History of USCG Air Service

By Robert Scheina

The Coast Guard was introduced to aviation in 1903 when surfmen from the Kill Devil Hill Lifeboat Station in North Carolina provided the Wright brothers with added muscle during the pre-launch activities of that epic flight. Three surfmen helped carry the fragile biplane from its shelter to the launch site on December 17. Surfman J T Daniels took the only photograph of the event using the Wrights' camera.

    The first practical steps toward a Coast Guard air arm occurred in early 1915 when Lts Elmer Stone and Norman Hall conceived of using aircraft for 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 demo flights in school aircraft. A Curtiss F flying boat was used for much of the experiment, but it lacked navigational equipment and never ventured beyond sight of land. In spite of 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 USCG to establish ten air stations, but no money was appropriated and this effort was stillborn.

    During WW1, Coast Guard aviators were assigned to naval air stations in the USA and abroad. One Coast Guardsman commanded Ile Tudy NAS, France, and won the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Another commanded Chatham NAS, 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.

    A by-product of the war effort was the stimulus and potential to fly the Atlantic. In May 1919, four Navy Curtiss seaplanes began the great experiment. One plane, NC-4, captained by USN LCdr A C Read and piloted by USCG Lt Elmer Stone, ultimately succeeded. In 1983, Stone was the first USCG pilot enshrined in the Naval Aviation Museum.

A second false start for Coast Guard aviation occurred in March 1920. The USCG's first air station was established at Morehead City NC when the service took over the abandoned NAS and borrowed a few HS-2L flying boats and Aeromarine 40s from the Navy. The aircraft were particularly useful at locating those in distress and finding derelicts. Funds, however, were not provided to support the operation and the CGAS was closed on July 1, 1921.

    Despite the early promise of aviation, the USCG did not receive any money from Congress during or immediately after the war. In 1925, Ldr C G von Paulsen borrowed a 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 liquor. Prohibition became law in 1920 and soon its enforcement became the dominant mission of the USCG. As a result, Congress appropriated $152,000 for the first aircraft owned by the service, three OL-5 amphibians and two UO4s, which were flown from Gloucester and Cape May NJ until 1931, when they were replaced. Thus USCG aviation owed its first aircraft to the mission of law enforcement.

By the late 1920s, 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 and, when emergencies arose, they were often far off the coast. In 1928, an aviation section was established at USCG HQ under the command of Cdr 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 lifeboat." These aircraft could fly hundreds of miles, land in an open and frequently uninviting sea, and carry out a rescue. Two RD-2s, modified to USCG requirements, and five PJ-15 Flying Life Boats specifically designed for the service were acquired,.

    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 were saved.

In 1934, Secy of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, an aviation advocate, transferred the Customs Service aviation detachment to the USCG in 1934. Materiel benefits of this transfer were small because they furnished a conglomeration of aircraft that were mostly in poor condition and impossible to maintain. Despite this, the Secretary's enthusiasm for USCG aviation was important to its development. He obtained Public Works Administration funds for the purchase of new aircraft and additional air stations. By 1936 the USCG had six air stations, two air detachments, and 42 aircraft.

    Also during the '30s a marriage between the cutter and aircraft took place. 327-foot cutters, each eqipped with a JF-2 amphibian, patrolled against opium smuggling off the West Coast, fishing violations in Alaskan waters, and to serve on airplane guard duty in the Atlantic to protect the embryonic transcontinental commercial air service.

WW2 accelerated the growth of aviation within all of the armed services, including the USCG, whose aircraft played a critical role in the defense of Greenland. Prior to our nation's entry into the war, the cutter Duane, with a SOC-4 on board, surveyed the coast of Greenland for potential airfield sites during the summer of 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 USCG. Also, USCG aircraft performed harrowing rescues by flying through snow storms and landing on the ice cap to aid Allied air crews who had crashed while attempting to ferry aircraft across the Atlantic. In late 1943, Patrol Bombing Sqn Six was activated in Greenland.

    Back along the American coasts, USCG aircraft patrolled for U-boats. In August 1942, a J4F flown by Chief Avn Pilot Henry White sank U-166 in the Gulf of Mexico — this plane is on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. USCG aircraft also searched for merchant mariners who were victims of enemy torpedos. During the war USCG aircraft found 1,000 survivors and directed rescue units to the scene. Coast Guard aircrews rescued 100 survivors additionally by landing in the open sea and sometimes had to taxi to shore because weight of those rescued prevented the aircraft from taking off.

By 1941, the USCG was interested in developing the helicopter for search and rescue (SAR). LCdr William Kossler had represented the USCG on an inter-agency board formed in 1938 for the evaluation of experimental aircraft, including the helicopter. However, WW2 interrupted these plans. USCG, incorporated into the Navy on Nov 1, 1941, was tasked in early 1943 with developing the helicopter for antisubmarine warfare. HNS-1 and HOS-1 helicopters were ordered and pilot training began at Brooklyn Air Station. USCG 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 USCG at Brooklyn Air Station. Doghestan, 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. The old coastal passenger ship had been converted into the world's first helicopter carrier. On June 29, 1944, Cdr Frank Erickson made the first landing on its deck in Long Island Sound.

As the war progressed and the U-boat threat began to abate, the service reoriented its helicopter research from antisub warfare to SAR. Erickson pioneered this USCG 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 destroyer Turner off Sandy Hook on Jan 3, 1944.

    One of the early helicopter's most successful rescues occurred in 1945. When a RCAF plane crashed in a remote area of Labrador, two skiplanes went to the rescue; however, one crashed on landing and the other was trapped on the ground by snow after rescuing two survivors. Then a USCG HNS-1 was disassembled at Brooklyn Air Station, loaded into a C-54 transport, and airlifted to Goose Bay for reassembly. There Lt August Kleisch flew 150 miles to a staging station, then 35 miles more to the crash site, and rescued the men.

    In 1943 an Air Sea Rescue Squadron was formed at San Diego. The primary impetus for this was the increasing number of offshore crashes, mostly by student pilots, a result of the rapid expansion of military aviation during the war. Initially, amphibious PBY-5As and high-speed rescue craft were chosen as the vehicles, and additional squadrons were formed. In December 1944 the Office of Air Sea Rescue was established at USCG HQ. By 1945 Air Sea Rescue was responsible for 165 aircraft and nine air stations. During that year, it had responded to 686 crashes. PBY-5As were replaced by PBM-5Gs after the war.

The post-war 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 impending disaster, or in less trying circumstances deliver water pumps and fuel. Soon, helicopters rescuing boaters became a commonplace event.

    Versatility of helicopters was demonstrated during a series of floods in the '50s. In 1955 USCG helicopters rescued more than 300 people as rivers overflowed in the Northeast. In December that year, the USCG on-scene commander directed the rescue of thousands in California. Included among the 21 rescue aircraft were USCG helicopters. In one incident, an H045 rescued 138 people during a 12-hour period — that was accomplished by two aircrews.

    Responsibilities of USCG fixed-wing aviation also increased following WW2. In 1946, USCG aircraft were used for the first time on the International Ice Patrol, tracking ice floes in the vicinity of the Grand Banks and advising shipping in that well-travelled area of current conditions during iceberg season. Such flights are normally between 1,000 and 1,500 nautical miles long — six to eight hours' flight time.

After WW2, USCG aircraft were also used increasingly to intercept and escort aircraft that were experiencing mechanical problems. During the '50s, the USCG developed open-ocean ditching techniques still in use by commercial airliners today through the experiments conducted by Capt Donald MacDiarmid.

    During the Korean War, the USCG established SAR detachments throughout the Pacific to safeguard tens of thousands of UN troops that were being airlifted across the Pacific. Aviators were among the 7,000 USCG personnel who served in Vietnam.

    In 1980, more than 100,000 refugees fled Cuba, risking their lives in unsafe craft to cross the Straits of Florida, and rescue of those aboard the Olo Yumi was typical of a situation. On May 17 the craft carrying 52 refugees sank when they panicked in rough seas, ran to the stern, and caused water to flood over the transom. An HH-52 on patrol from the cutter Courageous sighted the people in the water and began rescue operations, hoisting 11 survivors aboard the helicopter. Other USCG helicopters and Courageous rescued 38 more survivors and recovered 10 bodies — the boat had been grossly overloaded. The HH-52, now replaced by HH-65, has rescued more persons from distress than any other helicopter in the world.

    In October 1980, the medium-range HH-3F was the primary rescue vehicle when hundreds of individuals were plucked from lifeboats some 200 miles out in the Gulf of Alaska following a fire on board the cruise ship Prinsendam in one of the most successful maritime rescues in history.

With increasing responsibilities in defense readiness, law enforcement, fisheries patrol, and environmental protection, the USCG has acquired a new generation of aircraft — HH-65A, HH-60, the long-range HC-130H, and HU-25A, the service's first multi-mission jet.

    To assist those in distress and to patrol national waters, the USCG flies nearly 200 aircraft from 26 air stations in the continental USA, Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. The USCG is the seventh largest naval air force in the world.

    (-- Reprinted courtesy of USCG Air Station Savannah, 1/3/01)