The U.S. Coast Guard has been a part – indeed, a leading innovator – in maritime aviation from early in the history of flight at sea. Although the official Coast Guard centennial of flight is not until 2016, some date it to the Wright brothers’ first flight, where two members of their ground crew came from the U.S. Life-Saving Service that later became part of the Coast Guard.
“We’re proud [that] our surfmen assisted the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk [N.C.], but our material entry into naval aviation was with Elmer Stone, Coast Guard Aviator No. 1, and Naval Aviator No. 38, who, with some of his fellows, integrated into early naval aviation as partners with the Navy,” according to Vice Adm. John P. Currier, deputy commandant for Mission Support and the Coast Guard’s 23rd Ancient Albatross – the longest-serving aviator on active-duty.
During World War I, engineers were critical, and the Coast Guard was able to provide both pilots and engineers at a time when the Navy needed that expertise. According to Currier, the Coast Guard historically is inextricably linked with the Navy, not only in fixed-wing and amphibious development, but, in the 1930s and ’40s, with development of the helicopter for use in surveillance, search and rescue [SAR], and anti-submarine warfare during World War II.
The Coast Guard/Navy relationship remains strong a century later, primarily as partners in advancements in rotary-wing aircraft, although the services pilots still go through the Navy’s flight school at Pensacola, Fla., and other training locations.
“A little-known fact, when we look at naval aviation today, is, while it is seen as carrier-centric, which is understandable, more than 60 percent of naval aviators are actually rotary-wing aviators,” Currier, who also acts as chief aviation adviser to the commandant, added.
Capt. Bob Workman, a retired Coast Guard pilot and author of Float Planes and Flying Boats: The U.S. Coast Guard and Early Naval Aviation (coming out in May 2012), said in the beginning, from 1914 to 1925, “The Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps aviation endeavors were so entwined that only a unified history, not single-service histories, tells the true story.
“During these early years, the Navy and Coast Guard were developing flying boats and seaplanes and, prior to and 18 years after World War I, both services had almost equal numbers of engineering trained officer-aviators,” he said. “Following the First World War, the two services began to go in different directions.
Coast Guard aviation continued to develop and depend upon seaplanes for its mission sets. However, after launch of the first three aircraft carriers, Coast Guard contributions to the Navy’s aviation forces diminished as Navy aviation developed carrier task forces and anti-submarine warfare aircraft for its mission sets. Today’s Navy component dwarfs the numbers of Coast Guard aircraft.
But the bond that united that tri-service aviation effort never really ended.
The Marines and Coast Guard did not own aircraft until after World War I, during which all three services pulled hard together for the war effort. The three services’ aviators flew Navy aircraft on Navy missions from Navy ships and Navy Air Stations, commanded by Navy and Coast Guard aviators. “It was a unique time and the three sea services’ naval aviator bond was established,” Workman said.
Today’s aviation – both fixed wing and rotary – is considered a critical supporting element in all 11 of the service’s statutory missions.
As these missions and emphases expand, such as on ports and waterway security, protection of critical infrastructure or even of the biomass, the Coast Guard’s effectiveness is distinctly enabled through its aviation assets.
“From a rotary-wing perspective, a continuation of the update of the H-65 [Dolphin] and MH-60 [Jayhawk] will position us well, but we could use additional assets to enhance our mission capability,” Currier said. “From a fixed-wing perspective, we have a long-range strategy to convert our C-130 [Hercules] fleet to C-130J [Super Hercules], which will increase our capability in that arena. Also, completing recapitalization of our medium-range surveillance fleet, now populated by the HU-25 Falcon – which is quickly becoming unsupportable – and replacement of it with the HC-144 Ocean Sentry is a priority for us.”
Those upgrades and replacements are scheduled to run through the end of the decade, during which time the Coast Guard expects to see even greater demands, not only from its growing national security role, but also from the Arctic.
For Currier, that means a greater investment in and use of aircraft in the Arctic.
Due to the distances and harsh environments, aircraft – especially fixed-wing – will be mandatory. The reach and surveillance capability provided by fixed-wing will be essential to maintaining domain awareness in that area.
“I think our H-60s are particularly well-adapted to Arctic missions, with anti-ice capability, he said. “If and when the nation expects the Coast Guard to further engage in the Arctic, I would anticipate our H-60s and C-130s would be primary assets there.”
Even with that new effort and the difficulties it entails, one former asset that was a mainstay of early Coast Guard aviation – the seaplane – is unlikely to make a comeback, he added.
“I can only offer a biased opinion as a former amphibious helicopter pilot, but while there was great utility in being able to land on the water to retrieve survivors, statistically the increased cost of the aircraft was too much,” Currier said. “And with rescue swimmers now on our crews, I don’t think we’ve lost anything in conducting our missions without being able to land on the water.”
Two other relatively new requirements – counterterrorism and counter-piracy – also may increase demands on Coast Guard aircraft, although only one of those is considered a domestic mission.
“While not exclusive to that need, some air stations are equipped with weaponized helicopters for their counterterrorism mission. Given the current threat level, we feel that is adequate,” Currier said. “What remains to be seen is can we maintain the level of expertise required for SAR, the safe and effective use of weapons and other competing mission requirements in these units without adding additional resources.
And that is indicative of the demand signal on the service. Based on current mission sets and requirements, he sees a need for another half-dozen Jayhawk and Dolphin helicopters, but current acquisition plans only call for the replacement of attrition aircraft.
“The Coast Guard aviation force has very little excess capacity as we are fully engaged every day,” Currier concluded. “We are a unique instrument in our national toolbox for safety and security and our relevance, despite our small size, is reinforced through the performance of our people. No other organization – national or international – has the span of responsibilities we have.”
This article was originally published online on December 4, 2011.