U.S. Coast Guard Aviation History
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Coast Guard Aviation History


The first practical steps toward a Coast Guard air arm occurred in early 1915 when Lieutenants Elmer Stone and Norman Hall conceived of using aircraft for Coast Guard missions. With the backing of their commanding officer, CAPT Benjamin Chiswell, they approached the Curtiss Flying School at Newport News, VA, discussed their idea and were taken on experimental flights in the school’s aircraft. A Curtiss F flying boat was used for much of the experiment. The aircraft lacked navigational equipment and, therefore, never ventured beyond the sight of land. In spite of the technological limitations of the aircraft, the experiment proved successful and as a result Stone and five others were assigned to the Naval Aviation School at Pensacola for training in April 1916. Hall was sent to the Curtiss factory to study aeronautical engineering. Later in 1916, Congress authorized the Coast Guard to establish ten air stations, but no money was appropriated and this effort was stillborn.

On 6.4.1917 the Coast Guard was transferred to the US Navy. During World War I, Coast Guard aviators were assigned to naval air stations in this country and abroad. One Coast Guardsman commanded the Naval Air Station Ille Tudy, France, and won the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Another commanded the Chatham Naval Air Station. He also piloted one of two HS-1 seaplanes that bombed and machine-gunned a German U-boat off the coast of New England. The bombs failed to explode and the submarine escaped.

After the armistice the Coast Guard was returned to the Treasury Department. A by-product of the war effort was the stimulus and potential to fly the Atlantic. In May 1919, four Navy Curtiss seaplanes, each crewed by five, began the great experiment. One plane, NC-4 ultimately succeeded. It was captained by LCDR A.C. Read, USN and was piloted by LT Elmer Stone, USCG. In 1983 Elmer Stone was the first Coast Guard pilot enshrined in the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL.

A second false start for Coast Guard aviation occurred in 1920. In March the Coast Guard’s first air station was established at Morehead City, NC, when the service took over the abandoned naval air station and borrowed a few Curtiss HS-2L flying boats and possibly one or two Aeromarine Model 40s from the Navy. The aircraft were particularly useful at locating those in distress and finding derelicts. Congress did not appropriate any funding to support the operation, however, and the station was closed in 1921.

In 1925, LCDR C. C. von Paulsen borrowed a Vought UO-1 seaplane from the Navy. Operating from Squantum, MA and later Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, he demonstrated the potential of aviation in combating the smuggling of whiskey. Prohibition had become the law of the land in 1920 and soon its enforcement became the dominant mission of the Coast Guard. As a result, Congress appropriated $152,000 for five aircraft, the first to be owned by the service. Three Loening OL-5 amphibians and two Chance Vought UO4s were purchased. These aircraft were flown from air stations at Gloucester, MA and Cape May, NJ, until 1931 when they were replaced. Thus, Coast Guard aviation owed its first aircraft to the mission of law enforcement.  The air station at Cape May was the first permanent Coast Guard air station and was first commissioned in 1926. 

By the late 1920s the search and rescue clientele had changed primarily from coastal sailors to oceangoing motor ships. Ships moved their trade routes farther out to sea away from the dangers of the shoreline as the use of steam and diesel engines for propulsion and steel for construction increased. Now when emergencies arose, they were frequently far off the coast. In 1928 an aviation section was established at Coast Guard Headquarters under the command of Commander Norman Hall.  It drew up specifications for a multi-mission aircraft which, given the technology of the day, could be met only by a large seaplane or amphibian. To aid distressed mariners, the Coast Guard developed the concept of the "flying lifeboats." These aircraft could fly hundreds of miles, land in an open and frequently uninviting sea, and carry out a rescue. Seven aircraft were acquired, two Douglas Dolphin RD-2s, which were modified to Coast Guard requirements, and five General Aviation Flying Life Boat PJ-1s which were specifically designed for the service. All were named for important stars. These aircraft were involved in numerous rescues. In one such incident LCDR Carl von Paulsen set the Arcturus down in a heavy sea in January 1933 off Cape Canaveral and rescued a boy adrift in a skiff. The aircraft sustained so much damage during the open water landing that it could not take off. This was the fate on a number of ocean rescues that had to be tried when no other rescue craft could be directed to the scene by the aircraft. Ultimately, Arcturus washed onto the beach and all including the boy were saved. 

In 1934 Henry Morgenthau became the Secretary of the Treasury.  He was an aviation enthusiast and supported its expansion within the Coast Guard.  He transferred the aviation detachment of the Customs Service to the Coast Guard in 1934.  In fact, the materiel benefits of this transfer were small because they introduced into the Coast Guard a conglomeration of aircraft that were mostly poor in condition and impossible to maintain. Notwithstanding, the Secretary’s enthusiasm for Coast Guard aviation was important to its development. He obtained Public Works Administration (PWA) funds for the purchase of new aircraft and additional air stations.  By 1936 the Coast Guard had six Air Stations, two Air Detachments and 42 aircraft.

Also during the 1930s, the marriage between the cutter and aircraft took place.  The 327-foot cutters embarked either a Grumman JF-2 or Curtiss SOC-4 amphibians. These aircraft-equipped cutters were designed to patrol against opium smuggling off the West Coast and fisheries violations in Alaskan waters, and to serve on plane guard duty in the Atlantic to protect the embryonic transcontinental commercial air service. By the end of 1938 there were 50 aircraft, seven Air Stations and two Air Detachments.

World War II accelerated the growth of aviation within all of the armed services including the Coast Guard. Coast Guard aviation played a critical role in the defense of Greenland.  Prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, the cutter Duane, with a Curtiss SOC-4 on board, surveyed the coast of Greenland for potential airfield sites during the summer of 1941. The Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy Department on 1.11.1941.

After fighting began, aircraft flying from cutters searched for and helped locate German weather stations in the frozen northern areas of Greenland.  These stations were providing critical data to U-boats operating in the North Atlantic. The stations were captured by the Coast Guard.  Also, Coast Guard aircraft performed harrowing rescues by flying through snow storms and landing on the ice cap to aid distressed Allied air crews who had crashed while attempting to ferry aircraft across the Atlantic.  During one such rescue in December 1942, LT John Pritchard and Radioman Benjamin Bottoms lost their lives after having rescued part of a B-17 air crew the previous day.  In late 1943, Patrol Bombing Squadron Six was activated in Argentia, Newfoundland in October, 1943.  The new squadron of 30 officers and 145 enlisted men flew from their home base on Narsarssuak, Greenland, code-named Bluie-West One, or BW-1.  These brave arctic flyers flew the venerable Consolidated PBY-5A Catalinas on anti-submarine and search and rescue patrols.

Back along the American coasts, Coast Guard aircraft patrolled for U-boats. In August 1942 a Grumman J4F Widgeon flown by Chief Aviation Pilot Henry White was given credit for sinking the U-166 in the Gulf of Mexico, although this credit is now in question.  Nevertheless White's J4F is on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola,FL. Coast Guard aircraft also searched for merchant mariners who were the victims of enemy torpedo attacks. During the war, Coast Guard aircraft found one thousand survivors and directed rescue units to the scene. Coast Guard aircrews rescued one hundred survivors additionally by landing in the open sea. On occasion, the aircraft had to taxi ashore because weight of those rescued prevented the aircraft from taking off.

By 1941 the Coast Guard was very interested in developing the helicopter for search and rescue. LCDR William Kossler had represented the Coast Guard on an inter-agency board formed in 1938 for the evaluation of experimental aircraft, including the helicopter.  However, World War II interrupted these plans.  The Coast Guard, was tasked in early 1943 with developing the helicopter for antisubmarine warfare.  Sikorsky HNS-1 and HOS-1 helicopters were ordered and pilot training began at Air Station Brooklyn. Coast Guard personnel trained British pilots who undertook a joint British-American helicopter trial on board the merchant ship Daghestan. In fact, during the war all Allied helicopter pilots were trained by the Coast Guard at AIRSTA Brooklyn.  The Daghestan, fitted with a landing deck and carrying two HNS-1 helicopters, crossed the Atlantic in convoy in November 1943.

Additional helicopter evaluation tests were carried out on the cutter Cobb. This old coastal passenger ship had been converted into the world’s first helicopter carrier. On 29.6.1944 CDR Frank Erickson made the first landing on its deck in Long Island Sound. As the war progressed and the U-boat threat moved deeper into the North Atlantic and then abated, the service re-oriented its helicopter research from antisubmarine warfare to search and rescue. CDR Erickson pioneered this Coast Guard activity, developing much of the rescue equipment himself and carrying out the first lifesaving flight. He delivered two cases of blood plasma lashed to an HNS-1’s floats following the explosion on board the destroyer USS Turner off Sandy Hook on 3.1.1944.

One of the early helicopter’s most successful rescues occurred in 1945. A Royal Canadian Air Force plane crashed in a remote area of Labrador.  Two ski-equipped aircraft tried to rescue the nine survivors; however, one crashed on landing and the other was trapped on the ground by the snow after having successfully flown out two survivors. The only way to rescue the remaining men was by helicopter. A Coast Guard HNS-1 was disassembled at Air Station Brooklyn, loaded into a C-54 transport and airlifted to Goose Bay, Labrador. There, LT August Kleisch flew it 150 miles to a staging station and then on 35 miles more to the crash site. Obstacles such as a frozen engine and skis that would freeze solid to the ground were overcome and all were rescued. In 1943 an Air Sea Rescue Squadron was formed at San Diego,CA. The primary impetus for this was the increasing number of offshore crashes, mostly by student pilots.  These were the result of the rapid expansion of military aviation during the war. Initially, the amphibious PBY-5A and high speed rescue craft were chosen as the rescue vehicles and additional squadrons were formed. In December 1944 the Office of Air Sea Rescue was established at Coast Guard Headquarters. By 1945 Air Sea Rescue was responsible for 165 aircraft and nine air stations.  During that year, it had responded to 686 plane crashes. The PBY-5As were replaced by Martin PBM-5Gs following the war.

The U.S. Navy returned eleven Air Stations to the operational control of the U.S. Coast Guard on 30.6.1946.

The post-World War II years brought an explosion in the number of recreational boats and created a new search and rescue clientele. The helicopter was ideally suited to this mission. Able to react swiftly, it could lift entire pleasure boat crews from imminent disaster, or in less trying circumstances, deliver de-watering pumps and fuel. Admittedly, during its early years the helicopter had a major handicap--the pilot needed three hands in order to fly it. Soon, helicopters rescuing distressed boaters became a commonplace event.

The versatility of the helicopter was demonstrated during a series of floods which occurred in the United States during the 1950s. To carry out this kind of rescue work, the helicopter had to hover among trees, telephone poles, television antennas and the like. In 1955 Coast Guard helicopters rescued more than 300 people as rivers overflowed in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In December of that year the Coast Guard on-scene commander directed the rescue of thousands in California.  Included among the 21 rescue aircraft were Coast Guard helicopters. In one incident an H04S rescued 138 people during a 12-hour period; this was accomplished by two air crews. The helicopter soon grew from a thoroughbred requiring pampering to keep it flying to a reliable workhorse.

The responsibilities of Coast Guard fixed wing aviation also increased following World War II. In 1946, Coast Guard aircraft were used for the first time on the International Ice Patrol, a practice that continues today. The primary objective of these Ice Patrol flights is to observe ice floating in the vicinity of the Grand Banks, so that shipping in that well-traveled area can be advised of current conditions throughout the iceberg season. Ice Patrol flight tracks are normally between 1,000 and 1,500 nautical miles long (from six to eight hours’ flight time). Since 1983 the flights have used HC-130H aircraft carrying Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) equipment as the primary reconnaissance tool. At the normal altitude of 8,000 feet, the SLAR can cover a swath extending 35 miles on each side of the aircraft.

After the end of World War II, Coast Guard aircraft were also used increasingly to intercept and escort aircraft that were experiencing mechanical problems. The presence of the Coast Guard aircraft was reassuring to both passengers and flight crews.  During the 1950s, the Coast Guard developed open-ocean ditching techniques that are still in use by commercial airliners today through the experiments conducted by CAPT Donald MacDiarmid. In 1986 Donald MacDiarmid was enshrined in the Naval Aviation Museum, in Pensacola, Florida. In 1959 the Coast Guard obtained its first Lockheed HC-130B Hercules. Large, rugged, and extremely reliable, this aircraft could cruise on two of its four engines thereby greatly extending its range.

North Korean forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel in June of 1950 resulting in the Korean War. The Coast Guard remained under the Treasury Department throughout the conflict. The Navy requested that the Coast Guard assume the responsibility for port security and for additional ocean stations and search and rescue capability in the Pacific. During the Korean War, the Coast Guard established Air Detachments throughout the Pacific. These detachments, located at Sangley Point in the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, Adak, and Barbers Point in the Hawaiian Islands conducted search and rescue to safeguard the tens of thousands of United Nations troops that were being airlifted across the Pacific. In January 1953 a PBM flying from Sangley landed in 12-foot seas in an attempt to rescue a Navy P-2V crew. The Coast Guard amphibian crashed on take off when an engine failed. Five Coast Guard and four Navy men lost their lives.

In 1963 the first of the HH-52A helicopters, a joint project with Sikorsky Aircraft, came on board. The HH-52A, with over 15,000 lives saved in its twenty-five years of service, has the honor of having rescued more persons than any other helicopter in the world. It became the international icon for rescue and proved the worth of the helicopter many times over. Aircraft continued to be added to the inventory. Existing Air Stations were upgraded, new Air Stations were added, and consolidation took place where warranted -- all in a systematic sequence of events to facilitate and accommodate the expanding role of Coast Guard Aviation.

The Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Transportation in 1967 after having spent 52 years in the Treasury Department.

Aviators were among the 7,000 Coast Guard personnel who served in Vietnam. The Navy requested assistance in off-shore surveillance patrols to interdict vessels supplying Viet Cong forces. Seventeen 82 footers were sent and conducted what was known as Operation Market Time. Coast Guard presence continued to grow and in 1967 a pilot exchange program between the Air Force and Coast Guard was initiated. Coast Guard aviators, primarily helicopter pilots, served with Combat Rescue Units in Vietnam. In April 1968 three Coast Guard helicopter pilots were assigned to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Da Nang, Vietnam.  Pilots were assigned there until November 1972 while their Air Force counterparts were assigned to stateside Coast Guard air stations. One Coast Guard pilot, LT Jack Rittichier, died in a rescue attempt. He was attempting to pick up a downed Marine Corps flier when his helicopter took heavy ground fire, touched down, and burst into flames.

The helicopter continued to be a primary rescue tool into the 1980s and the foreseeable future. In 1980 over 100,000 refugees fled communist Cuba. Many risked their lives in unsafe craft to cross the Straits of Florida. The rescue of those on board the Olo Yumi is illustrative of the situation confronting the Coast Guard. On the morning of 17.5.1980 the pleasure craft Olo Yumi, carrying 52 persons, sank when the people on board panicked because of rough seas, ran to the stern, and caused water to come over the transom. 

A Sikorsky HH-52A on patrol from the cutter Courageous (WMEC-622) sighted the people in the water and began rescue operations. Eleven survivors were hoisted to the helicopter. Other Coast Guard helicopters and Courageous rescued 38 survivors and recovered 10 bodies. The boat had been grossly overloaded. The HH-52A, now replaced by the Aerospatiale HH-65 Dolphin, rescued more persons from distress than any other helicopter in the world to that time.

In October 1980, the Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican, the service’s medium range helicopter, was the primary rescue vehicle when hundreds of individuals, mostly senior-citizens, were plucked from bobbing lifeboats some 200 miles out in the Gulf of Alaska. This followed a fire on board the cruise ship Prinsendam and was one of the most successful maritime rescues in history. The Pelican, the last amphibian helicopter in the Coast Guard's inventory, was retired from service in 1994. 

With the increasing responsibilities in defense readiness, law enforcement, fisheries patrol, and environmental protection, the Coast Guard acquired a new generation of aircraft to replacing its aging fleet. During the 1980s, 1990s, and into the new century, the primary aircraft in the Coast Guard inventory were the HU-25A, HU-25B, and HU-25C Guardian, the HC-130H Hercules, the HH-65A and HH-65B Dolphin, and the HH-60J Jayhawk. The HU-25C Guardian is the service’s first multi-mission jet. It is nearly twice as fast as any aircraft in the inventory and can get to the scene quickly to perform its role. Sixteen new HC-130H Hercules turboprop aircraft have joined the Coast Guard fleet and replaced earlier models. The primary missions of the Hercules are long-range surveillance and transport.

The HH-65 helicopters serve as the Coast Guard's primary search and rescue aircraft and these twin engine Dolphins can operate up to 150 miles off shore and will fly comfortably at 150 knots for three hours. The HH-60J now served as the service’s medium range helicopter. The Coast Guard also continued its long-standing practice of utilizing surplus aircraft from the other services when it acquired eight Grumman E-2C aircraft from Navy stocks beginning in 1987.  They were used as surveillance aircraft in the drug war and formed Coast Guard Airborne Warning Squadron One (or CGAW-1). Unfortunately, one crashed in 1990 while landing at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, killing all five crewmen aboard.

The Coast Guard began leasing MH-68A helicopters to outfit a new squadron, HITRON-10, formed to augment the service's capabilities in the continuing fight against narcotics smuggling. The squadron was developed specifically to combat the drug-smugglers' use of what are called "go-fast" boats. These MH-68s carry an armed Coast Guardsman who, if needed, could use his .50 caliber sniper rifle to disable a "go-fast" boat that refused a demand to stop and be boarded. This is not the first time Coast Guard aircraft were armed during peacetime; Loening OL-5s carried .30 caliber Lewis guns during the service's earlier fight to enforce Prohibition.

To assist those in distress and to patrol national waters, the Coast Guard flies some 200 aircraft from 27 air stations, large and small, throughout the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard is the seventh largest naval air force in the world. Coast Guard aviation, rotary and fixed wing, moves into the future proud of its past and confident of its future.

On 1.3.2003, the Coast Guard was formally transferred from the Department of Transportation to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard Aviation transformation Plan was developed in 2003. The twin engined turboprop CASA CN-235 is planned to start coming on board in 2005 to replace the HU-25. The present HC-130s will be reduced in number but will undergo an upgrade. The HH-65B and the HH-60J will undergo an upgrade. The Bell Agusta AB-139 is scheduled to replace the HH-60Js. A short range UAV such as the Bell Eagle Eye, designed to be embarked on cutters, is in the development and testing stage. The Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV will be acquired for for high altitude, long endurance, surveillance operations.


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First Created: 5 October 2005 - Last Revised: 5 October 2005
Copyright © 2005 Erich Klaus.     e-mail: erich.klaus@a1.net