Return to Rotary Wing

Search and Rescue

The Coast Guard lost no time in proving the helicopter’s worth in the business of saving lives.

The HOS-1G is best known in Coast Guard history as having been instrumental in the “Miracle at Gander” rescue. A Sabena Airlines DC-4 passenger aircraft crashed into a hillside 20 miles southeast of Gander, Newfoundland, on Wednesday, 18 September 1946, while attempting to land at the Gander airport. The aircraft had left Shannon, Ireland airport at 1700 the day before for a trans-Atlantic flight with 37 passengers and a crew of seven. A TWA pilot, Ray Jennings, reported the location of the wreck the next day. The location was so remote that it was thought the only way to get a rescue party there was by helicopter and the call went out for assistance. CAPT Richard L. Burke, the rescue officer for the Eastern Area, organized the rescue response.On 20 September 1946, an HNS from E City and an HOS-1G from Brooklyn were brought to Gander by Army C-54. A Coast Guard PBY from Argentia took the helo crews on a reconnaissance flight of the crash site. After a brief conference, it was decided to drop lumber at the clearing nearest the crash for the purpose of constructing a small platform as the muskeg would not support the weight of the helicopter. A second platform was built on the edge of a lake approximately seven miles from the clearing so that the survivors could be transferred at this point to PBY’s and flown to Gander. Construction of the platforms was finished in the late afternoon and the HOS recovered eight survivors by stretcher that night. The next day, both helicopters were used to fly out the remaining survivors plus the fourteen members of the Army ground rescue team and several others, who had gone in to help with the evacuation at the scene of the crash. The Coast Guardsmen rescued 18 survivors of the airliner’s passengers and crew. The following day the investigators and officials of the airline were flown in by helicopter. In all, the helicopters made 40 flights into the clearing. Landing both at the clearing and at the lake were made on the wooden platforms permitting maximum performance of the helicopters. The pilots of the helicopters and PBYs were all awarded Air Medals as well as the Belgian “Knight of the Order of Leopold” medals. In this major rescue effort, the usefulness of the new helicopters in saving lives in remote locations became evident and secured a place in the Coast Guard’s inventory for these rotary-winged aircraft.

The Rotary Wing Development Unit was based out of E City. Here then-CDR Frank Ericsson and his men used the HRP helicopter as a test platform. Experiments, including on-the-water landings with newly invented flotation gear and the testing of various types of hoists, rescue baskets, and rescue harnesses. He also tested helicopter landings on board the USCGC Mackinaw in Buffalo, New York. Erickson also participated in flood relief experiments in the Second Coast Guard District in 1949 as well, using HRP CG-111826. The experiments included testing various hoisting methods and equipment at various points along the Mississippi River, beginning in St. Louis, Missouri.

The first recorded search and rescue mission carried out by a Coast Guard HRP occurred on 31 December 1948. It involved transporting a fourteen-month-old baby girl, who was suffering from pneumonia, from a remote area of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to the hospital at Elizabeth City. Helo SAR was a reality.

With over 15,000 people rescued in its 30 years of service, the HH-52 holds the honor of having rescued more people than any other helicopter in history.

The HH-3F was well suited for search and rescue. The aircraft could seat 17 passengers and its side hoist could lift 600 pounds. Key features were its suspension hoist, hydraulically operated eight-foot ramp that could be opened during flight, in the water and on land; computerized navigation system; weather search color radar; and automatic flight control system. In October 1980, the Pelican was the primary rescue vehicle when hundreds of souls, mostly senior citizens, were plucked from bobbing lifeboats some 200 miles out in the Gulf of Alaska. This followed a fire on board the cruise ship Prinsendam and was one of the most successful maritime rescues in history. On a more intimate scale, in 1978 an HH-3 took off into the snow and sleet of an Alaskan night. One crewman was making his first flight since qualifying as an avionics technician. Flying at night in Alaska you see no lights. The mountains that rise up to stand in your way are only marginally darker than the sky itself. The HH-3, the only aircraft flying that stormy night, was bound for a remote logging camp where a child was dying of sepsis and needed emergency surgery. At the camp, the child’s father trustfully laid the young girl in the arms of the new AT, nodded his head, and silently backed away from the helicopter. The child, weak and pale with pain and infection, gazed up at the AT with a look he would never forget. Her eyes said, “Now I am safe.” Though she still had a hundred miles of Arctic darkness to cross and six hours of abdominal surgery to undergo, she knew the worst was over because she was in the arms of a total stranger who had come out of the winter sky in a white helicopter with a red stripe.