment and can really haul if you need them to.”

Apart from having things like navigation systems, nighttime running lights and looking all shiny and new, these boats bring other intangibles to the section’s mission. They look professional, they look serious and they look pretty darned intimidating.

Which, according to Velez, is exactly what they want.

“We are all about detection and deterrence,” he said. “Our best tool is presence, making sure people know we’re out there.”

This means one of the boats is out on the water 24/7, responding to reports of boats and other watercraft entering the restricted zone near the base. Typically, these calls are lost boaters or fishermen trying to catch fish in the calmer, shallower water. However, the calls could be serious.

Someone has to drive the boat, meaning Airmen like Stinson are out on the water every day and every night. With more than seven miles of coastline, the Airmen can’t see every square inch. Motion sensor cameras were installed around the base to act as extra sets of “eyes.”

“The cameras are manned in the control center, so someone is monitoring them 24/7 as well,” Stinson said. “If they see something, they radio us and we go check it out.”

MacDill’s boat patrol is the only one like it in the Air Force. A few other bases have boat patrols, but only MacDill’s is manned 24/7.

The squadron doesn’t let just anyone into these boats, either. Any Airmen sent to the boat patrol must first pass a screening process. This test uses the whole person concept to determine each Airman’s eligibility.

“We look at their enlisted performance reports, their duty history and do an interview,” Velez said. “And, of course, we make sure they can swim.”

Sitting in her patrol boat, Stinson has a lot of time to think. Usually, these thoughts are common. Things like “what’s for lunch?” “Did I finish my homework?” “What’s up this weekend?”

Lately, though, she’s been wondering if the Air Force should think about changing the lyrics to its song to include something about boats.

Because now, some Airmen won’t be climbing high into the sun, but across the glassy sea, toward the horizon.

The Air Force may be known as the world’s finest air and space force, but thanks to a few Airmen at MacDill, it now has a pretty good navy, too.

No tires and all.

 

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  • Salvatore Mauro

    Interesting story. From World War II until the end of the Korean War, the Air Force maintained crash rescue boats operated by airmen who had maritime training. The boats had 50 cal. machine guns. If the Air Force would reactivate these units, they not only could supplement rescue directly at sea and at shorelines, but could also assist in maritime patrols (they did this during those wars, and during the Korean War, they took part in special operations). HQUSAF should consider the reactivation of those crash boats, perhaps redesignate them as Combat/Crash Rescue Boats. It is not only an important piece of Air Force history which sadly seems to be little known now, but it couldn’t hurt to have them back, especially nowadays.