Aviator #8 Recounts The Early Days Of Coast Guard Flight
by U.S. Coast Guard Author
November 7, 2023
I have been out of Coast Guard aviation for about 46 years. This, combined with the fact that I am 82 years young, doesn’t refresh my memory of those early days.
The Coast Guard’s early years of aviation were hard struggling ones. There were men of broad vision in the Coast Guard in those days (as indeed in these days). They saw the potentials of aviation for more efficient Coast Guard work. They did all within their power to start an air arm for the service.
A July 1921 photo of staff at Air Station Morehead City, the Coast Guard’s first air station and crew, in front of a flying boat and hangar. Officer standing in the center is Capt. William Wishar with another officer and enlisted men posing in the hot summer sun. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Coast Guard photo.)
But why did the Coast Guard need an air arm? Any ship in trouble at sea had to be searched for by a surface cutter and vital time was lost searching. The sea is awfully large.
This then was the background of the need for Coast Guard aviation. An airplane, in weather that would allow it to fly and search, could cover enormously greater areas at sea than a cutter could.
Cmdr. Benjamin Chiswell and Lt. Elmer Stone, with the backing of the Commandant of the Coast Guard, E.P. Bertholf, were the officers whose foresight and efforts, initiated Coast Guard aviation. Chiswell had passed the age acceptable for flight training. Stone was sent to U.S. Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, for flight training and qualified as a heavier-than-air pilot. He became Coast Guard Aviator No. 1.
Some years later, Stone was chosen as 1st Pilot of Navy’s flying-boat NC-4, with a co-pitot, Lt. Cmdr. Albert Read, U.S. Navy, commanded and was navigator of the NC-4. This plane made the first trans-Atlantic flight of a heavier-than-aircraft, flying from Newfoundland to Lisbon, Portugal, in May 1919. Also, Stone, who had been loaned to the Navy as a test pilot, pioneered in the design and flight testing of power catapults to launch planes into the air from the deck of a ship. Stone was a great flyer!
Lt. Cmdr. Stanley Parker had obtained his lighter-than-air pilot wings at Pensacola. He made what was then an outstanding record non-stop flight of a dirigible, (called a “Blimp” for short), from New Jersey to Naval Air Station, Pensacola. He later headed Coast Guard aviation at Headquarters, Washington, D.C., and initiated the first Coast Guard air station.
While I was completing my torpedo-plane training, after heavier-than-air, free balloon and Blimp training, Parker, then handling matters connected with Coast Guard aviation, contacted me, and informed me I was to command this first Coast Guard air station. He asked my views as to which of two available surplus Navy air stations would be better for our Coast Guard aviation work: the one at Moorehead City, North Carolina, or Key West, Florida. I gave him my ideas, that Key West would be a better-weather, less rugged station. The Coast Guard had to prove the worth of aviation as an adjunct to its duties. The rougher-weather Moorehead City Station was closer to “the graveyard of the Atlantic” (Cape Hatteras). We would have more opportunities to locate vessels in distress, derelicts, menaces to navigation, and vessels ashore on Diamond Shoals, Lookout Shoals and Frying Pan Shoals. Parker was in accord, and informed the Navy the Coast Guard would take the Navy’s Moorehead City Station.
During World War I, U.S. Navy’s heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air training was greatly expanded and was given mostly to Naval Reserve commissioned, warrant and enlisted personnel. Regular officers of the Navy, practically all graduates of the Naval Academy, trained and educated for surface fighting ships, could not be spared for aviation training. They were needed to man the enormously expanded fleet of seagoing vessels. Ten months after the end of World War (in September 1919), the Navy started its first postwar class of regular Navy, Marine and Coast Guard officers at Pensacola Air Station. Three Coast Guard officers were assigned to that flight-class: Lt. Carl C. von Paulsen, Lt. Edward Palmer and myself. Palmer was found to have a minor eye defect, which the medical officers felt precluded flight training. However, he was retained for aviation-engineering training, and made many flights. Around the latter part of May 1920, this flight class completed its heavier-than-air training, and each graduate received his coveted “wings” as Naval Aviator.
Navy and Marine officers were detached and assigned to aviation billets. Among the Navy officers in that flight class were Ralph Davis and Felix Stump. Each rose to Vice Admiral with splendid battle records in World War II. In the following flight class, which arrived a few months before our class completed its training, was Arthur Radford, who later commanded the Pacific Fleet, became Chief of Naval Operations, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He finally achieved the rank of full Admiral.
Lt. Cmdr. Parker’s interest in lighter-than-air training led him to believe that dirigibles could be of great value in Coast Guard searches. So, von Paulsen and I were assigned to lighter-than-air training, and when we completed that, we took the torpedo-plane training. We finished these courses the first part of November 1920. Von Paulsen went to the Army Air Force Field at Arcadia, Florida, for land plane flight training. I had been granted leave of absence, to be married, so went on leave, and was married November 25th.
One of the most heart-breaking events in World War I was that of Lt. P.B. Eaton, U.S. Coast Guard. He was in command of the Navy Air Station at Chatham, Massachusetts. A report came in that a German submarine was surfaced at a location to the northeastward. Eaton regularly took patrol flights as pilot. He located the surfaced sub; many of its crew were on deck. Apparently, due to hazy weather, Eaton’s plane had not been seen by the sub’s men. Eaton made his approach, caught the submarine unaware, dropped two bombs. One landed on the sub but did not explode, the other landed close to the sub’s hull but did not explode! The German crew thumbed their noses at the plane! Could this have been sabotage on bomb-mechanisms at the Air Station, known to the Germans? There was speculation to that effect, but more probably faulty design. Who knows? I was shipmates with Eaton in 1925 on the famous old Coast Guard cutter Bear in Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean and heard the story from him directly.
Lt. Cmdr. C.E. Sugden, Coast Guard, a pilot, had commanded a U.S. Navy Patrol Base in France during World War I. He was assigned to command the Moorehead City Coast Guard Air Station pending my return from leave of absence. I returned to the station early in 1921. The complement of the Station was, Lt. Robert Donohue, executive officer and pi1ot, (hec ommanded a U.S. Navy Air Station in Nova Scotia during World War I), Lt. Carl C. von Paulsen, pilot, Lt. Edward Palmer, engineer officer, Warrant Gunner C.T. Thrun, pilot and in charge of plane assembly, Warrant Machinist Walter Anderson, pilot and engineering, Chief Petty Officer Leonard Melka, pilot, Warrant Carpenter Theodore Tobiason, carpenter and plane work, and about 16 enlisted men. I was commanding officer and pilot. It was a fine group of very able officers and men. I was justly proud of them.
The plane we had as our “workhorse” was the Navy HS-2-L flying boat. It was a heavy plane, single engine Liberty, pusher-type, open cockpit. It was staunchly built, could land in fairly heavy sea when emergency demanded and could take off in a moderate sear. It took off at a speed of 48 knots and flew at 55 knots, a leeway of 7 knots between flying speed and stalling speed. If she stalled, she went into a spin. No flyer that I’ve heard of ever pulled a fully manned and equipped HS-2-L out of a spin. Everyone that spun crashed, killing all onboard. It had to be constantly “flown” while in the air. It carried a pilot, co-pilot, and in the bomber’s seat in the bow a combination observer and radioman. It was tiring to fly. Constant pressure had to be maintained on the rudder-bar because of torque of the single propeller. I’ve come in from many a flight, and, upon landing, my right instep would be so painful it was difficult to walk. To prevent this, the Navy developed a heavy rubber cord attached to the left end of the rudder bar thence to the rear for about 3-feet where the end was secured. It was adjusted to equal the pressure needed on the other side of the rudder bar, while flying, to keep the plane straight. It was called a “Bungee.” In a way, it was dangerous because, when the engine was cut for a landing glider prop torque ceased, the Bungee caused left rudder, the plane turned without banking, was difficult to control and would tend to go into a spin. The pilot had to remember this and press against the Bungee’s pull on the rudder when he cut his engine. Some pilots forgot. They never had a chance to forget again.
Speaking of “spinning” an “H boat”: Lt. Robert Donohue believed the HS-2-L could be brought out of a spin. One day at the Moorehead City Air Station, he had all removeable gear and weights removed from an HS-2-L, such as anchor and anchor line, sea-anchor, mooring lines, water casks, emergency gas can, tools, etc., and with a moderate amount of gas and only himself in the plane, took off. I had not known of his intention. When he was in the air, someone told me he was going up to try a spin. I would not have permitted it had I known. I discovered no preparations had been made for rescue in case of a crash. I raised merry old “H,” getting together wire-cutters, axes, fire extinguishers, life-preservers, medical kit, etc., commandeering a fisherman’s boat and otherwise preparing for what I feared would be a crash. Donohue climbed to about 3,500 feet then deliberately put the HS-2-L into a spin as we watched breathlessly expecting a crash. He made four complete turns in his spin, then smoothly brought her out and landed just off the station! He had proved that an HS-2-L flying boat could be brought out of a spin. I didn’t know whether he should have a court-martial for risking the plane and his life or be recommended for a medal for bravery beyond the call of duty. He retired as Rear Admiral.
A “cache” of gasoline and oil in drums was set up in a shed at Kinnikeet on Pamlico Sound approximately half a mile north of Cape Hatteras. When starting on a search at sea in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras, it was imperative to have a full fuel tank; the cruising range was only four hours. We would fly from Moorehead City Station the 75 miles to Kinnikeet and fill up with gas before taking off for the search.
One day, von Paulsen in one plane and I in another returned from a search off Cape Hatteras to Kinnikeet and refueled. There were about 35 minutes of daylight remaining. So, we planned to land and stay overnight at one of the Life Saving Stations. Just as we started to take off, I told von Paulsen I had changed my mind, and I would try a night flight and landing, and von Paulsen could stop overnight at the Life Saving Station, which he did. I continued and picked up the lights of Moorehead City easily, flew over it at low altitude and came down in a glide to land in Bogue Sound off the Air Station a mile west of Moorehead City. There were absolutely no lights. There were many channel day markers on pilings, but on an absolutely pitch-black night, these were a serious hazard, not a help. There was nothing to give me an idea of my height above the water. I put her in as slow a glide as I felt would let me have control and prayed. I hit the water at a goodly speed and bounced back into the air. After another bounce, I was down safely, not having hit anything. By the time I approached the ramp, the Air Station had turned on all lights. I vowed never again to make a night flight unless on a bit of water with sufficient lights to let me see how far the water was from the hull.
The Coast Guard Air Station at Moorehead City, North Carolina, remained in commission until July 1922. I received orders to place the station out of commission and transfer planes and equipment elsewhere for storage. Personnel were transferred to other assignments. A few enlisted personnel under Carpenter Tobiason were left to complete shipments and clean up. I was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, as Captain of the Port, later to a cruising cutter. Thus ended the first stage of Coast Guard Aviation.
This is about all I recall now. Hope it may be of some interest in your historical work.
Editor’s note: This recollection is excerpted (and lightly edited) from a larger letter written by Capt. ishar to friend Dr. Warren Roberts on Dec. 3, 1968.
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