A little-known fact is that the Coast Guard was ahead of the other services in helicopter development – acting, at the time, on behalf of the Navy.
In 1944, tests with Sikorsky HNS-1 and HOS-1 helicopters on board the ancient cutter Cobb were the very first American shipboard landings of helicopters. Capt. Frank A. Erickson, who had been designated a Coast Guard aviator a decade earlier, became the Coast Guard’s first helicopter pilot. In 1944, he flew through howling winds and snow to complete the first lifesaving mission with a helicopter. In the mid-1940s, the Coast Guard ordered its version of the Sikorsky S-51, the HO3S-1G, while other services debated whether rotary-winged flying machines had any practical role.
In 1945, the Coast Guard had nine air stations and 165 aircraft. The Navy returned 11 more air stations after war’s end. Now, Americans wanted to enjoy themselves and an explosion of recreational boats not coincidentally created a booming clientele of people in need of being 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 dewatering pumps and fuel. But as Coast Guard historian Dr. Robert L. Scheina put it, in its early years, the helicopter had a major handicap: The pilot needed three hands to fly it!
Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard fliers helped win World War II and plunged immediately into a new era when a rapid conversion was taking place from props to jets, and nuclear power was part of the scene.
It was a Navy scientist who armed the uranium bomb dropped by a B-29 on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Fast carrier forces closed in on Japan. The carrier air groups flew their last combat over Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, the day hostilities ended. Naval aviators had shot down 6,826 Japanese aircraft, led by pilots like Cmdr. David McCampbell, who claimed 28 aerial victories. At war’s end, naval aviation was the Navy’s premier weapon.
Demobilization and downsizing followed V.J. Day, but rapid change came, too. It was a critical juncture, for the Navy was beginning its long shift from propeller to jet aircraft. The first carrier-based Navy jet was a McDonnell XFD-1 Phantom flown on board the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB 42) in July 1946, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. James Davidson. Many Navy pilots cut their teeth on Army P-59As and P-80s, but the sea service was slow to appreciate the jet engine, and even slower to adopt another innovation being introduced by the Air Force – swept wings.
The Department of Defense was established in 1947. That year, measures were taken to strengthen the Naval Air Reserve program, which became an essential component of overall naval operations.
For a time, as the world plunged deeper into the Cold War, critics wondered whether the Navy’s biggest enemy was the Soviet Union or the blue-suiters of the U.S. Air Force, which became an independent service branch in September 1947. In the “Revolt of the Admirals,” Navy leaders fought hard for a new supercarrier, the USS United States (CVA 58), and found themselves pitted against Air Force generals pushing for the B-36 bomber. The admirals lost, and the Strategic Air Command gained a foothold in Washington’s budget battles that it never relinquished.
This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.