Coast Guard aviation: Into the storm for 100 years

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Coast Guard aviation. Stay tuned all year as Coast Guard Compass shares the history of aviation within the service, as well as the stories of those who carry out these crucial missions on a daily basis!

The first class of U.S. Coast Guard aviators. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The first class of U.S. Coast Guard aviators. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Each and every day, Coast Guard aviation crews around the Nation take part in nearly every Coast Guard mission. From assisting with the establishment of crucial aids to navigation to conducting medical evacuations of mariners at sea to transporting endangered sea animals from coast to coast, Coast Guard aviation has a footprint on everything the Coast Guard does.

But how did aviation become a part of the Coast Guard?

While Coast Guard aviation traces its roots to 1916 when then-Lt. Elmer Stone became the first Coast Guard member to attend Naval Aviation School, the Coast Guard first became exposed to aviation when crewmembers at Kill Devil Hill Lifeboat Station assisted the Wright Brothers with their famous first flight in 1903. In fact, it was a Coast Guardsman that took that famous first photo, the only to detail the events of that day.

Years later, Stone and Lt. Norman Hall first began to conceive the use of aviation for Coast Guard missions and approached their commanding officer with the idea. With his backing, the two lieutenants began conducting experimental flights with the Curtis Flying School in Newport News, Virginia. The experiments proved successful, and in April 1916, Stone and five others became the first to attend Naval Aviation School in Pensacola, Florida.

Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw and an Air Station Traverse City Sikorsky HO4S conduct helicopter landing operations on the Great Lakes circa 1953. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw and an Air Station Traverse City Sikorsky HO4S conduct helicopter landing operations on the Great Lakes circa 1953. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The work of Stone and his classmates changed the Coast Guard forever as aviation became an integral part of the missions of the service. Throughout World War I and the years the followed, Coast Guard aviators continued to prove their worth.

It was the Prohibition era – the same era that broadened the Coast Guard’s mission scope – that truly showcased the potential of Coast Guard aviation.

As time went on, milestones continued to come for Coast Guard aviation. As the Coast Guard finally procured their own aircraft and air stations as search and rescue efforts moved farther and farther offshore, the aviation presence became significantly more solidified within the service. Soon, Coast Guard aircraft were able to launch from Coast Guard cutters operating offshore and also tend to the growing need for search and rescue efforts with the increase in recreational boating.

Following World War II, the Coast Guard’s fixed-wing presence also became more pronounced with the advent of the International Ice Patrol, which flew routes in the North Atlantic to identify and track icebergs for international shipping traffic.

Logo for the 100th anniversary of Coast Guard aviation. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Seaman Kent Moore.

Logo for the 100th anniversary of Coast Guard aviation. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Seaman Kent Moore.

In the decades that followed, Coast Guard aviation continued to mature and grow into a significant force within the service. Coast Guard aviators were present in Vietnam, flying crucial search and rescue missions for allied troops, and they have continued to provide invaluable support to every other mission the Coast Guard conducts. Now, with the Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy, the efforts of Coast Guard aviation are as important as ever – as aviators are able to track and patrol the waterways surrounding the United States and deter illegal maritime activity that threatens safety at sea.

And for the past 100 years, one name has stood out to Coast Guard aviators everywhere – Elmer Stone. With Stone’s initiatives to become the first Coast Guard aviator and bring aviation to the Coast Guard, he paved the way for the thousands of aviators that followed.

Each year on January 22, Coast Guard aviators everywhere celebrate Stone’s birthday, which signifies a milestone for Coast Guard aviation. Today, we honor Stone’s efforts and legacy, as we celebrate the 100th year of Coast Guard aviation. And around the fleet, Coast Guard aviators reflect on the impact Stone has had on their journey.

“Cmdr. Elmer Stone was a true American pioneer,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Clay Hill, the Coast Guard’s enlisted Ancient Albatross. “He laid the foundation for everything Coast Guard aviation is today and will be in the future. The first Coast Guard aviator, a leading figure in the development of Naval aviation, commanding officer of two air stations and two cutters, establishing the first standards and procedures for Coast Guard aviation missions while in his spare time setting world speed records. I see his influence on our aviation culture every time I hear someone ask how can we complete a task with a greater margin of safety or efficiency. Elmer Stone is the definition of a true hero.”

For more information on the history of Coast Guard aviation, please visit the aviation section of the Coast Guard historian’s website.

Stay tuned to Coast Guard Compass as we share the stories of those Coast Guard aviators who conduct these missions day in and day out! Follow along and share your stores on social media using #CGFlies100.

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3 Responses

  1. Tom Teare says:

    Very interesting!

  2. Chuck Hill says:

    The photo showing the five men standing in front of the aircraft was a PB-1G, a B-17G reconfigured to drop a lifeboat.

  3. DT Wilson AM2 says:

    Coasr Guard Aviation were some of the fondest years of my life. 67-72