John Flink
June 13, 2000

WAUKEGAN -- The world's seventh-largest navy has established a base in Waukegan.

The United States Coast Guard on Monday formally christened its search-and-rescue station at Waukegan Regional Airport, marking the return of a Coast Guard helicopter presence to the western shore of Lake Michigan.

The Coast Guard had a helicopter stationed at Glenview Naval Air Station but pulled out when the base was closed in 1996. Since then, the southern portion of the lake has been covered by helicopters based in Muskegon, Mich., adding precious minutes to the response time for rescues on the lake's west side.

U.S. Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), who is stepping down at the end of this term, sponsored the legislation that authorized the $13 million expenditure to base helicopters and personnel in Waukegan. The Coast Guard moved into leased space at a hangar owned by DB Aviation last month.

"I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship," Porter said. "My successor will have to look out for this and keep it running. We need this helicopter service nearby."

In a typical year, the Coast Guard oversees about 1,500 search-and-rescue operations on southern Lake Michigan. The legislation provides $8 million to outfit two helicopters for the Waukegan station and another $5 million for personnel and other expenses for the first year. The station is scheduled to be staffed from Memorial Day through Labor Day to provide extra coverage during the busiest boating season.

"We couldn't be happier to have them," said Walter Jones, executive director of the Waukegan Port District, which oversees Waukegan Regional Airport and Waukegan Harbor. "They'll be good tenants at the airport, and they'll save lives on the lake. It's very reassuring to have them around."

Two, four-person crews are assigned to the station at all times, with each crew standing at the ready for 24 hours, and then taking 24 hours off, said Lt. Cmdr. Blake Burris, commanding officer of the crew on duty Monday. Crews rotate out of their home base in Traverse City, Mich., every two weeks.

In season, the Waukegan station is responsible for responding to emergencies on the lake from Sheboygan, Wis., on the north to the southern tip. The Waukegan Coast Guard contingent will split the lake down the middle with its counterparts in Muskegon.

The piece of capital equipment at the heart of the operation is the Aerospatiale HH65 helicopter.

The French-built helicopter is the Coast Guard's airborne workhorse, used for search-and-rescue operations, surveillance and drug interdiction. The craft's engine and avionics are American-made, Burris said.

The station will also be available to local police and fire departments to assist in searches on the ground, he said.

"We can do a lot of things," Burris said. "We've searched for lost kids, Alzheimer's patients who've wandered off, all sorts of things. We can do anything where you need to put another set of eyeballs on the ground."