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The Coast Guard’s Vertical Leap

Centennial of Naval Aviation

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.


The HH-52 Seaguard was loved by its crews, and Sikorsky built 99 for the Coast Guard. The Seaguard could land on water and holds the record for the most lives saved over the operational career of a helicopter. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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 HH-3F Pelican began serving the Coast Guard in 1969, and was the last Coast Guard helicopter to have amphibious capability. Photo via Robert F. Dorr.

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.

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