Feb 20

USCG Helos to the Rescue (Part 2)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 12:01 AM


Lieutenant Commander Frank Erickson, U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot Number 1

Lieutenant Commander Frank Erickson, U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot Number 1

On 15 February1943, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King assigned responsibility for sea-going development of helicopters to the U.S. Coast Guard. 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. 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.

The Coast Guard has proven time and time again that the helicopter is a unique instrument for the saving of human lives.” Here are some of the important missions flown by Coast Guard helicopters.

‘The Most Efficient Rescue Vehicles’

Northern California was experiencing extreme flooding in late December 1955. On Christmas eve, a Coast Guard HO-4S helicopter departed Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco and headed to the Yuba City area to evacuate stranded residents from the flooded areas.


HO-4S Chickasaw
Manufacturer: Sikorsky A/C Corp.
Max. gross weight: 7,500 pounds
Range: 360 miles
Engine: Pratt & Whitney 600-hp R-1340 reciprocating
Max. speed: 80 knots
Fuselage: All metal
Crew: 3

On board the helicopter was the pilot, Lieutenant Commander George F. Thometz Jr.; Lieutenant Henry Pfeiffer; Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate Joseph Accamo; and Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Victor Rolund. During the next 12 hours, these four men pulled 138 people to safety. The first 55 were picked up in darkness with the helicopter hovering above trees, chimneys, and television antennae. The only illumination was provided by an Aldis lamp held by aircraft’s hoist operator. At one time, 3 women and 11 children were somehow squeezed into the helicopter—a record for an HO-4S.

This rescue proved to senior Coast Guard officials that “helicopters were the most efficient rescue vehicles of the future.” Within a few years the Coast Guard would more than triple the number of helicopters assigned to their air stations and a dozen new air stations were built along the East and West coasts to ensure the rapid availability of these aircraft.

Disaster in Galveston Bay

At 0500 on 1 November 1979, an HH-52A Seaguard helicopter, serial no. 1426, scrambled to answer the distress call of two ships that had collided just outside the entrance to Galveston Bay, Texas. The aircraft and its designated Coast Guard air crew—Lieutenant J. C. Cobb, Lieutenant (junior grade) Chris Kilgore, and Aviation Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class Tom Wynn Jr.—were airborne less than 15 minutes after receiving the alert.

They arrived on scene to find the Liberian freighter Mimosa and the Liberian tanker Burmah Agate on fire. The tanker suddenly exploded, an intense cloud of fire mushrooming so close to the helicopter that it lost lift and altitude. Two people were quickly located at the stern of the tanker. The helicopter’s hoist operator swung the rescue basket to them several times before they finally leaped off the railing, grabbed the basket, and climbed in.


HH-52A Seaguard
Manufacturer: Sikorsky A/C Corp.
Max. Gross Weight: 8,300 pounds
Range: 270 miles
Engine: T-58 GE-5 730-hp turboshaft
Max. speed: 90 knots
Fuselage: All metal
Crew: 3

Seeing no more survivors on board the Burmah Agate, the helicopter flew to the Mimosa, where the crew found a group of men clustered together on the ship’s bridge. The freighter was out of control, steaming in circles around its dropped anchor. Moreover, the vessel had a forest of cargo cranes on its deck. The hoist operator lowered the basket several times, as the helicopter following the ship around in a circle. Eventually, the aircrew recovered 12 people—far more than the HH-52A’s small cabin could handle. Using maximum power available, the helicopter slowly climbed to 300 feet, landed on a nearby oil rig, and delivered the survivors to safety. It made two more trips to Mimosa, rescuing ten more people before it had to return to Coast Guard Air Station Houston to refuel.

HH-52A serial number 1426 is now on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia.

All-Out Rescue Effort

The Dutch cruise ship Prinsendam was steaming through the Gulf of Alaska when a fire erupted in her engine room near midnight on 4 October 1980. The vessel’s captain ordered life boats deployed and 520 people—320 passengers and 200 crew members—to abandon ship. The Prinsendam was more than 150 miles from the nearest coast.

HH-3F Pelican
Manufacturer: Sikorsky A/C Corp.
Max. Gross Weight: 22,000 pounds
Range: 300 miles
Engines: Two T-58 GE-5 1,500-hp (each) turboshaft
Max. speed: 140 knots
Fuselage: All metal
Crew: 4

The Coast Guard immediately responded and got aircraft and vessels under way in what would become one of the largest rescue operations in U.S. history. Coast Guard HH-3F helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were immediately launched from Alaska’s Coast Guard Air Stations Sitka and Kodiak. The Coast Guard Cutters Boutwell (WHEC-719), Mellon (WHEC-717), and Woodrush (WLB-407) were diverted to the scene, and Canadian and U.S. air force aircraft also responded.

Their efforts worked perfectly, and over the next 24 hours, the helicopters and vessels rescued all 520 people. None of the passengers sustained any serious injuries even though winds were in excess of 35 mph and the seas were over 15 feet.