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Naval Rotorcraft Pioneers
By Brad McNally
As you read this article it is almost a certainty that somewhere on the high seas there is a helicopter belonging to one of the U.S. naval services conducting naval operations. For the past 60 years these operations have been commonplace. That was not the case in the early 1940s when helicopters were in their infancy. No one tried to apply the helicopter’s unique capabilities to the naval environment until mid World War II. This all changed thanks to a group of dedicated individuals who saw the significant contributions that helicopters could add to the Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps. This article showcases three true Naval Rotorcraft Pioneers.
Commander Stewart R. Graham, USCG
During World War II the German submarine threat was of great concern to the U.S. military. This was especially true in the Navy. Increasingly, people began looking to the helicopter to neutralize this threat. In the mid 1940s, the potential for helicopters to counter enemy submarines on the high seas was a major selling point used by the Coast Guard to garner Navy support for its new helicopter program. Ultimately, the helicopter’s unique capability to operate off of the back of any flight deck equipped ships and drop listening devices into the water to detect enemy submarines changed naval operations forever. Many people helped develop techniques and equipment for such operations, but one has been most influential: Stewart Graham.
Stewart Ross Graham was born in Rosedale, NY in 1917 and grew up near a small grass airfield known as the Curtiss-Wright Airport. Today it is John F. Kennedy International Airport. As a kid, Graham spent a lot of time hanging around the airfield and crossed paths with many aviators who would go on to make a name for themselves. One was Charles Lindbergh (Graham, S., Rotary Wings, n.d.).
Graham enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1937, spending most of his first several years as a surfman and engine mechanic at small boat stations on Long Island. Having never lost interest in aviation, Graham responded to a 1940 solicitation for flight training. After being sent to the Coast Guard Air Station in Charleston, SC, Graham received his wings and became the 114 th Coast Guard pilot in 1942. He later received a commission as an ensign in the Coast Guard and started his aviation career flying seaplanes. After seeing a demonstration of a Sikorsky helicopter Graham requested a transition to rotary wing aircraft. On October 20, 1943, with barely three and a half hours of helicopter flight time Graham soloed and became only the second Coast Guard helicopter pilot (Commander Stewart Ross Graham Official Coast Guard Historian’s Office Biography, n.d.).
Stewart Graham was one of the only designated military helicopter pilots and was sent to become a helicopter instructor at the Coast Guard Air Station at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, NY. As a lieutenant junior grade, Graham was selected as the only Coast Guardsman in a group of U.S. and Royal Navy personnel assigned to the British merchant vessel Daghestan. This group, along with two Sikorsky YR-4 helicopters, was part of a secret, high priority mission to test the feasibility of helicopter operations from a ship at sea to patrol for submarines. On January 6, 1944 a convoy of over thirty naval and merchant ships, including the Daghestan, departed New York City headed for England. Along the way the convoy encountered fierce weather which included snow, high winds and seas. To make matters worse, a submarine attack sank three of the ships. Finally on the tenth day of the trip, January 16, 1944, the weather subsided enough to allow flight operations (Graham, S., Wolfpack, n.d.). Graham was chosen to make the flight and departed from the Daghestan for a thirty minute flight around the convoy. Graham’s flight marked the first time a helicopter had been flown from a ship at sea. Along with several other flights over the next few days this flight demonstrated the helicopter could be used for anti-submarine patrols.
Subsequently, Stewart Graham returned to Floyd Bennett Field as the lead instructor pilot. In February of 1946, Lieutenant Graham was assigned as project pilot for a new helicopter anti-submarine sonar dipping program. This was a Navy program run by the Naval Research Laboratory. Graham flew helicopter flights testing the ability of sonar systems to detect submerged submarines and pioneered the helicopter anti-submarine warfare tactics we know today. Later in 1946, Stewart Graham was transferred to the Coast Guard’s Rotary Wing Development Unit in Elizabeth City, NC. There he served as Executive Officer and chief test pilot. Graham continued to push the envelope of helicopter operations and was involved in several daring helicopter rescues. One of these missions was the rescue of eighteen survivors of a Sabena Airlines DC-4 which had crashed in Gander, Newfoundland. Another mission was the first night time medevac flight. This flight required using the phosphorescence of the waves on the shore of the Outer Banks to navigate. Still another mission was the first night hoist pick-up which rescued three people from the fishing vessel Kimtoo (Commander Stewart Ross Graham Official Coast Guard Historian’s Office Biography, n.d.). These rescues gave significant publicity to the fledgling helicopter which was considered impractical by many people at the time. In 1951, Graham’s expertise was again requested by the Navy. He was transferred to Naval Air Development Squadron One (VX-1) in Key West, FL to teach Navy helicopter pilots and crew members anti-submarine warfare tactics. In 1952, Graham moved on to the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, MD as head of the Rotary Wing Section in the Tactical Test Division (Graham, S., Wolfpack, n.d.). Stewart Graham later returned to Coast Guard operational flying positions in both seaplanes and helicopters serving as an Assistant Operations Officer and Executive Officer of Coast Guard units in Florida, Newfoundland and Massachusetts.
In 1960, Stewart Graham retired from the Coast Guard at the rank of commander. His distinguished rotary wing career included many firsts highlighted by developing both shipboard helicopter operations and helicopter anti-submarine warfare. Among Graham’s many awards and honors are two Air Medals, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a commission as a “Knight in the Order of Leopold” from Belgium (for his part in the 1946 Sabena Airline rescue) and induction into both the Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Fame and the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor. Now in his nineties, Stewart Graham resides in Maine with his wife.
Captain Clayton C. Marcy, USN
On February 15, 1943, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Naval Fleet issued a directive assigning responsibility for development of sea going helicopter operations to the United States Coast Guard. Due to World War II, the Coast Guard was under the control of the Department of Defense and therefore reported to the Navy. However, by the start of 1946, the Coast Guard was back under the control of the Treasury Department. This forced the Navy to stand up its own helicopter program (Beard, T., 1998). One of the architects of this program was Clayton C. Marcy.
Clayton Clifton Marcy grew up in Lander, WY. In June of 1929, Marcy graduated from the Naval Academy and received a commission as an ensign. Marcy began his career as a fixed wing aviator after completing Navy Flight School in Pensacola, FL in 1931. For the next twelve years Marcy served in various fixed wing aviator positions. These positions included Commanding Officer of VP-11, a seaplane patrol bomber squadron which saw combat in the Pacific Theatre during World War II (Captain Clayton Clifton Marcy Official Service Record, n.d.). In July of 1943, by that time a commander, Marcy reported to the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics Helicopter Class Desk. In this position, he was one of the most senior officers in the Navy working on establishing a helicopter program. At the time, the helicopter was new, unproven and had few supporters. Consequently, many people in the Navy did not want to see the helicopter program succeed. Despite the lack of enthusiasm, Commander Marcy set to work researching helicopter capabilities and developing a way ahead.
In October of 1945, Marcy graduated from the Coast Guard’s helicopter training program. Navy records show that he was the seventh designated Navy helicopter pilot. There is some discrepancy with this number due to the fact that the first Navy helicopter pilot and early Coast Guard helicopter pilots (who received their training while the Coast Guard was under the control of the Navy) were trained at the Sikorsky helicopter plant and do not appear on the list (Grossnick, R., 1997). Regardless of where Marcy actually falls on the list of designated Navy helicopter pilots, he is certainly one of the first.
Marcy organized what is considered by many to be the first large scale, all Navy, shipboard helicopter deployment (Flying Pinwheels, 1947). This deployment occurred as part of Operation Crossroads in the summer of 1946. Operation Crossroads was a nuclear test conducted at the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean by the United States. The purpose of the test was to see how nuclear weapons would affect naval ships. Four Sikorsky HOS-1 helicopters and a team of Navy maintenance personnel departed Norfolk, VA on the USS Shangri La (CV-38) en route to San Diego, CA (Thomason, T., 1981). The pilots for the mission were Captain Marcy and Commander Wood (another early Navy helicopter pilot). Along the way one helicopter had a hard landing and was lost. During the transit, the detachment completed the first nonstop helicopter flight from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the Panama Canal. In San Diego, the detachment transferred to the USS Saidor (CVE-117), the operation’s photo collection ship. Later, another helicopter suffered a clutch failure and was lost at sea. With only two of the original four aircraft still operable, the mission that was supposed to prove the helicopter’s usefulness looked like it would ruin its future.
However, the remaining aircraft were able to make important contributions in maintaining the cameras which collected images of the nuclear tests. The film from the camera towers could not be retrieved by ship. This was due to the fact that the water of the lagoon where the nuclear tests took place was too radioactive to allow ships to enter. Waiting until the radioactivity levels decreased would have resulted in possible fogging of the film and the loss of photographic records (Beard, T., 1996). Retrieval by air was the only viable option. The helicopters were able to prove their value through their ability to extend the ships’ reach.
While the Operation Crossroads deployment was going on the Navy was moving forward with another one of Marcy’s recommendations. He proposed establishing an operational helicopter squadron. Helicopter Development Squadron 3 or VX-3 stood up on July 1, 1946 at Naval Air Station New York (Thomason, T., 1981). When Marcy returned from Operation Crossroads he took over command of VX-3. In this capacity, Marcy oversaw the training of Navy helicopter pilots, development of new operating techniques and evaluation of new aircraft. His official service record indicates that in December of 1947 he completed the first transcontinental helicopter trip from Lakehurst, NJ to San Diego, CA. Marcy was so successful in convincing the senior Navy leadership of the need for helicopters that on April 1, 1948 VX-3 was disestablished and two new Helicopter Utility Squadrons were created. The new squadrons were HU-1 and HU-2. Captain Marcy briefly commanded HU-2 which stayed on the east coast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, NJ. HU-1 was set up on the west coast at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, CA (Grossnick, R., 1997).
Following his departure from HU-2, Captain Marcy returned to sea as the Commanding Officer of both the USS Floyds Bay (AVP-40) and the USS Point Cruz (CVE-119). He also completed several staff tours before retiring as a Captain in 1959 (Captain Clayton Clifton Marcy Official Service Record, n.d.). Today the U.S. Navy is the largest and most powerful in the world. A crucial component in all of this is the Navy’s helicopter fleet which Captain Clayton Marcy played a major role in developing.
General Keith B. McCutcheon, USMC
Very few people can say that they’ve been able to champion a program at all levels of an organization the way General Keith McCutcheon championed helicopters in the Marine Corps. McCutcheon was one of the first to develop Marine Corps helicopter tactics. Then he was one of the first to implement and revise them in combat. As a senior officer, McCutcheon later commanded major combat operations during the Vietnam War. General McCutcheon eventually became the head of all Marine Corps Aviation and led the charge for more training and better aircraft. All of this has led some to call him the “Father of the Marine Corps helicopter”.
Keith Barr McCutcheon was born in East Liverpool, OH in 1915. McCutcheon enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933. In 1937, he graduated with a degree in Management Engineering and was an honor graduate of the Army ROTC program. McCutcheon started his military career as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve. However, he later resigned his Army commission to accept one in the Marine Corps. After completing The Basic School and a tour as an infantry officer McCutcheon began flight training in Pensacola, FL in 1939. His first aviation tour was as a fixed wing aviator with Marine Observation Squadron One. McCutcheon was recognized early in his career as an officer of the highest caliber and received several promotions in a short period.
In 1944, Lieutenant Colonel McCutcheon completed a Master of Science Degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. McCutcheon returned to operational flying assignments in the fall of 1944 and saw action during World War II. While in the Pacific Theatre, he held the positions of Executive Officer and Operations Officer in several Marine Aircraft Groups. After World War II, McCutcheon was assigned as an instructor in the Aviation Section of the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, VA (General Keith Barr McCutcheon Official Marine Corps Biography, n.d.). Following several years at the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, DC and the successful completion of the Armed Forces Staff College in 1950, McCutcheon returned to Quantico to take command of HMX-1, the Marine Corps’s first helicopter squadron.
McCutcheon had been involved with helicopter development while assigned as an instructor in Quantico, but his real impact on the Marine Corps’s helicopter program began with his assignment to HMX-1. Although he was not the first commanding officer of HMX-1, he was actually the third; it was still the only helicopter squadron in the Marine Corps when he arrived. Thanks to the work of his predecessors in building up the squadron, by the time McCutcheon got to HMX-1 there were enough aircraft and personnel to get to the task of developing tactics and doctrine. McCutcheon completed helicopter training with the Navy’s Helicopter Utility Squadron 2 (HU-2) at Lakehurst, NJ in August of 1950 (Stuyvesant, 1987). Over the next eighteen months HMX-1 was the center of the Marine Corps helicopter program. The unit worked to capitalize on the helicopter’s unique capabilities and transform the battlefield with its versatility. Several notable experiments that were conducted by HMX-1 during this time were the firing of a three and a half inch rocket from the side of a helicopter and dropping a bomb from an altitude of up to eight thousand feet (Montross, 1954).
In December of 1951, Colonel McCutcheon took command of Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 161 (HMR-161) in Korea. Command of a helicopter squadron in combat gave Colonel McCutcheon the chance to further develop and refine the vertical assault tactics that were developed by HMX-1. After commanding HMR-161 McCutcheon again returned to Quantico as the Chief of the Air Section of the Marine Corps Equipment Board and followed that tour as the Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 26 (MAG-26) in New River, NC. MAG-26 was a helicopter group and Colonel McCutcheon continued to develop new tactics and techniques for helicopter operations along with reorganizing the units and equipment within Marine helicopter groups to take greater advantage of the helicopter’s unique capabilities (Stuyvesant, B., 1987).
McCutcheon continued to be transferred to high profile assignments within the Marine Corps, especially within Marine Corps aviation. He used these positions to further develop the helicopter program and integrate it into the overall Marine Corps strategic plan. In 1960, McCutcheon was assigned to Marine Corps Headquarters as the Director of Aviation. Following his promotion to brigadier general, he assumed command of the First Marine Brigade in Hawaii. In 1965, and by this time a major general, McCutcheon took command of the First Marine Aircraft Wing in Vietnam. After returning to the U.S., Major General McCutcheon served one of the longest tours of his career as the Deputy Chief of Staff (Air). This position is the most senior aviation position at Marine Corps Headquarters. McCutcheon was promoted to lieutenant general in 1970 and returned to Vietnam as the Commanding General of the Third Marine Amphibious Force. While in Vietnam, Lieutenant General McCutcheon was nominated by President Nixon for promotion to four star general and assignment as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Unfortunately, McCutcheon was never able to assume his duties as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. He was forced to retire from the Marine Corps in July of 1971 because of illness. Due to his significant contributions to both his service and his country, Congress passed special legislation that allowed him to be promoted to four star general and also be retired on the same day. This made him the first Marine Corps aviator to attain the rank of general while on active duty (Stuyvesant, B., 1987). General McCutcheon passed away just thirteen days after he retired. He died from cancer at the age of 55. McCutcheon compiled an impressive resume which included both fixed wing and rotary accomplishments. Among his many honors and awards were three Distinguished Service Medals, three Legions of Merit, ten Air Medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross (Official Marine Corps Press Release 05-135-72, 1972). Prior to his death, General McCutcheon was the President of the American Helicopter Society. He held some of the highest positions in Marine Corps aviation and was instrumental in expanding the Marine Corps helicopter program. To commemorate all that General McCutcheon had done for Marine Corps aviation, the airfield at Marine Corps Air Station New River was renamed McCutcheon Field in 1972.
While all military aviators share a common bond, Naval Aviators in particular have a very distinct heritage. Naval helicopter pilots deploy aboard ships at sea and conduct over water operations such as search and rescue and underway vertical replenishment. They go through a common flight training program in the Navy’s HT squadrons at Whiting Field in Milton, FL. The Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy helicopter programs have a long intertwined history that has scene significant contributions by many dedicated rotary-wing pilots. Without the men described above the naval helicopter operations of today would not be possible.
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