A newly modified Coast Guard jet that has radar and infrared systems will enable pilots to lock onto and track suspected drug traffickers' planes through clouds or darkness.
The first of a fleet of nine Nighthawks, as they're nick-named, was dedicated at a ceremony Monday in a hangar at National Airport."It's a particularly bad day for those who would smuggle drugs into this country," Adm. Paul A. Yost, commandant of the Coast Guard, said at the dedication.
"Now that I've got these aircraft, I say to the drug smugglers two things: If you're in the business, I'd look for other employment, and you can run but you can't hide," Yost said.
The planes, which will initially be based in Miami and Mobile, Ala., are modified versions of the Coast Guard's medium-range surveillance jet, the HU-25A Guardian, built by Falcon Jet Corp. of Little Rock, Ark.
They have been equipped with a sensor system that combines the long-range radar used in the F-16 fighter jet with a forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, sensor.
Previously, Coast Guard planes were equipped with a radar system designed to track ships and had no infrared at all, said Lt. Bob Quirk, the Coast Guard interceptor pilot who flew the first completed Nighthawk to Washington for the dedication.
"Before, we did not have any altitude information (on the target planes); we did not have any closure speed information besides what we could judge with our eyeball," Quirk said.
"This jet is twice as fast as any other Coast Guard plane," said Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., who appeared at the dedication. "It can fly at 380 knots at 20,000 feet above sea level for five hours up to 2,045 miles."
Transportation Secretary James Burnley, who also participated in the ceremony, said the United States is "under siege" by drug dealers.
"When you're under attack by a formidable enemy . . . you've got to have state-of-the-art weaponry and you've got to have leadership," he said.