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

After Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King assigned sea-going development of helicopters to the U.S. Coast Guard on 15 February 1943, naval aviation’s first designated rotary-wing pilot, Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Frank Erickson, tested and accepted the Navy’s first helicopter, an HNS-1, at Bridgeport, Connecticut on 16 October later that year. Thus began a 74-year journey featuring man’s ingenuity, skill, and daring as industry and technology constantly improved the aircraft.

‘The Most Efficient Rescue Vehicles’

As northern California experienced extreme flooding in late December 1955, an HO-4S helicopter departed Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco and headed to the Yuba City area on Christmas Eve to evacuate stranded residents from inundated 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 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, recovering the first 55 in darkness, with the helicopter hovering above trees, chimneys, and television antennae. The only illumination was an Aldis lamp held by the 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 service would more than triple the number of helicopters assigned to its air stations, building a dozen new facilities along the East and West coasts to ensure rapid availability.

Disaster in Galveston Bay

At 0500 on 1 November 1979, an HH-52A Seaguard helicopter 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 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 ship’s stern. The helicopter hoist operator swung its rescue basket to them several times before they finally leaped off the railing and climbed in. No other survivors were found.


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

On board the Mimosa, a group of men clustered together on the ship’s bridge. The freighter was out of control, steaming in circles around her dropped anchor, and a tangle of cargo cranes were on her deck. The hoist operator lowered the basket several times, as the helicopter followed 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 the 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 lifeboats 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 ordered 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 launched immediately 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.

Over the next 24 hours, the helicopters and vessels rescued all 520 people. None of the passengers sustained serious injuries, with winds in excess of 35 mph and seas over 15 feet.

Two children are hoisted into a Coast Guard rescue helicopter from a New Orleans rooftop after Hurricane Katrina. (U.S. Coast Guard/Kyle Niemi)

Two children are hoisted into a Coast Guard rescue helicopter from a New Orleans rooftop after Hurricane Katrina. (U.S. Coast Guard/Kyle Niemi)

‘Yes, I Can’

The first Coast Guard swimmer lifesaving mission unfolded on 10 December 1987, when at 1936 a 26-foot fishing vessel named the Bluebird requested assistance. The duty helicopter crew at Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, Alaska, quickly boarded HH–3F number 1486 and prepared to fly directly into a quickly developing storm at near-hurricane strength. Lieutenant Commander John Whiddon, Lieutenant Greg Breithaupt, Aviation Machinist’s Mate First Class Carl Saylor, Aviation Electronics Mechanic Third Class Mark Milne, and Aviation Support Equipment Technician Mechanical Second Class Jeff Tunks were airborne in 17 minutes, immediately buffeted by 60-knot winds, snow, and ice.

Jim Blades and his six-year old son, Clint, were on board the Bluebird, which was near mountainous terrain with visibility less than a half-mile. The helicopter quickly arrived on scene, but it could not maintain a stable hover because of the strong, shifting winds and turbulence. Lieutenant Commander Whiddon used up to 123 percent power and the entire range of flight controls in his attempt to keep the aircraft steady. The nose pitched up and down 20 degrees, and altitude changes of 100 feet were almost constant, along with 20-degree rolls. The aircraft was pushed backward several times. The basket could not be lowered to the deck, so Whiddon told Blades and his son to get in the water. Both were wearing survival suits, and Blades strapped his son to himself.

Nearly losing control of the helicopter several times, Whiddon asked Tunks if he would get into the water to assist the survivors. Even though his training at the U.S. Navy’s Aviation Rescue Swimmer School had never prepared him for conditions such as this, he answered, “Yes, I can.” From a 60-foot hover, a horse-collar sling lowered Tunks into the freezing water, where he helped Blades and the boy stay afloat.

After several attempts, the wildly swinging basket finally came within reach, and Tunks rolled both survivors into it. After they were hoisted aboard the helicopter, Tunks managed to grab the outside of the basket and hung on until he was also safely aboard. This outstanding rescue mission clearly showed the value of the new rescue-swimmer program.

All Out Effort

The eye of Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast early in the morning of 29 August 2005. The storm affected 6,400 miles of shoreline and created 90,000 square miles of destruction—an area larger than Great Britain. It was by far the worst U.S. disaster ever experienced, with an approximate total loss of $125 billion.

U.S. Coast Guard helicopters from Aviation Training Center Mobile, Alabama; Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans; and Coast Guard Air Station Houston, Texas, responded as soon as they could. Only nine hours after Katrina’s landfall, as winds still howled at 60 knots, the Coast Guard made its first rescue when an HH-65 helicopter lifted two adults and an infant from a Port Sulphur, Louisiana, rooftop. Additional helicopters and crews flew in from all over the country to assist. At one point, more than 40 Coast Guard helicopters were involved in rescue and recovery operations.


HH-65A Dolphin
Manufacturer: Aerospatiale /AIRBUS
Max. Gross Weight: 9,200 pounds
Range: 400 miles
Engines: Two Lycoming LTS-101-750B-2 742-hp (each) turboshaft
Max Speed: 165 knots
Fuselage: composite
Crew: 4

At the rescue peak, Coast Guard helicopters were saving 100 people per hour. Other military and civilian helicopters eventually assisted in rescuing even more people from flooded homes, rooftops, and other dangerous situations. More than 33,000 people received assistance from the Coast Guard during this historic rescue-and-recovery operation. The entire U.S. Coast Guard received the Presidential Unit Commendation for outstanding efforts during the rescue-and-recovery operation associated with hurricanes Katrina and Rita (September 2005).

The Largest Cold-Water Rescue

The 189-foot-long fishing vessel Alaska Ranger sent a distress call at 0252 on 23 March 2008. The vessel was 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and taking on water rapidly with 47 crew members on board.

The Coast Guard Cutter Munro (WHEC-724) was in the area and prepared to launch her HH-65 helicopter as she headed toward the large, sinking fishing boat. Meanwhile, Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak launched an HH-60 helicopter from St. Paul Island.

The captain of the Alaska Ranger ordered his crew to abandon ship before the helicopters arrived. Crewmen launched their ice-encrusted life rafts, which quickly started to drift away in the high seas and strong winds, forcing the sailors to jump. Some made it into the rafts, but most ended up bobbing in the sea. The Alaska Ranger sank soon after, and all 47 men were at the mercy of the 30-knot winds, 15-foot seas, and the minus 24-degree wind chill. The HH-60 arrived on scene to find the crewmen floating in a half-mile line with their strobe lights blinking in the darkness. Snow squalls further exacerbated the rescue operation.

The Alaska Warrior—a sister ship—also responded to the MAYDAY and started to pick up survivors. The HH-60 saved 12 crewmen by lowering their rescue swimmer into the water. It was impossible to lower the survivors to the nearby Alaska Warrior, so the HH-60 crew decided to fly to the Munro, which was rapidly approaching the scene. By this time, the cutter had also launched her HH-65, and the smaller helicopter started to pick up more survivors. It could fit only four extra men in its cabin, so the crew’s rescue swimmer volunteered to remain in the freezing water so a fifth survivor could be brought aboard the helicopter.


MH-60 Jayhawk
Manufacturer: Sikorsky A/C Corp.
Max. Gross Weight: 22,000 pounds
Range: 700 miles
Engines: Two GE T700-GE-401c 1,980-hp (each) turboshaft
Max. Speed: 160 knots
Fuselage: metal
Crew: 4

The HH-65 radioed “low fuel” and headed back to the Munro just as the HH-60 completed its in-flight refueling from the cutter. It sped back to the scene and continued to pick up survivors and the rescue swimmer.

At the end of the day, 42 men were rescued. Four others died of hypothermia, and one was never found. This rescue was unprecedented in terms of numbers of people airlifted from the ocean and is considered the largest cold-water rescue in Coast Guard history.


History is made by the dreamers, not the doubters. They take bold risks to alter the status quo. Men such as Admiral Ernest King, Igor Sikorsky, Frank Erickson, and a few other helicopter pioneers (Twirly Birds) changed the course of history. Most senior aviators, who saw only fixed-wing seaplanes as the future for Coast Guard aviation, scoffed at the ideas of Erickson, who stood his ground and proved them wrong. Young military personnel can learn from his example and use their own singular skills and vision to shape the future of our military in the 21st century.