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100 Years Ago: The Dawn of U.S. Coast Guard Aviation

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HS-2L amphibian taxying from the ramp and into sheltered waters in preparation for take-off (Coast Guard Aviation Association)

By U.S. Coast Guard News 03-27-2020 03:41:27

[By John Moseley and William Thiesen]

The Naval Appropriation Act of 1916 provided the authorization, but not the funding, for 10 Coast Guard air stations. These air stations were to be located along the coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific, Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico. On March 22, 1917, the first Coast Guard aviators graduated from Pensacola Naval Aviation Training School. Lieutenant Elmer Stone became Coast Guard Aviator #1 and Naval Aviator #38, and other Coast Guard aviators would follow.

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I and the Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury Department to Navy control. Meanwhile, the establishment of Coast Guard aviation was put on hold during the hostilities. The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, but it would take nearly a year, in August 1919, before the Coast Guard was returned to Treasury.

Lt. Cmdr. Stanley Parker had been the Commanding Officer at Naval Air Station Rockaway during the war and helped prepare the famed aircraft NC-4 for the historic first flight across the Atlantic. With the return of the Coast Guard to the Treasury Department, Lt. Cmdr. Parker became Aviation Aide to Coast Guard Commandant William Reynolds. Parker turned his attention to the use of aircraft in saving life and property along U.S. coasts and in the seas contiguous to them. He advised the commandant to establish a Coast Guard air station to prove the importance of aviation for search and rescue missions.

An HS-2L flying boat loaned by the U.S. Navy on the ramp at Morehead City. (Coast Guard Aviation Association)

Parker convinced Commandant Reynolds to re-introduce aviation to the Coast Guard. Despite the lack of officers in the Service, Lt. Cmdr. William Wishar and Lt. Carl von Paulsen were assigned to the first post-war flight school at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Inquiries were made with the Navy regarding surplus aircraft and naval installations. The Coast Guard was given the choice of two locations: Key West and Morehead City, North Carolina. Lt. Cmdr. Parker informed Wishar he would be assigned commanding officer of the new Coast Guard Air Station and requested his views on location. Wishar recommended Morehead City as “best suited to prove the worth of Coast Guard aviation. It was closer to the Graveyard of the Atlantic at Cape Hatteras, where there would be more opportunities to locate vessels in distress, derelict menaces to navigation, and vessels ashore on Diamond Shoals, Lookout Shoals and Frying Pan Shoals.”

Parker informed the Navy Department that the Coast Guard had selected the Morehead City facility. The Navy transferred control of the Morehead base to the Coast Guard and honored the Service’s request for aircraft. The Navy transferred six “flying boats” to the Coast Guard for use at Morehead. These included five HS-2L Curtiss flying boats and two Aeromarine 40 flying boats. The Coast Guard commissioned the Morehead City Air Station 100 years ago on March 24, 1920. It was the first official air station in Coast Guard history.

Parker’s former executive officer at Rockaway Naval Air Station, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Sugden, was assigned temporary duty as commanding officer while Morehead was being outfitted. Lt. Cmdr. Stone was given the responsibility of overseeing the testing and reconditioning of the HS-2L flying boats assigned to the station. In late 1920, the Navy requested Stone’s services in connection with aircraft catapult development and Coast Guard Headquarters approved the request, so Stone had to report for duty to the Washington Navy Yard.

In January 1921, Wishar reported to Morehead City and relieved Sugden and Von Paulsen reported in about the same time. Other officers assigned to Morehead were Lt. Cmdr. Robert Donohue, executive officer; and Lt. Edward Palmer, engineering officer. Enlisted men assigned to Morehead included enlisted pilots Warrant Gunner Charles Thrun, Warrant Machinist Walter Anderson and Chief Quartermaster Leonard Melka; and nearly 20 additional enlisted men to maintain the aircraft.

Upon establishment of Air Station Morehead City, a Headquarters directive assigned duties and responsibilities in order of priority:

  1. Saving life in coastal regions and adjacent waters.
  2. Saving property in coastal and adjacent waters.
  3. Enforcement of laws and assisting federal and state officials engaged therein.
  4. Transportation of officials to remote areas if time precluded the use other means.
  5. Assisting fishermen by spotting schools of fish.
  6. Surveying and mapping.

The HS-2L flying boats fell far short of later aircraft. Range was a limitation and, as a result, gasoline and oil were stored in drums at strategic locations in the aircraft’s operating area. Engine failures happened regularly while the air station was in operation. On board the HS-2Ls, space to carry a rescued or ill person was very limited. However, the Morehead facility did prove the capacity of amphibian aircraft to patrol and fly from bays and inlets and, in some cases, the open seas.

Aerial photo of an HS-2l airborne with crew member occupying forward cockpit. (Navy History & Heritage Command)

In a summary of Morehead City’s activities, Commandant Reynolds reported to the Secretary of the Treasury that:

The application of aviation to the uses of the Coast Guard in the direction of saving life and property from the perils of the sea, in locating floating derelicts along our coasts, and rendering other kindred services, can now be regarded as an assured proposition. A Coast Guard aviation station has been established at Morehead City, N.C., at practically no expense to the government. The aircraft in use are the Navy H-S flying boats and the station is conducting experiments with the view of furthering the effectiveness of aircraft to life and property saving purposes. It is earnestly recommended that the Congress give its support to the development of this activity for Coast Guard purposes.

Morehead City Air Station proved its worth, but Congress failed to appropriate funding for its continued operation. The air station remained in commission until July 1, 1921, when its men were transferred to other assignments. The Coast Guard returned the loaned aircraft to the Navy, which declared them obsolete and destroyed them.

There would be no further Coast Guard aviation activity until 1925. That year, the Service established Prohibition enforcement patrols out of Squantum Naval Air Station, in Massachusetts, then the first permanent Coast Guard air station in Gloucester. Only five out of the 11 Morehead City pilots ever returned to flight status.

John Moseley is the historian for the Coast Guard Aviation Association and William Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.