SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
A fusion of old and new technology is making the seas off the coast of Honduras safer and more secure, thanks to work being done by members of the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVO), currently working out of a location at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.
Each morning, a Basler BT-67 aircraft lifts off from the flightline at Soto Cano, headed for the Honduran Caribbean coastline. The BT-67 is a retrofitted DC-3 airframe, designed in 1939 and built in 1943. There's no denying the twin-engine turboprop is a classic, but it's what's going on inside the 70-year-old aircraft that makes these flights truly significant.
Inside the cargo area of the airplane resides a cluster of technological equipment, all designed to be used to perform an airborne coast survey. The lynchpin of this survey is the Coastal Zone Mapping and Imaging Lidar (CZMIL) system. According to the NAVOCEANO, the CZMIL is an airborne coastal zone mapping system that produces high-resolution 3D data and imagery of the beach and shallow seafloor down to approximately 50 meters.
In layman's terms, the BT-67 is housing a laser data collection system. As the aircraft flies a pattern over the water, the laser penetrates the ocean waters and provides a three-dimensional map of the ocean floor--data that, once processed, will prove invaluable for maritime operations in Honduras and Central America.
"This operation helps improve Maritime Domain Awareness through the collection and sharing of oceanographic, hydrographic, and bathymetric (OHB) information, which will provide updated data to revise nautical charts," said Rebecca McGuire, a physical scientist and senior NAVO representative at Soto Cano. "This results in enhanced regional maritime safety, capabilities, and security that contribute to economic development in the region."
Critical to this data gathering operation is the BT-67 itself. In the past other aircraft had been used for the airborne coast survey operation, however, there was a need for longer endurance capability. Each mission requires the aircraft to fly up to eight hours back and forth in lines over the ocean while the Lidar system maps 'strips' of the ocean floor that will be pieced together in final data processing.
According to Ray Cameron, a BT-67 pilot, the old airframe fills that need nicely.
"This airplane is very good for survey work like we are doing now," said Cameron. "It has good range and it satisfies the survey need because of that. It has a niche and it fills that requirement very well. There aren't many machines around that can do it."
Cameron, who boasts almost 40,000 hours as a pilot and jokes that he and the aircraft were "made in the same year" said that flying the extreme precision, eight-hour missions required to conduct accurate survey work in the old airframe can be challenging.
"It's pretty intense," said Cameron. "When you get off your shift after eight hours, you are pretty beat. This plane has no autopilot, no fly-by-wire or hydraulics, it's all cable controlled. So you really have to work at it and keep your concentration. If your mind wanders just a little bit you can get off the line you are flying. The co-pilot and I take turns flying each line, and believe me, by the time you complete one you are ready to switch out!"
As the pilots fly their assigned lines, an airborne sensor operator sits in the cargo section of the aircraft, closely monitoring the data being collected and ensuring its accuracy. According to McGuire, this data will provide not just for more security and safety, but also a greater capacity for Honduran and U.S. cooperation in maritime operations.
"Both this survey operation and the resulting data provide the opportunity for combined operations with the Republic of Honduras," said McGuire. "The combined operations help develop and test participating regional civil and maritime services' capabilities to respond to a variety of maritime missions while keeping open vital lanes of communication."
Cameron said that he's happy to be playing a part in helping to make the seas off the coast of Honduras safer.
"When I first started flying for the surveys, I didn't quite know what the work was all about, but now I understand it," said Cameron. "This technology and what we are doing is making it safer and may save lives. If a ship captain has a chart made from the information we are getting, it might just stop one ship from hitting a reef and that can save many lives. Shipping is going to continue to grow, and this technology can make things safer for Central America and for all of the countries involved."