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Cmdr. Elmer F. Stone: Coast Guard Aviator No. 1

Cmdr. Elmer F. Stone

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.

First Coast Guard Aviation Class

Early in 1916, Elmer F. Stone put in his first request to be assigned to duty in connection with aviation – particularly early aviation that related to assistance to vessels in distress – and became one of two Coast Guard officers assigned to the first aviation training group at Naval Air Station Pensacola Fla., on March 21, 1916. After successfully completing training on April 10, 1917, he was appointed Naval Aviator No. 38 on the Navy’s roster of naval aviators. Stone is standing on the right just beneath the tip of the propeller. Coast Guard Historian’s Office photo

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.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...