Reading Time: 7 minutes
Coast Guard firefighting vessels attempt to contain the blaze on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig while searching for 11 missing workers after the April 20, 2010 explosion.
A Coast Guard Cutter, the Pompano, searches for survivors from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 21, 2010.

In the wee-morning hours after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, a Coast Guard rescue helicopter being dispatched to pluck oil rig survivors floating in the fire-engulfed waters could not launch because its hoist was broken.

The crew of the 25-year-old chopper was forced to switch to another aircraft, costing it 38 minutes at a time when the Coast Guard was trying to evacuate the wounded and search for missing workers who leapt into the Gulf Mexico to escape the fiery oil platform on the night of April 20.

Mechanical problems, like those detailed in the Coast Guard’s official incident logs for the BP accident, have been experienced repeatedly during the last two major crises that summoned the service’s famed search and rescue teams, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity shows.

At least three Coast Guard aircraft and one cutter suffered serious mechanical problems that delayed, cut short or aborted rescue missions during the Gulf incident, the logs reveal. The Coast Guard averaged one problem for every seven rescue sorties it operated during the first three days of the oil spill crisis in April, according to logs obtained by the Center.

Just three months earlier, 10 of the 12 Coast Guard cutters dispatched to help evacuate victims of the Haiti earthquake encountered serious mechanical problems that affected their ability to conduct rescue missions, officials confirm. Two cutters were so impacted that they had to return to port for repairs, and aircraft were diverted from search and rescue to fly parts in for others, according to officials.

It’s a situation that has been in the making for years, according to documents and interviews. The Coast Guard’s multibillion-dollar effort to modernize its fleet was mismanaged by the Coast Guard and contractors during the Bush administration, leaving it without much of the new equipment it paid for.

And recent budget cuts have only added to the worries that the service may be unable to complete its mission. The Guard’s outgoing commandant warned just two months before the BP accident that the Coast Guard risks being a “hollow force” if its fleet isn’t updated soon.

Coast Guard officials dismissed as routine the problems that surfaced during the 28 search and rescue mission they conducted in the three days following the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20. “The mechanical problems experienced … over those days were nothing that was not out of the ordinary,” Lt. Cmdr. C.T. O’Neil told the Center.

But lawmakers, who have pressed the Coast Guard to clean up its procurement practices so that its fleet can be modernized without money being wasted, said the Gulf of Mexico and Haiti problems give reason for alarm.

“The mechanical problems noted in the logs are troubling and raise ongoing concerns about the Coast Guard’s aging assets,” House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., said Thursday. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to address this issue and ensure that the Coast Guard receives the resources necessary to successfully fulfill its missions.”

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said the Coast Guard deserves some blame for the position it finds itself in. “If the Coast Guard had managed its contracting operation better, it wouldn’t be in a position where it couldn’t fund new equipment that’s now needed for the oil spill,” Grassley said.

Breakdowns with aircraft, ship

The logs from April 20-23 describe in typical Coast Guard shorthand the mechanical problems that surfaced.

“After landing for fuel, (the aircraft) experienced an overtorque casualty and anticipates a two-hour delay in completing the F-1 search pattern,” a Coast Guard pilot reported mid-afternoon on April 22, the second full day of the oil rig disaster.

That same day, the Coast Guard cutter Pelican reported one of its generators had blown and the vessel had to turn around and return to shore for repairs, the logs show.

The Pelican “reports losing NR 1 Generator. Able to sail on NR 2 only however the MKC doesn’t feel it will hold up,” the logs stated.

A day earlier, the helicopter deployed from New Orleans was delayed by mechanical problems with the hoist. “Critical equipment on assisting resource not functioning,” the log cited as the reason. A separate log entry reported that problem involved a “malfunctioning hoist” needed to lower Coast Guard rescue workers into the water to pull victims to safety.

O’Neil acknowledged the hoist problem and aircraft switch caused a delay outside the normal accepted timeframe. “While the aircraft switch was made quickly, it resulted in the crew launching 8 minutes after the standard of 30 minutes,” he said.

Another rescue flight was aborted on the morning of April 22 for a different mechanical problem. “CG6605 experienced MGB pressure transmitter indicator failure shortly after takeoff, resulting in abort mission,” the Coast Guard log states. The log noted that problem resulted in a “0 percent completion” of the search mission. Eleven workers on the oil rig were never found and are presumed dead.

Coast Guard Chief fears “hollow force”

In his final annual “state of the Coast Guard” speech in February, retiring Commandant Thad Allen warned the failure over years to upgrade the Coast Guard’s equipment was “putting our crews at risk and jeopardizing the ability to do our job.” Allen, who is now in charge of the government’s response to the BP oil spill, warned that continued budget cuts and failures to upgrade the equipment would leave the Coast Guard a “hollow force” in the future. “We continue to experience increasing casualties to other high endurance cutters that are indicative of overall declining readiness,” Allen said, noting that 83 percent of the cutters used in Haiti suffered serious mechanical issues.

“The larger issue is that the condition of the cutters that responded is indicative of the overall readiness of the fleet,” he said.

O’Neil, the Coast Guard spokesman, told the Center that the craft that suffered mechanical issues in the Gulf of Mexico varied in age.

Two of the problem aircraft were a quarter-century old, while one was built in just 2007. The cutter Pelican was commissioned in 2000, one of the last to be made before the Coast Guard’s Deepwater modernization program created a new class of larger cutters that turned out to be unseaworthy because of flawed hulls.

“These types of casualties are not clearly attributed to the age of the aircraft or the age of the Pelican,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil acknowledged, however, that the average Coast Guard medium- to high-endurance cutter was a whopping 34 years old and its rescue aircraft were on average 23 years old.

Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who now works as a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the Coast Guard was the only branch of the military to have its funding reduced under President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal. The Coast Guard’s budget has gone from $8.595 billion in 2010 down to $8.466 billion for 2011.

“You’re paying the price for neglecting the Coast Guard,” Korb warned, noting the Coast Guard’s missions have expanded in recent years.

Modernization Effort Dogged by Problems

But the Coast Guard also has itself to blame for many of the problems, according to a Department of Homeland Security inspector general review and Government Accountability Office investigations.

Between 2002 and 2008, the Guard spent $1.8 billion on its Deepwater modernization project to build the next generation of its cutters, only to find many of the new ships were either unusable or required expensive repairs because of design defects.

For instance, it abandoned eight new 123-foot patrol cutters because of such problems as “deformation and cracks in the hull,” records show. That left the Guard to rely on boats that were decades old. It is now trying to recoup some of its money from Integrated Coast Guard Systems, a contractor that was formed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. specifically for the Deepwater project.

In a stinging report last June, the Homeland Security inspector general warned the mismanagement of its modernization effort was “creating or increasing gaps in the Coast Guard’s operational capacity to accomplish its offshore missions.”

Coast Guard officials and the agency’s watchdog said since the problems surfaced a few years ago, they’ve made significant progress in managing its contractors better and recently were able to deploy new cutters and aircraft with advanced technologies that work well.

In 2007, the Coast Guard launched an effort to improve its contracting and acquisition system, hoping to address the problems discovered during the cutter modernization program. But those efforts have also run into problems.

The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general reported just last month that the Coast Guard’s procurement system, while improved, still suffers from “systemic issues … related to effective program management, contractor oversight, adequate staffing, data tracking, and performance measures.” The watchdog said the Guard’s effort to fix itself — called the Blueprint — needed some fixing of its own.

“The Coast Guard can improve Blueprint implementation oversight by (1) establishing a method to measure outcomes of completed Blueprint action items, and (2) prioritizing the action items,” the inspector general’s report said.

Despite the mechanical failures after the Gulf of Mexico rig accident on the evening of April 20, the Coast Guard logs show search and rescue teams still managed plenty of heroics.

In the pre-dawn hours after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, the Guard dropped one of its doctors from a helicopter into a rescue boat below to triage the wounded oil rig workers. “The CG flight surgeon will be lowered to the workboat to determine which critically injured personnel need Medevac,” a log entry from 3 a.m. on April 21 read.

And Guard planes running low on fuel continued to pluck rig workers flailing in the waves of the Gulf after they leaped from the burning, listing Deepwater Horizon rig.

“CG6605 crew managed in-flight on scene commander duties until bingo fuel,” reads one log passage from the morning of April 21, just hours after the accident.

“Due to fuel, CG6605 could not loiter and wait for CG6010 to finish hoisting and elected to get further tasking from CG2308,” another log entry from the first morning after the explosion read.

In all, the Coast Guard ran 28 sea and air rescue sorties, covering more than 5,000 square miles, the logs show.

After publication, the Coast Guard updated the amount it had spent on the Deepwater Modernization project, from $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion. The article has been changed to reflect the new amount.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.