In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and Life-Saving Service were merged to create the United States Coast Guard. The beginning of a Coast Guard air arm came soon afterward: On Aug. 29, 1916. President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act establishing an “Aerial Coast Patrol.” Coast Guardsmen planned a “flying surfboat” by putting wings on a simple seagoing vessel. Later, they pioneered the offshore patrol work with seaplanes like the F-Boat designed by Glenn H. Curtiss. The helicopter was still some time away – rotorcraft did not come into wide use until the mid-1940s – but the Coast Guard soon undertook the kinds of missions that helicopters would later fulfill.
Lt. Cmdr. C. G. von Paulsen borrowed a Vought UO-1 seaplane from the Navy to demonstrate the potential of aviation to combat the scourge of liquor smuggling during the Prohibition years. Operating from Squantum, Massachusetts, von Paulsen’s daily flights substantially curtailed smuggling in his area.
During the 1930s, some aircraft were deployed on board cutters for the first time. Most 327-foot cutters boasted a Grumman JF-2 Duck amphibian to assist with opium smuggling patrols off the west coast, fishery patrols in Alaskan waters, and a standby for search and rescue missions.
On May 13, 1940, Igor I. Sikorsky made his first public flight of his VS-300, deemed the United States’ first practical helicopter. Coast Guard Cmdr. William J. Kossler was on the scene to observe. Though Kossler knew the Coast Guard was a small service with limited resources, he felt the service had a place for rotary wing aviation. Kossler was back at the Sikorsky plant on April 20, 1942, for the first public demonstration of the HNS-1, known in Army jargon as an R-4. The HNS-1 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, often credited to the persistence of the Coast Guard’s Cmdr. Frank Erickson, led to the helicopter’s use in air-sea rescue. Erickson also saw 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. In 1944, tests with Sikorsky HNS-1 (or R-4) and HOS-1 helicopters aboard the cutter Cobb, a coastal passenger ship converted to become the world’s first helicopter carrier, marked the very first American shipboard landings of helicopters. On June 29, 1944, Erickson made the first landing on Cobb‘s deck in Long Island.
Many 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 to emphasis from convoy protection to search and rescue. 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 destroyer on January 3, 1944.
The Army equivalent to the HNS-1, the R-4, flew history’s first helicopter combat mission in Burma in 1944, flown by a pilot who had trained alongside Coast Guardsmen. On the home front, an early helicopter rescue occurred in 1945, when a Canadian aircraft crashed in a remote area of Labrador. Two ski-equipped airplanes went to the rescue but one crashed on landing and the other was trapped on the ground by snow after rescuing two survivors. 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.
In 1945, the Coast Guard had nine air stations and 165 aircraft. Following victory in World War II, Americans wanted to enjoy themselves, and an explosion of recreational boats created a booming clientele of people who needed to be rescued. The helicopter was ideally suited to this mission. Able to react swiftly, it could lift entire pleasure boat crews from imminent disaster or, in less trying circumstances, deliver de-watering pumps and fuel. As former Coast Guard historian Dr. Robert L. Scheina puts it, in its early years the helicopter had a major handicap: the pilot needed three hands in order to fly it!
In the mid-1940s, the Coast Guard ordered its next-generation helicopter, the Sikorsky HO3S-1G, known in Air Force talk as an H-5, while many military leaders were still debating whether rotary-winged flying machines could do more than take off and land. On April 6, 1949, an HO3S-1G completed the longest unescorted helicopter ferry flight yet, traveling from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to Port Angeles, Wash., via a detour to San Diego, California, a distance of 3,750 miles covered in 57.6 flying hours over ten and one-half days. The single-engine, all-metal HO3S-1G carried a single pilot inside a slender fuselage and up to three crewmen on a bench behind the flight deck. It served with the Coast Guard for more than a decade, but became better known to the American public for its Navy role as the rescue craft piloted by Mickey Rooney in the film version of James Michener’s novel “The Bridges at Toko-ri.”
In an unusual departure, in 1949 the Coast Guard evaluated a single K-225 helicopter, also called an H-22, purchased from Charles Kaman’s aircraft company. Kaman designed a dual, co-axial rotor arrangement that dispensed with a need for a tail rotor and offered performance that was, in some respects, improved over a conventional helicopter. But the Coast Guard never “took” to Kaman’s concept, although Navy and Air Force versions, the HOK and H-43 Huskie, proved successful.
The versatility of the helicopter was demonstrated during a series of floods in the United States in the 1950s. To carry out this rescue work, the helicopter had to hover among trees, telephone poles, television antennas and the like. In 1955, Coast Guard helicopters rescued more than 300 people as rivers overflowed in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In December of that year the Coast Guard on-scene commander directed the rescue of thousands in California. In one incident, a single helicopter operated by two crews rescued 138 people during a 12-hour period.
The Korean War from 1950 to 1953 marked the beginning of a precedent when Coast Guard helicopter pilots and crewmembers pulled exchange duty with other service branches in the combat zone. The Coast Guard did not send its own helicopters to Korea.
The postwar and Korean-era HO3S-1G gave way to the HO4S-1G, known to the Army an Air Force as an H-19; a bigger, sturdier craftcapable of carrying more and flying longer missions. The HO4S-1G and its offspring the HSS-1, otherwise called the H-34 – both from Sikorsky – served well into the 1960s. They made the helicopter capable for the first time of serving as a transport. They also expanded the potential for rescue work: In one extraordinary incident, two aircrews rotating duty aboard a single HO4S-1G rescued 138 people during a 12-hour period.
It was followed by a craft toward which “Coasties” seemed to have a special fondness. The HH-52A Seaguard, another Sikorsky offering, was greatly loved by those who flew it and worked on it, and had a superb reputation for reliability.
It was the Coast Guard’s first turbine-powered helicopter. It made its maiden flight on May 22, 1958. Not exactly graceful or beautiful but very functional in appearance, the HH-52A was a practical helicopter powered by an 845 shaft horsepower General Electric T58-GE-8 turboshaft engine.
“A good advance for us,” is what Coast Guard commandant Adm. Edwin J. Roland called the aircraft when he accepted the first four Seaguards at the Sikorsky factory in Stratford, Connecticut on January 9, 1963. The first HH-52A went to the air station at Salem, Massachusetts.
The HH-52A was the first aircraft to be operated at the new air station in Houston, Texas, beginning December 23, 1963.
Almost immediately, the HH-52A began to tote up a record of achievements around the country. When Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in fall 1965, Coast Guardsmen flew HH-52As around the clock. Although threatened by power lines, trees, and flooding, they rescued 1,200 people who were stranded by the raging storm.
The cutter USS Reliance (WPC 615) was the first Coast Guard vessel to operate in the Gulf of Mexico with a helicopter, where it conducted trials with the HH-52A in October 1964. Deck crews pioneered new methods of taking a helicopter aboard as the HH-52A began operating from the service’s new 210-foot cutters.
Coast Guardsmen found the HH-52A to be versatile and easy to use. It helped considerably that its design used the same main rotor, tail rotor, and transmission system as the proven HO4S-1G, but the HH-52A’s fuselage was entirely new, being designed for fully amphibious operation with a waterproof, flying-boat hull and semi-retractable main undercarriage wheels mounted in the two outrigger stabilizing floats. Designed from the start to operate on the sea (something no Coast Guard helicopter does today), the HH-52A proved itself able to function safely in 8 to 10 foot waves. One of its innovative features was a platform that folded out from the cabin floor, extending over the water where crewmembers could reach out to assist accident survivors out over the water.
Sikorsky built 99 H-52As for the Coast Guard. Coast Guard Lt. Ralph Benhart was an enlisted maintainer working on HH-52A electronic systems at Corpus Christi, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan, 1983-89. “It was an easy aircraft to maintain but because it was single-engine, if you had a problem you knew where you were going,” Benhart remembered in an interview. “As you’d expect with an amphibian, the sheet metal guys had problems with rust on the bottom. But it was a fine helicopter, and it could carry a heck of a lot of weight.” During 1989, the Coast Guard retired the last HH-52A, ending a three-decade success story.
During the Vietnam era, Coast Guardsmen again pulled exchange tours in Air Force helicopter squadrons in the combat zone. One Coast Guard pilot lost his life in a combat rescue attempt. He was attempting to pick up a downed Air Force navigator inside North Vietnam flier when his helicopter took heavy ground fire, touched down, and burst into flames.
The Vietnam era was also the time when the Coast Guard began operating the HH-3F Pelican helicopter on the home front. “It had its idiosyncrasies but it was a pleasure to fly,” said former Lt. Cmdr. James Howell, who piloted the HH-3F at Elizabeth City, N.C., from 1986 to 1989. “It was very responsive to the pilot’s touch.” Two 1,500 shaft horsepower General Electric T58-GE-85 turboshaft engines side by side above the main fuselage powered the Coast Guard HH-3F, driving a five-blade, 62-foot in diameter main rotor. The Coast Guard eventually acquired 40 HH-3Fs straight from the Sikorsky factory, the last delivered in 1973. In the 1980s, the service acquired three similar CH-3E models surplus from the Air Force.
On a March 19, 1991 orientation flight from Elizabeth City, N.C., an HH-3F took off with a three-person crew – pilot Lt. Rob Austin, co-pilot Lt. Michael Curphey, and flight mechanic AD2 Suki Patterson. “That’s what it says on my nametag but my real name is Susan,” Patterson said. She remembered that at the time the Coast Guard was the only service in which an aircraft mechanic served as a regular member of a flying crew and that she was following a family tradition, her father having been a Coast Guardsman, also. “The flight mech has the best seat in the house,” said Patterson, “situated next to the right-hand cargo door, where the hoist is located and capable of being adjusted in so as to be looking in or out.”
HH-3Fs performed thousands of rescues. Coast Guard crewmembers took pride in calling themselves “Pelican Pushers.” The ability to use the Pelican as a rescue platform was enhanced in 1984 when Congress required the Coast Guard to resurrect and strengthen its rescue swimmer program, sending out each HH-3F with at least one rescuer on board. When the present-day HH-60J Jayhawk was chosen in 1986 as the replacement for the HH-3F, many Coast Guardsmen welcomed the newer technology and greater flexibility of the HH-60J. But they missed the Pelican’s amphibious capabilities and its greater roominess and volume-carrying capacity. The last Pelican was retired from the Coast Guard on May 6, 1994.
While original Deepwater plans would have replaced the HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters with the smaller AB-139, limitations with the newer helicopter that left it unable to complete some of the projected future missions led to a plan to upgrade existing HH-60Js to MH-60T standard. The helicopters will be modernized with new power plants and avionics, an Airborne Use of Force package, and improved radar and optical sensors and used as medium range responders for offshore operations. They will also be armed to provide a shore-based aviation surveillance capability, and are capable of detaching aboard National Security Cutters (NSC) and Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC). Modernizing the HH-60s rather than purchasing new helicopters will also save $500 million.
The most numerous helicopter operated by the Coast Guard in recent times is the HH-65 Dolphin, a French design that makes extensive use of composite materials, prompting Cmdr. Peter Prindle to nickname it the “plastic puppy.” The service’s decision to buy an Aerospatiale aircraft in preference to a Bell model caused some debate in Washington, especially when Aerospatiale (known today as American Eurocopter) assembled all 96 Dolphins in Grand Prairie, Texas, just down the interstate from the Bell plant. The HH-65A first flew in 1980 and, after technical delays, entered service at New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1985. At one time, the HH-65A model had a less than 50 percent mission capable rate and was widely criticized for being underpowered (with twin, U.S.-manufactured 740-shaft horsepower Lycoming LTS-101 turboshaft engines and 39-foot rotors) and difficult to support because of its lack of commonality with other U.S. military helicopters. A variety of Coast Guard efforts and programs overcame these challenges and the Dolphin has had a successful career.
A new lease on life has been provided to the Dolphin fleet with the addition of new digital display units and other changes that caused the change to the HH-65B designation. The helicopters are also undergoing engine upgrades, HH-65C designating an HH-65B re-engined with Turbomeca Arriel 2C2-CG turboshaft engines that provide substantial power, flight control, and flight safety improvements. In the longer term, a series of modernizations and improvements planned for the helicopters of the fleet will allow them to take on their role as Multi-mission Cutter Helicopters, with planned upgrades ending with the MH-65E designation.
Reflecting the changing roles and missions of the Coast Guard, the service acquired eight MH-68 Stingray helicopters to interdict drug smugglers in fast boats, but the aircraft later took on homeland security roles. The fast Stingrays, based on the Agusta A109 but fitted with state-of-the-art sensors and communications, were the first of the modern Coast Guard helicopters to be armed, but will not be the last, as portions of both the HH-60 and HH-65 helicopter fleets will also be armed for homeland security duties. HH-65s have now taken over the HITRON role.
While Coast Guard helicopters have saved countless lives over the decades, perhaps Coast Guard aviation’s finest hour in recent years was in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Coast Guard helicopters were first on the scene after the storm passed, plucking survivors from rooftops, roads, and disabled vessels all along the Gulf Coast, but most visibly in New Orleans. By the time rescue operations were suspended, Coast Guard helicopter crews were estimated to have saved more than 12,500 lives. The image of HH-60 JayHawks and HH-65 Dolphins hoisting survivor after survivor from rooftops will be imprinted upon the American consciousness for a very long time, but today, Coast Guard helicopters are also taking on new roles and missions.
Coast Guard aviation has grown to encompass about 18 percent of all Coast Guard personnel, with 190 aircraft at 28 air stations. Coast Guardsmen have been involved in missions as noteworthy as the rescue of hundreds of people from the burning ocean liner Prinsendam in the frigid waters of Alaska and the seizure of thousands of tons of marijuana and cocaine headed to the U.S. through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. With Coast Guard helicopters now increasingly armed, the homeland security mission has been added to the duties of the helicopters foreseen by pioneers like Kossler and Erickson.
This story was originally published on May 6, 2010