Tag Archives: United States Coast Guard

26 September 1971: This Day in Coast Guard Aviation History

by Captain Sean M. Cross, United States Coast Guard (Retired)

During the Vietnam conflict from 1967–1972, eleven U.S. Coast Guard Aviators voluntarily served with high honor and distinction with the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Rescue and Recovery forces in Southeast Asia in the dual role of aircraft commanders and instructor pilots. They regularly risked their lives flying into harm’s way to save airmen in peril of death or capture. Their significant contributions and exceptional performance were highly commended by the Air Force with the award of four Silver Stars, sixteen Distinguished Flying Crosses, and eighty-six Air Medals, in addition to many other recognitions. The previous accolades did not come without cost—designated Coast Guard Aviator #997, Lieutenant Jack Columbus Rittichier was killed in action while attempting to rescue a downed Marine airman in hostile territory on June 9th, 1968. These Aviators carried out their noble mission with heroism and a focus on duty, honor, country and the Coast Guard. Their actions brought honor on themselves, the United States of America, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Coast Guard.

A U.S. Air Force Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant. (National Archives at College Park)

26 September 1971: A Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant, crewed by Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Joseph Lawrence (“Jay”) Crowe, Jr., CGA ‘62 (Pilot), Xxxxxx Hampton (Copilot), William Simm (Flight Engineer), Daniel G. Manion (Pararescue Jumper) and Richard L. Steed (Pararescue Jumper), rescued the crew of a North American Aviation OV-10A Bronco (call sign “RUSTIC 07″), Lieutenant Lansford Elmer Trapp, Jr., and Cambodian observer, Sergeant Chap Khorn, after they ejected from their 12.7mm-damaged aircraft, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northwest of Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

Lieutenant General Lansford E. Trapp bio: https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Biographies/Display/Article/105437/lieutenant-general-lansford-e-trapp-jr/

Cambodia (Encyclopedia Britannica)

A little more…(much of this content was slightly modified from the book Leave No Man Behind: The Saga of Combat Search and Rescue by George Galdorisi and Thomas Phillips, pages 393 and 394)

To better cover the southern portion of South Vietnam and be closer to the increasing levels of operations in Cambodia, the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) had for some time maintained a pair of HH-53Cs at Bien Hoa Air Base, about fifteen miles northeast of Saigon.  On September 26, 1971, it was Coast Guard exchange pilot Lieutenant Commander Joseph “Jay” Crowe’s turn to stage at the forward operating location (FOL). Standing the alert with his crew, Hampton, Simm, Manion, and Steed, they were scrambled to rescue of the crew of an OV-10A from the 19th TASS who shared the ramp at Bien Hoa.

A U.S. Air Force North American Aviation OV-10A-5-NH Bronco, 67-14605, fires a white phosphorous rocket. (TSGT Bill Thompson, United States Air Force DFST8505744)

The Rustic FAC, the call sign that any FAC [Forward Air Controller] operating in Cambodia used, regardless of squadron, had fallen victim to a “.50-caliber trap” when it was hit at 3,500 feet (1,067 meters) by converging fire from four 12.7mm AA machine guns ringing the perimeter of a small village about ten miles (16 kilometers) northwest of the Mekong River town of Kampong Cham. When grouped as a battery, the 12.7 mm guns, “heavy guns” of the southern air war (where the heavy AA weapons of Laos and North Vietnam had not yet appeared in large numbers), were still quite deadly. The Bronco pilot, 1st Lieutenant Lansford Trapp, and his observer, Cambodian Sgt. Chap Khom, had parachuted down into the apex of the gun formation, and the hostile forces accompanying the AAA gunners were in no rush to go get them.

In an interview with his grandson recorded in 2018, retired General Lansford E. Trapp described the incident:

“When I was a lieutenant, and this would have been in 1971, I was flying an observation aircraft over in Vietnam. I was on a mission over in Cambodia and we were helping ground forces who were fighting against bad guys over there. That ensuing battle that went on as I was flying over head in my airplane, we actually got hit by ground fire and the left wing of the airplane caught on fire.

“I had a Cambodian interpreter sitting in my back seat, a Sergeant Chung (Khorn), and it was his seventh ride in an airplane. I didn’t even know that the wing was on fire until one of the other airplanes came by and said “hey your left wing is on fire”. So, I looked out, my wing was on fire, and we decided that I was gonna be able to land at one of the airports that was right there. So, we came in and tried to land, but I lost control of the airplane. So, I pushed the power back in and climbed up over the airfield. Then the left wing burned off, and so we started in a pretty good spiral into the wing that had burned off. We ejected from the airplane.

“Sergeant Corn (Khorn) went out first, and then I went out. The craziest thing was that we used to fly with about 250 to 300 big maps, so we could look at the country as we were trying to figure out where we were. Those all came flying out of the cockpit as we ejected. It looked like confetti outside. As we came down sergeant Corn he got burned pretty bad from the wing fire, and I banged my ankle up pretty badly, but we were OK. We got picked up by friendly forces and I got a nice helicopter ride back to home base that night.”

A gunner looks over a General Electric GAU2/A minigun, while his aircraft flies formation with a Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant over Southeast Asia. (U.S. Air Force)

Crowe’s Jolly approached at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), safely above the range of the still-active hostile guns, while the A-1H Sandys of the 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) went in low to begin their routine of locating the survivors and the hostile guns. In the flat and relatively open terrain of central Cambodia, penetrating the ring of guns was going to be dicey, there not being the ridges, karsts, and dense vegetation of the 37th’s regular operating area to provide a modicum of masking for the helicopter. By this stage of the war, a low, treetop-hugging approach by the rescue helicopter was a well-known procedure, and the enemy gunners would be waiting for it, scanning the low horizon for the rescue helicopter sure to follow on the heels of the tough Skyraiders. Each gun guarded its quadrant of the circle around the downed airmen, waiting.

A Douglas A-1H Skyraider dive bombing a target during a close air support mission. (U.S. Air Force)

Crowe decided to use a variation of the diving spiral approach he had used June 4th with success, rescuing a Covey FAC crew up in southern Laos. Rather than descending some distance away prior to a low-level run-in, he entered an autorotation from directly overhead, copilot Hampton pulling the throttles of the twin engines back, and Crowe lowering the collective stick. Down the helicopter fell, with the rush of air up through the rotors keeping the blades spinning, while the engines idled (relatively quietly). The blades are unloaded in an autorotative descent, so the characteristic whop-whop is virtually eliminated, and with the engines at idle, there is significantly less of the distinctive noises that normally come from the helicopter.

With the Sandys rumbling around, strafing and bombing and attracting the eye of the gunners, the diminished but still telltale sounds made by the falling Jolly were masked.  Crowe kept the helicopter in a steep turn, spiraling down inside the perimeter of the four guns around the downed aircrew, literally behind their backs, careful not to swing out too wide, where he might catch a gunner’s eye. The Jolly would be easily seen should anyone glance straight up, luckily the last place a sane gunner would be looking for a helicopter.  They were falling out of the sky at more than five thousand feet per minute. As the Jolly approached the ground, Crowe began to level off, converting vertical speed to speed across the ground, still spiraling, and then raised the nose to decelerate.

HH-53C (VIRIN: DF-ST-83-02388)

At the same time, Hampton slowly and smoothly pushed the engine throttles forward, to accelerate them back into normal speed and gently engage their drive wheels with the spinning gears of the main rotors. The accelerating engines and the rotors digging into the air as Crowe pulled up on the collective and flared into a quick-stop created loud rotor beats, accenting the whine of jet turbines accelerating to maximum power, announcing their arrival to all. But the helicopter was safely down beneath the trees in a hover, and the telltale was too late to help the gunners acquire their target. This tight spiral autorotative descent and recovery to a hover requires a superior feel for the helicopter, and exquisite coordination with the copilot to return the rotors to engine-driven flight smoothly at just the right instant. Done right, the procedure is a dramatic and breathtaking maneuver and a grand entrance. But the room for error is very small, and a botched maneuver is perilous and very unforgiving.

It was not a gambit to be repeated very often; if the gunners had detected the helicopter, Crowe and company would have found themselves in a deadly crossfire. But this day it was brilliant: a tactical surprise, completely unexpected, and therefore completely effective. The Jolly crew snatched the two men quickly and escaped out of the circle with a low-level departure. A climbing spiral back up from the center of the guns, with the gunners now alerted, was clearly out of the question. The helicopter received only sporadic fire as it left the scene in the typical low-level escape, while taking no casualties.

Epilogue

Lieutenant Commander Joseph Lawrence Crowe, Jr., U.S. Coast Guard. (Sean M. Cross Collection)

After graduation from high school in Weston, Massachusetts in 1958, Jay received an appointment to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut. Commissioned an Ensign in 1962, he served a tour at sea and then was assigned to naval flight training. Receiving his wings in 1965, he served at Coast Guard Air Stations San Francisco, California, Barbers Point, Hawaii; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Port Angeles, Washington; Annette Island Alaska, and Sitka, Alaska.

He served during the Vietnam War on an exchange tour with the U.S. Air Force as a Combat Rescue Crew commander with the 37th ARRS Jolly Green Giants in Da Nang AB, RVN.

Jay was a 1981 graduate of the Air War College. He served as Commanding Officer Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, Washington, and Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His final assignment before retirement was as Chief, Operations Division, 11th Coast Guard District, Long Beach, California.

During Jay’s distinguished career he was awarded a Legion of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Cross Medals, nine Air Medals, two Meritorious Service Medals. Three Coast Guard Commendation Medals, a Coast Guard Achievement Medal, and a Meritorious Unit Commendation. Hangar 3172 at Air Station Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was named in his honor.

Captain Crowe flew west crossing the bar February 22, 2003. His family was at his side.

Aircraft

Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant three-view illustration with dimensions. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)

The MH-53M Pave Low IV is a variant of Sikorsky’s S-65 heavy-lift military transport helicopter series.  The MH-53M is a single main rotor, single tail rotor, twin-engine helicopter. It has a crew of six: 2 pilots, 2 flight engineers and 2 gunners. The Pave Low IV is equipped with Terrain-Following Radar and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) for low-level operations in darkness and low visibility.

The MH-53M fuselage is 67 feet, 2.4 inches (20.483 meters) long, and the helicopter has a maximum length of 91 feet, 11.34 inches (28.025 meters) with rotors turning and the refueling boom extended. The height to the top of the main rotor pylon is 17 feet, 1.68 inches (5.224 meters). The maximum height (rotors turning) is 24 feet, 10.88 inches (7.592 meters).

The fully-articulated 6-blade main rotor has a diameter of 72 feet, 2.7 inches (22.014 meters). The main rotor turns counter-clockwise at 185 r.p.m. (100% Nr), as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) The main rotor blades are built with titanium spars and have -16° of twist. The semi-articulated four-blade tail rotor has a diameter of 16 feet, 0 inches (4.877 meters) and is positioned on the left side of the tail pylon. It turns clockwise at 792 r.p.m., as seen from the helicopter’s left side. (The advancing blade is below the axis of rotation.) The gap between rotor arcs is just 4.437 inches (11.270 centimeters).

Empty, the MH-53M weighs 32,000 pounds (14,515 kilograms). Its maximum takeoff weight is 46,000 pounds (20,865 kilograms).

Its two General Electric T64-GE-100 axial-flow turboshaft engines have a Normal Continuous Power rating of 3,810 shaft horsepower at 85 °F. (30 °C.), Military Power rating of 4,090 shaft horsepower, and a Maximum Power rating of 4,330 shaft horsepower. The T64-GE-100 is 79 inches (2.007 meters) long, 20 inches (0.508 meters) in diameter and weighs 720 pounds (327 kilograms). Output (100% N2) is 13,600 r.p.m.

The MH-53M has a maximum speed of 196 miles per hour (315 kilometers per hour) and a service ceiling of 16,000 feet (4877 meters). It carries two 450-gallon (1,703 liter) jettisonable fuel tanks under each sponson.

The MH-53M is armed with two M134 7.62mm miniguns and a GAU-18/A .50 caliber machine gun.

© 2020, Sean M. Cross

For additional reading, see:

Coast Guard Aviation in Vietnam

18 September 1946

NOTE: After 8+ years and 1,524 published posts, This Day in Aviation is going to try something new today. TDiA was contacted by a regular reader with a suggestion for a new post. He was so knowledgeable about the incident, that rather than reinvent the wheel, I asked him to write the following article. I hope that you find it as interesting as I did. Please welcome our first guest author, Captain Sean M. Cross, United States Coast Guard (Retired), and now the President and COO of Helinet Aviation Services, Van Nuys, California. —Bryan

SABENA Douglas DC-4-1009 Skymaster OO-CBR, sister-ship of OO-CBG

18 September 1946: In the summer of 1946, SABENA (Societé Anonyme Belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne, the national airline of Belgium) began twice-weekly flights from Brussels, Belgium, to New York City, with refueling stops at Shannon, Ireland, and Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. The airline operated brand-new four-engine Douglas DC-4 Skymasters on the route.

A little after 8:00 p.m., Tuesday, 17 September, OO-CBG departed Shannon for the overnight flight to Gander. The Douglas Skymaster was under the command Captain Jean Ester, a Belgian who had flown with the Royal Air Force during World War II. The co-pilot was Albert Drossaert; with Leopold Verstraeten, navigator; Paul Fassbender, flight engineer; and radio operator Jean Dutoict. There were two flight attendants , Jeanne Bruylant and Jean Rookx, and 37 passengers.

OO-CBG was due at Gander at 0720, Wednesday morning. At 0737, the flight reported by radio, estimating that it was 16 minutes out.

SABENA OO-CBG never arrived.

The Skymaster crashed during harsh weather 24 miles (39 kilometers) southwest of Gander. An inbound Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA) DC-4 located the crash site and remained overhead until a United States Coast Guard Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat, serial number 48314 (c/n 1506) from Air Detachment Argentia, arrived over the scene and confirmed that the wreckage was that of the missing SABENA airliner and that survivors were seen.

A PBY Catalina flies over the crash scene of SABENA’s Douglas DC-4. (National Naval Aviation Museum 1993.501.073.099)

The crash site was heavily wooded and the ground proved to be a very large bog. As the aircraft could not land, emergency aid supplies were dropped by parachute and plans were formulated to rescue the survivors.

A PBY-5A with a U.S. Army medical team from Fort McAndrew, Argentia, under the command of Captain Samuel Preston Martin III.M.D., U.S. Army, landed on Dead Wolf Pond, a lake about one and a half miles (2.4 kilometers) long, located five miles (8 kilometers) from the crash site.

With the assistance of experienced woodsman from Gander, Dr. Martin and his medical team began the hazardous trip down a river known as Dead Wolf Brook from the lake to an area near the crash site. Martin’s team then made their way by foot through the boggy area to the DC-4 and the survivors.

Dr. Martin determined that many of the severely injured would not survive the rugged overland trip upriver and that some other way had to be found to extract the survivors and rescuers.

Transiting Dead Wolf Brook. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. Coast Guard decided to use helicopters to carry out the survivors. The nearest  were located at the Coast Guard Air Stations, Brooklyn, New York, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in the United States. In fact, these were the only helicopters operating in the Coast Guard at the time.

Helicopters were just out of their infancy in 1946, moving into the adolescent stage—Igor Sikorsky had made the first helicopter flight just six years earlier. [See TDiA, 14 September 1939] However, the U.S. Coast Guard had pioneered helicopter development alongside Sikorsky as the military service responsible for the testing and evaluation of helicopters during the latter years of World War II. This would be their first large scale rescue which would prove the helicopter’s amazing capabilities.

A U.S. Coast Guard HNS-1 Hoverfly, 39051, flown by Lieutenant Stewart R. Graham transports one survivor from near the crashed airliner. (Igor I. Sikorsky Historical Archives)
Captain Richard L. Burke USCG

On 20 September 1946, two days after the airliner crashed, orders were received from the East Area Rescue Officer, Captain Richard L. Burke, U.S. Coast Guard, to prepare a Sikorsky R-4/HNS-1 helicopter for immediate shipment to Gander to take part in the rescue of survivors of a crashed Belgian airliner. Instructions were given by telephone to Lieutenant Alvin Nightingale Fisher, USCG, at Elizabeth City to begin disassembly of an HNS-1 for transport aboard a C-54 Skymaster (the military version of the Douglas DC-4). No details were available on the orders for Air Station Brooklyn, New York.

Lt.  Alvin N. Fisher, USCG

An Army Air Forces C-54 from Westover Field, near Springfield, Massachusetts, arrived at Elizabeth City at 9:25 p.m., local time, on the 20th. The disassembled fabric-covered HNS-1, serial number 39051, and its crew were loaded aboard and the transport departed at 11:25 p.m. for the 1,215 nautical mile (1,298 statute miles/2,250 kilometers) journey, landing at Gander at 8:55 a.m., the next morning. The helicopter was unloaded and assembly began at once.

While the helicopter was being reassembled, the pilots were taken to the scene of the crash by a PBY from Argentia, and plans were laid for flying the survivors out by helicopter. It was decided to drop lumber at the clearing nearest the crash for the purpose of constructing a small landing platform as the muskeg would not support the weight of the helicopter. A second platform was built on the edge of the lake approximately 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the clearing so that survivors could be transferred  at this point to PBYs and flown to Gander.

A Sikorsky HOS-1 approaches two PBYs on Gander Lake. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While the Elizabeth City Sikorsky HNS-1 was being prepared for flight, another helicopter, the metal-clad Sikorsky R-6/HOS-1, serial number 23470, a newer and more powerful machine, was also on the scene being readied. The HOS-1 from Air Station Brooklyn arrived at Gander some twenty minutes before the Elizabeth City machine and was reassembled and ready for flight before the HNS-1.

Coast Guard aviation machinist’s mates work on reassembling the Sikorsky HNS-1. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mates Oliver F. Berry, Leo Brzycki, and AAM1 Merwin Westerberg were the primary mechanics in charge of the disassembly and reassembly of the HNS-1, while Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate Vanelli was the primary mechanic for the HOS-1. (Other personnel could not be identified.)

Aviation machinist’s mates work on the HOS-1 at Gander. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Taking the helicopters apart in order to airlift them on transport aircraft, then putting them back together on arrival at Gander was critical to the operation. After reassembly of the Elizabeth City and during the run-up prior to its test flight, someone approached too close to the turning rotors and the test pilot did an emergency shut down. This caused a pin to shear and it was dark before the trouble could be remedied.

The Brooklyn HOS-1 managed to evacuate 8 people before dark on the 21st, all of whom had to be carried by stretcher due to the severity of their injuries.

Ground personnel off-load an ambulatory survivor from HOS-1 23470
The next day, the 22nd, both helicopters were used to fly out the remaining survivors by making  repeated flights between the crash site and Gander Lake, a distance of about 12 miles (19 kilometers). The 18 survivors were placed in wire Stokes litters attached to the outside of the HNS-1 helicopter, and inside the hastily-modified HOS-1. One at a time they were flown to Wolf Lake where they were further stabilized by the U.S. Army medics. The survivors were then placed in inflatable life rafts and rowed out to a PBY-5A on the lake. They were taken aboard the amphibian and flown to Gander Airport where they were able to receive more extensive medical care.
A survivor in a Stokes litter is transferred to life raft to be rowed out to a waiting PBY-5A Catalina. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The helicopters and PBY-5As made numerous trips before all eighteen survivors were evacuated to Gander Airport. In addition, the helicopters withdrew the fourteen members of the Army’s ground rescue team, and several others. The following day, after all survivors had been flown out, the investigators and airline officials were flown in by helicopter. In all, the helicopters made forty flights into the clearing. Landings, both at the clearing and at the lake, were made on the wooden platforms, thus permitting maximum performance of the helicopters.

A U.S. Coast Guard Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina 48314 on Gander Lake with injured survivors of the SABENA crash. (National Naval Aviation Museum 1993.501.073.116)

The U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilots were Commander Frank Anderson, Lieutenant Commander Stewart Graham, Lieutenant Walter Bolton and Lieutenant August Kleisch. Three of these four officers had begun their Coast Guard careers as enlisted men.

The aircrews received the U.S. Air Medal, while the government of Belgium presented the Chevalier (Knight) of the Order of Leopold to all for the rescue.

Lieutenant Commander Frank Arthur Erickson, U.S. Coast Guard, at the controls of a Sikorsky HNS-1, circa 1946. (Coast Guard Historian’s Office)
Captain Frank Arthur Erickson, United States Coast Guard. (6 November 1907–17 December 1978) Captain Erickson was designated Coast Guard Aviator No. 32 in 1935, and later, Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 1. On 3 January 1944, then Commander Erickson carried out the first-ever helicopter life saving mission when he delivered plasma for the survivors of USS Turner (DD-648) from Battery Park, New York, to a hospital at Sandy Hook. This occurred during a severe snow storm. Captain Erickson is internationally recognized for his pioneering efforts of helicopter rescues, hydraulic hoist systems, and flight stabilization systems. Erickson Hall at the Aviation Training Center, Mobile, Alabama, where the Coast Guard aircraft flight simulators are located, was named in his honor. Captain Ericson graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1931 and was commissioned an ensign. He served until retirement in 1954.
Lieutenant Stewart R. Graham, USCG, in cockpit of Sikorsky HNS-1 near Gander, Newfoundland, September 1946. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Commander Stewart Ross (“Stew”) Graham, United States Coast Guard. (25 September 1917–13 August 2016) Commander Graham was designated Coast Guard Aviator No. 114 in 1942, and then Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 2 in 1943. He was the leading pilot in pioneering Anti-Submarine Warfare tactics, and trained U.S. Navy pilots to conduct these critical missions. Commander Graham was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals. He was appointed Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold (Knight) by tPrince Charles, Regent of Belgium, for helicopter rescues.

August Kleisch

Lieutenant Commander August (“Gus”) Kleisch, United States Coast Guard. (2 October 1908–26 October 2003) Lieutenant Commander Kleisch was designated as an Enlisted Aviation Pilot in 1935, and after commissioning in 1942, Coast Guard Aviator No. 109. In 1943, at Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn (located at Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York, he qualified as Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 5. In 1945, “Gus” Kleisch pioneered the first use of a training helicopter to rescue seven crewmembers of a Canadian PBY flying boat which had been forced down in a remote area of Labrador. He also delivered two medical officers to the scene. For his heroism and innovation, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the U.S. Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force Cross by Prime Minister of Canada. He was appointed Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold (Knight) by Prince Charles, Regent of Belgium, for the rescue of the SABENA survivors. Lieutenant Commander Kleisch served in the United States Coast Guard from 1927 until he retired in 1959.

ACMM Oliver F. Berry USCG

Chief Machinist’s Mate Oliver Fuller Berry, United States Coast Guard. (8 March 1908–13 September 1991) ADC Berry was one of the world’s first helicopter maintenance specialists. A distinguished expert mechanic on original Coast Guard aircraft, he was a lead instructor at the very first United States military helicopter training unit. He contributed significantly to the 1946 SABENA crash rescue operation. Of exemplary character, extraordinary technical knowledge, exceptional planning talent, and superior leadership traits, his untiring quest for excellence established the ensuing high standards characterizing Coast Guard aviation maintenance. The Chief Oliver F. Berry Aviation Maintenance Award was established in Chief Berry’s honor, and he is the namesake of the Sentinel-class cutter USCGC Oliver Berry (WPC 1124).

Sikorsky XR-4C 41-18874 at the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The Vought-Sikorsky VS-316A (which was designated XR-4 by the U.S. Army Air Corps and assigned serial number 41-18874), established the single main rotor/anti-torque tail rotor configuration. It was a two-place helicopter with side-by-side seating and dual flight controls. The fabric-covered three-blade main rotor was 38 feet (11.582 meters) in diameter and turned counter-clockwise as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right). The three-blade tail rotor was mounted to the right of the tail boom in a tractor configuration, and rotated clockwise when seen from the helicopter’s left side. (The advancing blade was below the axis of rotation.)
The XR-4 was 33 feet, 11.5 inches (10.351 meters) long and 12 feet, 5 inches (3.785 meters) high. It weighed 2,010 pounds (911.7 kilograms) empty and the maximum gross weight was 2,540 pounds (1,152.1 kilograms).
The VS-316A had originally been powered by a 499.8-cubic-inch-displacement (8.19 liter) air-cooled Warner Aircraft Corporation Scarab SS-50 (R-500-1) seven-cylinder radial engine, rated at 145 horsepower at 2,050 r.p.m. In the XR-4 configuration, the engine was upgraded to an air-cooled, direct-drive 555.298-cubic-inch-displacement (9.100 liter) Warner Super Scarab SS185 (R-550-3) seven-cylinder radial engine with a compression ration of 6.20:1. The R-550-3 was rated at 185 horsepower at 2,175 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 200 horsepower at 2,475 r.p.m (five minute limit) for takeoff. The engine was placed backwards in the aircraft with the propeller shaft driving a short driveshaft through a clutch to a 90° gear box and the transmission. The R-550-3 weighed 344 pounds (156 kilograms).
The XR-4 was redesignated XR-4C. This would be the world’s first production helicopter. It is at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
U.S. Coast Guard Sikorsky HOS-1
Sikorsky designed the HOS-1(R-6) as a follow on to his fabric covered HNS-1 (R-4). While retaining the R-4’s rotor and transmission system, the R-6 had an all-metal fuselage. In October 1944 the first of three XHOS-1 were delivered to the US Navy and transferred to the US Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn, Floyd Bennett Field, for test and evaluation. One of these crashed.
The Navy then acquired 36 HOS-1 (R-6A) from the Army Air Force which were purchased by the Coast Guard between January 1945 and January 1946. Of these, two were destroyed in crashes (no fatalities), and the majority of the remaining helicopters were returned to the Navy or disposed of with the closing of the helicopter training school.
On 18 June 1946 CDR Erickson was moved to the Coast Guard Elizabeth City air station. His downsized Helicopter Test and Development Unit consisted of a small group of dedicated personnel, one hangar, one HNS and two HOS helicopters. This was the thread that kept the Coast Guard helicopter program alive.
General characteristics
Crew: one
Capacity: one observer
Length: 47 ft 11 in (14.61 m)
Gross weight: 2,600 lb (1,179 kg)
Powerplant: 1 × Franklin O-405-9 piston, 240 hp (180 kW)
Main rotor diameter: 38 ft 0 in (11.58 m)
Performance
Maximum speed: 100 mph (160 km/h, 87 kn) – this new aircraft could attain 100 mph compared with 82 mph by the earlier design.
Service ceiling: 10,000 ft (3,000 m)
© 2020, Sean M. Cross

11 March–6 April 1949

Lieutenant Stewart R. Graham, USCG, in cockpit of Sikorsky HNS-1 near Gander, Newfoundland, September 1946. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Lieutenant Stewart R. Graham, USCG, in cockpit of Sikorsky HNS-1 near Gander, Newfoundland, September 1946. (U.S. Coast Guard)

April 6, 1949: Lieutenant Stewart Ross Graham, United States Coast Guard, and his crewman, Aviation Metalsmith 2nd Class (AM2) Robert McAuliffe, completed the longest unescorted helicopter flight on record. They flew a Sikorsky HO3S-1G, serial number 51-234, from the Coast Guard Air Station, Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, Washington, via San Diego, California, covering a distance of 3,750 miles (6,035 kilometers) in 57.6 flight hours over 11 days.

Lieutenant Graham was the first pilot to fly a helicopter from a ship. On 16 January 1944, he flew a Sikorsky YR-4B, serial number 46445, from the deck of a British freighter, SS Daghestan, while in convoy from New York to Liverpool. After 30 minutes, he returned to the freighter. He was a pioneer in the use of the helicopter by the Coast Guard and the Navy.

U.S. Coast Guard Sikorsky HO3S-1G 51-232. (U.S. Coast Guard)
U.S. Coast Guard Sikorsky HO3S-1G 51-232, sister ship of 51-234. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The HO3S (Sikorsky S-51) was a second-generation helicopter, capable of carrying a pilot and up to three passengers. The cabin was built of aluminum with Plexiglas windows. The fuselage was built of plastic-impregnated plywood, and the tail boom was wood monocoque construction.

The main rotor consisted of three fully-articulated blades built of metal spars and plywood ribs and covered with two layers of fabric. (All metal blades soon became available.) The three bladed semi-articulated tail rotor was built of laminated wood. The main rotor turned counter-clockwise, as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) The tail rotor was mounted on the helicopter’s left side in a pusher configuration. It turned clockwise as seen from the helicopter’s left.

The helicopter’s fuselage was 41 feet, 7.5 inches (12.687 meters). The main rotor had a diameter of 48 feet (14.630 meters) and tail rotor diameter was 8 feet, 5 inches (2.2.565 meters) giving the helicopter an overall length of 57 feet, 1 inch (17.399 meters). It was 13 feet, 1.5 inches (4.001 meters) high. The landing gear tread was 12 feet (3.7 meters).

The S-51 had an empty weight of 4,050 pounds (1,837.05 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 5,500 pounds (2,494.76 kilograms). Fuel capacity was 100 gallons (378.5 liters).

The helicopter was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liter) Pratt & Whitney R-985 AN-5 (Wasp Jr. T1B4) direct-drive,  nine-cylinder radial engine which was placed vertically in the fuselage behind the crew compartment. This engine had a compression ratio of 6:1 and was rated at 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., Standard Day at Sea Level. The R-985 AN-5 was 48.00 inches (1.219 meters) long, 46.25 inches (1.175 meters) in diameter and weighed 684 pounds (310.3 kilograms) with a magnesium crankcase.

The S-51 had a maximum speed (Vne) of 107 knots (123.1 miles per hour/198.2 kilometers per hour). Range was 275 miles (442.6 kilometers). The service ceiling was 14,800 feet (4,511 meters). The absolute hover ceiling was 3,000 feet (914.4 meters).

Sikorsky built 220 helicopter of the S-51 series.

U.S. Coast Guard HO3S-1G, serial number 51-238, sister ship of Lieutenant Graham’s record-setting helicopter. (USCG/Smithsonian Institution)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

12 February 1971

MEDEVAC FROM THE FOG – SS STEEL EXECUTIVE
By Sean M. Cross, CAPT, USCG (retired)

“Lewis had to make what he considered to be one of the most crucial decisions of his life. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge…”

TODAY IN COAST GUARD AVIATION HISTORY – 12 FEBRUARY 1971: an HH-3F #1473 assigned to Air Station San Diego, CA and crewed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis (AC), LT Joseph O. Fullmer (CP), ASM3 Larry E. Farmer (FM), AT3 Charles Desimone (AV) and HM3 Richard M. McCollough (AMS) launched in response to an injured or ill “seaman in need of an operation” ¹ from the 492-foot freighter STEEL EXECUTIVE, approximately 220 miles south of San Diego. The WWII-era Type C3-class cargo ship owned by Isthmian Lines, Inc. of New York was on an extended trip from Saigon, South Vietnam to New York City via the Panama Canal with stops in Astoria, OR and various east coast ports. They departed Saigon on 29 January 1971 and on 12 February were southbound for the Panama Canal.² After requesting assistance, the ship reversed course back toward San Diego to reduce transit distance for the helicopter. This is their story.

A United States Coast Guard Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican over Air Station San Diego. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Friday afternoon at around 4:00 PM, Rescue Coordination Center Long Beach launched the off-going Air Station San Diego HH-3F duty crew on a long range medical evacuation or MEDEVAC. The maintenance crew had to stop downtown vehicle traffic so that #1473 could taxi from the unit’s waterfront location across Harbor Drive to Lindberg Field in order to utilize the runway for a running takeoff – as the aircraft could not get airborne from a hover with a maximum fuel load.³ According to LCDR Lewis, taking off “out of San Diego, it was a clear afternoon,” ⁴ but the sun was lowering in the sky with official sunset at 5:31 PM.

Photo caption: profile view of generic Type C3-S-A2 cargo ship built by Ingalls – a development of the C3 basic design. During WWII these ships stood the test as cargo vessels and transports and after the war as cargo liners sold under Merchant Sales Act of 1946. These ships were widely used by U.S. and Foreign Steamship Companies into the 1970s.

After two hours of night overwater navigation and using a combination of radio direction finding, helicopter radar, and guidance from the STEEL EXECUTIVE, #1473 arrived in the vessel’s vicinity, but was unable to make visual contact through the dense fog which extended from the surface to about 700 feet above the water.

Flight mechanic Larry Farmer described the scene, “We flew over the estimated position at 1,500 feet and it was beautiful, you could see stars clear to either horizon, but glancing down – it looked like a huge layer of thick cotton blanketing the water below us.” ⁵

Chartlet Caption: Approximate route of flight to STEEL EXECUTIVE’s last known position “about 220 miles southeast of San Diego” en route to the Panama Canal.

With visibility less than 1/8 mile, the helicopter directed the vessel to turn on all available topside lighting and dropped two MK-58 marine location markers (floating cylinder that produces smoke and flames for 40-60 minutes) approximately two miles downwind to assist in executing an instrument approach to a hover above the water’s surface. ⁶

Lewis had to make a crucial decision. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge. ⁷ Lewis knew that the answer could spell a chance at life for the seriously ill merchant seaman. However, there was also his crew, his co-pilot, a radio operator, a corpsman and the aviation survivalman who operated the rescue hoist. Their lives and his own also were at stake. “I decided to lower the helicopter down to the water,” he said in an interview. “By then it was pitch dark. I flew away from where our radar told us the ship was and then went down to about 40 feet from the ocean.” ⁸

Diagram Caption: overhead view of the HH-3F PATCH (Precision Approach to a Coupled Hover) a procedure very similar to the “beep-to-hover”.

To transition from forward flight to a hover, #1473 executed a challenging “beep-to-hover” maneuver, which enabled them to safely approach the water and the ship. The “beep-to-hover” maneuver was developed by LCDR Frank Shelley, test pilot and program manager for HH-52A acquisition testing, to help pilots safely transition to an overwater hover at night and/or in instrument conditions. The HH-3F PATCH (precision approach to a coupled hover) eventually replaced the “beep-to-hover” in late-1971. ⁹ Interestingly, both procedures most closely mimic the ‘early’ MATCH (manual approach to a controlled hover) in the H-60 and H-65 series aircraft – the PATCH and CATCH in these aircraft utilize auto-pilot and trim functions to perform a ‘hands off’ coupled approach to the water.

This “beep-to-hover” maneuver can be disorienting in the clouds at night, particularly when low over the water with little room for error. Both pilots must continuously scan and interpret the flight instruments – this is critically important – while smoothly manipulating the controls to ensure they are hitting various airspeed and altitude windows to fly the correct profile.

At the completion of this very demanding approach, the helicopter crew found itself in nearly “zero-zero” weather but had executed the approach with such precision that the MK-58s were located. ¹⁰ Barely establishing visual reference with the ocean surface from a 40-foot hover, the helicopter crew was unable to see the vessel’s lights and therefore was hovering at night in a dense fog with minimal visual reference with the ocean surface.

“We made what amounted to an instrument approach to the water,” Lewis explained, “Hovering just over the waves we crawled toward the ship which was about two to three miles away.” ¹¹ At least that’s where a little black box on the instrument panel said the ship was. The aircrew inched forward using the helicopter doppler hover system, the radar, the RDF (radio direction finding, which provided a bearing to a radio signal from the ship). At about one mile out, the STEEL EXECUTIVE’s blip on the helicopter radar was lost in surface clutter – the mood was tense with the aircrew concerned about the combination of low visibility, closure rate, low altitude and vessel rigging obstacles. ¹² At an altitude of 40 feet in extremely limited visibility, the helicopter could literally stumble into the vessel, causing a collision that would doom everyone on board the aircraft and imperil the ship’s crew as well. Eventually, the ship’s surface search radar picked up the helicopter and guided it to her. ¹³ Farmer was on a gunner’s belt leaning out the cabin door and straining to find the ship’s glow. ¹⁴

Lewis praised ASM2 Larry Farmer for far exceeding the scope of duties he’d been trained for – hoisting the injured man off his ship and onto the hovering aircraft. “Farmer actually guided me to the ship.” Lewis said, “I had no visual references so I depended entirely on him. He became our aircraft’s eyes and brought us over the freighter.” ¹⁵

Pucker factor is a slang phrase used by military aviators to describe the level of stress and/or adrenaline response to danger or a crisis situation. The term refers to the tightening of the sphincter caused by extreme concern – on particularly challenging missions, the seat cushions might go missing altogether. The pucker factor had been high since the initial descent into the fog bank, however Farmer remarked that “finally gaining a visual with the ship eased the pucker factor and transformed the aircrew’s outlook from uncertainty of success to ‘we can do this’.” ¹⁶

Huge spotlights pierced the fog, but all Lewis and Farmer could see was the hoist аrеа. Even under ideal weather conditions, positioning a hovering helicopter over the crowded decks of a freighter is a delicate maneuver. “Doing it in pitch darkness while howling 25-mile an hour winds rock ship and aircraft alike is – in the words of the young crewmen who were there with Lewis – something else”. ¹⁷

Diagram Caption: HH-3F #1473’s approximate hoisting position with STEEL EXECUTIVE (represented with a generic Type C3 cargo ship plan of roughly the same arrangement).

The pilot and flight mechanic were still concerned with the helicopter’s low hoisting altitude as they surveyed the vessel obstacles – the ship’s towering rigging literally disappeared in the fog above. ¹⁸ Much of the obstacle clearance judgement and decision making fell on the flight mechanic’s shoulders as the pilot was unable to see the hoisting area behind him. The crew was convinced that a ‘basket with trail line’ was the right technique for the situation as it would allow the helicopter to hoist from a position offset 30-40 feet from the ship and facilitate Lewis’ use of the STEEL EXECUTIVE as a hover reference. A trail line is a 105-foot piece of polypropylene line (similar to a water ski rope) with a 300-pound weak-link at one end and a weight bag at the other. The weight bag end of the trail line is paid out below the helicopter and delivered to the persons in distress (usually vertically, but seasoned flight mechanics can literally ‘cast’ the weight bag to a spot). The weak link is then attached to the hoist hook and the helicopter backs away until the pilot can see the hoisting area. The persons in distress can then pull the basket to their location – creating a hypotenuse or diagonal – as opposed to a purely vertical delivery.

Farmer carefully conned the helicopter over the vessel providing voice commands to the pilot – delivering the trail line and, subsequently, the rescue basket to the stern of the STEEL EXECUTIVE. The semi-ambulatory patient was assisted into the basket by the ship’s crew and then hoisted aboard the helicopter. Lewis and Farmer were able to complete the hoist on the first attempt. Farmer appreciatively described Desimone’s efforts: “he spent most of his time working the radios, but he assisted me during the hoists. He was the extra set of hands getting the rescue basket into the cabin and then clearly directed the patient to the back of the cabin.” ¹⁹ Petty Officer McCollough secured the patient for the flight, administered antibiotics and maintained constant watch on the patient’s condition during the return flight. ²⁰

Often forgotten was the job done by Fullmer as Safety Pilot. He continuously scanned the system instruments to ensure the aircraft was operating normally and monitored the flight instruments to ensure obstacle clearance and safe altitude. He effectively conveyed critical information without interfering with Farmer’s conning commands. ²¹

After completing the hoist, it took a few minutes to secure the cabin – Farmer stowed the basket and secured the hoist hydraulics, then closed the cabin door and reported the cabin was secured and ready for forward flight. The pilots then executed a demanding night instrument take-off or ITO from a hover over the water. The ITO is similar to the “beep-to-hover” in terms of relying on aircraft instruments instead of visual cues, but its purpose is the opposite – to get you away from the water and into a forward flight profile at a safe airspeed and altitude. The maneuver was flawlessly executed and the aircrew soon found themselves above the fog bank in clear skies. The helicopter returned to San Diego to deliver the patient to medical authorities. The STEEL EXECUTIVE crewman subsequently recovered. ²²

LCDR Lewis earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, while ASM3 Farmer earned the Air Medal. The medals were presented by RADM James Williams, Commander, 11th Coast Guard District, in a ceremony at Air Station San Diego on 23 February 1972.

The Lewis and Farmer citations are below:

LCDR Lewis also earned the American Helicopter Society (now the Vertical Flight Society) Frederick L. Feinberg Award on 19 May 1972 at the Sheraton-Park Hotel, Washington, D. C – presented to the pilot or crew of a vertical flight aircraft who demonstrated outstanding skills or achievement during the preceding 18 months.

The award was presented by RADM William A. Jenkins, Chief, Office of Operations, Coast Guard Headquarters, who outlined the case as follows:

“Commander Lewis was selected for his sea rescue of an ill crewman from the merchant ship, S.S. Steel Executive, at night and under extremely hazardous weather conditions. Despite very dense fog, Lt. Cdr. Lewis took off and proceeded to the estimated position of the vessel some 220 miles south of San Diego, Calif. , and — by applying extremely skillful instrument approach procedures — was able to find the vessel with visibility reduced to an eighth of a mile and less at times, and by hovering 50 feet above the vessel, he rescued its seriously ill crewman and safely delivered the patient to medical authorities. The crewman subsequently recovered. This demonstration of courage, skill and airmanship has deservingly earned him the Frederick L. Feinberg Award.” ²³

LCDR Lewis provided the following acceptance speech:

“It’s indeed a deep personal honor for me to receive this award from the American Helicopter Society and from the Kaman organization. But in a sense I really feel that it’s unfortunate that this award should be given to an individual. Without attempting to feign false modesty, I sincerely feel that this award should be shared with many others; specifically the other 3 members of my crew, my service — the Coast Guard — and really, in a sense, you, the members of the American helicopter industry. I am sure there are people sitting here in the audience this evening that participated in the design, the development, and the production of the very fine Sikorsky HH-3 helicopter that was used in this rescue. In honoring the Coast Guard by my selection, I really feel that you honored a service that from the helicopters very beginning — we employed it to rescue thousands of people and saved millions of dollars of property. My rescue that is honored here this evening is really very typical of many other rescues that the Coast Guard has accomplished. And so — even though it’s my name alone that is on this award — I sincerely believe that the honor belongs to my entire crew for that evening that this rescue was accomplished and I feel also that it should be shared with the many other Coast Guard crews who accomplished many other rescues of equal ability or what may it be, but I feel I should share the honor with them.” ²⁴

Later that summer (1972), LCDR Lewis transferred to Air Station St. Petersburg, FL where he continued flying the HH-3F helicopter. Unfortunately, six months after the Feinberg Award presentation, on 16 December 1972, HH-3F #1474 assigned to Air Station St. Petersburg was lost off Sarasota along with the crew LCDR Paul R. Lewis, MAJ Marvin A. Cleveland, USAF (Exchange pilot), AD1 Edward J. Nemetz, AT3 Clinton A. Edwards, and four rescued crewmen from the 54-foot fishing vessel WANDA DENE William Peek, George Dayhoss, Herbert Hardy and Paul Manley. It was late on Saturday when the WANDA DENE, sent out a distress call. The stricken vessel was 35 miles southwest of Key West, taking on water and sinking in rough seas. HH-3F #1474 was launched with its crew of four for a long range rescue. The helicopter arrived overhead the WANDA DENE several hours later and successfully hoisted the four crewmen from the sinking vessel in challenging conditions. The #1474 then flew to Naval Air Station Key West to refuel. From there #1474, now with eight people aboard, departed at about 7 PM for a return flight to St. Petersburg. Normal flight operations were reported with regular radio position reports until about 8:30 PM. Two days later a small portion of the helicopter was found in the Gulf of Mexico south of Fort Myers. Despite a massive search, very little of the aircraft and only one body, that of one of the fisherman, was ever recovered. The cause of the crash was never determined.

On 04 March 2011, a dedication ceremony was held at Air Station Clearwater, FL to posthumously name an annex building in honor of the Service and Sacrifice displayed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis. Members of the Lewis Family including daughter Kara Lewis, wife, Jackie Lewis, sister Abby Sauer, son Curt Lewis, daughter Megan Lewis, sister Joan Chaffee, and Abby’s husband, Gene Sauer were in attendance. Here is a section of the presentation that was made that day:

“LCDR Lewis was a tall, athletic Coast Guard Academy graduate who was regarded as the type of officer and pilot that others strive to become. He graduated in 1960, and went to serve his time aboard a Coast Guard cutter before attending flight school.

Prior to being stationed at Air Station St. Petersburg, LCDR Lewis served at the following air stations: Miami, Kodiak and San Diego. LCDR Lewis was known for his exceptional crew resource management and inclusion of his crew in all his flying duties. Among the pilots he was heralded as a flight instructor and examiner who knew the aircraft better than anyone.
LCDR Lewis is notably remembered for being the first Coast Guard pilot awarded the Frederick L. Feinberg Award for a rescue he performed offshore in San Diego. For that same rescue, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
While the building was named to honor Lewis, the air station believed Lewis would have wanted to honor the service and sacrifice of his crew as well. Hence, the auditorium within the building was named for Major Cleveland, the conference room for AD1 Nemetz, and the training room for AT3 Edwards.

¹ Staff writer, “Ex-Area Flier Lost In Crash”, Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY. December 19, 1972, page 22. NOTE: The crewman, name and ailment unknown, may have been suffering from appendicitis and needed to get to a higher level of medical care within 6-12 hours. Various articles describe the issue as “severely ill crewman”; “ill crewman”; “seriously ill seaman”; “injured merchant seaman”; “seaman in need of an operation” and “injured crewman”, but I was unable to ascertain the exact ailment.

² Vietnam Era Voyages as reported in Lloyds Shipping Index (SS Steel Executive)

³ Larry Farmer (HH-3F Flight Mechanic) in email message to author on January 12, 2022 (and subsequent phone interview).

⁴ John Phillip Sousa, “Fog Thwarted Mission – Hero Recalls Perilous Rescue,” The San Diego Union, San Diego, CA, February 27, 1972, page B-3.

⁵ Ibid.

⁶ Air Station San Diego – “Awards Board Minutes” – Case #200-71, page 3.

⁷ Sousa newspaper article.

⁸ Ibid.

⁹ LCDR D. K. Shorey, “The PATCH: Precision Approach to Coupled Hover”, Flight Lines, Summer 1972, pages 2-3.

¹⁰ Ibid.

¹¹ Ibid.

¹² Farmer email.

¹³ Air Station San Diego.

¹⁴ Farmer email.

¹⁵ Ibid.

¹⁶ Ibid.

¹⁷ Ibid.

¹⁸ Ibid.

¹⁹ Ibid.

²⁰ Air Station San Diego.

²¹ Ibid.

²² “28th Forum, Trade Exhibit Registers 800 as 533 See Honors Night Awards Distributed” Vertiflite July/August 1972, pages 6-9.

²³ Ibid.
Ibid.
Ormie King, “Ormie King’s Legends of Auburn: Honoring a native son”, The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY. May 05, 2011 – available here: https://www.syracuse.com/neighbors/2011/05/ormie_kings_legends_of_auburn_honoring_a_native_son.html .

²⁴ Ibid.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Retired CAPT Sean M. Cross served 25 years in the Coast Guard as a helicopter pilot and aeronautical engineer. Flying both the MH-60T and MH-65D, he accumulated over 4,000 flight hours while assigned to Air Stations Clearwater, FL; Cape Cod, MA; San Diego, CA; Elizabeth City, NC and Traverse City, MI – which he commanded.

“LCDR Paul R. Lewis is first Coast Guard Aviator name etched on the Feinberg Award and the story of HOW it got there should be preserved for posterity.”

© 2022, Sean M. Cross

 

16 October 1956

Boeing 377 Stratocruiser N90943, Pan American World Airways' Sovereign of the Skies, seen over San Francisco, circa 1947. (University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections, TRA0138)
Boeing 377 Stratocruiser N90943, Pan American World Airways’ Sovereign of the Skies, seen over San Francisco, circa 1947. (University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections, TRA0138)

16 October 1956: Pan American World Airways’ Flight 6 was a scheduled around-the-world passenger flight. The final leg, Honolulu to San Francisco, was flown by a Boeing Model 377 Stratocruiser with civil registration N90943, and named Sovereign of the Skies.

The airplane had a flight crew of 7 and carried 24 passengers. The aircraft commander was Captain Richard N. Ogg, a veteran pilot with more than 13,000 flight hours accumulated over twenty years. First Officer George L. Haaker, Flight Engineer Frank Garcia, Jr., and Navigator Richard L. Brown completed the flight crew. The cabin crew were Purser Patricia Reynolds, who had been with Pan Am for over ten years, and Stewardesses Katherine S. Araki and Mary Ellen Daniel.

The flight from Honolulu to San Francisco was estimated to take 8 hours, 54 minutes. Captain Ogg had the airplane fueled for a total flight time of 12 hours, 18 minutes.

Pan American World Airlines’ Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, Clipper America. This airplane is similar to Sovereign of the Skies. (Boeing)

Flight 6 departed Honolulu at 8:24 p.m., Hawaii Standard Time, 15 October (06:24, 16 October, GMT), and climbed to 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) on course.

4 hours, 38 minutes after takeoff, Flight 6 requested a pre-planned climb to 21,000 feet (6,400 meters), at a point about half-way—in terms of flight time—between the departure point and destination, what is dramatically called “The Point of No Return” in suspense movies. (Actually, this is called the Equal Time Point: Taking into consideration forecast winds, the time to fly back to the departing point is the same as the time to continue toward the destination.)

On leveling at the new cruise altitude at 1:19 a.m. (HST), First Officer Haaker reduced engine power. The propeller for the Number 1 engine, the outside engine on the left wing, suffered a prop governor failure and began to overspeed, with engine r.p.m. actually exceeding the limits of its tachometer. This created a very dangerous condition: If the propeller turned fast enough, it could be torn apart by centrifugal force. (See This Day In Aviation, 22 March 1956, for an example.)

The crew was unable to feather the propeller, which would cause its four blades to turn parallel to the slip stream, and increasing the load on the engine while reducing aerodynamic drag. The engine and propeller continued to turn at dangerously high speed so Captain Ogg decided to force the engine to stop by cutting off its lubricating oil supply. This caused the engine to seize but the propeller continued to “windmill.”

The drag caused by the propeller slowed the airplane considerably and the three remaining engines had to run at high power for the Boeing 377 to maintain its altitude. The Number 4 engine (the outer engine on the right wing) was developing only partial power at full throttle. At 2:45 a.m., it began to backfire and had to be shut down.

The airplane began to descend toward the ocean’s surface.

With the drag of the windmilling Number 1 propeller and only two engines running, Sovereign of the Skies could fly at just 140 knots (161 miles per hour/259 kilometers per hour), not fast enough to reach San Francisco or to return to Honolulu before running out of fuel. The navigator estimated that they would run out of fuel 250 miles (402 kilometers) from land.

The United States Coast Guard kept a high endurance cutter on station between Hawaii and California, at a point known as Ocean Station November. This ship provided assistance with weather information, radio communications and was available to assist should an emergency arise aboard trans-Pacific airplanes.

USCGC Pontchartrain (WHEC 70) circa 1958. (U.S. Coast Guard)
USCGC Pontchartrain (WHEC 70) circa 1958. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On 16 October 1956, this cutter was USCGC Pontchartrain (WHEC 70), under the command of Commander William K. Earle, USCG. Pontchartrain was a 255-foot (77.7 meter) Lake-class patrol gunboat built by the U.S. Coast Guard ship yard at Curtiss Bay, Maryland, and commissioned 28 July 1945. The ship was redesignated as a high endurance cutter in 1948. Pontchartrain had a complement of 143 men.

The ship was 254 feet (77.42 meters) long, overall, with a beam of 43 feet, 1 inch (13.13 meters) and draft of 17 feet, 3 inches (5.25 meters). Its full load displacement was 1,978 tons (1,794 Metric tons). It was powered by a Westinghouse turbo-electric drive of 4,000 shaft horsepower and was capable on making 17.5 knots (20.41 miles per hour, or 32.41 kilometers per hour). Its maximum range was 10,376 miles (19,216 kilometers).

Pontchartrain was armed with a single 5-inch/38-caliber naval gun forward. It carried Hedgehog anti-submarine mortars and Mk 23 acoustic-homing antisubmarine torpedoes.

Captain Ogg notified Ponchartrain that he intended to ditch the airliner near the ship. The Coast Guard provided Captain Ogg with wind and wave information—five-foot (1.5 meter) swells, wind at eight knots (4 meters per second) from the northwest—and advised the best heading for ditching. The ship laid a trail of foam to mark this course.

Pan American World Airways Flight 6, a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, ditches in the North Pacific Ocean near USCGC Pontchartrain (WHEC 70), 6:15 am., 16 October 1956. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Pan American World Airways Flight 6, a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, ditches in the North Pacific Ocean near USCGC Pontchartrain (WHEC 70), 6:15 am., 16 October 1956. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At 6:15 a.m., at approximately 90 knots airspeed (104 miles per hour/167 kilometers per hour), the Boeing 377 landed on the water. A wing hit a swell, spinning the airplane to the left. The tail broke off and the airplane began to settle.

Pan American World Airways’ Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, Sovereign of the Skies, with its fuselage broken after ditching in the North Pacific Ocean, 16 October 1956. (Pan Am Historical Foundation/The New York Times)

Injuries were minor and all passengers and crew evacuated the airliner. They were immediately picked up by Pontchartrain.

Captain Ogg and Purser Reynolds were the last to leave the airplane.

Twenty minutes after touching down, at 6:35 a.m., Sovereign of the Skies sank beneath the ocean’s surface.

Sovereign of the Seas sinks into the Pacific Ocean, 16 October 1956. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Sovereign of the Skies sinks into the Pacific Ocean, 16 October 1956. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Pan American’s Sovereign of the Skies was a Boeing Model 377-10-29, construction number 15959, originally operated by American Overseas Airlines as Flagship Holland, and later, Flagship Europe. Pan Am acquired the airliner during a merger. On 16 October 1956, the airplane had accumulated 19,820:51 total time on the airframe (TTAF) since it was built.

The Boeing 377 was a large, four-engine civil transport which had been developed, along with the military C-97 Stratofreighter, from the World War II B-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bomber. It utilized the wings and engines of the improved B-50 Superfortress. The airplane was operated by a flight crew of four. It was a double-deck aircraft, with the flight deck, passenger cabin and galley on the upper deck and a lounge and cargo compartments on the lower. The airliner was pressurized, and could maintain Sea Level atmospheric pressure while flying at 15,500 feet (4,724 meters). The Model 377 could be configured to carry up to 100 passengers, or 28 in sleeping births.

The Stratocruiser was 110 feet, 4 inches (33.630 meters) long with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.053 meters) and overall height of 38 feet, 3 inches (11.659 meters). Empty weight was 83,500 pounds (37,875 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight was 148,000 pounds (67,132 kilograms). Sovereign of the Skies had a gross weight of 138,903 pounds (63,005 kilograms) when it took off from Honolulu.

Crew members of Pan American World Airways Flight 6 receive commendations for their service during the emergency of 16 October 1956. Left to right, Captain Richard N. Ogg; Navigator Richard L. Brown; Purser Patricia Reynolds; (unidentified); First Officer George L. Haaker; Flight Engineer Frank Garcia, Jr.. (Pan Am Historical Foundation/The New York Times)

The airliner was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged 4,362.49-cubic-inch-displacement (71.489 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major B6 four-row, 28-cylinder radial engines which had a Normal Power rating of 2,650 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m., and 2,800 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. Maximum Continuous. It produced 3,250 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. for takeoff (3,500 horsepower with water injection). The engines drove four-bladed Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic, 24260 constant-speed propellers with a diameter of 17 feet, 0 inches (5.182 meters) through a 0.375:1 gear reduction. The Wasp Major B6 was 8 feet, 0.50 inches (2.451 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.00 inches (1.397 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,584 pounds (1,626 kilograms).

The 377 had a cruise speed of 301 miles per hour (484 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 375 miles per hour (604 kilometers per hour). During testing by Boeing, a 377 reached 409 miles per hour (658 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling was 32,000 feet (9,754 meters) and the range was 4,200 miles (6,759 kilometers).

Boeing built 56 Model 377 Stratocruisers, with Pan American as the primary user, and another 888 military C-97 Stratofreighter and KC-97 Stratotankers.

A U.S. Coast Guard film of the incident can be seen at:

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes