The Coast Guard's Aerial Visionary

By William H. Thiesen

It must have seemed logical that an intelligent and inquisitive young man raised in such nautical surroundings would apply for admission into the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction (forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy), located in New London, Connecticut. The Revenue Cutter Service gave its cadets an opportunity to train on sailing ships and gain experience with steamships, the largest man-made machines at that time. Stone topped the list of applicants for the class of 1913, which included several cadets who would become distinguished Coast Guard officers.

In three years, Stone graduated from the school and received a commission as a third lieutenant. His initial assignment was to the cutter Onondaga , patrolling the mid–Atlantic Coast out of Hampton Roads. During his first year, Stone qualified as an engineering officer, and then requested and received assignment as a line officer. In the spring of 1915, he demonstrated his ability as a boat coxswain in rescuing the crew of the schooner C. C. Wehrum , which had swamped in a storm off False Cape, Virginia. For this heroic feat, Stone received a commendation from the Treasury Department in which the assistant secretary wrote that the lieutenant’s efforts reflected “great credit upon the service to which you belong and stamps you as a man of that resourcefulness that overcomes obstacles.”

From Sea to Sky

Despite his skill as a line officer, Stone’s interest and true aptitude remained engineering and technology. The Hampton Roads area proved fertile ground not only for new naval technology but for early aviation. In 1903 the Wright brothers had made their unprecedented “first flight” at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, only 70 miles south of Norfolk. And in 1910 Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss Model D biplane off the deck of the cruiser Birmingham at nearby Old Point Comfort. The successful takeoff from a naval vessel marked the beginning of shipborne aviation.

In late 1915, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss established the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station, one of the nation’s first flying schools. Stone’s cutter, the Onondaga , moored next to Curtiss’ school at the Newport News Boat Harbor. The school fed the demand from military personnel and civilians alike for pilot training. More than 1,000 military aviators received instruction there, including famous fliers Eddie Rickenbacker and Billy Mitchell. After witnessing Curtiss’ aircraft operations, Stone enjoyed his own first flight in a Curtiss F flying boat. The experience convinced him that aviation would revolutionize the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue and law-enforcement missions, and Stone took it upon himself to convince service leaders to join the cause.

The movement gained momentum, as one-by-one, his brethren backed his campaign to establish a Coast Guard aviation branch. Stone and Onondaga shipmate Lieutenant Norman Hall, who experienced his own first flight at the Curtiss school, won over the cutter’s skipper, Commander Benjamin Chiswell. By early 1916, Coast Guard Commandant Ellsworth Bertholf became a believer and sent Stone and Lieutenant Charles Sugden to the U.S. Navy’s new flight school at Pensacola, Florida. Bertholf lobbied Congress to approve a Coast Guard “aerial coastal patrol” for the service. The commandant also hired Curtiss to design and build a flying boat for the Coast Guard and assigned Lieutenant Hall to Curtiss’ New York aircraft factory to study design, construction, and maintenance.

By the end of 1916, it seemed that aviation was well on its way to becoming an accepted part of Coast Guard operations. Stone and Sugden had completed several months of training at Pensacola; Congress had passed the Aerial Coastal Patrol Act, including legislation to establish new Coast Guard air stations; and Curtiss was experimenting with new flying-boat designs. In addition, Hall was developing instrumentation and studying the strength of materials used in aircraft manufacture, and he was about to become the service’s first aviation engineering officer. And in the spring of 1917, Stone and Sugden completed flight training, got their wings, and received the designations of Naval Aviator No. 38 and Naval Aviator No. 43, respectively.

When the United States entered World War I, however, interest in establishing Coast Guard aviation took a nosedive. By executive order, the service left the Treasury Department to become part of the Navy Department. Coast Guard aviators were usually commissioned officers assigned to flight training after cutter assignments. Thus, they were generally senior to new Navy aviators and received command of wartime naval air stations. Lieutenant Sugden took charge of Ile-Tudy Naval Air Station in northwestern France, while Coast Guard officers took command of several other naval air stations.

Meanwhile, the Navy assigned Stone and his Revenue Cutter School classmate Robert Donahue to the aviation detail on board the USS Huntington , a Newport News–built armored cruiser completed the same year the Wright brothers first took flight. Stone probably recognized the irony of his assignment to a ship with such a connection. The Huntington was one of two U.S. cruisers fitted with pneumatic aircraft catapults, and in 1917, Stone served as the cruiser’s primary seaplane aviator and made a study of her catapult system. He learned a great deal about aircraft catapults and seaplane operations in virtually all weather and sea conditions, including high winds and low visibility. He also worked closely with future naval aviation giants such as William Moffett and Marc Mitscher.

Three Engines Pulling, One Pushing

In September 1918, Stone received promotion to first lieutenant and a transfer to the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair in Washington, D.C. By 1919 the Navy had transferred him to Naval Air Station Rockaway Beach, New York, then under the command of Coast Guard Captain Stanley Parker. The aircraft stationed at Rockaway were very large “NC” (Navy-Curtiss) flying boats, and Stone served as a pilot in NC Seaplane Squadron One. The squadron’s planes would soon compete against aircraft from five other countries to make the first airborne crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

For the transatlantic flight, Lieutenant Commander Albert Read, commanding officer of NC-4 , selected Stone as his chief aviator because of the lieutenant’s seaplane experience on board the Huntington . Stone would be responsible for takeoffs, landings, the lion’s share of flying, and any in-flight emergencies. However, the flying boats required more than one man to operate them. The rest of NC-4 ’s six-man crew included Read, aircraft commander and navigator; Lieutenant James Breese, engineer; Ensign Herbert Rodd, radio officer; Lieutenant Walter Hinton, copilot; and Chief Machinist’s Mate Eugene Rhodes, engineer. Of the crew, Stone was the only non-Navy man.

Awkward-looking antiques by today’s standards, the four NCs were state-of-the-art military aircraft in their day. The ones that would attempt the Atlantic crossing— NC-1 , -3 , and -4 —featured three forward-facing tractor engines and a fourth center-mounted pusher engine facing to the rear.

The experience of flying an NC flying boat must have been exhilarating as well as terrifying. The aircraft had an open unheated cockpit, which proved very cold because of altitude and wind chill. Tiny glass windshields provided the pilot and copilot little protection from on-rushing wind, and they had to suffer through the noise of the Liberty 12 tractor engines, with one located directly above the cockpit and one on either side. These three engines spun the forward-facing propellers, like large meat choppers, located slightly behind and on each side of the two-man cockpit. Almost as bad, the navigator, resembling a hood ornament, occupied a cockpit at the exposed forward end of the flying boat’s hull.

An Inauspicious Beginning

On Thursday, 8 May 1919, NC-4 began the first leg of what would be an historic flight. The aircraft’s crew, together with those of NC-1 and NC-3 , received coffee and sandwiches from the ground crew at Rockaway, and the three boats took to the air at about 1000. NC-2 , which had a different engine arrangement (four Liberties in two tandem pairs), was deemed unfit to make the attempt, so it remained behind and served as a parts aircraft.

During the initial leg of the trip—from Rockaway to Halifax, Nova Scotia—mechanical failures nearly knocked NC-4 out of the transatlantic competition. Within four hours of takeoff, the flying boat’s center pusher motor began burning excessive amounts of oil, so it was shut down. NC-4 lagged behind while the other NCs continued for Nova Scotia. Within another hour, NC-4 ’s center tractor engine also broke down. With the aircraft down to just the two outboard engines, Stone had to make a water landing. He skillfully touched down in moderate seas, but NC-4 was still 80 miles from the nearest assistance at Naval Air Station Chatham, Massachusetts, under the command of Coast Guard Second Lieutenant Philip Eaton. Stone managed to taxi the aircraft all the way to Chatham.

Repairs to the damaged engines and foul weather delayed NC-4 ’s departure to rejoin the two other NCs. Finally, on 14 May, NC-4 took flight and early in the afternoon arrived in Halifax, where the crew discovered that the boat’s steel propellers had cracked. It replaced them with wooden ones. Because of these initial breakdowns, NC-4 earned the unfortunate moniker “The Lame Duck.” However, the next morning the flying boat took off for Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland, its departure point for Europe via the Azores. Later that day, the aircraft rendezvoused with NC-1 and NC-3 in preparation for the treacherous transatlantic leg of the trip.

Flight to Europe and Fame

Just before sunset on Friday, 16 May, the three flying boats took to the air from Trepassey Bay. Fully loaded with 1,800 gallons of fuel for the Atlantic flight, the aircraft weighed 28,000 pounds, about two tons more than usual. The added weight required the NCs to build up speed on flat water for more than two miles just to get airborne. Serving as path markers and rescue vessels, 21 U.S. Navy destroyers spaced 50 miles apart lined their course to the Azores, and five U.S. battleships stood by north and south of the route for added assistance.

The NCs, flying at 1,000 feet and 75 miles per hour, began the trip’s longest leg with promising clear weather. The aircraft could see searchlights and star shells from the destroyers lighting the way to their destination. But by dawn on the 17th, heavy cloud cover had set in and NC-1 and NC-3 separated to avoid a possible midair collision. Both aircraft experienced very low visibility and their radio direction finders broke down, so they lost their bearings. With fuel running low, the commanders of each aircraft decided to execute a water landing to re-establish their positions using celestial navigation. Unfortunately, both suffered heavy damage landing in the open ocean, rendering them unfit for further flight. A passing freighter rescued the NC-1 aircrew, and disabled NC-3 water-taxied more than 200 miles over two days to reach the Azores.

NC-4 also flew through heavy cloud cover. At times, the fog grew so thick that much of the aircraft was shrouded from the crew. With a fully functional radio direction finder and an accurate navigation plot, NC-4 avoided the disorientation experienced by the other NCs. About 200 miles from their destination, copilot Walter Hinton attempted to climb above the cloud cover.

At about 3,000 feet, rough air caused the boat to fall into a spin. Despite the lack of visibility, Stone recognized that the aircraft was experiencing a stall as well as a spin and took corrective measures. NC-4 recovered at 1,200 feet, and he flew it above the clouds once again. With proper navigation and by flying clear of the dense cloud cover, NC-4 managed to arrive safely in the Azores. After 15 hours in the air, Stone landed the flying boat at Horta, Fayal Island.

From there, Stone piloted the biplane on the trip’s third leg, to the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal. He took off from the Azores in the morning on Tuesday, 27 May. With better weather and 14 destroyers marking the route, the 800-mile leg passed quickly and with fewer technical difficulties, and the flying boat landed in Lisbon later that day to much fanfare and celebration. NC-4 had officially become the first aircraft to complete a transatlantic crossing.

Three days later, the boat took to the skies for the fourth and final leg of the trip, to Plymouth, England. In the early afternoon of 31 May, Stone landed NC-4 in Plymouth Harbor after 50 total hours in the air and more than 4,500 miles flown. Given the departure of the Pilgrims from Plymouth in the Mayflower , the final destination seemed a fitting conclusion for the Americans on this historic flight.

Stone had become the first man to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic, and he did so eight years before Charles Lindbergh’s famous solo crossing in the Spirit of St. Louis . NC-4 had proven the feasibility of transoceanic flight, an achievement that attracted worldwide attention. Stone and the crew were recognized with the Order of the Tower and Sword, Portugal’s highest award; a French silver medal commemorating NC-4 ’s achievement; and Great Britain’s Royal Air Force Cross. After their return home, each member of the NC crews received the Navy Cross during a special ceremony overseen by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin Roosevelt. Ten years later, Congress had a unique NC-4 Medal struck specifically for that aircraft’s crew members.

Serving Two Services

With the war over, the Coast Guard returned to the Treasury Department and Stone received assignment as executive officer on board the cutter Ossipee (WPR-50). In 1920 the service resurrected its fledgling aviation program and established its first air station at Morehead City, North Carolina. It designated Stone as Coast Guard Aviator No. 1 and assigned him to refurbish and prepare four flying boats to operate out of the Morehead facility. Stone’s colleague, Charles Sugden, was designated Coast Guard Aviator No. 4 and, with his experience in running naval air stations, received command of this first Coast Guard air station.

But in the early 1920s, Coast Guard aviation experienced another tailspin. Congress failed to provide the funding necessary to support operation of the Morehead City Air Station, and it closed in 1922. The Navy requested the Coast Guard return Stone on loan and, for the next five years, he worked for the Navy testing everything from fixed-wing aircraft to dirigibles and balloons. But his primary duty was to serve as the Navy’s technical expert on aircraft catapults and deck arresting gear. He helped develop a powder-operated catapult and new arresting gear for the aircraft carriers Langley (CV-1), Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3), and he wrote the aviation test requirements for the new carriers.

During the mid-1920s, the Coast Guard’s Prohibition enforcement mission against rumrunners rejuvenated interest in Coast Guard aviation. In 1926 the service established an air station at Gloucester, Massachusetts, and placed Stone’s fellow aviation pioneer Lieutenant Commander Carl Christian von Paulsen in command. With this initial base, the Coast Guard permanently reinstituted its aviation branch. During the 1930s, the service built on this modest aviation establishment by adding more assets, air stations, and personnel.

Meanwhile, Stone continued to work for the Navy. Because of his invaluable service, it extended an invitation to transfer his commission from the Coast Guard to the Navy. However, he remained true to his roots, and his request to return to the Coast Guard was granted. Beginning in 1926, he saw duty at sea enforcing Prohibition laws, serving first as executive officer of the cutter Modoc (WPG-46) and then as commanding officer of the Coast Guard destroyers Monaghan (CG-15) and Cummings (CG-3).

Stone’s return to Coast Guard aviation came in early 1932 with duty as senior member of the board tasked with selecting new Coast Guard aircraft. By the spring of 1932, he took command of Coast Guard Air Station Cape May, and two years later he was assigned to Santa Monica, California’s Douglas Aircraft Company in charge of inspecting new aircraft. During that time, Stone piloted a Coast Guard Grumman JF-2 Duck to an amphibian-aircraft speed record of 192 mph.

In 1935 Stone received promotion to the rank of commander and took charge of Coast Guard Air Patrol Detachment San Diego. However, a year later, he passed away at 49 from coronary thrombosis while observing tests of new service aircraft at San Diego. Stone died doing what he knew best—testing Coast Guard aircraft to ensure their quality and safety.

Elmer Fowler Stone soared to great heights during his career as he championed the cause of Coast Guard aviation. The first man to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic, Stone also pioneered the development of naval aviation, test flying nearly every kind of military aircraft, and helped perfect the takeoff and landing gear necessary for shipboard aviation. Perhaps most important, Commander Stone earned the respect of his peers in both the Coast Guard and the Navy. So it was fitting that when he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, officers from both military branches served as his pallbearers.


Sources:

Timothy Christman, “Cdr. Elmer Stone . . . Coast Guard Aviator No.1,” Naval Aviation News , May–June 1983, 36–38.

“Coast Guard Aviation History: Detailed Timeline,” Historian’s Office, U.S. Coast Guard, www.uscg.mil/history/aviation/articles/Pteros/CGAviationHistoryIntro.asp .

Robert F. Dorr, U.S. Coast Guard Aviation (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1992).

Alex R. Larzelere, The Coast Guard in World War I: An Untold Story (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003).

“The Legacy of Commander Elmer F. Stone, USCG,” Historian’s Office, U.S. Coast Guard, www.uscg.mil/history/people/Elmer_Stone.asp .

Arthur Pearcy, A History of U.S. Coast Guard Aviation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989).

Arthur Pearcy, U.S. Coast Guard Aircraft Since 1916 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991).

Colonel Robert H. Rankin and Norman N. Rubin, The Story of Coast Guard Aviation (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964).

Richard K. Smith, First Across! The U.S. Navy’s Transatlantic Flight of 1919 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1973).

Robert Scheina, “The Early Years: Coast Guard Aviation,” Naval Aviation News (May–June 1983), 8–11.

Robert Scheina, “A History of Coast Guard Aviation” Commandant’s Bulletin , no. 21 (10 October 1986), 9–43.

Hy Steirman and Glenn D. Kittler, Triumph: The Incredible Saga of the First Transatlantic Flight (New York: Harper 1961).

Elmer F. Stone, Personnel Records, Military Personnel Records Center, National Archives and Records Administration, Saint Louis, Missouri.

U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Aviation in the Coast Guard , House Report 917, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 1916, Serial 6905.

“USCG Aviation Historical Chronology,” Historian’s Office, U.S. Coast Guard, www.uscg.mil/history/AviationIndex.asp .

Robert B. Workman, Float Planes and Flying Boats: The U.S. Coast Guard and Early Naval Aviation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012).

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Wed, 2018-08-01

Maritime Security Dialogue A discussion with ADM Karl L. Schultz, USCGCommandant, U.S. Coast Guard Moderated by VADM Peter H....

The New China Challenge

View All

From the Press

14 July - Book Discussion

Sat, 2018-07-14

14 July - Book Discussion

Sat, 2018-07-14

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership