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Rotary Wing Aviation
1947 – 2000

The Coast Guard had been well ahead of the other services in recognizing the usefulness of the helicopter. After the war, the Service continued to pursue new uses for the new machines.

In 1944, the Service evaluated the Sikorsky HOS-1. After the war, it ordered 27 of them, which served from both land and icebreakers until 1949. The HOS was followed by two HO2S-1Gs that served from 1946 to 1950 and by nine HO3S-1Gs from 1946 to 1957. The 3S was basically the identical airframe as the 2S, but with some stability improvements.

At about that time, Sikorsky lost its monopoly on the helicopter market. In 1945, Bell developed its Model 47, which became the first helicopter granted a type approval as a commercial helicopter. The Coast Guard version was the Bell HTL-1. Two of these served from 1947 to 1955. They were used by the Captain of the Port of New York for harbor surveillance. They generally landed on pontoons. The HTL-4 eliminated the fabric covering on the rear fuselage and gave the helicopter its distinctive look as the MASH medevac helicopter.

Frank Piasecki was also building helicopters. He preferred a tandem-rotor arrangement. The Coast Guard bought three of his HRP-1G Flying Bananas and flew them until 1952. They carried a crew of two and could hold eight survivors.

In 1950, Kaman delivered one HK-1 Mixmaster that the Coast Guard used for training until 1954. The Mixmaster had counter-rotating main blades that gave it exceptional stability, but the concept never really caught on.

1951 brought the first helicopter with any real staying power. The Sikorsky Model 52 was a two-seat machine introduced in November 1951. Fifteen of them became Coast Guard HO4S-1Gs and the main search and rescue helicopter for the next 15 years. Hundreds of rescues were made with this helicopter, primarily using the hydraulic hoist and the Coast Guard-designed rescue basket still in use today. The helicopter was also fitted with a Tugbird system that allowed it to tow fairly large vessels for fairly long distances. Continued development of this type led to all-weather capability, improved night illumination, extended range and payload, plus flexibility and improvement of search and rescue devices.

In 1952, the Coast Guard bought three HTL-5s, which were –4s with improved engines. The landing gear was still pontoons. They served until 1960.

The Coast Guard bought six Sikorsky HUS-1G Seahorses in 1959. The type was originally designed as an ASW platform and the Marines used it extensively early in the Vietnam War. The Coast Guard had no luck with them. Two crashed while attempting to rescue the crew of a downed B-47 and a third crashed when it fouled in the rigging of a fishing vessel from which it was trying to hoist an injured crewman. The others were retired in 1962.

In 1959 the Service also bought two Bell HTL-7s and two HUL-1Gs. Both were Bell Model 47s, with the HUL-1Gs being specially modified for cold weather flying aboard icebreakers and other ships on Bering Sea Patrol. In 1956, the 30-minute documentary Men Against the Artic was released to rave reviews. It was a collaborative effort by Disney Studios and the Coast Guard to introduce the American public to the far-flung duties of the Service. The four HUL-1Gs flew from Eastwind and Westwind to capture giant icebergs, polar bears, the large base at Thule, and routine duties aboard ship. The idea of the movie was to show the importance of keeping a vigil in the cold weather climate of the Arctic in the Cold War climate of the times. These aircraft were retired in 1967.

In 1963, the Coast Guard acquired the helo most associated with the Service, the HH-52 Seaguard. Sikorsky delivered 93 of them. The Seaguard was an amphibious helicopter, capable of landing on the water to pick up survivors. The helicopter flew every mission flown by all previous helicopters. It flew search and rescue, law enforcement, aids to navigation, port security, general logistics, and military preparedness. It flew from land, from icebreakers and from flight deck-equipped ships like the 210s and 378s. It was the workhorse of the Fleet until retired in 1987 after 24 years of service. The Coast Guard was the only buyer of the helicopter. As these helicopters came into the Fleet, the HO4S retired. The last HO4S left service in 1966.

In 1968, Sikorsky began delivery of 40 HH-3 Pelicans. These were Air Force helicopters that were based on the Navy HH-3 Seaking. The Air Force and Coast Guard versions added a rear cargo ramp. The HH-3 could carry bigger and heavier loads further than the HH-52. It could only land on the 378s.

In 1962, the services went to a joint aircraft classification system. The UF-1Gs became HU-16Es. The GV-1Gs became HC-130s. The HO4S became the HH-19. The HLT became the H-13. The HUL became the H-13Q. The HUS became the H-34.

The venerable Seaguard stayed in service till 1987 and the Pelicans hung on till 1994. But it was time to modernize the fleet. In 1984, the Aerospatiale HH-65 Dolphins came in service to replace the Seaguards. There were 96 of them in service at the end of the century. In 1994, the Coast Guard joined the other services in ordering a variant of the H-60 helicopter, the HH-60J Jayhawk, to replace the Pelican. The Service ordered 35 of them.


The Coast Guard lost no time in proving the helicopter’s worth in the business of saving lives.

The HOS-1G is best known in Coast Guard history as having been instrumental in the "Miracle at Gander" rescue. A Sabena Airlines DC-4 passenger aircraft crashed into a hillside 20 miles southeast of Gander, Newfoundland, on Wednesday, 18 September 1946, while attempting to land at the Gander airport. The aircraft had left Shannon, Ireland airport at 1700 the day before for a trans-Atlantic flight with 37 passengers and a crew of seven. A TWA pilot, Ray Jennings, reported the location of the wreck the next day. The location was so remote that it was thought the only way to get a rescue party there was by helicopter and the call went out for assistance. CAPT Richard L. Burke, the rescue officer for the Eastern Area, organized the rescue response.On 20 September 1946, an HNS from E City and an HOS-1G from Brooklyn were brought to Gander by Army C-54. A Coast Guard PBY from Argentia took the helo crews on a reconnaissance flight of the crash site. After a brief conference, it was decided to drop lumber at the clearing nearest the crash for the purpose of constructing a small platform as the muskeg would not support the weight of the helicopter. A second platform was built on the edge of a lake approximately seven miles from the clearing so that the survivors could be transferred at this point to PBY's and flown to Gander. Construction of the platforms was finished in the late afternoon and the HOS recovered eight survivors by stretcher that night. The next day, both helicopters were used to fly out the remaining survivors plus the fourteen members of the Army ground rescue team and several others, who had gone in to help with the evacuation at the scene of the crash. The Coast Guardsmen rescued 18 survivors of the airliner's passengers and crew. The following day the investigators and officials of the airline were flown in by helicopter. In all, the helicopters made 40 flights into the clearing. Landing both at the clearing and at the lake were made on the wooden platforms permitting maximum performance of the helicopters. The pilots of the helicopters and PBYs were all awarded Air Medals as well as the Belgian "Knight of the Order of Leopold" medals. In this major rescue effort, the usefulness of the new helicopters in saving lives in remote locations became evident and secured a place in the Coast Guard's inventory for these rotary-winged aircraft.

The Rotary Wing Development Unit was based out of E City. Here then-CDR Frank Ericsson and his men used the HRP helicopter as a test platform. Experiments, including on-the-water landings with newly invented flotation gear and the testing of various types of hoists, rescue baskets, and rescue harnesses. He also tested helicopter landings on board the USCGC Mackinaw in Buffalo, New York. Erickson also participated in flood relief experiments in the Second Coast Guard District in 1949 as well, using HRP CG-111826. The experiments included testing various hoisting methods and equipment at various points along the Mississippi River, beginning in St. Louis, Missouri.

The first recorded search and rescue mission carried out by a Coast Guard HRP occurred on 31 December 1948. It involved transporting a fourteen-month-old baby girl, who was suffering from pneumonia, from a remote area of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to the hospital at Elizabeth City. Helo SAR was a reality.

With over 15,000 people rescued in its 30 years of service, the HH-52 holds the honor of having rescued more people than any other helicopter in history.

The HH-3F was well suited for search and rescue. The aircraft could seat 17 passengers and its side hoist could lift 600 pounds. Key features were its suspension hoist, hydraulically operated eight-foot ramp that could be opened during flight, in the water and on land; computerized navigation system; weather search color radar; and automatic flight control system. In October 1980, the Pelican was the primary rescue vehicle when hundreds of souls, mostly senior citizens, were plucked from bobbing lifeboats some 200 miles out in the Gulf of Alaska. This followed a fire on board the cruise ship Prinsendam and was one of the most successful maritime rescues in history. On a more intimate scale, in 1978 an HH-3 took off into the snow and sleet of an Alaskan night. One crewman was making his first flight since qualifying as an avionics technician. Flying at night in Alaska you see no lights. The mountains that rise up to stand in your way are only marginally darker than the sky itself. The HH-3, the only aircraft flying that stormy night, was bound for a remote logging camp where a child was dying of sepsis and needed emergency surgery. At the camp, the child’s father trustfully laid the young girl in the arms of the new AT, nodded his head, and silently backed away from the helicopter. The child, weak and pale with pain and infection, gazed up at the AT with a look he would never forget. Her eyes said, “Now I am safe.” Though she still had a hundred miles of Arctic darkness to cross and six hours of abdominal surgery to undergo, she knew the worst was over because she was in the arms of a total stranger who had come out of the winter sky in a white helicopter with a red stripe.

For a complete list of helicopters used by the Coast Guard from 1947 to 2000 go to this Link.