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Coast Guard Helicopters: Always Ready Rotary Wings

Coast Guard helicopters evolved from struggling experiments to powerful lifesavers and continue to acquire new capabilities for broader missions.

When Hurricane Michael smashed the Florida Gulf Coast last October, Coast Guard helicopters pre-positioned from air stations as far away as Detroit and Traverse City, Michigan, helped save 63 lives. When Hurricane Florence flooded the Carolinas in September, MH-60T Jayhawks and MH-65D Dolphins saved 199 storm victims and assisted 100 more. The Coast Guard now has 45 MH-60Ts and 98 MH-65s, and today’s helicopters do a lot more than search and rescue (SAR).

Dolphins from the National Capitol Region Air Defense Facility routinely enforce the special flight rules area protecting the White House. Last spring, a Jayhawk from Coast Guard Air Station (AirSta) San Diego, California, placed a new light off Seal Beach, California, one task in helicopter support for maritime navigation aids. In 2017, Dolphins from the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) homebased at Jacksonville, Florida, scored their 500th drug bust when they intercepted a go-fast smuggling boat in the Eastern Pacific. Later that year, Jayhawks from Coast Guard AirSta Miami
airlifted food and water around Puerto Rico to survivors of Hurricane Maria.

The Coast Guard has about 600 helicopter pilots who train at their home stations and return to the Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama, for annual standardization. Cmdr. Michael Brimblecom in the Office of Aviation Forces noted, “The Coast Guard has seen a large growth in mission sets to include national defense, air intercept, and airborne use of force, to go along with its more traditional role of search and rescue and law enforcement missions. Our missions have evolved as the nation’s interests and global threats have evolved.”



Coast Guard capabilities have also evolved in parallel with helicopter technology. On April 20, 1942, the chief of the Aviation Engineering Division, Cmdr. William Kossler, and the commanding officer of AirSta Brooklyn, New York, Cmdr. Watson Burton, watched the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 fly at Bridgeport, Connecticut. Controlled helicopter flight with side-by-side rotors was demonstrated in prewar Germany, but Igor Sikorsky’s experimental VS-300 made dominant the more compact single main rotor layout with anti-torque tail rotor. The VS-300 refined helicopter handling qualities and made vertical lift an option for wartime missions.

HNS-1 hoist

Coast Guard HNS-1s conducting hoisting operations in Jamaica Bay, New York. The HNS-1 was the Coast Guard’s first helicopter, with more than 10 procured. Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives photo

While Burton advocated the helicopter as an air-sea rescue platform and alternative to harbor patrol blimps, Lt. Cmdr. Frank Erickson proposed helicopters flying from Atlantic convoy ships with dipping sonar and radar to counter German submarine attacks, according to the April 2018 Sikorsky Archives News. Kossler served on an interagency board for joint Army-Navy/Coast Guard helicopter buys and noted Sikorsky’s 2,500-pound S-47/R-4 in production for the Army could carry two crewmembers, a depth charge, and four hours of fuel for antisubmarine warfare (ASW). Coast Guard Commandant Vice Adm. Russell Waesche approved the idea, but contracts kept the Coast Guard from taking the early Army helicopters. After meeting with Waesche in February 1943, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King directed the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics to test helicopters on merchant ships. Waesche meanwhile ordered Kossler to create a training program for helicopter pilots and maintainers and plan for supporting air stations.

Erickson trained at the Sikorsky plant to become the first Coast Guard helicopter pilot, and he accepted the first Navy HNS-1 (equivalent to the production Army R-4) in October 1943. In November 1943, AirSta Brooklyn at Floyd Bennett Field became the joint-service helicopter training base under Erickson, with three HNS-1s on hand to train U.S. Army, Navy, and Coast Guard pilots and pilots of the British Helicopter Service Trials Unit.

While working at the Connecticut helicopter factory, Sikorsky’s son, Sergei, attained draft age and joined the Coast Guard in 1943. He was assigned to Floyd Bennett Field late that year as a Seaman 2nd Class helicopter mechanic. Sergei Sikorsky recalled, “I remember Cmdr. Erickson, USCG, with respect and admiration. He saw the role that the helicopter would play as the ‘flying lifeboat’ for the Coast Guard. It was Erickson who began developing the helicopter rescue hoist, the rescue basket, now called the Erickson Basket, and much more.” Sikorsky added, “His vision of the helicopter did not sit well with Coast Guard Headquarters, where the focus was on the fixed-wing flying boats. He was the Coast Guard’s Billy Mitchell.”

HNS-1 Newfoundland crash

An HNS-1 airlifted to Newfoundland rescued passengers of a Belgian airliner crash in 1946. Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives photo

On Jan. 3, 1944, Erickson dramatically demonstrated the value of the helicopter when the destroyer USS Turner blew up in Ambrose Channel off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The Coast Guard pilot flew an HNS-1 from South Ferry, Manhattan, through rain, sleet, and snow to deliver two cases of blood plasma to a New Jersey shore hospital in just 14 minutes. Surface transport would have taken hours.

Open-sea trials by British and American pilots in early 1943 showed flying YR-4Bs from merchant ships was hazardous. In January 1944, Coast Guard helicopter pilot No. 2, Lt. j.g. Stewart Graham, made the first flight from the deck of a merchant ship in convoy in the North Atlantic, but with the early helicopters judged unsuitable for ASW, development focused on rescue.

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As an aerospace and defense writer for more than 30 years, Frank has written in-depth...