Remembering LT Colleen Cain 30 years later

A portrait of a Coast Guard heroine - the first female Coast Guard aviator killed in the line of duty. Lt. Colleen Cain's helicopter crashed during a rescue mission off Hawaii, 1982. U.S. Coast Guard portrait by Leonora Rae Smith.

A portrait of a Coast Guard heroine - the first female Coast Guard aviator killed in the line of duty. Lt. Colleen Cain's helicopter crashed during a rescue mission off Hawaii, 1982. U.S. Coast Guard portrait by Leonora Rae Smith.

Lt. Colleen Cain, a Coast Guard reservist, became the service’s first female helicopter pilot in June 1979. Tragically, her life was cut short thirty years ago today.

Earning her commission from Officer Candidate School in 1976, Cain had her sights set on a career in flight. She earned her private pilot’s license in 1977 and was selected for flight training the following year. Upon earning her wings as only the third female Coast Guard aviator, she became Coast Guard aviator #1988.

As a pilot, she flew many remarkable missions and earned her qualifications as co-pilot, first pilot and aircraft commander.

Just a year after earning her wings, she flew a rescue mission to save a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into the water during a fishing trip with his grandfather. She received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal for her response to the rescue.

On Jan. 7, 1982, Cain was launched to respond to a distress call from the Pan Am, a 74-foot fishing boat that was taking on water off Maui and was in danger of sinking.

It was 4 a.m. when the helicopter lifted off from Air Station Barbers Point in torrential rains and heavy winds.

By 5:15 a.m., the Coast Guard had lost radio contact with the crew. Almost nine hours later, another helicopter discovered the helicopter’s wreckage on a steep ridge in Molokai’s Wailua Valley.

The crewmembers of CG1420, the 29-year-old Cain, Cmdr. Buzz Johnson and Petty Officer 2nd Class David Thompson, were tragically killed.

An Air Station Barbers Point memorial honoring the crews of Coast Guard helicopter 6505 and Coast Guard helicopter 1420. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

An Air Station Barbers Point memorial honoring the crews of Coast Guard helicopter 6505 and Coast Guard helicopter 1420. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

While Cain’s life, and that of her crew, were cut short, their service is not forgotten. Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Pittman is a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, and reflects on Cain’s sacrifice 30 years later:

In 1997, I reported to Training Center Yorktown for Direct Commission Officer School. I was an enlisted reservist at the time and was staying in the enlisted barracks, but my fellow classmates were staying in Cain Hall. I remember walking into Cain Hall and reading about Lt. Colleen Cain, the namesake of the building. Like me, she had been a reservist. Like me, she wanted to be a Coast Guard helicopter pilot.

What a lot of people don’t realize about Lt. Cain was that she wasn’t just the first female Coast Guard pilot killed in the line of duty, she was also the very first female helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard. Four years later, I earned my wings of gold and reported to my first tour as a U. S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot, following a path blazed by Lt. Cain twenty-two years earlier.

With our Navy and Marine Corps flight school classmates off to war and earning combat ribbons, we often forget that we too go out into harm’s way. Mother Nature can often be as cruel as bullets. The aviation accidents of the past few years are a stark reminder to us all that every time we climb in our aircraft, whether on a training mission or going to save a life, whether in Alaska or Hawaii, we have to use all our training, all our collective wisdom and all our resources to make it back and do it again the next day.

Sometimes, even all that is not enough. Lt. Cain and her crew gave the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live. She didn’t even finish her first tour, but what she did do in her short time in uniform was start a proud legacy of women in Coast Guard aviation, for which I and many other pilots are eternally grateful.

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