You’ve gotta stick your neck out in a case like that,” remarked one of the pilots of the Coast Guard at the conclusion of an account of a stormy night flight to Ocracoke Island, down at the south end of Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, to fly to the Naval Hospital at Norfolk, Virginia, a youth who was slowly bleeding to death. He was not “strutting his stuff.” His was a simple statement of fact. The call had come; it was so urgent it had to be answered, if possible; he took the chance and won. People have a way of making the casualty list without regard to weather or the time of day, and the hazards of such a flight as the one to Ocracoke, or those of making contact at sea in bad weather, are part of the life of this small body of flying Coast Guardsmen. The manner in which they tackle these problems and win through excites the admiration of those that know something of this dangerous duty, not only because of the hazards overcome but also for the courageous and skillful handling of the planes in a seaway. “I must have bounced 40 feet when I set her down,” reported a young pilot who was forced down on a raging sea just as night closed in. Fresh from Pensacola, he had overplayed his patrol and run out of gas. It was his baptism in this field. He played in luck for he was near home and the plane’s excellent radio was in constant touch with his base, so rescue was at hand, but the old-timers had plenty to say about one damaged wing pontoon.
In the January, 1933, issue of the PROCEEDINGS, this writer reviewed the birth, growth, and achievements of the Coast Guard Aviation Section. The attention of the reader was particularly directed to the loyal service rendered to humanity by the Coast Guard with their flying lifeboat and its development by their engineering section. The interest in this unique record has been surprisingly widespread, extending beyond our own military-naval services to those abroad. Only recently, the Review of the Army of the Air, published in Paris, France, has communicated with the writer on this subject. One day in the spring of this year the writer landed in a Coast Guard plane at Anacostia Field. A visiting Navy pilot rode over to town with him. During the ride, he said, “These Coast Guard pilots are doing some remarkable work, I hear, in sea rescues, landing, and taking-off in bad weather.” They are, and doing so daily! It is the purpose of this article to pick up the story where it was left off and to bring it up to date, drawing on the log of the aviation section of the Coast Guard for some of its outstanding ambulance flights.
Since midsummer, 1932, when the material for the prior article was gathered, many interesting changes have occurred in Coast Guard aviation, and much progress has been made towards modernization in material. The three stations that were operated in 1932, Gloucester, Mass., Cape May, N.J., and Miami, Fla., have been supplemented by four new bases situated at; Charleston, S.C., St. Petersburg, Fla., Biloxi, Miss., and Port Angeles, Wash. The old station at Gloucester has been abandoned and a new station erected at Salem, Mass., where the water conditions are better for the handling of seaplanes. In addition to these stations, other stations are under consideration at San Francisco and San Diego, Calif., and Milwaukee, Wis. The latter is much needed because of the value of the seaplane in rescue work for distressed seafarers on the Great Lakes. These new units consist of a modern hangar and a barracks building, and are of a standard pattern, being modified only to suit peculiar terrain.
The 15 planes that made up the fleet of the Coast Guard aviation in 1932 have been increased by the addition of 36 modern amphibian and observation planes. The old fleet had as its backbone 5 flying lifeboats and 3 new Douglas amphibians. The principal additions since that date have been 10 additional Douglas amphibians, 15 Grumman amphibians, and 6 Vought Corsair landplanes. The pride of the fleet today is a Northrup transport plane capable of a top speed of 213 miles per hour. In the Grumman amphibian purchased under Navy contract, the Coast Guard has found a fine utility plane. It is specially adapted to short range, high speed, law enforcement operations, and is excellent in flood relief missions. Recently, using the Grumman plane, the Coast Guard has established two new amphibian records; a speed record for 100 kilometers of an average of 174 miles per hour, and an altitude record with 500 kilogram pay load of 17,877 feet.
So from a small beginning, in less than three years the Coast Guard may be said now to be well equipped for the variety of missions assigned to its aviation section. These missions extend beyond coastal patrol, sea rescues, and law enforcement to the recently added duty of searching out illicit stills on land in co-operation with the Federal Alcohol Tax Unit. Under recent orders the Coast Guard is assigned all flying duty connected with the Treasury Department.
The flying personnel, 13 in 1932, has been increased to 24 commissioned officers and 16 enlisted AP’s, all graduates of the Naval Air School, Pensacola, Florida.
The very deserving development of the aviation section of the Coast Guard is undoubtedly largely due to keen appreciation by the Secretary of the Treasury of the utility and versatility of the airplane in the performance of Coast Guard missions. It is well known that Mr. Morgenthau is thoroughly air-minded and, being a business man of vision, he was not long in appreciating the value of the aerial eye in law enforcement.
The peculiar character of the duties performed by Coast Guard aviators early emphasized a need not only of staunch seagoing planes, such that could conveniently and with reasonable safety land in a heavy seaway, but could take aboard a patient and transfer him safely to shore. Strength of hull, low landing speed, wings set well above the water are more to be desired than mere speed. The ability of the amphibian to sit down on shallow water, or to land and taxi to a convenient spot for the patient to be transferred to an ambulance, has led to the employment of many Douglas amphibians. These flying ships do not, at present, fulfill all the ideal specifications of the Coast Guard, but they have proved well suited to most of its missions.
Early in the game a specific demand for specialized radio equipment was appreciated. In consequence, the communication section at Coast Guard Headquarters has designed standardized radio sets capable of radiotelegraphy as well as voice communication. The Coast Guard were among the first to recognize the need of a radio operated by battery entirely independent of the aircraft electrical system in order to insure communication in the event of a forced landing; and, in any event, to provide communication while on the water.
There is another problem of equipment that the Coast Guard is trying to solve— powerful landing lights for their planes. Their aviators are forever growling over the inadequacy of standard landing lights for the duty they are frequently called upon to perform. The problem is a vital one and experiments are now being conducted to better the present equipment.
One of the dangers peculiar to ambulance flights at sea is not often appreciated; that of bringing the patient alongside the plane in a ship’s boat without damage to the plane. An unanchored plane is not manageable on the surface if there is any wind blowing. The larger planes are equipped with an inflatable rubber boat, which when handled by a Coast Guardsman minimizes the chances of plane injury.
The log of the Coast Guard aviation contains many instances of daring, brilliant flights, but not the following. This writer believes it should rank first in Coast Guard records because it was animated, not by duty alone, but more by the feeling of a man who sought to be near in their hour of tragedy to those whom he admired and cherished as his friends.
During the night of April 3, 1933, the nation was shocked by the news of the destruction of the Akron. The news broke in Washington when most good people had gone to bed. It was a night of storm. In Washington, when the disaster became known, there was an officer of the Coast Guard who had served many years with the Navy and who had many friends in naval aviation. He was a great admirer of Admiral Moffett. No sooner had the news been received than he was on his way to the air station in Anacostia where his plane, a Douglas amphibian, had been secured for the night. He waited anxiously and impatiently an hour before the first lightening in the gloomy east would mark the coming of a new day. This would insure him a daylight landing at the end of the flight he meant to risk. It was night when he took off in the driving rain and mist—his destination, Cape May, New Jersey. That was his home station. He flew on the tree tops, running by compass and his intimate knowledge of the course. Any landmark he could see, he could identify. Good luck flew with him, as it usually does with a courageous man, and he landed safely in the inlet at Cape May just as it became light enough to see objects in the water. He immediately ordered his plane reserviced. Some officers of the station protested that he should not take off under such weather conditions; that he was assuming undue risks. Although the ceiling was not over a hundred feet and the visibility very limited, his only reply was, “Hell! Those fellows are friends of mine.” In the gale of wind that followed that night of tragedy, this officer kept his plane in the air in a fruitless effort to find some of his friends. It was his plane that recovered the bodies of two of those who lost their lives in the destruction of the Navy blimp. To accomplish this he made a successful landing and take-off in the heavy sea running.
When one scans the flight records of the Coast Guard it is difficult to pick and choose, especially with their ambulance flights. Annually there are many rescues made at sea and dozens of lives saved through the quick response to a call. Many of these rescue flights are more or less routine matters for the Coast Guard aviator, although they call for navigation over the sea and experience in the employment of their navigational aids and radio. It is only the exceptional cases that point to the heroism and skill of these men who go after the sick and injured at sea or in some isolated part of the country. Small power boat fires represent a rescue field in which the quick response of a Coast Guard plane is the only means of saving the luckless persons aboard. Every summer on the Atlantic coast defective equipment, carelessness, and ignorance take a toll of pleasure seekers in small boats. The death list is kept down by the ever ready and efficient service rendered by the Coast Guard. The flight record of the Coast Guard is filled with “sticking one’s neck out” in the interest of those whose peril is traceable to lack of foresight and knowledge of the sea and small craft.
New Year’s Day in 1933 was an off day for the well-advertised Florida sunshine. A stiff northwest wind was blowing, bringing to Miami rain squalls throughout the day. Late in the afternoon a frantic mother appealed for aid for her son who had been blown offshore in a skiff. The appeal was passed on to the Miami Air Station of the Coast Guard, and in response the officer in command took off immediately in the face of a 25-mile breeze and with darkness due in about an hour and a half. After half an hour in the air, a black object in the grey storm sea was sighted. Close inspection showed it to be a man in a skiff who was making intermittent distress signals while feebly battling to keep from broaching and swamping. He seemed in poor physical shape from exposure. During the search the wind had abruptly shifted to the northeast and increased in force. Circling above the skiff, the pilot was confronted with the need of a quick decision. It was evident the man in the skiff was engaged in a losing fight and could not survive the night—the odds against him were too great. That put it up to the pilot; to chance saving this one life and risk the lives of the plane’s crew! To chance wrecking the plane in the sea running! No time for weighing these chances—a life might be saved. This officer, one of the pioneers in Coast Guard aviation and as experienced as he was courageous, made his decision. He was confronted with waves running 15 feet in height, but the plane was set down, and the seas crashed upon it. In the smother, the plane taxied close aboard the skiff and with great skill it was hauled alongside and the exhausted youth taken aboard. When an attempt was made to take off, it was found that one of the wing-tipped floats, as well as the wing itself, was seriously damaged. The pilot actually succeeded in lifting the disabled plane from that heavy sea, but it could not fly. Again he landed, and attempted to taxi to shore. In that seaway and gale this was impossible, so a sea anchor, made of a couple of buckets, was rigged and the big plane drifted down wind and was worked through three lines of surf to a safe landing. The sea had made a complete mess of that fine plane but the young man was restored to his family.
In July of the same year a hurricane raged up the Florida coast. It was approaching Miami when the Coast Guard station received a request to locate two boys in trouble with a sailboat. The contact was made in the face of the storm and the boys brought ashore. While this hurricane was approaching other Coast Guard planes flew to isolated island camps warning people of its approach, and in many instances helping them to the mainland.
Many ambulance flights are made out of the Boston area, for the great fishing fleets operate from its shores. The life of the fisherman is hard and he is isolated from the beach for weeks at a time. It is filled with possibilities of him becoming a casualty. There follows a typical case, noteworthy for the manner in which the call was answered. The Mao IV was a scallop fishing boat out of New Bedford, Mass. She was plying her trade some 250 miles to the southeast of the Port of Boston when one of her crew decided to lance a boil on his right forearm. The rolling and pitching of the little vessel caused him to slip and cut a large incision in his arm. He bandaged it and continued his work. In a few days his entire arm, neck, and right side became paralyzed. The captain of the Mao sent out a radio request for help and the message was relayed from the Boston division of the Coast Guard to the commander of the eastern area in New York. This message was intercepted by CG-29, a Douglas amphibian, while in flight to New York. The pilot of the CG-29 immediately requested permission from the New York division to go after the stricken fisherman. The permission was granted, and after refueling at the Newark airport, he took off in a light fog to search for and contact the Mao IV. After some difficulty he located the ship and managed to land in a heavy swell prevailing at the time. He got his patient aboard and landed him safely at the Boston airport, although when he turned him over to the doctor the patient was semiconscious from the intense pain. The hour or two saved by the pilot on his homeward course, volunteering to go after the injured fisherman, stood between his life or death.
Many of the calls that come to the Coast Guard have their foundation in tragedy or near tragedy. One finds many cases of response to calls of some grief- stricken person at sea, asking to be brought to the bedside of a sick relative or to be in time to pay a last farewell to a departed dear one. There is a profoundly tragic side to these appeals. Radio has made communication with the ship quite simple, but the airplane is the only relief possible in such an emergency.
At the Gloucester Air Station, in June, 1933, word was received that the wife of the captain of the Pollock Rip lightship had died. The lightship is moored off the hook of Cape Cod. The Coast Guard was asked to take out a relief captain and bring ashore the bereaved skipper. These lightships are usually contacted by the Lighthouse Service about once every three months. There was no ship available that could make the exchange and bring the husband ashore in time for the funeral. The commanding officer of the Coast Guard air station dispatched one of the F. L. B.’s on this mission. The pilot who flew that ship afterwards said that when he first touched the water in setting her down he thought he had broken her back, or at least staved in some of her plates. But, with courage and skill, he did manage to land. The sea running was so high that the lightship did not dare launch a boat with a rowing crew but drifted it astern on a long line, until it could be maneuvered alongside of the plane. With great difficulty and constant danger to the plane the exchange of skippers was accomplished. It proved impossible to take off in such a seaway, so the plane was taxied some 18 miles distance to the lee of Chatham. There in comparatively quiet water, the take-off was made and the passenger landed in Boston in time for his wife’s funeral.
In July, 1934, the U.S.S. Salt Lake City, when about 90 miles east of Cape May, N.J., requested transportation for a dangerously ill seaman. A Douglas amphibian took off and within an hour had landed alongside the Salt Lake City, taken the patient aboard, and was winging its way to the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, Pa. This was a normal duty run on an ambulance call, the weather and sea conditions being favorable, but the quick response and efficiency stood between death and a young apprentice seaman.
Late in the afternoon of November 22, 1934, a message was received at the Cape May base from District Headquarters at Norfolk stating that the Ocracoke Coast Guard station had a civilian who was slowly bleeding to death from a wound in the leg. The local doctor had done the best he could with the facilities at hand and had been unable to stem the flow of blood. The message ended, “Can you bring the man to Norfolk by plane?” The base commander, the senior pilot on the station, stood by a window in his office and reckoned his chances of getting through. A strong northwest wind kicked up a nasty chop in the inlet and darkness was fast approaching. An examination of the weather map showed that the local conditions extended down the coast beyond Hatteras. It was a day of scattered clouds and haze and low visibility. The pilot knew enough of Ocracoke to appreciate that to answer the call meant not only a 250-mile flight through a stormy night but a blind, dangerous landing in a swampy, shallow, log-strewn lagoon. He also knew that a plane represented about the only chance that the injured man had for life, and that fact decided the matter for him. Just as darkness set in and within 40 minutes of the time the message had been received, he took off from Cape May. He stuck to the sea, checking on the lights that he could find, setting his course for the lightship off Norfolk and the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk. Flying low above the coast line, he came suddenly upon the tall, white shaft of the Wright Memorial and cleared it by so close a margin as to be hair-raising. On the flight down the coast he requested Norfolk by radio to phone the Ocracoke station—it having no radio—to put lanterns on the most dangerous obstructions in the lagoon, and went on his way cheerfully as the “affirmative” was received out of the storm.
Ocracoke was under the plane about 8:30 that night. Something had miscarried with that message for an illumination: the lagoon was as black as a pocket. The pilot’s only break was the fact that the wind cut up the shallow water into white- caps, which gave him a check on the altitude. After dragging the sound twice he took a chance and sat his plane down, and a moment after, in veering to avoid an unlighted mooring post, rammed into a mud bank. She nosed up and crashed down, and for a moment the three men of her crew thought she certainly must be stove in. As it turned out, no serious damage had been done, but for a considerable time the plane lay helpless while the seas broke over her fuselage and wings. Eventually, with the aid of the surfmen, the plane was launched from the mud and a man familiar with the local water conditions taken aboard. Then the plane taxied to the town. After some difficulty a boat was brought alongside containing the young man who was still bleeding profusely from a wound in his leg. The next problem was to take off without wrecking the plane. This was accomplished after the captain of the Coast Guard station had placed a lighted lantern on a buoy some 500 yards across the lagoon.
“I held so close to that light,” said the pilot, “that the boat’s crew standing by the buoy went overboard as I cleared them. That was just one more close shave of that night. We certainly got the breaks.”
Once safely off the sound, the pilot set his course for Norfolk.
A fine rain set in as the plane headed north, reducing the visibility to zero and forcing the pilot down just above the storm-tossed water. With the white combers as a guide to altitude, and his compass, he hugged the coast until the light at Cape Henry was picked up. Then lights of Norfolk showed nebulously in the west and the plane rushed into the irridescent pall above the city. With great difficulty the Naval Air Base was located through the illuminated mists. The plane reached Norfolk a little before eleven o’clock; the landing in Willoughby Bay was successfully negotiated; and the patient turned over to the doctor waiting with an ambulance. “We had to be lucky that night,” the pilot remarked to the writer. For six hours this officer, his radioman, and mechanic had been in constant danger and under a severe nervous strain, but had skillfully accomplished their mission. The pilot never received the slightest acknowledgment from the injured youth or his family, but he and his crew were commended by the Secretary of the Treasury.
Once in a while an ambulance call has its almost comic side. One day last summer the Cape May Air Station received a most urgent call from a ship 190 miles at sea. The radio stated that there was a man aboard with a serious eye injury who appeared likely to lose his sight. Immediately a plane was dispatched, together with a doctor, which in due course made contact with the ship. The doctor was hustled aboard and the sick man brought to him immediately. Upon close examination it was discovered that he had a cinder in his eye, and the doctor, after removing the cinder, turned the man back to duty. This particular surgeon was a very busy man. He had dropped everything to respond to this call, flown almost 400 miles at sea for the sole purpose of removing a bit of coal from a seaman’s eye. He was not very happy about the gentle ragging he received from his friends when the story got out.
On at least two occasions the flight record shows landings have been made in such a heavy sea that it was impossible to take off until the ship from which the patient was taken steamed ahead, pumping oil over the side, and, following up this slick, the pilot managed to get his plane in the air.
These instances are just a few of the highlights in the performance of the Coast Guard on its missions of mercy since the last article was written. There are many other features of Coast Guard aviation. The planes employed in the interior in the location of illicit stills have many times performed real missions of mercy. Not so long ago they flew down the Mississippi Valley, using improvised “drops” to warn the countryside, “Flood Waters Coming.”
In the month of June, last year, the U. S. Army transport Republic, bound for New York from the Canal Zone, had aboard a major of the Army who suddenly became critically ill. The surgeon of the transport was quick to see that if the life of the major was to be saved special hospitalization was necessary. A hurry call for a plane was sent. Time was precious, the officer being in a bad way. The message was received at the Miami Air Station, and shortly afterwards the Arcturus, a Douglas amphibian, took off in soupy weather and contacted the Republic 270 miles east of Miami. The landing was made in darkness with a high sea running. There was nothing to aid the pilot but the landing lights of the plane and the searchlights of the ship, and he shook his plane badly in getting down. The major and his wife were transferred immediately to the plane and the return trip begun. Shortly heavy rain squalls, to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, were encountered; visibility faded to zero, and the pilot was forced to rely solely on instruments for the safety of his plane and passengers. The pilot won his long fight, and the major was transferred to the hospital in Jacksonville. The sea had taken its toll of the staunch plane—in the landing and take-off the hull had sprung several leaks and the monocoque section had been damaged.
For those who can appreciate the difficulties surrounding it, the circumstances of the following case are related.
A Coast Guard aviator, piloting a Douglas amphibian in July, 1933, took off one morning from Gloucester, Mass., en route to New London, Conn., and Washington, D.C. A short while after his departure from Gloucester he intercepted, while in flight, a request for aid from a trawler, the Wild Goose, which stated that she had a seriously injured man aboard, and gave her position. By radio the pilot requested authority to proceed to the assistance of this injured seaman. Permission was received while flying inland above Providence, Rhode Island, and the plane’s course changed to the point reported by the Wild Goose, about 125 miles southeast of Cape Ann. A sea fog was encountered, lying low upon the face of the ocean. The Coast Guard plane requested various Navy radio compass stations to listen in and obtain bearings of the Wild Goose. Repeated calls failed to obtain any response. Depending upon his first bearings obtained, the pilot flew back and forth from the reported position of the trawler, and finally, after two hours’ flight, succeeded in raising weak signals from the Wild Goose. A Navy radio compass station had also been listening in and obtained doubtful bearings. By use of the aircraft direction finder, the pilot of the Coast Guard plane eventually succeeded in locating the trawler about 30 miles northeast of its reported position. Having located the ship, he circled above the fog and finally was able to spot it dimly through a hole in the fog. He immediately sent his plane diving through the hole and, as he did so, the fog closed in, making it necessary to sit down blindly on the swell running. He managed, however, to do so. Signals from the Wild Goose directed the plane through the fog, and finally it came alongside. As soon as the patient was aboard, the pilot took off in the fog, simply trusting to luck that no fishing craft would be in line of his speeding plane, and setting his course for Boston, flew 15 minutes blind. Finally he came out of the fog belt, on his course. The patient, with a badly mangled hand, and very weak from the loss of blood, was turned over at the Boston Airport to an ambulance summoned by radio during the flight.
In the flight records of the Coast Guard, the east coast stations hold the spotlight at present, for the west coast is but beginning operations. Soon its pilots will be making the “front page” while heroically “sticking their necks out” in this unique service to humanity.
Power the legislative may give hut Authority it can give to no man. Authority may be acquired by wisdom, by prudence, by good conduct and a virtuous behaviour; but it can be granted by no King, but no potentate on earth. A man's power depends upon the post or station he is in; but his authority can depend upon nothing but the character he acquires among mankind.—Lord Carteret.