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The Coast Guard’s Vertical Leap

Centennial of Naval Aviation

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.

A Sikorsky HO4S-1, in its then-standard Coast Guard overall yellow paint scheme. Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Historian’s Office.

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.

The H-34 Seahorse was another helicopter that served long and well for the Coast Guard. Because the piston engine was in the nose, the pilot and co-pilot sat in a cockpit high above the passenger compartment. Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Historian’s Office.

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.

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