Pilot Howard Davis dips the wings of his four-seat Piper Cherokee slightly, just enough to let Joe Giannattasio start shooting pictures of a coastal Ocean County landmark, an abandoned fish cannery just off the Great Bay near Tuckerton.
Davis, Giannattasio and Norma Hunter took off - with one notebook-toting passenger - from Woodbine Airport in Cape May County earlier on this June morning to fly a Maritime Observation Mission for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. The flight took them through a stop at the Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, on the mainland in Egg Harbor Township, and then out to the coast north of Brigantine on their way to Long Beach Island before they headed back to Woodbine.
When they reach the 18-mile Long Beach Island and start following its shoreline north, Giannattasio scrambles to get more pictures, now of dredges pumping sand to rebuild beaches hammered by Hurricane Sandy.
From 1,000 or so feet up, there aren't many people visible on those beaches on a weekday morning punctuated by plenty of passing clouds. But local Coast Guard Auxiliary Air volunteers are used to seeing big crowds on the sand now, because they fly MOM missions basically every Saturday and Sunday of the year that the weather cooperates - including in these busy beach months of June, July and August.
That's despite the fact most of the throngs who cover local beaches would be surprised to know some of the people flying by in those little, unmarked planes on lazy summer days are volunteer observers, people who help the Coast Guard with its job of trying to keep the rest of us safe and healthy.
The volunteer crews take these flights to look for oil spills or other pollution, for shoals and sandbars, which shift regularly and are easier to spot from the air than the water, and for boaters in trouble, among many other targets. They fly on some weekdays, but the Coast Guard wants the planes in the air every weekend day possible, because far more people are on or in the water those days.
The pilots and observers can stay busy doing that job. Co-pilot Hunter, a 35-year Coast Guard Auxiliary member who splits her year between homes in Long Beach Township and Riverton, Burlington County, pulled out a tablet computer and showed the rest of the day's crew a zig-zag route of a search-and-rescue training mission she was on recently - just two days earlier, in fact.
Coast Guard Lt. Neal Corbin, the local air station's liaison with the auxiliary and a helicopter pilot himself, says the program keeps some local flight logs fairly full.
"We had nine auxiliary sorties (last) week, so they're pretty busy," said Corbin, who adds the Coast Guard makes sure all its volunteers know what they're doing in its name. "They're good. They're all at least commercially rated pilots. They have to pass annual check rides ... and have evaluations like Coast Guard pilots."
Davis, the flight commander on this day, is 66 years old - and has been flying for 47 of those years. He lives in Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, right outside Vineland, and recently retired from a career as a nuclear-power-plant electrician. He figures he flies about two auxiliary missions per month, although he just joined the organization three years ago.
"I'm a newbie," he smilingly tells a passenger a few minutes before he starts into his pre-flight pilot routine.
But he can pile up some miles doing these MOM flights. Davis later goes through a typical itinerary for a mission that starts in Millville, flies north to the Shark River, in Monmouth County, heads back down the coastline to Cape May, then crosses the Delaware Bay and turns down the state of Delaware's Atlantic Coast to the Indian River, near the Maryland border. He and his crew then fly back across the bay to New Jersey on a route that stretches "well over 200 miles," the pilot says.
Giannattasio, 55, of Middle Township, a private pilot who has been active with the Coast Guard Auxiliary for nine years but isn't a pilot with the group, says other regular routes for local members include tours of the Delaware River and Bay from Trenton south to the Indian River - along with Delaware's and New Jersey's Atlantic coastlines.
So the three-county mission on this day - which will erupt into violent thunderstorms by afternoon - is just a fraction of a normal MOM flight, cut short for weather-safety reasons.
The MOM patrols also keep an eye out for big things floating in the water that shouldn't be - "Debris keeps rising, and we do look for it," Hunter adds, particularly after Sandy slammed the state.
In the fall, lost hunters are another concern - the patrol members say the hunters set up their boats in the back bays to shoot ducks or other waterfowl, but then sometimes get stuck there when the tide runs out on them.
Meanwhile, this day's auxiliary crew checks in regularly with the Coast Guard on a marine radio - all volunteer planes must be equipped with one - and Hunter and Giannattasio keep detailed log notes on what they see at what time and at what precise GPS coordinates.
These MOM flights over the beaches and bays are just some of what the auxiliary crews do. They also help with search-and-rescue flights - volunteers sometimes get awakened in the middle of the night and are asked to do "first-light" flights. After Coast Guard helicopter crews have searched unsuccessfully in the dark, the Coast Guard Auxiliary members are asked to be in the air at dawn to pick up a hunt for missing boaters.
"We've done eight of those this year, and that helps us immensely," says Corbin, the Coast Guard lieutenant, who was just transferred out of the Atlantic City air station this week - but notes many of the local auxiliary pilots and crews have lifetimes of experience in the coastal areas they patrol.
"We're only here for three- or four-year tours, but a lot of them have lived locally for 60 or 70 years," Corbin said. "They're good at spotting pollution and other abnormalities."
Hunter, for example, is a veteran boater who has known the Ocean County coastline her whole life. As Giannattasio shoots pictures of the hulking former fish cannery, she advises the passenger, "The 'stinkhouse' is what we always called that when I was growing up."
Some Coast Guard Auxiliary planes also help with national-defense training missions for military pilots, by acting as "bogey" planes: The volunteers' role for the day is to get intercepted by the regular crews doing their air patrols.
The auxiliary volunteers say they sometimes hear from people who think they're just going up in the air for a good time - and to fly free, because the Coast Guard pays for their aviation fuel on MOM and other official missions.
But Corbin isn't buying that argument. He points out that for one thing, it's far cheaper to fill the tank on a small private plane than on a Coast Guard helicopter: By his figures, it costs about $150 an hour to fly the little plane, and $6,000 or more per hour to keep a helicopter in the air.
He says the auxiliary pilots and crews definitely aren't just taking off in search of joyrides or cheap thrills.
"We get some (pilots) who are interested in joining the program, but then they find out the amount of training and qualifications it takes, and it turns them off," he says. "We are definitely not a flying club. They do get reimbursed for fuel and some maintenance, but they're up there working for the Coast Guard."
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