The Early Years: 1915-1938 2017-06-09T20:33:02+00:00

The Early Years
1915-1938

It could be said the Coast Guard’s introduction to aviation took place in 1903 when the surfmen from the Kill Devil Hill Life Boat Station of the US Life saving Service provided the Wright Brothers with additional manpower during the pre-launch activities of their epic flight. They helped transport the Wright biplane to its launch site. Surfman J.T. Daniels took the only photograph of the event.  By act of Congress, the US Life Saving Service was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard came into being when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Act to Create the Coast Guard on 28 January 1915. Coast Guard Aviation owes its beginnings to Second Lieutenant Norman B. Hall, Third Lieutenant Elmer F. Stone and their Commanding Officer Captain B.M. Chiswell. All felt strongly that disabled vessels and derelicts could be located more quickly from an airplane than from a relatively slow moving vessel. They approached the Curtiss Flying School at Newport News, Virginia, discussed their concept and arranged for a series of flights to evaluate the idea. The flights proved to be successful. Captain Chiswell set about selling headquarters on the idea and requested that consideration be given to sending Coast Guard Officers to Naval Flight School. Coast Guard Commandant E. P. Bertholf queried the US Navy Department concerning this possibility.  The Navy agreed and on the first day of April 1916 Lieutenant Elmer Stone received orders for flight training. Lt Sudgen and others would follow. Lt. Norman B Hall was ordered to the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company factory to study aircraft engineering.

The United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917 and the Coast Guard was transferred to the US Navy. An additional eight Coast Guardsmen had obtained their wings by this time and all participated. The expansion of Naval Aviation was rapid and the Coast Guard Officers having had previous sea duty were senior in rank. As a result they were assigned as Commanding Officers of major commands and naval air stations; LT Sudgen became commanding officer of the Naval Air Station, Ille Tudy, France, and LT Eaton was commanding officer of the Chatham Naval Air Station. LT Donohue was commanding officer NAS Sydney, Nova Scotia, LT Parker was commanding officer of NAS Key West and LT Coffin became commanding officer of the enlisted training school at Pensacola.

After the armistice the Coast Guard was returned to the Treasury Department and opportunities for aviation duties were extremely limited. In the unsettled times following the war Coast Guard Aviation was all but lost. Then an event occurred which brought hope to all. Three Navy flying boats, NC-1, -3, and –4, took off on a flight across the Atlantic to Europe in May 1919 to demonstrate the reliability and usefulness of large flying boats. Lt. Elmer Stone had continued to work with the Navy after the war at the Navy’s request. He was assigned as pilot of the NC-4; the only one of the three flying boats to successfully complete the journey. The successful crossing of the Atlantic by NC-4 had far reaching effects on the development of naval aviation.  Interest in aviation was again renewed within the Coast Guard and the former US Navy Air Station at Morehead City, North Carolina was obtained for the establishment of an air station. It operated with 5 borrowed aircraft and proved successful in locating marine hazards and protecting life and property. The air station was forced to close after a year due to lack of funds. 

The manufacture, sale or import of intoxicating beverages was forbidden by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution after 16 January 1920. The Coast Guard found itself enforcing federal anti-smuggling law on an unprecedented scale. During the mid-1920’s rum running became so flagrant that surface craft were unable to cope with it. Early in 1925 LCDR C.C. Von Paulsen, with the assistance of the Coast Guard Commandant, obtained the loan of a Navy aircraft for a year. An air station was set up on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts. A schedule of daily patrols substantially reduced the rum running in that area. Impressed by the activity of the air station, Congress appropriated the funds for five aircraft. Three were placed at Ten Pound Island and of two were placed at Cape May, New Jersey establishing a second aviation unit.

In 1928 an aviation section was established at Coast Guard Headquarters under the command of CDR. Norman Hall. It drew up specifications for a multi-mission aircraft which could fly hundreds of miles, land in open and frequently uninviting seas and carry out a rescue. These were the General Aviation PJ “flying lifeboats.” Henry Morgenthau became Secretary of the Treasury in 1934. He was an aviation enthusiast and supported its expansion within the Coast Guard. PJ “flying lifeboats” had been purchased and in the mid 1930’s RD-4 Dolphins were added, Grumman JF-2s were purchased and Hall PH-2 flying boats came on board in 1938. The marriage of aircraft and ship first took place during this period. The 327-foot cutters each embarked a Grumman JF-2 amphibian. In addition the Secretary obtained Public Works Administration funds and by the end of 1938 there were fifty air craft, eight Air Stations and one Air Detachment.

By 1938 a small group of dedicated individuals had established and given permanence to Coast Guard aviation but it would be viewed as an adjunct by many in the Coast Guard for years to come.

Search and Rescue

The initial proposal for Coast Guard utilization of aircraft was to assist Coast Guard Cutters in searching for vessels in distress and locating derelicts and hazards to navigation in the open seas. World War I interrupted the development of this concept but in 1920 an air station was established at Morehead City, North Carolina, for evaluation purposes. The aircraft proved effective but the air station closed after a year of operation due to lack of funds. During 1926 two air stations, one at Ten Pound Island at Gloucester Massachusetts and one at Cape May, New Jersey, were established to search for and locate maritime smugglers of alcohol during the Prohibition period. The use of aircraft proved to be very effective for this purpose.

Aircraft also proved to be very effective in rendering assistance to those in distress in the bays, coastal regions and those areas adjacent to the sea. They were able to patrol and search vast areas in much less time than a surface vessel could. The fact that these aircraft could operate from the water contributed significantly to the saving of life. This capability to cover vast areas in a limited period of time was also utilized to warn people of impending storms and hurricanes.  Evacuations for medical reasons became part of the mission and in the early 1930s a series of aircraft, referred to as flying lifeboats, were developed with a capability of landing in the open sea. During the year 1938 there were 1,931 persons warned of impending danger; 335 vessels warned of impending danger; 266 persons in peril assisted; 125 medical cases, 10 of which were facilitated by landings in the open sea: 87 disabled vessels located; and 21 navigation obstructions located.  Coast Guard aviation was in the beginning stages of what has become recognized today as its search and rescue mission.

Search and Rescue will be a continued part of the introductive narrative to each section of the Coast Guard Aviation History Timeline. It will trace the overall development and the expansion of the search and rescue mission. The individual exploits and amazing performance of Coast Guard aviators is a subject so vast that it is beyond the capabilities of this project to effectively present them. The Ancient Order of Pterodactyls, (CGAA) as part of its commitment to the preservation and promulgation of Coast Guard aviation history, has developed an ongoing electronic repository website which addresses this subject as well as others.   You are encouraged to avail yourself of this information.