Of all the aviation pioneers who made their mark in the early decades of the 20th century, few had as wide-ranging an impact as Cmdr. Elmer Fowler “Archie” Stone of the U.S. Coast Guard. His contributions as pilot, inventor, theorist, and commanding officer produced an extraordinary legacy in naval aviation. His achievements include being the Coast Guard’s first pilot (and No. 38 on the U.S. Navy’s roster of naval aviators), working with the Navy to develop catapults (for which he obtained a patent) and arresting gear for its aircraft carriers, flight tested aircraft and aircraft systems for both the Navy and U.S. Army, and helped develop and implement air-sea rescue operations. Felled by a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 49, it would fall on the shoulders of others to hone his work in the naval air campaigns of World War II.
“I wish to heartily commend you for your work as Pilot of the Seaplane NC-4 during the recent trans-Atlantic flight expedition. The energy, efficiency, and courage shown by you contributed to the accomplishment of the first trans-Atlantic flight, which feat has brought honor to the American Navy and the entire American nation …”
– Then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, Aug. 23, 1919, in a commendation letter to 1st Lt. Elmer F. Stone
Stone was born on a farm near Livonia, N.Y., south of Rochester, in 1887. Three years later his family moved to Norfolk, Va. In early 1910, at age 23, Stone applied to the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction (later the U.S. Coast Guard Academy) and passed its entrance examination with the highest score among that year’s applicants. In 1913, he graduated, receiving his commission as third lieutenant (today the rank of ensign) in the Coast Guard, then a part of the Department of the Treasury.
Stone’s first assignment was aboard the Revenue Cutter Onondaga, operating out of Hampton Roads, Va., and patrolling the mid-Atlantic Coast. While on the Onondaga, he qualified as an engineer officer, and upon his request, received assignment as a line officer on the cutter. Stone was then assigned to the Revenue Cutter Itasca for a year. He returned to the Onondaga in February 1915. About four months later, on June 4, 1915, Stone distinguished himself in a storm rescue off False Cape, Va., of crewmen from the shipwrecked schooner C.C. Wehrum. In his letter of commendation written on June 24, Assistant Treasury Secretary Byron R. Newton complimented Stone for his actions in the emergency, praising the “… skill and judgment which you displayed in the handling of the Onondaga on this occasion reflects great credit upon the service to which you belong and stamps you as a man of that resourcefulness that overcomes obstacles.”
While the praise was well deserved and an indicator of his potential, another incident that year had a greater impact on Stone’s career. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company had recently established one of the nation’s first flying schools at Newport News, not far from the Onondaga’s homeport. After witnessing some U.S. Navy seaplane training exercises at the school, a fascinated Stone arranged a flight in a Navy Curtiss Model F flying boat. That experience proved to be a watershed moment. In these fragile aircraft he saw opportunity: a Coast Guard air arm that would revolutionize the service’s search and rescue and law enforcement capability. Together with his academy classmate 3rd Lt. Norman B. Hall, Stone developed a proposal for aviation search and rescue operations and convinced the Navy officer in charge at the flying school to loan them a pilot and flying boat for demonstration purposes. Their presentation to their skipper, Cmdr. Benjamin Chiswell, was a success. Their proposal and Chiswell’s enthusiastic endorsement soon landed on the Coast Guard commandant’s desk.
On March 21, 1916, as Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing crossed the border into Mexico with his troops to hunt for Pancho Villa and his bandits, Coast Guard Commandant Capt. Ellsworth P. Bertholf ordered Stone to “… investigate aviation matters having a bearing upon the Coast Guard, giving special attention to those phases of aviation that have a direct bearing upon assistance to vessels in distress and search for derelicts.” Stone and 2nd Lt. Charles E. Sugden reported to the Navy’s new flight school, Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in Florida, for training. Hall, meanwhile, was ordered to study aircraft design, construction, and maintenance at the Curtiss aircraft factory in New York. He would later become the service’s first aviation engineering officer.
On Sept. 11, 1919, the Navy released him to return to the Coast Guard, offering the commendation that he was “not only a skillful pilot, but an officer of excellent judgment and considerable technical attainments in the line of aviation so that he has proved himself peculiarly fitted for the duties to which he has been assigned.”
Bertholf lobbied Congress to pass legislation establishing an “aerial coastal patrol” for the service, which it did on Aug. 29, 1916, creating 10 Coast Guard air stations. Bertholf also hired Glenn Curtiss to develop and build flying boats to Coast Guard specifications.
On April 10, 1917, Stone and Sugden received their wings from the Navy, becoming Aviator No. 38 and Aviator No. 43, respectively. But, by then, the United States had entered World War I on the side of the Allies and further development of Coast Guard aviation came to a halt. Appropriations for the 10 air stations ultimately would not be approved until 1924.
With the outbreak of hostilities, the Coast Guard was transferred to the Navy Department by executive order. Stone was assigned to the aviation detail aboard the armored cruiser USS Huntington (ACR 5). Huntington was one of two cruisers specially fitted to conduct operations with balloons and seaplanes. For the latter, it was equipped with newly designed pneumatic aircraft catapults. The Huntington began convoy escort service on Sept. 8, 1917, and would make a total of nine such voyages during the war.
In addition to piloting seaplanes during the six weeks he served on the Huntington, Stone also made a number of observations from balloons launched by the cruiser. It was during that first escort voyage that the Huntington became a footnote in Medal of Honor history. On Sept. 17, 1917, a squall knocked one of the cruiser’s observation balloons into the sea as it was being reeled in. The balloon’s observer, Lt. j.g. Henry Hoyt, became entangled in its rigging and was being dragged underwater. Seaman Patrick McGunigal leaped into the water and rescued the helpless Hoyt. McGunigal’s heroic action caused him to be the first Medal of Honor recipient in World War I.
It was during that first escort voyage that the Huntington became a footnote in Medal of Honor history. On Sept. 17, 1917, a squall knocked one of the cruiser’s observation balloons into the sea as it was being reeled in. The balloon’s observer, Lt. j.g. Henry Hoyt, became entangled in its rigging and was being dragged underwater. Seaman Patrick McGunigal leaped into the water and rescued the helpless Hoyt. McGunigal’s heroic action caused him to be the first Medal of Honor recipient in World War I.
On Oct. 17, 1917, Stone was released from duty on the Huntington and assigned temporary duty as commander, NAS Rockaway, Long Island, N.Y. A year later, on June 18, he was transferred to the Navy Bureau of Construction and Repair (predecessor of the Bureau of Aeronautics) with authority “between Washington, D.C., and such places within a radius of 500 miles thereof, and Miami, Florida, as may be necessary in connection with the inspection and trials of sea planes.”
On March 19, 1919, Stone, now a first lieutenant, received orders transferring him back to NAS Rockaway for a temporary duty in which he would help make aviation history.
Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, was an aviation enthusiast whose newspaper, London’s Daily Mail, had been awarding cash prizes for a variety of aviation challenges since 1905. For instance, Louis Bleriot received £1,000 for being the first person to successfully fly across the English Channel in 1905. Four years later Lord Northcliffe offered £10,000 for the first successful trans-Atlantic flight “in less than 72 hours” by civilians, an astonishing challenge given that the Wright brothers had made their famous first flight only 10 years earlier.
The challenge had gone unaccepted due to World War I. But with that conflict over, interest returned. Though the war had helped accelerate aviation technology development, in 1919, a trans-Atlantic flight was still a daunting and dangerous proposition. Naval aviation pioneer Cmdr. John Henry “Jack” Towers proposed that the Navy take up the challenge. Though the service did not qualify for the prize, being the first to successfully transit the Atlantic Ocean would bring enormous publicity to the Navy’s fledgling air arm, which had been completely overshadowed by the Army Air Corps during the war. In the NC (for Navy-Curtiss) flying boats, Towers believed the Navy had an airplane that could do it. Upon receiving permission, Towers, who would go on to become an admiral in World War II, went to work.
The NCs were a series of flying boats whose original purpose was to conduct long-range anti-submarine patrols, but the war ended before any were completed. Nicknamed “Nancies,” the big biplanes had an open cockpit and observation posts for the six-man crew (pilot, co-pilot, radio operator, engineering officer, assistant engineer, and commanding officer/navigator), four engines (three forward-facing tractor and one center-mounted, rear-facing pusher), a maximum range of 1,278 miles, and a top speed of 84 knots. To assist in navigation and rescue, if necessary, a picket line of warships was organized and stationed at 55-mile intervals along the projected flight paths.
The flight plan called for the aircraft to make the trip in a series of five legs: Rockaway to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Halifax to Trepassey, Newfoundland, Trepassey to the Azores, the Azores to Lisbon, Portugal, Lisbon to Ferrol, Spain, and finally Ferrol to Plymouth, England. At 1,200 miles, the third leg, Trepassey to the Azores, was just inside the maximum range of the flying boats. On May 8, 1919, NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4 took off from NAS Rockaway on the first leg of the trip, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. A series of problems with NC-2 rendering it unflyable caused it to be cannibalized for spare parts. Stone was the pilot of NC-4, with Lt. Cmdr. Albert Cushing (A.C.) Read commanding. Piloting NC-1 was Lt. Cmdr. Marc Mitscher, another naval aviation pioneer who would become a famous admiral in World War II. Towers, in overall command, flew in NC-3.
Almost immediately, the technologically new and complex Nancies proved poorly designed for the attempt. Four hours into its flight, NC-4 suffered problems with one engine, forcing Stone to seek repairs at NAS Chatham in Massachusetts. At Halifax, cracks were discovered in its steel propellers, necessitating their replacement with wooden ones. During the flight leg from Newfoundland to the Azores, poor weather conditions caused all three aircraft, flying in formation, to fly off course and lose contact with each other. NC-1 and NC-3 eventually landed to await clear weather so the navigators could obtain a celestial fix, but both wound up being so damaged by the heavy seas that they could no longer fly. The crew of NC-1 was later rescued by a Greek merchantman. NC-3 sailed along the surface and managed to reach the Azores island of São Miguel on May 19.
Bedeviled by the thick clouds and fog, Stone, too, became disoriented. But radio officer Ensign Herbert Rodd managed to regain contact with the picket warships and receive correct bearings. For more than 15 hours, through a combination of dead reckoning by Stone and periodic bearing updates forwarded by Rodd, NC-4 flew through thick fog toward what they hoped would be the Azores. As they were nearing the end of NC-4’s range, a break in the fog revealed the westernmost Azores island of Fayal. The relieved crew soon safely landed in the harbor of Horta. Delayed three days by weather, NC-4 took off and again experienced engine troubles that caused Stone to land, after flying 150 miles, at Ponta Delgada on the Azores island of São Miguel. Repairs and bad weather caused a week’s delay. Finally on May 30, Stone was able to pilot the NC-4 to Lisbon, Portugal, where the crew was enthusiastically greeted. On the morning of May 31, 1919, NC-4 reached Plymouth harbor to another tumultuous welcome. NC-4 and its crew had proved that trans-Atlantic flight was possible.
Newspapers around the world carried front-page accounts of the historic feat and the crew was showered with honors, including the Navy Cross, Air Force Cross (British), a silver commemorative medal from France, the Order of the Tower and Sword, Portugal’s highest award, and from Congress a special NC-4 Medal.
A little over a week later, Stone was assigned a brief tour of duty in France before returning to Washington, D.C., in early July. On Sept. 11, 1919, the Navy released him to return to the Coast Guard, offering the commendation that he was “not only a skillful pilot, but an officer of excellent judgment and considerable technical attainments in the line of aviation so that he has proved himself peculiarly fitted for the duties to which he has been assigned.”
In 1920, the Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV 1), a converted collier. Two years later, Stone found himself back with the Navy, where he served as a test pilot and technical expert on naval aviation, working on catapult systems and arresting gear for the Langley, Lexington (CV 2), and Saratoga (CV 3). He also developed a new catapult system for the Navy’s cruisers and battleships. The existing pneumatic catapult system proved vexing. In short, it wasn’t working out. Leaky air hoses, unreliable air pressure charges, and slow recharging cycles were among the host of troubles with the system.
Together with Coast Guard 1st Lt. W.M. Fellers, Stone worked on designing a new system based on an explosive charge. The plane would be propelled by the energy generated by 22 pounds of gunpowder – the amount in a 5-inch shell casing. Trials proved that the explosive charge system was safer, faster, and consistently reliable compared to the compressed air system.
On Dec. 14, 1924, a Martin MO-1 observation plane piloted by Lt. L.C. Hayden, with Fellers as a passenger, was successfully launched off the forward turret of the battleship USS Mississippi (BB 41) using the new powder catapult system designed by Stone and Carl F. Jeansen, a civilian inventor working in the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance. On April 28, 1925, the two would receive patent number 1535475 for their invention.
The Navy was so impressed with Stone’s service that it invited him to transfer his commission to the Navy. Stone declined and returned to the Coast Guard in 1926. Development of Coast Guard aviation proceeded slowly, and for the next several years, Stone saw duty on a variety of cutters. Then, in the early 1930s, he was asked to serve as a senior member of a trial board responsible for selecting aircraft for the Coast Guard. This was followed by two years of service as commanding officer, Coast Guard Air Station (AirSta) Cape May, N.J. In 1934, while inspector of aircraft at Douglas Aircraft Company’s Santa Monica, Calif., plant, Stone set a world speed record for amphibious aircraft, flying a Coast Guard J2-F Grumman “Duck” at more than 191 miles an hour.
The next year Stone was promoted to commander and assigned command of Coast Guard Air Patrol Detachment, San Diego (as AirSta San Diego was then known). On May 20, 1936, while inspecting new aircraft, Stone suffered a fatal heart attack. He was buried on “Coast Guard Hill” in Arlington National Cemetery. A monument for Stone was erected at AirSta San Diego bearing the biblical inscription, “A prophet is not without honor.” Though taken too soon from this world, Stone’s legacy in Coast Guard aviation, and as one of naval aviation’s pioneers, is secure.
This article first appeared in the Coast Guard Outlook 2014 Edition.