If you had to guess which service pioneered the use of the helicopter in the U.S. military, which branch would you guess? Probably not the Coast Guard, but they begged for birds from the Army and established operations that benefited all the other services, including that time they created the first dedicated helicopter carrier.
Believe it or not, some of the greatest pioneers in the use of military helicopters were Coast Guardsmen. These early breakthroughs took place during World War II when the Navy was too busy expanding traditional carrier operations to focus on rotary wing, and the Army had largely sequestered helicopters to an air commando group. The Coast Guard, meanwhile, was working on what would be the first-ever helicopter carrier.
USCGC Governor Cobb underway after its conversion into a helicopter carrier.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
Obviously, we're talking about a ship that carries helicopters, not an aircraft carrier that flies like a helicopter. The Avengers aren't real (yet).
The potential advantages of helicopters in military operations were clear to many of the military leaders who witnessed demonstrations in the early 1940s. Igor Sikorsky had made the first practical helicopter flight in 1939, and the value of an aircraft that could hover over an enemy submarine or take off and land in windy or stormy weather was obvious.
But the first helicopters were not really up to the most demanding missions. For starters, they simply didn't have the power to carry heavy ordnance. And it would take years to build up a cadre of pilots to plan operations, conduct staff work, and actually fly the missions.
The Army was officially given lead on testing helicopters and developing them for wartime use, but they were predominantly interested in using it for reconnaissance with a secondary interest in rescuing personnel in areas where liaison planes couldn't reach.
So, the Coast Guard, which wanted to develop the helicopter for rescues at sea and for their own portion of the anti-submarine fight, saw a potential opening. They could pursue the maritime uses of helicopters if they could just get a sign off from the Navy and some money and/or helicopters.
The commandant of the Coast Guard, Vice Adm. Russell R. Waesche, officially approved Coast Guard helicopter development in June 1942. In February 1943, he convinced Chief of Naval Operations Navy Adm. Ernest King to direct that the Coast Guard had the lead on maritime helicopter development. Suddenly, almost every U.S. Navy helicopter was controlled by the Coast Guard.
A joint Navy-Coast Guard board began looking into the possibilities with a focus on anti-submarine warfare per King's wishes. They eventually settled on adapting helicopters to detect submarines, using their limited carrying capacity for sensors instead of depth charges or a large crew. They envisioned helicopters that operated from merchant ships and protected convoys across the Atlantic and Pacific.
The first sea trials of the helicopter took place just months later with an Army-owned HNS-1 operating from the tanker Bunker Hill. It went well, and the U.S. Coast Guard and Great Britain planned to convert one ship each to a helicopter carrier.
The Coast Guard quickly overhauled the steam-powered passenger ship named Governor Cobb into CGC Governor Cobb, the first helicopter carrier. The Coast Guard added armor, a flight deck, 10 guns of various calibers, and depth charges. Work was completed in May 1943, and the first detachment of pilots was trained and certified that July.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Frank A. Erickson stands beside an HNS-1 Hoverfly and his co-pilot Lt. Walter Bolton sits within.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
The early tests showed that the HNS-1 helicopters were under-powered for rough weather and anti-submarine operations, but were exceedingly valuable in rescue operations. This was proven in January 1944 when a destroyer exploded between New Jersey and New York. Severe weather grounded fixed-wing aircraft, but Coast Guard pilot Lt. Cmdr. Frank A. Erickson took off in an HNS-1s.
He strapped two cases of plasma to the helicopter and took off in winds up to 25 knots and sleet, flew between tall buildings to the hospital and dropped off the goods in just 14 minutes. Because the only suitable pick-up point was surrounded by large trees, Erickson had to fly backward in the high winds to get back into the air.
According to a Coast Guard history:
"Weather conditions were such that this flight could not have been made by any other type of aircraft," Erickson stated. He added that the flight was "routine for the helicopter."
The New York Times lauded the historic flight stating:
It was indeed routine for the strange rotary-winded machine which Igor Sikorsky has brought to practical flight, but it shows in striking fashion how the helicopter can make use of tiny landing areas in conditions of visibility which make other types of flying impossible….Nothing can dim the future of a machine which can take in its stride weather conditions such as those which prevailed in New York on Monday.
Still, it was clear by the end of 1944 that a capable anti-submarine helicopter would not make it into the fight in time for World War II, so the Navy slashed its order for 210 helicopters down to 36, just enough to satisfy patrol tasks and the Coast Guard's early rescue requirements.
This made the helicopter carrier Governor Cobb surplus to requirements. It was decommissioned in January 1946. The helicopter wouldn't see serious deployment with the Navy's fleet until Sikorsky sent civilian pilots in 1947 to a Navy fleet exercise and successfully rescued four downed pilots in four events.
But the experiment proved that the helicopters could operate from conventional carriers, no need for a dedicated ship. Today, helicopters can fly from ships as small as destroyers and serve in roles from search and rescue to anti-submarine and anti-air to cargo transportation.