The Coast Guard's First Aircraft
The first aircraft built for the U.S. Coast Guard was a Loening OL-5 delivered to the Service in October 1926.
A decade earlier, Coast Guard aviation was established by an act of Congress. It authorized the Treasury Department to establish 10 Coast Guard Air Stations along the U.S. coasts. Coast Guard personnel were sent to Pensacola Naval Air Station for flight and maintenance training.
However, with the advent of World War I, the Coast Guard became part of the U.S. Navy and no funds were ever appropriated for this program. After the war, a project was undertaken to illustrate the value of aircraft in the saving of human life. The Navy provided a decommissioned naval air station and several loaned aircraft for the project. The results were highly favorable but there was no money available for operations and the program ended within a year.
This false start could have been the demise of Coast Guard aviation but it was not. Prohibition of the manufacture, importing, transportation and selling of alcoholic beverages had become the law of the land in January 1920. Enforcement of the law fell to the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard was tasked with interdicting maritime smuggling. In the early years of Prohibition, maritime smuggling was slow at first but it grew exponentially. What became known as the “Rum War” had begun.
Over the next several months, the Coast Guard aircraft flew thousands of miles locating smugglers and directing patrol boats to apprehend them. The experience obtained from operating this aircraft convinced Service leadership of the advantages of using aircraft in interdiction patrols and procuring aircraft and air stations.
In 1926, Congress appropriated $162,000 to purchase five Coast Guard aircraft designed specifically for the Service’s needs. The OL-5 was a high-performance amphibian aircraft with a large center float faired into the fuselage and stabilizing floats underneath each lower wing. The wheels were designed to fold up when operating on the water. The amphibian’s wingspan was 45 feet and it was 35 feet in length. The landing gear was retractable by use of a hand crank in the cockpit, and the plane was equipped with a tailskid for operations on land. It had a tandem open cockpit for a crew of two and could carry one passenger.
The OL-5 had a 400 horsepower engine, a 450-mile range and a top speed of 120 mph. The Service equipped the OL-5s with radios capable of voice communication within 150 miles. In addition, the OL-5s were each armed with a machine gun and occasionally made use of them in interdiction cases.
In the summer of 1926, the Coast Guard began building an air station at Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor. The Service had to blast and level the granite island and poured concrete for a large steel hangar. On October 14, the first OL-5 arrived at Ten Pound Island with the second OL-5 assigned to a new air station opened at Cape May, New Jersey. The Third OL-5 arrived at Ten Pound Island in early November.