Lights That Take To Flight

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Bay Icebreakers
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Bay Icebreakers

The lights that serve as aids to navigation in the Delaware Bay are all different in their own right. From historic lighthouses to single pile structures, each lighted aid possesses a distinct optical and construction characteristic that differentiates it from its peers. Yet, despite all these differences, the one similarity is that U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Cape May must periodically visit these lighted aids to ensure they continue to “wink and blink” for mariners seeking their guiding lights – all except two unassuming lights.

Delaware Bay East Icebreaker Light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Bay East
Icebreaker Light

The Delaware Bay East and West Icebreaker Lights hold a secret that few lighthouse and Delaware Bay enthusiasts are aware of – that on occasion, they are lights that take to flight. No, the icebreaker lights don’t possess super human powers, nor do they have wings to fly, but with the help from a grappling hook attached to a sleek Coast Guard HH-65A Dolphin aircraft, the lights are able to rise into the skies and whisk across the bay. In this manner, they are the only lighted aids that come to the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team for service as opposed to the ANT Team having to go to them.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever, Officer in Charge of Aids to Navigation Team Cape May comments on the uniqueness of the aids, saying, “The icebreaker lights are the only two navigational lights I know of that are routinely removed, serviced, and replaced by helicopter.”

Though the HH-65A Dolphin aircraft is primarily used in search and rescue missions, the helicopter will assist the ANT Team whenever the Delaware Bay Icebreaker Lights need servicing or are reported extinguished. The aircraft is perfectly suited for its occasional aids to navigation (ATON) assignments since its pilot can bring the helicopter to a stable hover 50 feet above a selected object. The aircraft’s powerful engines can then attain cruising speeds of around 139 knots as it carries the icebreaker lights back and forth from Cape May – all in a manner of minutes.

Delaware Bay West Icebreaker Light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Bay West
Icebreaker Light

The Delaware Bay East and West Icebreaker Lights each rise 15 feet above the bay and mark a set of ten icebreaker piers that were established in 1901. The hexagonal piers are constructed of dressed stone and lie in a west-southwest direction some 1,300 feet long on the shoal known as The Shears. When originally constructed, the piers were designed to break up the powerful ice floes that came down the bay and threatened ships at anchor in Lewes harbor.

As time and technology progressed, the icebreakers became less relevant. According to a December 1962 newspaper article from the Lewes Historical Society, the icebreakers actually became perilous hazards to boaters. The newspaper comments that, “the stone icebreakers were established in the days of sailing ships when the harbor was used extensively by commercial traffic to protect ships against heavy ice floes. The massive stone structures have since deteriorated and the need for them has passed with the advent of power vessels.”

U.S. Coast Guard HH-65A Dolphin aircraft
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

U.S. Coast Guard HH-65A Dolphin aircraft

The 1962 newspaper accounts goes on to say, “at present the six easternmost icebreakers are submerged at high water and present a navigational hazard, especially to inexperienced boatmen. In 1960 two cabin cruisers struck the submerged structures with the loss of one life.” In response to this alarming situation, the United States Coast Guard contracted the construction of two lights to mark the east and west ends of the line of icebreakers. The lights were activated in December 1962.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever

Today’s icebreaker lights are constructed of white column towers that are fastened to the eastern and western most stone piers. Senior Chief Dennis Dever describes why the lights were built in such a manner, stating, “since the ice would destroy any traditional dock or fender system for boat access, the Coast Guard thought “outside the envelope” and created a couple of towers that resemble 15 foot high golf ball tees.”

As for the aids to navigation equipment that provides the warning signal for each icebreaker light, it’s best described as simplistic ingenuity. Senior Chief Dever says that the lighted aids are comprised of a “standard Coast Guard dewatering pump can that sits atop a tee. The can holds batteries for the lantern mounted atop the hoist. It also has a large bucket handle that is hoisted with a grappling hook attached to the helicopter’s rescue hoist.” Each Delaware Bay icebreaker light is solar powered and outfitted with a 155-mm optic. According to the U.S. Coast Guard Light List, the Delaware Bay East Icebreaker Light shows a Quick (its characteristic), white light that can be seen for 7 miles. The same source notes that the Delaware Bay West Icebreaker Light shows a Flashing, white light that can be seen 8 miles.

Some lights can boast being tall, while others the beauty of their construction. Though the Delaware Bay Icebreaker Lights are unable lay claim to either of these attributes, they do possess the unique ability to break the surly bonds of earth on occasion and take to flight across the Delaware Bay.

 

 

Servicing the 155-mm optic
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) EM2 Dave Hayes &
BM3 Tim Wallace service the
155-mm optic to icebreaker light

Cleaning solar panel on the optic
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

EM2 Dave Hayes
cleans the solar panel
for the optic

ATON equipment
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A close-up view of
the ATON equipment for
an icebreaker light

National Harbor of Refuge Icebreakers
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A close-up view of one of the
stone icebreakers...the icebreakers
were built in 1901 with the National
Harbor of Refuge Breakwater

 
USCG HH-65A Dolphin Helicopter
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Lights That Take to Flight...
A U.S. Coast Guard HH-65A Dolphin
helicopter carries an icebreaker light back
to its home in Delaware Bay

Delaware Bay East Icebreaker Light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Bay East
Icebreaker Light

Grappling hook grabs icebreaker light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of how the
grappling hook grabs an
icebreaker light

Delaware Bay West Icebreaker Light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Delaware Bay West
Icebreaker Light