They loved it. They hated it. It was the only jet ever to join the U.S. Coast Guard’s air fleet. The HU-25 Guardian, usually called the Falcon, gave aircrews a combination of stellar performance and unexpected limitations.
Able to climb rapidly from sea level to 42,000 feet – ideal for surveillance duty – the Guardian spent part of its career restricted because of its avionics suite to a less impressive altitude of 28,000 feet. Sleek, stable, fast, and agile, the HU-25 was also occasionally a maintenance headache. Still, as Capt. Samuel Creech, commanding officer of Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi, observed, when the last Falcon was retired at Corpus Christi, Texas, in a Sept. 23, 2014, ceremony, there was “not a dry eye in the place.”
After 32 years of operation, the last Falcon, an HU-25D, numbered 2114, made its last flight on the date of the ceremony and now the new Airbus HC-144A Ocean Sentry twin-turboprop maritime patrol aircraft is replacing the HU-25 Guardian.
It’s easy to measure statistics of the Falcon, like the wingspan of 53 feet 6 inches or the impressive top speed of 466 knots, but it’s a tougher proposition to nail down traits that separate an ordinary aircraft from one that wins a special place in the hearts of Coast Guard flyers and maintainers.
The HU-25, derived from France’s Falcon 20 business jet – initially named the Mystère 20 – was special because it did so much and crews liked it so much. It stalked drug smugglers. It patrolled the nation’s sea approaches. One version, the HU-25B, located and analyzed oil spills in the Persian Gulf following the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein. The Falcon did a little bit of everything and, yes, a Coast Guardsman once gave one of them a swift kick with his boot in frustration over a mechanical issue, but if they ever make a movie about the HU-25, its minor failings will be left on the cutting room floor, overwhelmed by applause.
Cmdr. Tom Seckler, who participated in the Desert Storm oil-spill operation, remembers being asked of the HU-25: “What kind of bomb does it carry?” It didn’t. It carried an Aireye sensor, built around a side-looking radar that, said Seckler, was “optimized for oil-spill detection.” Seckler added, “I don’t know another aircraft that could do what this airplane did.”
After 32 years of operation, the last Falcon, an HU-25D, numbered 2114, made its last flight on the date of the ceremony and now the new Airbus HC-144A Ocean Sentry twin-turboprop maritime patrol aircraft is replacing the HU-25 Guardian. Time will tell where the HC-144A will fit in the large panorama of Coast Guard aviation history.
A “Duck out of Water”
The story of Coast Guard aviation begins with aviation itself: A member of the Life-Saving Service, predecessor of the Coast Guard, watched Orville Wright make humankind’s first controlled, powered flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on Dec. 17, 1903.
The first Coast Guard aircraft – after several loans from the Navy, the first plane to wear a Coast Guard serial number – was a Loening OL-5 amphibian acquired in 1926 under supervision of Cmdr. Elmer F. Stone. It was a “quirky bird,” said another Coast Guardsman whose name is lost to history, “solid and dependable but demanding the utmost of constant attention.”
Ever since, aircraft operated by the service have been closely linked to both land and sea, although airmen lost their ability to take off from and land on water when they retired the last of the service’s 43 much-loved HH-3F Pelican medium-lift helicopters on May 6, 1994.
“… As for the plane – it flew so easily that I never gave its ‘deadbeat’ flying characteristics much thought. …”
The Loening OL-5 amphibian looked a bit awkward taxiing on a paved runway – “a duck out of water,” a Coast Guardsman called the first aircraft ever operated by his service. Riding the waves under the ministrations of its two-man, tandem-seated crew, the OL-5 appeared more in its element. It was, in fact, a practical and sensible aircraft for a service that operated on land and sea. The Coast Guard ordered three OL-5s. Unlike Army and Navy versions, they had a strongly reinforced hull bottom and keel.
Far from perfect, the OL-5 was sluggish and demanding. Still, long after it went into service at Gloucester, Massachusetts (the trio wearing Coast Guard serial numbers 1, 2, and 3), Cmdr. C.C. von Paulsen was moved to write to Grover Loening:
“That airplane of yours was a real departure. It was a leader – a good, sound plane with a sound engine that gave no trouble if properly cared for. As for the plane – it flew so easily that I never gave its ‘deadbeat’ flying characteristics much thought. The last one was in use in 1935 and then had been used so much it got worn out. Two had been in crashes – one by clear pilot error and the other by an unavoidable collision with the yacht Minx at the New London boat races in June 1930. That one was fully repairable.”
The “Flying Yacht”
Ask anybody. The Douglas Dolphin was the coolest plane ever to fly in the Coast Guard, even if the word “cool” hadn’t been invented in that context yet. The airmen bought Douglas’ sole Sinbad flying-boat prototype and 12 Dolphin amphibians, but the belle of the bunch was the sole RD-2 model, delivered in 1932 as the administrative aircraft for Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Teak paneling, no less. The RD-2 Dolphin might have become the first “Flying White House.” It was offered for presidential travel, but Franklin D. Roosevelt never flew in it.
This was very much a creature of the Great Depression, when the Coast Guard budget was pinched, but its lifesaving and national defense duties were never needed more.
The twin-engine, high-wing Dolphin, with engines mounted forward of the wing on struts, was known for its reliability, flexibility, and baby-smooth handling. All Dolphins had flying-boat hulls. Most had tailwheel landing gear that was only partially retractable.
Donald Douglas, fascinated by the sea, picked the wrong time to introduce a seaplane of his design that he termed a “flying yacht.” Douglas’ aircraft was offered to the civil market in 1930, just as the nation and the world were plummeting in an economic crash dive.
Coast Guard Dolphins were given individual names, like Sirius and Adhara.
Between 1930 and 1934, Douglas manufactured 59 civilian and military Dolphins in 17 distinct models, some with different wings and employing at least five different powerplants. Two Pratt & Whitney R-1340-4 Wasp radial piston engines became the powerplant of choice for the Coast Guard.
Each Dolphin was hand crafted, and was a little different from the others. Arthur Pearcy, author of several books about the Coast Guard, said in a 1991 interview that the Dolphin was “overbuilt” and “was reminiscent of today’s tourist cruise ships with its extremely robust and sturdy construction.”
The Navy and Coast Guard used RD, RD-1, RD-2, RD-3, and RD-4 models. Coast Guard Dolphins were given individual names, like Sirius and Adhara. Three crashed while performing Coast Guard duties. While the service’s Dolphins were often VIP transports that carried dignitaries – two Dolphins in the civilian world belonged to the Vanderbilt family – they had a primary mission of search and rescue (SAR). After Pearl Harbor, four Coast Guard RD-4s carried out anti-submarine duties until the last was decommissioned in June 1943.
This plane was the Coast Guard’s RD, the original Sinbad later called a Dolphin, number CG 27, later CG 227, and still later V106. It was named Procyon, delivered on March 9, 1931, and retired on July 31, 1939.
The First Helicopter
In 1944, tests with Sikorsky HNS-1 and HOS-1 aboard the ancient CGC Cobb were the very first American shipboard landings of helicopters. The HNS-1, known in Army jargon as the R-4, looked like a jungle gym of metal girders wrapped in fabric – it was not canvas, as widely reported, but linen – and had limited carrying capacity.
Developmental work on helicopters is often credited to the persistence of the Coast Guard’s Cmdr. Frank Erickson, who’d been designated a Coast Guard aviator a decade earlier, became the Coast Guard’s first helicopter pilot, and urged the helicopter’s use in air-sea rescue. Erickson envisioned rotorcraft performing convoy escort duty. In World War II, the Coast Guard was ahead of the other services in helicopter development – although, of course, it was doing the job in part because the chief of naval operations, Adm. Ernest King, assigned the mission. On June 29, 1944, Erickson made the first landing on Cobb’s deck in Long Island Sound.
Years would pass, however, before helicopters would redeem Erickson’s suggestion that they perform anti-submarine duty while carrying dunking sonar. As the war progressed, the German U-boat threat began to wane; the Coast Guard shifted emphasis from convoy protection to SAR. Erickson was still a leading light. He developed much of the Coast Guard’s rescue equipment and carried out its first lifesaving flight, carrying cases of blood plasma lashed to an HNS-1’s floats following an explosion on board a Navy destroyer, the USS Turner, on Jan. 3, 1944.
In the mid-1940s, the Coast Guard ordered its version of the Sikorsky S-51, the HO3S-1G, while other services debated whether rotary-winged flying machines had any practical role.
One of the first helicopter rescues was a rush job requiring coordination by many. Coast Guardsmen disassembled an HNS-1 at Brooklyn, New York, loaded it into an R5D-1 Skymaster transport, and hauled the helicopter to Goose Bay, Labrador, for reassembly. Lt. August Kleisch flew 150 miles to a staging station, then 35 miles more to the crash site, and rescued everyone stranded by the plane crash and its aftermath. The HNS-1 was small and frail by any standard, but it proved its worth and demonstrated that rotary-wing rescues had the potential to become routine. The Coast Guard ultimately operated 10 HNS-1s, all diverted from Army R-4B orders, plus just two of the closely related HOS-1s, both drawn from Army R-6A funding.
In the mid-1940s, the Coast Guard ordered its version of the Sikorsky S-51, the HO3S-1G, while other services debated whether rotary-winged flying machines had any practical role. In its Navy incarnation, the HO3S is remembered as the aircraft in which the Mickey Rooney character lost his life in the Korean War movie The Bridges at Toko-ri (1954). The Coast Guard operated nine HO3S-1Gs before graduating to the much larger HO4S-1G, more familiarly known as the H-19.
“Flying Banana” Helicopter
The Coast Guard was a pioneer in rotary-wing aviation, testing early helicopters for itself and for the Navy during World War II. One early helicopter that made an indelible impression was the Piasecki HRP-1 Rescuer, better known by designer Frank Piasecki’s term, the “Flying Banana.” This was the first tandem, twin-rotor helicopter and the first true transport helicopter – able to carry a crew of two plus eight to 10 passengers – at a time when anything with rotors was a conversation piece. Why the indelible impression? Well, it really did look like a banana. To make certain the rotors did not hit each other, the rear of the fuselage curved upward so the rear rotor was higher than the forward rotor, based on a design by Drago “Gish” Jovanovich, who worked for Piasecki.
The first of three HRP-1s entered service in November 1948 after the U.S. taxpayer shelled out $256,912 per aircraft.
Popular, formidable, fun to fly, the mostly fabric-covered “Banana” had a significant drawback: It was underpowered, with its single Pratt & Whitney R-1840-AN-1 radial engine delivering just 600 horsepower and driving both 41-foot rotors. The “Banana” design is remembered mainly for inspiring later, twin-tandem craft like the CH-47 Chinook, although none ever wore Coast Guard colors.
The HH-52A Seaguard, first flown on May 22, 1958 (and designated HU2S-1G until 1962), was described by one historian as the only aircraft ever manufactured solely for the Coast Guard. That’s almost true. The Seaguard is a version of the Sikorsky S-62 used by intra-city helicopter airlines that were in vogue in the 1960s. Sikorsky built 151 aircraft in this family, including the 99 examples of the HH-52As, the first helicopter with a flying boat-type hull. This was the most numerous aircraft ever to serve in Coast Guard inventory. With the exception of the service’s Martin P5M Marlin flying boats, the Seaguard was the first Coast Guard aircraft to come in any numbers directly from the factory rather than being a hand-me-down from another service branch.
One of the nation’s pioneering helicopter companies, Sikorsky, present at the creation of the service’s rotary-wing flying, labored aggressively to market the S-62 to the Coast Guard. Airmen were operating a fleet of reciprocating engine HH-19G – formerly HO4S-1G (S-55) – helicopters and Sikorsky saw the S-62 as a logical follow-on, with its amphibious capabilities and gas turbine power. “The H-19s were 10 years old, and in those days, helicopters weren’t built to last that long,” said retired Cmdr. Frank L. Shelley in a telephone interview for this article. “We had three accidents with one of them. In the final accident, it came unglued in mid-air and killed four people.
“We were having problems with the H-34,” said Shelley, referring to the Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw (designated HUS-1G until 1962). “The Coast Guard bought six and crashed three, including two in one day in Tampa Bay. The H-34 may have been the Cadillac of the piston-engined helicopters, but we didn’t have very good success with it.”
To facilitate the Coast Guard’s next purchasing decision, Sikorsky agreed to fund a “fly before you buy” test of the new helicopter. “Sikorsky came to us hat in hand,” Shelley said. Shelley, a Coast Guard officer and graduate of the Navy Test Pilot School, was selected as the project pilot.
Testing was conducted at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Maryland. Shelley worked closely with Sikorsky in the initial and test phases of the HH-52A. He designed and set up the test program. ADCM Clayton Roll, a former enlisted naval aviator (AP), accompanied Shelley in the effort and on test flights. The helicopter performed well.
“This was a well-designed helicopter that used aluminum instead of the magnesium found on earlier helicopters,” said Shelley. “The T58 gas turbine engine performed very well.
“We verified all of the manufacturer’s claims. The Coast Guard saw this as a really advanced aircraft, because it had automatic stabilization not found in the civilian S-62 and was easier to fly than the H-19.” The service signed on, agreeing to acquire the helicopter and naming it the Seaguard.
The HH-52A Seaguard was assuredly not the prettiest aircraft on the ramp, but it functioned well and paved the way for the HH-3F Pelican and HH-60J Jayhawk (and today’s updated MH-60T) that followed.
A citation honoring Shelley in the Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Honor notes that his HH-52A “established the primacy of the helicopter as a rescue vehicle, changing the face of search and rescue.”
The HH-52A nearly doubled the number of helicopters in Coast Guard inventory, thanks to Shelley’s efforts. It is credited with 15,000 rescues, more than any other helicopter up to that time. The citation continues:
“During evaluation, LCDR Shelley applied turbine engine and translational lift characteristics of the helicopter to develop a pilot-controlled procedure to transition the helicopter from forward flight to a hover without visual reference to the sea surface. This ‘beep to a hover’ maneuver subsequently saved countless lives.”
After acquisition of the first Seaguard in 1963, Shelley co-authored a plan for future operating locations to complete implementation of the Aviation Master Plan. In the decades since then, the only changes were the decommissioning of one air station and consolidation of two others.
The HH-52A Seaguard was assuredly not the prettiest aircraft on the ramp, but it functioned well and paved the way for the HH-3F Pelican and HH-60J Jayhawk (and today’s updated MH-60T) that followed. The lighter, more nimble Aerospatiale HH-65 Dolphin – called “the plastic puppy” by now-retired Capt. Peter Prindle because of its composite construction – came close to matching the Seaguard in numbers, with approximately 100 in service. When the Falcon jet and Dolphin helicopter were counted together, said pilot Shelley, “We had the second-largest French air force in the world.”
“Flying Saucer Herk”
It was an apparition when it took to the air for the first time at Fort Worth, Texas, on July 31, 1991 – a C-130 Hercules transport with a navy-gray flying saucer on its back.
EC-130V number 1721 was the Coast Guard’s ultimate flying radar station, a Hercules with an AP-145 radar system, identical to that on the E-2C Hawkeye, mounted in a 24-foot rotodome attached by pylons to the top of its fuselage. The service was already a user of the Hawkeye, an aircraft that was effective but not well liked. Pilots and crews considered the Hawkeye difficult to handle and to evacuate in an emergency. The friendly, familiar Hercules, on the other hand, was already an icon in Coast Guard service long before the one-of-a-kind EC-130V made its debut.
“The Coast Guard was given a large sum of money to develop an air-to-air radar,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. Bill Nielsen in an interview for this article. Nielsen traveled to Fort Worth in August 1991 to pick up the 1721. Nielsen’s logbook shows that Air Force pilots qualified him in the aircraft on Aug. 20 and he ferried the aircraft to Clearwater, Florida, on Aug. 23.
“The drug cartels shifted from smuggling marijuana on boats to trafficking in cocaine using small aircraft,” said retired Coast Guard flight engineer Gregory Wood, also in an interview for this article. “The E-2 and later the EC-130V were responses to this shift.” Said Nielsen: “The idea was, the EC-130V would detect a smuggler’s aircraft at long distance and would be able to vector one of our HU-25 Guardians to intercept it.” The objective would be to force the smugglers to land or turn them around. “We don’t shoot anybody down,” said Nielsen.
The Hercules has been in continuous production for 70 years. The distinctive, metallic purr of its turboprop engines became a familiar sound at most Coast Guard air stations. Military and civilian versions of the C-130 have appeared just about everywhere and done just about everything. In the Coast Guard, this practical, four-turboprop transport flies patrols, directs rescues, and hauls cargo.
The first Hercules flew on Aug. 23, 1954. The first for the Coast Guard was an R8V-1G model ordered in 1958. When the U.S. aircraft designation system was changed in 1962, the R8V acquired the Air Force-style C-130 nomenclature and the R8V-1G became the HC-130B, the “H” prefix signifying a rescue role. Today, the service operates 24 HC-130Hs and six next-generation C-130J models – with their own unique turboprop sound – with three more Js on order. The service wants eventually to operate 22 Js and retire all Hs. One Hercules was given the out-of-sequence number 1790 to honor the year the Coast Guard was founded. Another was equipped to carry side-looking radar on ice patrol duty. Every “Herk” deserves its own fan club.
But the EC-130V was special. Although the service planned to acquire two by converting two HC-130H airframes (numbered 1720 and 1721), only one was actually built and used in real-world, drug-war flying duties. And while the air-to-air, anti-drug mission was part of a policy that has stirred controversy, the sole EC-130V operated all over the Western Hemisphere for a year without ever displaying a flaw.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 gave the Coast Guard the job of interdicting aerial drug smuggling and prompted the service to acquire eight Hawkeyes from the Navy. The purpose of the EC-130V was to carry out counternarcotics missions requiring greater endurance and greater reach than the E-2C, but the EC-130V was also evaluated for SAR, fisheries patrols, EEZ (exclusive economic zone) enforcement, and as a support aircraft for space shuttle launches.
“It’s unfortunate that the CG didn’t know what they had,” said Nielsen.
“That plane was cursed!” one crewmember recalled in a Facebook post. “Remember when it ran over the halon fire extinguisher? It sat in the [hangar] for a long time getting fixed, then when they finally pulled it out of the hanger, they put a wing jack through the flap.” The EC-130V also gave the Coast Guard a unique category of officer. While Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard pilots are all naval aviators, until the EC-130V, only the Navy and Marines had navigators who were rated as naval flight officers (NFOs). Instead of adopting the NFO terminology, aircrew personnel adopted the term Coast Guard flight officer (CGFO) for EC-130V officer-crewmembers who were not pilots. These were the only CGFOs in the service’s history.
Perhaps the EC-130V could have had a major impact in the controversial war on drugs. “It’s unfortunate that the CG didn’t know what they had,” said Nielsen. Due to budget cuts, the EC-130V program was terminated and the aircraft was transferred to the USAF as the NC-130H for further development, including upgrading to the APS-145 radar. It later served with the Navy before having its rotodome removed and being returned to the Coast Guard as a standard HC-130H transport.
This article first appeared in the U.S. Coast Guard 225th Anniversary publication, a Special Edition of Coast Guard Outlook.
This article was originally published on: Jun 10, 2015
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