United States Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater is one of the largest and most vital air stations in the Coast Guard network of bases and operates out of the Clearwater International Airport. The base is responsible not only for the air space and waters around Florida, but sectors of the Caribbean Basin, Gulf of Mexico and two air stations in the Bahamas on Great Inagua and Andros Island. These facilities together serve in conjunction with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and U.S. Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by providing continual support in the form of HH-60J and MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters. These air assets help combat drug and human smuggling in US and international waters.
The installation is crewed by over 600 Coast Guard and civilian personnel in flight, support and surface roles. The air station maintains a fleet of nine HH-60J and MH-60T configuration Jayhawk helicopters in addition to six HC-130H Hercules fixed wing aircraft. These aircraft, in addition to their roles in DEA and ICE operations, are responsible for patrolling and performing search and rescue operations in Search Zone Bravo, the area around Florida and The Gulf of Mexico.
Prior to the establishment of USCG Air Station Clearwater, the Coast Guard constructed a small facility in western Florida in St. Petersburg. This small station was erected in 1934 and for the next several decades served as home for multiple amphibious and air assets. In 1976 the Coast Guard began adopting the new HC Hercules aircraft, which require substantially more runway and maintenance facilities. This required substantial expansion, but the limited land near the base prevented any promising development. As a result, the Coast Guard made the decision to expand into the nearby area of Clearwater, establishing what is now present day Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater.
Despite its relatively young age, Air Station Clearwater has had an illustrious career thus far. Starting in early 1980 the station received numerous awards and commendations for its success in search and rescue and anti-smuggling operations. Awards included two Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendations, the Coast Guard Unit Commendation and the Humanitarian Service Medal.
During this time period, Air Station Clearwater played a pivotal role in supporting surface fleets in the Cuban boat lift. Immediately following, the station was tasked with providing support and resources for Operation Fury, invasion and retrieval mission surrounding the invasion of Grenada. The success of this operation earned Air Station Clearwater a newly created award, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. The same year, Air Station Clearwater participated in Operation Wagon Wheel, a joint international operation involving the stemming of international drug trafficking. Air Station Clearwater continued to play integral roles in drug trafficking operations for the next two decades, a role that it continues to fill well into the 21st century.
Perhaps the most well known of Air Station Clearwater’s roles came in 1986. The launch of and subsequent explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger prompted an immediate response from agencies across the US southeastern coast. Crews from Air Station Clearwater were among the first on the scene of the explosion, so early in fact that they were required to stand down while flaming debris from the shuttle continued to fall. All told, crews from Air Station Clearwater flew 33 missions over the crash zone in the search for the missing crew and equipment. For its role, the air station was awarded an additional Coast Guard Unit Commendation, this time with an Operational Device.
In 1987 Air Station Coast Guard stepped into the role as the largest operation air station in the Coast Guard network. During this time the installation undertook massive expansions, adding additional runways, maintenance facilities and housing units.
In more recent years, the air station has played roles in major offensives like Operation Desert Storm and Operation Gulf Shield. Today, it continues to play major role in support, anti-smuggling and search and rescue missions across the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Seas.