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Aviation Between the Wars

1915 – 1940

The Coast Guard’s involvement in aviation can be traced to 1900 when two men of the U.S. Life Saving Service Stations in the vicinity of Kitty Hawk, NC became involved with the experiments of Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Wright brothers needed manpower to help get their gliders airborne and the LSS crew was happy to oblige. By 1903, the Wright brothers were ready to try powered flight. The surfmen of the Kill Devil Hills LSS provided logistics support and routinely assisted in getting the aircraft airborne. On the very first flight, on 17 December 1903, three surfmen helped carry the fragile biplane from its shelter to the launch site on 17 December. Surfman J.T. Daniels took the only photograph of the event using the Wrights’ camera

The first practical steps toward a Coast Guard air arm occurred in early 1915 when Lieutenants Elmer Stone and Norman Hall conceived of using aircraft for Coast Guard missions. With the backing of their commanding officer, CAPT Benjamin Chiswell, they approached the Curtiss Flying School at Newport News, VA, discussed their idea and were taken on experimental flights in the school’s aircraft. A Curtiss F flying boat was used for much of the experiment. The aircraft lacked navigational equipment and, therefore, never ventured beyond the sight of land. In spite of the technological limitations of the aircraft, the experiment proved successful and as a result Stone and five others were assigned to the Naval Aviation School at Pensacola for training in April 1916. Hall was sent to the Curtiss factory to study aeronautical engineering. Later in 1916, Congress authorized the Coast Guard to establish ten air stations, but no money was appropriated and this effort was stillborn.

Curtiss built at least one experimental type “BT” twin-propeller driven, tri-plane flying boat. He based his design on the suggestions developed by Second Lieutenant Norman B. Hall and Third Lieutenant Elmer F. Stone when Curtiss visited the officers on board their cutter Onondaga. Curtiss built the flying boat but with the onset of U.S. participation in World War One the project was shelved.

A by-product of WWI was the stimulus and potential to fly the Atlantic. In May 1919, four Navy Curtiss seaplanes, each crewed by five, began the great experiment. One plane, NC-4 ultimately succeeded. It was captained by LCDR A.C. Read, USN and was piloted by LT Elmer Stone, USCG. In 1983 Elmer Stone was the first Coast Guard pilot enshrined in the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla.

A second false start for Coast Guard aviation occurred in 1920. In March the Coast Guard’s first air station was established at Morehead City, NC, when the service took over the abandoned naval air station and borrowed a few Curtiss HS-2L flying boats and possibly one or two Aeromarine Model 40s from the Navy. The aircraft were particularly useful at locating those in distress and finding derelicts. Congress did not appropriate any funding to support the operation, however, and the station was closed in 1921.

In 1925, LCDR C. C. von Paulsen borrowed a Vought UO-1 seaplane from the Navy. Operating from Squantum, MA and later Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, he demonstrated the potential of aviation in combating the smuggling of whiskey. Prohibition had become the law of the land in 1920 and soon its enforcement became the dominant mission of the Coast Guard. As a result, Congress appropriated $152,000 for five aircraft, the first to be owned by the service. Three Loening OL-5 amphibians and two Chance Vought UO-4s were purchased. These aircraft were flown from air stations at Gloucester, Massachusetts and Cape May, New Jersey, until 1931 when they were replaced. Thus, Coast Guard aviation owed its first aircraft to the mission of law enforcement. The air station at Cape May was the first permanent Coast Guard air station and was first commissioned in 1926.

By the late 1920s the search and rescue clientele had changed primarily from coastal sailors to oceangoing motor ships. Ships moved their trade routes farther out to sea away from the dangers of the shoreline as the use of steam and diesel engines for propulsion and steel for construction increased. Now when emergencies arose, they were frequently far off the coast. In 1928 an aviation section was established at Coast Guard Headquarters under the command of Commander Norman Hall. It drew up specifications for a multi-mission aircraft which, given the technology of the day, could be met only by a large seaplane or amphibian. To aid distressed mariners, the Coast Guard developed the concept of the “flying lifeboats.” These aircraft could fly hundreds of miles, land in an open and frequently uninviting sea, and carry out a rescue. Seven aircraft were acquired, two Douglas Dolphin RD-2s, which were modified to Coast Guard requirements, and five General Aviation Flying Life Boat PJ-1s which were specifically designed for the service. All were named for important stars. These aircraft were involved in numerous rescues. In one such incident LCDR Carl von Paulsen set Arcturus down in a heavy sea in January 1933 off Cape Canaveral and rescued a boy adrift in a skiff. The aircraft sustained so much damage during the open water landing that it could not take off. This was the fate on a number of ocean rescues that had to be tried when no other rescue craft could be directed to the scene by the aircraft. Ultimately, Arcturus washed onto the beach and all including the boy were saved.

In 1934 Henry Morgenthau became the Secretary of the Treasury. He was an aviation enthusiast and supported its expansion within the Coast Guard. He transferred the aviation detachment of the Customs Service to the Coast Guard in 1934. In fact, the materiel benefits of this transfer were small because they introduced into the Coast Guard a conglomeration of aircraft that were mostly poor in condition and impossible to maintain. Notwithstanding, the Secretary’s enthusiasm for Coast Guard aviation was important to its development. He obtained Public Works Administration (PWA) funds for the purchase of new aircraft and additional air stations. By 1936 the Coast Guard had six air stations, two air detachments and 42 aircraft.

Also during the 1930s, the marriage between the cutter and aircraft took place. The 327s embarked either a Grumman JF-2 or a Curtiss SOC-4 amphibian. These aircraft-equipped cutters were designed to patrol against opium smuggling off the West Coast and fisheries violations in Alaskan waters, and to serve on plane guard duty in the Atlantic to protect the embryonic transcontinental commercial air service.

For a complete list of aircraft in operation from 1915 to 1940 go to this Link