Dec 13

USCG Helos to the Rescue (Part 1)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 3:52 PM


In 1943, U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pioneer Commander Frank Erickson was named the commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn, New York.

In 1943, U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pioneer Commander Frank Erickson was named the commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn, New York.

On 15 February 1943, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King assigned responsibility for sea-going development of helicopters to the U.S. Coast Guard. Admiral King quickly realized the helicopter’s unique capabilities were a way to increase maritime security during World War II. The first helicopter to enter the Navy’s inventory, an HNS-1, was tested and accepted by naval aviation’s first designated helicopter pilot, Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Frank Erickson, at Bridgeport, Connecticut on 16 October 1943. Ericson had brought his trusted lead helicopter mechanic, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Oliver Perry along with him to inspect the aircraft and sit in the copilot’s seat during the one-hour test flight.

This was the beginning of a 74-year journey featuring man’s ingenuity, skill, and daring as industry and technology constantly improved rotary-wing aircraft.

According to Sergei Sikorsky, son of famed aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky: “There is no doubt in my mind that the Coast Guard pioneered the use of the helicopter as a rescue vehicle. It was under the leadership of two brilliant men, Commander Frank Erickson and Lieutenant Stewart Graham, that the rescue hoist and the Erickson basket were developed in 1944-46, in some cases with me as the simulated person in distress. The Coast Guard has proven time and time again Igor Sikorsky’s prediction that the helicopter will prove to be a unique instrument for the saving of human lives.”

Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation now proudly states that over two million lives have been saved by their helicopters in the last 74 years. Dozens of other helicopters have been used around the world to increase that total to well over three million people. Here are two of the first important missions flown by Coast Guard helicopters.

Delivering the Plasma

Commander Erickson conducted the first life-saving mission made in a military helicopter. On 3 January 1944, the USS Turner (DD-648) exploded while anchored off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The destroyer was at anchor when the explosion occurred, and dozens of sailors were injured. Large quantities of plasma were urgently needed at local hospitals to ensure the success of the surgeries required to save the sailors’ lives.

A major snowstorm had closed all airports in the New York and New Jersey area, and all fixed-wing aircraft were grounded. Winds exceeded 30 knots and ceilings were below 200 feet with snow squalls and heavy turbulence. The Third Naval District commander called Erickson and asked if his new helicopters were capable of flying from Naval Air Station Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to lower Manhattan to pick up the plasma and deliver it to Sandy Hook. Erickson said he could do the job even though he had never flown a helicopter in conditions like this. The maximum cruise speed of the HNS-1 helicopter he flew was only 70 knots. There were no instruments aboard the helicopter to allow instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions.


HNS-1 Hoverfly
Manufacturer: Sikorsky Aircraft
Fuselage: Metal and fabric
Max. gross weight: 2,600 pounds
Range: 120 miles
Engine: One R-550-3 200-HP piston
Max. Speed: 70 knots
Crew: 2

After taking off, Erickson flew his helicopter at extremely low levels along the shoreline around Brooklyn and then across the East River to the Battery in lower Manhattan, where the plasma was located. The winds were now gusting at over 40 knots and the water was choppy and freezing cold. He landed on a small empty lot at the tip of Manhattan and asked his crew member, Aviation Machinist’s Mate First Class Gus Jablonski, to exit the aircraft so they could strap two cases of plasma to the landing floats.

Erickson then backed his helicopter out of the small landing area and skimmed the waves across the Hudson River to deliver his life-saving cargo to fellow servicemen in need. A New York Times editorial later praised Erickson and his friend helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky and further stated, “Nothing can dim the future of a machine which can take in stride weather conditions such as those which prevailed in New York on Monday.”

Rescuing the Survivors

The first international life-saving mission of civilians by helicopters captured a great deal of media attention around the world. On 18 September 1946, a Belgian Sabena Airways four-engine DC-4 aircraft crossed the Atlantic with 44 persons on board. They were scheduled to land and refuel at Gander Airport in northeastern Newfoundland. Air traffic control lost radio contact with the aircraft and, after determining that it had not landed safely, notified U.S. Coast Guard Operations in Argentia, Newfoundland. The Coast Guard launched several PBYs and PB-1Gs to search for the missing aircraft.

An inbound TWA flight located its crash site about 24 miles southwest of Gander and determined that there were survivors. The area was heavily wooded and the ground proved to be a very large quagmire. A rescue team was formed, headed by U.S. Army Medical Corps Captain Samuel Martin, and flown by PBYs to a nearby lake. The team then trekked more than one and a half miles through the swampy bog to reach the crash site. They found 21 survivors alive but badly injured. Martin determined they could not be transported overland to the lake.

Coast Guard personnel were asked if their helicopters could be “shipped” to Newfoundland to transport the injured. Commander Erickson and other fledgling helicopter pilots and mechanics disassembled one HNS-1 at Coast Guard Air Station (CGAS) Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and one HOS-1 helicopter at CGAS Brooklyn and loaded them on board two U.S. Army Air Forces C-54 aircraft. They were flown to Gander, where they were quickly reassembled and flight tested by a group of highly skilled enlisted mechanics in less than 48 hours.

HOS-1 Hoverfly-1
Manufacturer: Sikorsky Aircraft
Fuselage: All metal
Max gross weight: 2,700 pounds
Range: 120 miles
Engine: Franklin O-405-9 245-HP reciprocating
Max. speed: 75 knots
Crew: 3

Meanwhile the two PBYs dropped more supplies at both the crash site and Gander Lake, including tents, medical supplies, and lumber. The lumber was used to construct platforms for tents and for the helicopters to land on to prevent them from sinking into the bog.

Over the next few days pilots Erickson, Lieutenant Stewart Graham, Lieutenant Walter Bolton, and Lieutenant August Kleisch rescued the 18 survivors by making repeated flights, carrying out one survivor at a time, between the crash-site and Wolfe Lake. There they were loaded into life rafts and towed to the PBYs for transport to Gander.