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Always Ready: U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Roles and Missions

The U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) Office of Aviation Forces is not as well known as the aviation wings of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, but it is nearly as old – celebrating its own centennial in 2016 – and has been closely tied to the Navy from the beginning, playing a pivotal role in the development of naval aviation.

“We really trace our involvement with flight to the Wright brothers’ first flight, where their ground crew at Kill Devil Hills [N.C.] consisted of Life Saving Service surfmen and the local station keeper,” according to USCG Deputy Historian Scott Price, referring to one of two legacy agencies (the other being the Revenue Cutter Service) that later were merged into what became the Coast Guard.

A few years later, after creation of the Navy’s first aviation component, the Coast Guard officially took to the air.

Coast Guard Aviation Origins

The crew of the NC-4 in Lisbon, Portugal, May 28, 1919. From left to right: Eugene Rhoads, Lt. j.g. Breese, Lt. j.g. Walter Hinton, Lt. Elmer Stone, USCG, Lt. Cmdr. A.C. Read, CO. Stone piloted the NC-4 on her historic flight across the Atlantic. He continued working with the Navy for the next decade, with the approval of the Treasury Department, where he helped to create carrier aviation in the Coast Guard’s sister sea service. U.S. Coast Guard photo

In early 1915, two young officers, Norman G. Hall and Elmer Stone, saw Glenn Curtiss and some of his aviation activities and realized there could be a Coast Guard angle to aviation as it was being practiced at the time. They discussed with Curtiss developing a flying lifeboat that could land on the water for rescues, and their commanding officer approved the idea.

Stone went to Navy flight training at Pensacola, Fla., in 1916, while Hall was working on the engineering side at the Curtiss plant in Newport News, Va. Stone was Coast Guard Aviator No. 1 (also Naval Aviator No. 38) and is considered the godfather of Coast Guard aviation.

Maritime missions involving aircraft have never been easy – but the early days were especially difficult for all involved across the services. All forms of aviation – especially for the military – were in their infancy, with World War I the first test of air warfare, including maritime operations. Given the circumstances at the time, the opportunity for the first official Coast Guard aviators to fly with the Navy at war proved crucial to establishing what eventually would become a major service component.

“In 1916, Congress authorized establishment of a Coast Guard aviation program and a number of air stations, but never appropriated any money. So Coast Guard aviation was always on a shoestring, using borrowed aircraft and borrowed airfields,” Price explained. “It was an experiment, which the Coast Guard leadership was open to, but there was little to no financial support. They took over old Army tents and aircraft the Navy no longer needed.”

A number of Coast Guardsmen transferred to the Navy as aviators during World War I; one commanded the Navy air station in France. Stone served aboard a heavy cruiser as an observer aboard a tethered balloon that did gunfire spotting. After World War I, the Treasury Department agreed to transfer Stone to the Navy where, while still a Coast Guard officer, he helped develop carrier arresting gear, catapults, and other naval aviation elements considered significant contributions to naval aviation. He also flew as a test pilot and piloted the first Navy aircraft, the NC-4, to cross the Atlantic nonstop. He returned to Coast Guard service as an aviator in the late 1920s.

Past, present, and future. An HU-16 Albatross amphibian, which served the Coast Guard faithfully for many years, is at right. It was supplanted by the HU-25 Guardian, at bottom, along with the HC-130 Hercules. At left is the HC-144 Ocean Sentry, which will replace the HU-25 in the medium-range SAR and maritime patrol missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Armed Again

Stone returned just in time to take part in the emergence of Coast Guard aviation as a major part of the service – and law enforcement – during Prohibition.

“Following World War I, we had weapons integrated into the aircraft as part of the legacy of being part of the Navy during the war. That continued into the 1920s and early ’30s with some of our law enforcement efforts,” said Capt. Mike Emerson, chief of aviation forces. “With the merger of the Life Saving Service, Lighthouse Service, and formal development of the Coast Guard, we focused a lot more on the SAR [search and rescue] aspects and the weapons eventually were left behind.”

The service still had the authority, but did not decide to start integrating weapons back into its aircraft until 1998. Since 1999, they’ve actively been using weapons – an M240 machine gun for warning shots and a .50-caliber sharpshooter rifle for disabling fire for vessels that fail to heave to or comply. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, the Coast Guard began expanding that capability in other places than just the counter-drug mission as it got into a more broad application to counterterrorism for ports and waterways.

That doctrine and training were expanded to eight air stations adjacent to major ports along the nation’s extensive coastlines, where aircraft equipped with the new weapons suites were dedicated to the newest Coast Guard mission.

“These eight stations don’t conduct counter-drug operations; they are focused on counterterrorism. And they don’t have warning-shot weapons, but a precision fire capability to be able to stop or control a terrorist threat,” Emerson said. “We train with those and have them ready on an alert-launch capability to fly on immediate notice. We have sent them out where boats have failed to comply with warning regimes when entering ports or otherwise considered threats, but have not yet had any cases with shots fired.”

Search and Rescue

A Coast Guard HC-144A Ocean Sentry passes the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., where surfmen aided the Wrights during their first manned powered flight in 1903. The HC-144A is the first all-new aircraft delivered to the Coast Guard as part of the Coast Guard’s progressive modernization and recapitalization of aging legacy assets. USCG photo by Dave Silva

From its unfunded beginnings and a few pilots, trained by and flying for the wartime Navy, followed by a major growth as part of Prohibition law enforcement, Coast Guard aviators were among the first to try new equipment and operations. That growth in activity and importance finally brought funding to USCG aviation, enabling development in 1932 of the first aircraft designed to Coast Guard specifications – the PJ series of Flying Life Boats built by General Aviation, which General Motors had bought from Fokker Aircraft two years earlier.

The end of Prohibition and the availability of more sophisticated aircraft saw a refocusing of Coast Guard aviation on search and rescue. Stone again took a leading role as he and his fellow pilots took on the difficult task of flying out to sea – sometimes in weather everyone else was fleeing – landing next to boats, taking people aboard, and flying them back to shore. While today that is considered routine Coast Guard operations, in the 1930s it was unprecedented and often considered “crazy.”

Lt. j.g. Lewis Johnson (left) and Lt. Rene Baez, HC-144A Ocean Sentry fixed-wing aircraft pilots from Coast Guard Air Training Center Mobile, Ala., conduct an overflight of skimming operations during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, June 12, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Grace Baldwin

On Rotary Wings

“World War II was basically a repeat of Coast Guard efforts in World War I, but significantly larger,” Price said. “Just before the war, in 1938, William Kossler became interested in helicopters and saw an opportunity for them as a Coast Guard SAR platform. But to get the Navy involved, they needed a warfare aspect, so they looked into it as an ASW [anti-submarine warfare] platform. The Navy gave the Coast Guard the responsibility for developing the helicopter, so we set up a flight school and trained both U.S. and Allied pilots.”

Frank Erickson, who worked for Kossler, took over promotion of helicopter development from 1943 on, after Kossler died. He ran the program, was chief of the instruction school, flew the first rescue mission aboard a Sikorsky, and practiced landing on ships under way at sea – the first to do that. When a Navy destroyer exploded in New York Harbor, he flew plasma to the rescue scene, which was considered the first rotary-winged SAR mission.

Erickson also developed the first hoist system for helicopters. Many of the early helos were amphibs and could land on water, but the hoist-system basket eventually replaced the amphibious helicopter. The Coast Guard continued to develop and perfect the hoist system, which is in use worldwide today.

After World War II, Price added, there was a battle between helicopter supporters and those who believed float planes were the best approach to SAR. The rotary wing ultimately won out, largely due to Erickson’s efforts to expand helicopter capabilities and missions.

A rescue swimmer from Air Station Corpus Christi is hoisted back into an HH-65C Dolphin helicopter after conducting freefall deployment training, Aug. 9, 2007. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA1 Adam Eggers

Building on the World War II work of pioneers like Erickson and Lt. Stewart Graham, who completed the first helicopter flight in history from a ship while in convoy in 1944, the Coast Guard began perfecting landing helicopters on board ships under way, at first with icebreakers in the Great Lakes. In the early ’60s, cutters were designed to work with helicopters and were built with helipads. That was about the same time the Navy was developing a similar capability, primarily for ASW. Since the 1960s, all major cutters have been capable of handling aircraft and this “marriage” between ships and aircraft has been with us ever since.

Always Pioneers

From those early days, Coast Guard aviators have left an unbroken line of taking flying to the edge. Capt. Donald MacDiarmid, a seaplane pilot, pioneered and wrote the manual on landing and ditching at sea. Master Chief John Greathouse put in more hours in the air as a pilot than any Coast Guard aviator, flying just about every aircraft in the USCG fleet from right after World War II until he retired in 1979 as the service’s last enlisted pilot (he was “grandfathered” when the enlisted pilot program was phased out).

In 1987, Cmdr. Bruce E. Melnick was selected by NASA as the Coast Guard’s first astronaut and flew more than 300 hours in the space shuttle before retiring in 1992. Four years later, Capt. Daniel Burbank became the second Coast Guardsman selected for astronaut duty, putting in nearly 560 hours aboard the shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) – a record he is set to eclipse this year with a scheduled six-month tour aboard the ISS.

In another new area of aviation, Cmdr. Jose Saliceti became the Coast Guard’s first qualified unmanned aerial system (UAS) pilot in January 2008, earning the designation of USCG UAS Pilot No. 1. But according to Emerson, many more Coast Guardsmen will be joining him in the years to come.

“For cutter-based UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], we tested the first tilt-rotor prototype, the Eagle Eye, and partnered with the Navy in developing the Fire Scout vertical takeoff and landing capability,” he said. “Similarly, we’ve also partnered with CBP [Customs and Border Protection] Air and Marine to integrate surface search radar into the Guardian UAV, along with communications and data-streaming capabilities. That currently is being prototyped in the Florida Straits. We had it in the Gulf [of Mexico] during the federal response to the oil spill last summer and are continuing to develop that capability for all 11 Coast Guard missions.”

The Coast Guard’s first MH-60T. Jayhawks are undergoing a programmed depot maintenance cycle to modernize the medium-range recovery helicopters to MH-60T standard. The MH-60T enhances the already well-known qualities of the venerable Jayhawk for 21st century requirements. They will be used as responders for offshore operations, and can provide shore-based aviation surveillance capability and transport. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Coast Guard Chief of Staff Vice Adm. John P. Currier also is the service’s senior aviator, a title that, he said, “is really just a state of being” – but it also positions him as not only No. 3 in the organization, but a principal aviation adviser to the commandant.

“I think the state of Coast Guard aviation is very strong right now. We have good equipment, outstanding people – and a strong mission in which the demand signal is significantly higher than our ability to resource,” he said, adding that positions them for future growth, even in a period of tight budgets, to achieve capability-demand equilibrium.

“Given our national security tasking, SAR, and other traditional missions, I think the Coast Guard aviation component could easily grow to fit mission requirements. Aviation is a critical supporting element in each of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions. As these missions or emphasis expand, such as on ports and waterway security, protection of critical infrastructure, or even of the biomass, the Coast Guard’s effectiveness is distinctly enabled through our aviation assets.”

“We don’t have a large aviation fleet and, as a result, we put more time on our aircraft, at a faster rate, than the other services,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Peter MacDougall, a career helicopter flight mechanic. He currently holds the title “Enlisted Ancient Albatross,” which was established in 1988 and is given to the enlisted aircrew member on active duty with the earliest graduation date from an aviation technical school.

“The reputation of the Coast Guard is one of innovation and adaption, both due to our small numbers and somewhat traditional resource constraints, as well as our diverse and challenging missions. We have a cultural heritage to take extra good care of our cutters, boats, or aircraft, and to take extra good care of our people.”

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Monty Nijjar, attached to Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., looks out over an ice pack that stretches to the coast of Labrador as he pilots an HC-130J transporting members of the Coast Guard International Ice Patrol, April 7, 2011. The Ice Patrol will send data gathered on ice conditions, icebergs, and their movements to the International Ice Patrol headquarters in New London, Conn. This data is then made available to ships traveling the North Atlantic shipping lanes. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Bob Laura

MacDougall now imparts aviation wisdom, from the enlisted perspective, to the next generation of Coast Guard officers in his current assignment as a company chief at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. – and does his best to enlighten them in all aspects of aviation, including becoming pilots. Part of that is keeping alive the history of Coast Guard aviation and aviators, especially his Albatross predecessors such as Greathouse.

“At the end of his unceremonious rotary-winged career, he was flying a helicopter, and as the aircraft climbed to 5,000 feet amidst gathering storm clouds, they encountered significant turbulence,” he said. “Feeling a sudden, sickening jolt rock the aircraft, they looked out the window to see that the rotor head had achieved ‘separation’ from the aircraft and they were now falling like a brick earthward.” Prior to this particular mission, either by requirement from the base commander or simply divine providence, Greathouse and his crew had donned parachutes, which enabled them to safely descend to earth.

But the real legacy of the pioneering Coast Guard aviators rests with the service’s response to one of the nation’s worst natural disasters, MacDougall added.

During Hurricane Katrina, the service had planes and helicopters and crews from throughout the country, quickly thrown together and performing round-the-clock rescue missions – and it worked. “The founding fathers of Coast Guard aviation sought to have highly trained aviators and aircrews that operated in standardized aircraft, terminology, and rescue techniques, and this is what enabled our historic response to this disaster,” said MacDougall.

To MacDougall, being a Coast Guard aviator is a lifelong commitment – one that often lasts longer than in other services, even to the point of former Navy and Army pilots taking reductions in rank to join the Coast Guard and continue flying. As with so many other aspects of Coast Guard aviation, that was epitomized by pilot No. 1, Stone, whose last assignment was commanding officer of Air Station San Diego, where he passed away just prior to preflighting his aircraft on the ramp.

“The longer I’ve been in the Coast Guard, the more I’ve felt that continuing to fly was important as an example, as well as lending expertise to the program,” MacDougall said. “So I have continued to fly for as long as I can – test or some other routine flight. I absolutely love what we do!”

Today, about one-quarter of all USCG personnel are involved in aviation, which itself is an active part of about 70 percent of Coast Guard operations, from drug and migrant interdictions to rescues and oil spill detection and response efforts. The fleet is 60 percent rotary, primarily HH-60 Jayhawks and H/MH-65 Dolphins, and 40 percent fixed wing – C-130 Hercules, HU-25 Guardian, C-144 Ocean Sentry, and a couple of command and control aircraft (a Gulfstream V and a Challenger 604).

Coast Guard rescue swimmers from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City train off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J. U.S. Coast Guard photo

According to Emerson, those aircraft and their crews provide three fundamental capabilities in support of Coast Guard surface assets – the cutters, boats, and shore units.

“Surveillance is our first and foremost function. Ships don’t find boats, aircraft do. We spend about 70 percent of our aviation effort doing some sort of information-gathering and intel development. We have on-board sensors and communications systems that allow for near real-time collection of domain awareness information we provide not only to the Coast Guard but to interagency members. That is searching for missing boaters, people in distress, illegal migrant movements, drug and weapons traffickers, and any counterterrorism-related threats to U.S. ports,” he said.

“Our second function is transportation. We do a lot of delivery of post-storm evaluation teams, medical capability, paratroopers, damage assessment, emergency and relief supplies, medical transport, and specialized capabilities, including ferrying distinguished visitors.

“The third is direct intervention, which is a catchall function involving aerial deliveries, dropping rescue swimmers, on-scene commander duties providing coordination for aircraft deconfliction, or directing surface assets to make an interdiction or rescue. All enabling the operational commander on scene to effect a successful end-game.”

As Price put it, Coast Guard aviation “grew from very fragile beginnings,” but today has become an invaluable part of both the USCG and America’s overall naval aviation capability.

“The Coast Guard has been part of aviation since the Wright brothers’ first flight, helped out in the early design of flying boats, developed the concept of maritime SAR, and developed all the capabilities associated with seaplanes and surface-search radars and other functions important during the World Wars, from delivery of ordnance to flight deck lighting,” Emerson concluded.

“But the Coast Guard role in this centennial celebration is to highlight the non-combat achievements that have been made in naval aviation. Naval aviators project flight systems; the Coast Guard defines aviation more in terms of rotary wing, the ship-helicopter interface, the first takeoffs and landings on ships at sea, etc. We fly low and slow over the water, but we’ve also distinguished ourselves as being the world leader at hoisting at sea, rescue operations, and aerial deliveries at sea.”

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...