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Point Mugu Rescue Unit to Be Disbanded : Military: Navy officials say the three versatile Sea Knight helicopters have better uses. The program has cost $300,000 a year.

September 02, 1993|MAIA DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Point Mugu Navy base is disbanding its search and rescue unit, leaving Ventura County with one less team equipped to save fishermen, boaters or others in accidents at sea.

Formed more than 40 years ago when Point Mugu became a Navy base, the search team has backed up the U.S. Coast Guard in rescue efforts in a 36,000-square-mile area from north of Santa Barbara to south of Oxnard.

But the increasingly cost-conscious Navy has decided it has better uses for the unit's three helicopters, called Sikorsky Sea Knights, said Alan Alpers, spokesman for Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station.

"We won't be doing search and rescue," Alpers said. "We have to rely on the Coast Guard's expertise."

Because the Navy's versatile Sea Knight helicopters can be used for carrying cargo or hauling missiles in addition to transporting up to 18 people at a time, they are in high demand, Navy officials said.

Only about 350 of the aircraft were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Point Mugu has already transferred one of the helicopters to a base in Guam.

The other two helicopters will leave in two weeks for North Island Naval Air Weapons Station near San Diego.

Besides the Navy's having other uses for the helicopters, Point Mugu officials decided they had a better use for the $300,000 spent each year on the search and rescue team.

The money went toward fuel and upkeep costs for the helicopters and training for the team of 13 pilots and 28 crew members, Alpers said.

Although most of the crew members will be reassigned along with the helicopters to other bases, the team's pilots will remain at Point Mugu.

One of the pilots is Lt. Tom Walsh, a Boston native who has been flying with the team for 2 1/2 years.

Walsh said the Navy used to consider search and rescue teams essential.

"Now they're deciding they'll take a look at what's essential and what isn't," he said. "It comes down to money, money, money."

Although the Coast Guard has primary responsibility for responding to boaters in distress, Point Mugu's rescue team has been on call to help whenever the problems occurred in the ocean range that the base uses for weapons testing.

The rescue team was also intended to help rescue military pilots who might bail out of their planes or crash at sea.

And there are many opportunities for such accidents. In 1992, there were 5,754 military flights over the Point Mugu testing range.

But Navy officials said almost all of the rescue team's calls were to help civilians.

Over the past few years, the Point Mugu team has assisted the Coast Guard in rescue efforts an average of five to six times a year, Walsh said.

The Coast Guard said the loss of the Point Mugu rescuers will not hamper the Coast Guard's rescue efforts. "It's not a big loss," spokesman Randy Reid said.

In addition to having three helicopters stationed at Los Angeles International Airport, the Coast Guard has three patrol boats docked at Channel Islands Harbor.

"It's very sufficient," Reid said.

In the case of a disaster such as an airliner going down at sea, the Coast Guard would be able to summon as many helicopters, planes and boats as it needed from its other stations around Southern California, he said. "We could have anything we wanted."

Besides the Coast Guard, local harbor patrols can also respond to accidents, although such agencies generally don't go farther than five miles out to sea, Reid said.

The Sheriff's Department's search and rescue helicopters can also be used to find people or boats at sea, but are not able to rescue people from the water, he said.

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