Coast Guard Aviation at 100 Years: A Century In Harm’s Way, Part 1


This is the first of a two part series on the centennial of Coast Guard Aviation.  To see the other article, which covers the years later than this article, click here.

The First Five Decades…

The U.S. Coast Guard’s history with aviation spans less than half its existence, but the impact of heavier-than-air vehicles on Coast Guard missions over the past century bears at least a mention here. While not a full history, here are some of the actions and anecdotes that have shaped today’s Coast Guard flying missions.

In the Beginning… In 1903, more than a decade before the start aviation activities by what became the Coast Guard, a trio of Surfmen from their nearby U.S. Life-Saving Service facility helped carry supplies from the Wright Brother’s camp to the hill near Kitty Hawk NC, where the Wright Flyer acheived their first heavier-than-air flight. Surfman J.T. Daniels even pushed the shutter button on the camera that captured the now-iconic photograph that proved the Wright Flyer succeeded in becoming airborne.

In 1915, the federal U. S. Life-Saving Service combined with the Revenue Cutter Service and became the Coast Guard, which operated under the Treasury Department. Around the same time, Lieutenants Elmer Stone and Norman Hall presented their idea of using aircraft to assist with Coast Guard lifesaving missions to their superior, Captain Benjamin Chiswell. The Captain backed them, and Stone and Hall approached members of the (Glenn) Curtiss Flying School, of Newport News VA, which lent a flying boat to conduct trials with. The use of aircraft was validated, and Stone and Hall’s ideas went up the chain of command, and were accepted there too. Now, the Coast Guard needed their own pilots and planes.

On April 1, 2016, Third Lieutenant Elmer Stone and Second Lieutenant Charles Sugden were formally ordered to NAS Pensacola to begin naval flight training. Other Coast Guard officers followed them, while Second Lieutenant Norman Hall was ordered to a Curtiss factory to study aeronautical engineering on October 28th. These activities have become the official beginning of Coast Guard Aviation.

On March 22, 1917, Lieutenant Stone graduated from flight school, becoming Naval Aviator number 38, and more importantly, Coast Guard Aviator number 1.

World War I… The Coast Guard was absorbed into the U.S. Navy during World War I. Although approved on paper, no Coast Guard aviation facilities existed, and no aircraft were officially Coast Guard-owned. By now, almost a dozen Coast Guard officers had earned their Wings of Gold, and became Commanding Officers at various Naval Air Stations. Lt. Sugden became the Commanding Officer of Naval Air Station Ille Tudy, France. Another Coast Guard pilot flying a Navy flying boat reportedly attacked a German U-boat off of the Massachusetts coast, but did not sink it. In October, 1917, Lt. Elmer Stone became a Seaplane Test Pilot, and began work on the Navy’s first aircraft carrier project, the U.S.S. Langley.

Between the World Wars…

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Curtiss NC-4

After the war, the Coast Guard reverted back to the U.S. Treasury Department. Aviation had been put on the back burner; the Coast Guard still didn’t have any runways or aircraft to call its own. While still attached to the Navy, Lt. Stone was transferred to a special project to pilot one of four Navy seaplanes across the Atlantic Ocean, a feat never accomplished. Between May 8 – 17, 1919, Lt. Stone and crew flew the Curtiss NC-4 from NAS Rockaway, NY to the Azores Islands, via Canada. After the fanfare of this world record journey receded, Lt. Stone remained on loan to the Navy.

On March 24, 1920, the first Coast Guard Air Station was opened at Morehead City, NC. On strength were six borrowed Navy seaplanes. The base closed shortly after a year later due to lack of funds. During work in 1921 and 1922, Lt. Stone was instrumental in the development of a Navy shipboard gun powder aircraft catapult system, as well as for catapult and arresting gear aboard the U.S.S. Langley aircraft carrier.

Although there were plans to open ten Air Stations in 1919, it would not be until 1924 when more permanent funding was appropriated. In 1925, a Coast Guard Air Unit was established on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, MA. It was equipped with a loaned Navy aircraft, and was intended to assist in patrolling for, and apprehending smugglers during the Prohibition. Later in the year, an aircraft helped subdue a “rum runner” – a first in Coast Guard law enforcement. With proof that airborne patrols were beneficial against smugglers, Congress finally appropriated funding for five Coast Guard aircraft.

In 1926, Cape May, NJ became home to the first permanent Coast Guard Air Station, with three of the five aforementioned aircraft assigned to it. The Ten Pound Island Air Unit got the other two aircraft. In the same year, Coast Guard Radio Electricians Art Descoteaux and Clyde Solt developed the first airborne radio direction finder system using a loop antenna to home in on signals. Improvements in radio equipment and procedures enhanced the Coast Guard’s detection and interdiction of smugglers off of the New England coastline.

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Douglas RD-4 Dolphin

Coast Guard Headquarters set up an aviation section in 1928, under the leadership of now-Commander Norman Hall. Requirements for Coast Guard “flying lifeboats” that could perform patrols and rescues by landing on the open sea were identified. During the 1930s, the capabilities of Coast Guard aircraft to warn mariners of danger, assist with navigation of lost ships, medevac serious injuries from alongside ships, and rescuing people from ships in distress were all proven. In 1932, Congress allowed the Coast Guard to independently design aircraft for their own missions, not having to rely on other service branch’s design.

In 1934, three Air Detachments were set up in Buffalo NY, San Diego CA, and San Antonio TX to aid in reducing cross-border smuggling activities. In 1935, now-LCDR Elmer Stone, back to Coast Guard duties, set a new world speed record for single-engined amphibians. Coast Guard seaplanes began operating from purpose-built 327 foot Treasury Class Coast Guard Cutters in 1936. Additionally, the Coast Guard was directed to perform the duties required of the International Ice Patrol. This service began a year after the RMS Titanic sank, and the Coast Guard – aside for the World War II years when it was suspended – assumed the Patrol as a priority duty.

Standardized aircraft paint schemes throughout the Coast Guard were adopted by 1936. In part, requirements included “The upper third of each side of the rudder shall be painted insignia blue with a clear cut horizontal line at the lower boundary. Five vertical stripes of equal width shall be applied to the remaining section of each side of the rudder. The first stripe shall be red, the second white, the third red, the fourth white, and the fifth red. The airplane model designation shall be painted in white in two inch block letters on the upper part of the rudder (on both sides) in the blue field.” Additionally, “The upper surface of the upper wing, including the upper surface of the ailerons, shall be chrome yellow in color. All other wing surfaces shall be aluminum color. The upper surfaces of the elevator and horizontal stabilizer shall be chrome yellow. The exterior of the hull, wing tip floats, fuselage, cowling, landing gear, nacelles, ring cowl, struts, etc., shall be aluminum in color unless otherwise specified. Steps, walkways and handgrips shall be painted insignia blue or black.”

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Curtiss  SOC-4

By the end of 1938, the Coast Guard had expanded to ten Air Stations and operated 50 aircraft. In 1939, Coast Guard personnel and aircraft began Neutrality Patrols with war in Europe becoming a reality.

World War II…

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CGAS Elizabeth City NC, 1942

On November 1, 1941, the Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy via an Executive Order. Before the U.S. declared war, Coast Guard personnel and aircraft patrolled for suspicious activity, especially for Axis submarine activity. Immediately after the U.S. declared war, anti-submarine patrols were organized. Air Stations at Elizabeth City NC and San Francisco CA were established. Aircraft were painted in wartime colors, mostly dictated by Navy regulations. Coast Guardsmen performed many rescues of ships’ crews after they abandoned their sinking vessels.

In 1942, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, made the important request that the Coast Guard take over the development of helicopters for military service. This was directed towards the use of shipborne helicopters to aid in the protection of merchant shipping. Additionally, in 1943, the Navy assigned the Coast Guard all search and rescue (SAR) duties over its entire jurisdiction.

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The Coast Guard patrolled along both U.S. coasts and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The North Atlantic was a key transportation corridor, and the only fully-manned Coast Guard Patrol Squadron, made up of PBY Catalinas and known as VP-6 (CG), was based in Argentia, Newfoundland, Canada as well as at fields in Greenland and Iceland. PBYs and OS2U Kingfishers (among many types) flew anti-submarine patrols armed with depth charges.

On October 5, 1943, USCG Commander Frank Erickson, who was the first certified Coast Guard helicopter pilot, delivered blood plasma from his early Sikorsky to an off shore ship after an explosion injured many. This was the first helicopter rescue mission. A year later, experiments by Commander Stuart Graham (the second Coast Guard helicopter aviator) validated landings and takeoffs from a British freighter to investigate the helicopter’s use as an anti-submarine platform. Coast Guard visionaries saw this vehicle as a great rescue aircraft, but the Navy, which controlled the finances during wartime, was only interested in combat machines. Thus, a combination of sub-hunting and rescue duties were specified when the first Sikorsky helicopters were ordered before the end of the war.

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Martin PBM Mariner

In 1944, the Commandant of the Coast Guard was named head of the U.S. Air-Sea Rescue Agency. The next year, a group of Coast Guardsmen were sent to NAS Lakehurst NJ for airship training, although it seems that the Coast Guard never operated airships in that era. CMDRs Erickson and Graham continued to pursue helicopter integration within the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard’s Auxiliary Aviation function was formed in September, 1945.

Post World War II to the Golden Anniversary…

In 1946, the Navy returned 11 Air Stations it had taken over from the Coast Guard at the onset of World War II. The U.S. Air-Sea Rescue Agency was renamed as the Search and Rescue Agency, and the Coast Guard became heavily involved with the International Ice Patrol, making airborne observations. During the iceberg season in the first half of 1949, the Ice Patrol was completed by using only aerial observations, a first.

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Consolidated P4Y Privateer

After the war, surplus long-ranged patrol aircraft were readily available, and Martin PBM Mariner, Consolidated PB4Y-2G Privateer, and Boeing PB-1G Fortress aircraft were used for search and rescue (SAR) duties, as well as for ice patrol and photo mapping missions through the early 1950s. Newer Martin P5M Marlin, Douglas R5D Skymasters, and Grumman HU-16 Albatross aircraft followed through the late 1950s.

When the Korean War broke out, Coast Guard SAR aircraft were present to assist. One PBM Mariner had rescued part of a downed Navy patrol bomber crew, and crashed on takeoff in heavy seas. Five Coast Guardsmen perished on this rescue mission. Another important duty the Coast Guard performed was to keep the LORAN (Long Range Aid to Navigation) radio stations operational in the Pacific Ocean. Initiated during World War II, this land and aerial navigation system expanded world-wide, and would continue to be maintained by the Coast Guard.

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Sikorsky HO4S

In 1952, a detachment of three helicopters was established at Air Station in Brooklyn NY for port security operations. Additionally, by 1952 another standardized paint scheme saw large patrol aircraft painted mostly silver with yellow bands and upper wing surfaces. Helicopters were to be bright yellow with black letters.

Around this same time, the Coast Guard began to receive Sikorsky HO4S Chickasaw helicopters, which was the first to have a fully enclosed cabin that could seat 10 passengers, and a dedicated rescue hoist. It was a version of the Air Force HH-19, and was a large jump up in performance from the few Sikorsky R-5 and R-6 aircraft used since the end of World War II. Totaling around 30 airframes, the HO4S remained in service until 1966. Although improved HH-34 helicopters were delivered beginning in 1959, the HO4S didn’t fully retire until newer HH-52As began operations.

In 1957, Bobby Wilks earned his wings and became Coast Guard Aviator Number 735. Wilks was the first African American to earn the honor; he ultimately attained the rank of Captain, fly over 6,000 hours in 18 different types of aircraft, and commanded a Coast Guard Air Station. He was the Project Officer for the Sikorsky HH-3 Pelican during its introduction phase too.

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Martin P5M Marlin

In 1958, the first of eight Fairchild C-123B Providers were brought on board to assist in maintaining the LORAN stations around the world. The type was retired in 1972. Also, about 80 Grumman HU-16/UF-1G/2G Albatross amphibians were acquired, beginning in 1951. The last Martin P-5M Mariner flying boat was retired in 1960, leaving the smaller Grumman amphibian as the last fixed wing seaplane in the inventory.

The introduction of the Lockheed HC-130B Hercules occurred in the 1959/1960 timeframe. Used for long range security and economic patrols, Ice Patrol, and rescue missions, various versions are still in use today, 56 years later. The HC-130s enabled the last piston engine patrol aircraft to retire. In 1963, the first Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguard made its debut; the first Coast Guard turbine helicopter made another large leap in aircraft performance and capabilities… 99 were built, and featured a waterproof hull allowing the helicopter to land on relatively smooth water… the Coast Guard’s first true amphibious helicopter.

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Grumman HU-16 Albatross and Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguard

By 1966 the Coast Guard had been in the aviation business for 50 years. Right around the corner, another war loomed, new missions identified and different aircraft were sought out.

This is the first of a two part series on the centennial of Coast Guard Aviation.  To see the other article, which covers the years later than this article, click here.


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