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Coast Guard Aviation Centennial



This year marks the Coast Guard Aviation Centennial, beginning with the anniversary of the birthday of Coast Guard Aviator #1, Elmer Stone, on January 22, and celebrating a century of distinguished service by Coast Guard aviators. The service’s air branch excels in many missions, accomplishing more with less across a range of circumstances and challenges.

That makes it tough to find a central theme for this unique air arm – a small aviation force operating as part of a small but formidable sea service – which performs humanitarian missions, law enforcement, drug interdiction, anti-terrorist duty, and specialized, scarcely noticed tasks like fisheries protection and international ice patrol.

The Coast Guard is a sea service, so it’s fitting that one of the first and most famous Coast Guard aviation events centered on an aircraft designed to operate from the sea.

One way to sum up Coast Guard aviation is to say that it always seems to circle back to its humanitarian roots.

At its inception, Coast Guard aviation saved souls in distress. A century later, it still does. History keeps butting in with enormous distractions – Prohibition, World War II, the Cold War, the drug war, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – but once each new challenge is met, the pendulum swings back to Coast Guard aviation rescuing people. Even when the need for rescue itself arrives with the force of a sledgehammer – think Hurricane Katrina – Coast Guard aviation is always about saving souls.


Long tradition

The Coast Guard and its predecessor services have been doing the nation’s work since 1790. The aviation history of the Coast Guard dates to August 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a law establishing an “Aerial Coast Patrol.” Beginning with Cmdr. Elmer Stone, the service’s first aviator, Coast Guardsmen pioneered offshore patrol work with early seaplanes including the F-Boat designed by Glenn L. Curtiss.

Even in its youngest and most hopeful moments, Coast Guard aviation sometimes encountered false starts. In Washington, D.C., Coast Guard officers drew up blueprints for a “flying surfboat,” a marvelous air-sea machine that placed wings on a simple seagoing vessel. The concept never materialized, but a handful of intrepid Coast Guardsmen pioneered offshore patrol work in early seaplanes.

During World War I in 1918, the Coast Guard came under the Navy Department. Coast Guardsmen flew in combat with Navy units.


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 Florida 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

The Coast Guard is a sea service, so it’s fitting that one of the first and most famous Coast Guard aviation events centered on an aircraft designed to operate from the sea.

Stone made a brief but lasting impact as pilot of the Navy seaplane NC-4, designed by Curtiss, which mounted an attempt by the Navy to complete history’s first trans-Atlantic flight. The NC-4 started from the Naval Air Station at Rockaway, New York, on May 8, 1919, in concert with two other aircraft that did not complete the journey. The NC-4 successfully crossed the Atlantic and landed in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 27, 1919. It was a spectacular aviation achievement for its time, but because the NC-4 made stops along the way, the accomplishment was eclipsed in the minds of the public by the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight made two weeks later on June 14, 1919, by Royal Air Force pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...