In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and Life-Saving Service were merged to create the United States Coast Guard. The beginning of a Coast Guard air arm came soon afterward: On Aug. 29, 1916. President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act establishing an “Aerial Coast Patrol.” Coast Guardsmen planned a “flying surfboat” by putting wings on a simple seagoing vessel. Later, they pioneered the offshore patrol work with seaplanes like the F-Boat designed by Glenn H. Curtiss. The helicopter was still some time away – rotorcraft did not come into wide use until the mid-1940s – but the Coast Guard soon undertook the kinds of missions that helicopters would later fulfill.
Lt. Cmdr. C. G. von Paulsen borrowed a Vought UO-1 seaplane from the Navy to demonstrate the potential of aviation to combat the scourge of liquor smuggling during the Prohibition years. Operating from Squantum, Massachusetts, von Paulsen’s daily flights substantially curtailed smuggling in his area.
During the 1930s, some aircraft were deployed on board cutters for the first time. Most 327-foot cutters boasted a Grumman JF-2 Duck amphibian to assist with opium smuggling patrols off the west coast, fishery patrols in Alaskan waters, and a standby for search and rescue missions.
On May 13, 1940, Igor I. Sikorsky made his first public flight of his VS-300, deemed the United States’ first practical helicopter. Coast Guard Cmdr. William J. Kossler was on the scene to observe. Though Kossler knew the Coast Guard was a small service with limited resources, he felt the service had a place for rotary wing aviation. Kossler was back at the Sikorsky plant on April 20, 1942, for the first public demonstration of the HNS-1, known in Army jargon as an R-4. The HNS-1 looked like a jungle gym of metal girders wrapped in fabric – it was not canvas, as widely reported, but linen – and had limited carrying capacity.
Developmental work on helicopters, often credited to the persistence of the Coast Guard’s Cmdr. Frank Erickson, led to the helicopter’s use in air-sea rescue. Erickson also saw rotorcraft performing convoy escort duty. In World War II, the Coast Guard was ahead of the other services in helicopter development – although, of course, it was doing the job in part because the chief of naval operations, Adm. Ernest King, assigned the mission. In 1944, tests with Sikorsky HNS-1 (or R-4) and HOS-1 helicopters aboard the cutter Cobb, a coastal passenger ship converted to become the world’s first helicopter carrier, marked the very first American shipboard landings of helicopters. On June 29, 1944, Erickson made the first landing on Cobb‘s deck in Long Island.
Many years would pass, however, before helicopters would redeem Erickson’s suggestion that they perform anti-submarine duty while carrying dunking Sonar. As the war progressed, the German U-boat threat began to wane; the Coast Guard shifted to emphasis from convoy protection to search and rescue. Erickson was still a leading light. He developed much of the Coast Guard’s rescue equipment and carried out its first lifesaving flight, carrying cases of blood plasma lashed to an HNS-1’s floats following an explosion on board a destroyer on January 3, 1944.
The Army equivalent to the HNS-1, the R-4, flew history’s first helicopter combat mission in Burma in 1944, flown by a pilot who had trained alongside Coast Guardsmen. On the home front, an early helicopter rescue occurred in 1945, when a Canadian aircraft crashed in a remote area of Labrador. Two ski-equipped airplanes went to the rescue but one crashed on landing and the other was trapped on the ground by snow after rescuing two survivors. Coast Guardsmen disassembled an HNS-1 at Brooklyn, New York, loaded it into an R5D-1 Skymaster transport, and hauled the helicopter to Goose Bay, Labrador, for reassembly. Lt. August Kleisch flew 150 miles to a staging station, then 35 miles more to the crash site, and rescued everyone stranded by the plane crash and its aftermath.
In 1945, the Coast Guard had nine air stations and 165 aircraft. Following victory in World War II, Americans wanted to enjoy themselves, and an explosion of recreational boats created a booming clientele of people who needed to be rescued. 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. As former Coast Guard historian Dr. Robert L. Scheina puts it, in its early years the helicopter had a major handicap: the pilot needed three hands in order to fly it!
In the mid-1940s, the Coast Guard ordered its next-generation helicopter, the Sikorsky HO3S-1G, known in Air Force talk as an H-5, while many military leaders were still debating whether rotary-winged flying machines could do more than take off and land. On April 6, 1949, an HO3S-1G completed the longest unescorted helicopter ferry flight yet, traveling from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to Port Angeles, Wash., via a detour to San Diego, California, a distance of 3,750 miles covered in 57.6 flying hours over ten and one-half days. The single-engine, all-metal HO3S-1G carried a single pilot inside a slender fuselage and up to three crewmen on a bench behind the flight deck. It served with the Coast Guard for more than a decade, but became better known to the American public for its Navy role as the rescue craft piloted by Mickey Rooney in the film version of James Michener’s novel “The Bridges at Toko-ri.”