Coming of Age: 1957-1975
In the year 1956 the Coast Guard operated 127 aircraft consisting of 14 models. Of this total 50 were of WWII vintage. In addition there were only 28 helicopters in the entire inventory. The House Appropriations Committee of the United States Congress had previously recommended that a program be developed for the regular annual replacement of Coast Guard aircraft. This program was abandoned in the revised fiscal 1954 budget by the Executive Branch on the grounds that it was to be restudied. Report number 1743, which accompanied the fiscal 1957 appropriations bill for the Coast Guard, directed the Secretary of the Treasury and the Commandant to cause a complete evaluation of all Coast Guard activities, the conduct of which require the use of aircraft, and to present at least preliminary conclusions by December 31, 1956. The recommendations were to include the kinds of activities requiring aircraft, types of aircraft required, and numbers of aircraft required. In addition it was directed that a program for financing the procurement and replacement be part of the plan. On 26 February 1957, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Commandant submitted the Joint Report requested by Congress. The Joint Report constituted a “Five Year Plan” for Coast Guard Aviation. In the letter of transmittal to the committee the Secretary of the Treasury stressed that since the plan was intended to meet both present and future needs of Coast Guard Aviation it would be essential to subject the plan to a continuing re-examination.
The Report recommended three general types of aircraft for procurement; namely, long range, medium range, and short range and applied the concept of “fewest models.” The report further detailed specific aircraft by model, aircraft deployment, facility requirements, aviation personnel requirements, and the costs involved over the five year fiscal period. The Joint Report recommended a fleet of 195 aircraft of which 99 were to be helicopters. The greatly increased number of helicopters reflected a major shift in the thinking within Coast Guard aviation.
Because of budgetary limitations, the Joint Report was revised in 1958 and twice in 1959. By January of 1960 the funding obtained was only 42% of what was required. Because of the extent of the required residual funding the Commandant convened a Special Board for the re-evaluation of Coast Guard Aviation requirements. Included in his instructions was a direction to the Board to develop a realistic financial plan. The Board consisted of nine senior officers assigned to duty at Coast Guard Headquarters. Five of these Officers were aviation officers in current flight status while the remaining four members were non-aviators. The Joint report, reinforced by a Coast Guard Roles and Mission study conducted in 1961 had a far reaching positive impact on the Coast Guard which extended beyond the aviation community.
There were those who felt that budgeting a fixed sum for aircraft procurement would deprive the service’s ships and shore stations of much needed funds. The opposite occurred. The benefit of the Requirements of Coast Guard Aviation Report went far beyond the procurement of much needed aircraft. The Report was a catalyst for a change in thinking on how the Coast Guard approached its missions. Prior to this time the Coast Guard was tactical and reactive in nature. There was no long range planning of any substantial consequence. This was about to change. The requirements to implement the Aviation Plan were projected out in five year segments and in some cases beyond. Additionally the status of Coast Guard Aviation was in constant review and the Plan continuously updated to accommodate future requirements. The concept became Coast Guard wide with the completion of a committee report on the missions and conditions of the cutter fleet and stations. The first of 79 Point Class 82 footers was launched in 1960 and the contract for the first of a planned 210 foot cutter with a helicopter deck was let in 1961. This type of planning would continue for surface requirements as additional cutters and patrol boats were designed and built. The concept continued to develop and grow, with intermittent setbacks, and is the basis for the current Deepwater planning.
In 1963 the first of the HH-52 helicopters, a joint project with Sikorsky Aircraft, came on board. The HH-52, with over 15,000 lives saved in its twenty-six years of service, has the honor of having rescued more persons than any other helicopter in the world. It became the international icon for rescue and proved the worth of the helicopter many times over. Aircraft continued to be added to the inventory. Existing Air Stations were upgraded, new Air Stations were added, and consolidation took place where warranted — all in a systematic sequence of events to facilitate and accommodate the expanding role of Coast Guard Aviation.
Other changes were taking place. The Coast Guard had established a Flight Safety billet at Headquarters and began sending experienced aviators to the University of Southern California flight safety course the object being to furnish each aviation unit with a trained flight safety officer. In 1962 a Board was convened to develop an HU-16 Standardization Manual. This was the first Coast Guard wide Standardization Manual. The Board made an additional recommendation that had a profound effect on the genuine professionalism in the ensuing years. They recommended a training command and thus the seed was planted. The C-130s marked the beginnings of standardized training. The Coast Guard invested much time, effort and money into the development of an HH-52A Pilots Handbook and an HH-52 on site standardized checkout program had been developed to bring the new helicopter on board. The program proved successful and as a result Headquarters established a Basic Operating Training Unit at Air Station Savannah. With new aircraft coming on the line the requirements outgrew the facility and a greatly expanded training unit was moved to Mobile, Alabama and the Aviation Training Center was established. The Training Center expanded to meet Coast Guard needs. Advantage was taken of new concepts and technology and highly sophisticated simulators were acquired and utilized. Simulator training for helicopter pilots became the norm and in 1973 the Coast Guard became the first service to authorize instrument ratings based strictly on simulator flight.
The United States had become involved in the Vietnam conflict and as 1965 began the advisory capacity had given way to full combat operations. The Navy requested assistance in off-shore surveillance patrols to interdict vessels supplying Viet Cong forces. Seventeen 82 footers were sent and conducted what was known as Operation Market Time. Coast Guard presence continued to grow and in 1967 a pilot exchange program between the Air Force and Coast Guard was initiated. Coast Guard aviators, primarily helicopter pilots, served with Combat Rescue Units in Vietnam.
The Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Transportation in 1967 after having spent 52 years in the Treasury Department. This would bring challenges in the years ahead.
The Coast Guard was given full responsibility for ice breaking operations and all Navy Icebreakers were transferred to the Coast Guard in 1967 with the stipulation that the helicopter pilots deployed on the ships would be Coast Guard Aviators. This resulted in the creation of the Ice Breaker Support Section being established at ATC Mobile to provide the necessary training and support.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon sent Reorganization Plan 2 to Congress to address the growing drug menace. A single federal agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), was created to consolidate and coordinate the government’s drug control activities. It was designed to integrate the activities of the narcotics agents and U.S. Customs agents. It soon became apparent that drugs were coming into the country by aircraft but the majority was smuggled by ship. Even though transferred to the Department of Transportation the Coast Guard still retained the responsibility for maritime law enforcement. In addition, the Coast Guard had ships to interdict the flow of drugs — the other agencies did not. As a result, the Coast Guard would see a growing involvement in drug interdiction which resulted in increased deployment of helicopters on board the cutters. Over the years the role of Coast Guard Aviation in drug interdiction would continue to grow.
Search and Rescue
The primary responsibility of Coast Guard Aviation during this period remained Search and Rescue (SAR). With the advent of the HH-52A helicopter and additional air units the SAR statistics increased dramatically. During the ten year period 1965 -1975 the number of cases increased by 62% and the number of lives saved by 54%. Although the statistics are not broken down into aviation and surface categories the impact of the new helicopters and air units was evident. A complete narrative of SAR incidents is outside the parameters of this section, however, there are over 540 citations, Silver Life Saving Medal and above, awarded to Coast Guard Aviators that can be viewed in “The Roll of Valor” on the Coast Guard Aviation Association (Pterodactyl) history web site. Their exploits are truly amazing!