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Rotorcraft Pioneers - CAPT Frank A. Erickson, USCG - U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot Number 1
By Brad McNally - Contributing Editor - In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s few people could see the helicopter as much more than an overly complex novelty incapable of being of any real value. It took a small group of enthusiastic and determined men to make helicopter flight possible and another small group of men with an equal amount of determination and enthusiasm to make helicopter flight practical. Leading this second group was a Coast Guard officer named Frank Erickson. His vision and resolve were born out of one of the darkest days in American history; after which he made developing the helicopter into a practical tool for search and rescue his lifelong goal. His foresight and perseverance in the face of many seemingly insurmountable obstacles and persistent naysayers left an indelible mark on the history of the helicopter.
Frank Erickson began his military service after enlisting in the Navy. He briefly attended the U.S. Naval Academy before enlisting in the Coast Guard and later attending the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. After graduation from the Coast Guard Academy in 1931 and several years of sea duty he reported to Navy Flight School in Pensacola, FL. He was designated as Coast Guard Aviator Number 32 in 1935 and began his career as a fixed wing pilot. (Erickson, F., 1966) He spent time stationed on both coasts before being assigned as a shipboard aviator flying seaplanes. In 1939, he reported aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney. It was during this assignment that his vision for the usefulness of the helicopter was born. While stationed on the Taney his plane was based out of Naval Air Station Pearl Harbor. On the morning of December 7, 1944, Lieutenant Erickson was preparing to be relieved as the Air Station Duty Officer. As he waited for the National Anthem to be played he heard the first sounds of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. His post was located in the airfield control tower on Ford Island. This location gave him an unfortunate view of all the carnage and destruction that occurred that day. Frank Erickson never forgot the images of sailors stranded in fiery, oil covered waters desperately trying to get ashore. More than 2,000 people were killed that day and thousands more wounded (Beard, T., 1998). It was not lost on Lieutenant Erickson that had a hospital not been nearby the death toll would have easily been much more. Lieutenant Erickson was a Coast Guard Officer, trained to help save lives and he recognized the need for a better, quicker, more capable rescue method. Soon this method would appear in the form of the helicopter but it would take a man with Frank Erickson’s vision and determination to make the rescue helicopter a reality.
In 1942 Lieutenant Commander Erickson was transferred to the Coast Guard Air Station at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, NY where he was assigned as the Executive Officer. It was here that Frank Erickson reunited with his friend Commander William Kossler. Commander Kossler had been one of Frank Erickson’s instructors at the Coast Guard Academy and was also an aviator who had been recently assigned as the Chief of the Aviation Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters. Due to some previous personal seaplane flying experience and the death of a close friend in a seaplane accident Commander Kossler shared Lieutenant Commander Erickson’s enthusiasm and hope for the development of the helicopter as a more capable rescue aircraft. Commander Kossler was one of Erickson’s few supporters and played a key role in helping him pursue his vision for the helicopter over the next several years. Few people in prominent positions in the Coast Guard thought that the helicopter had any usefulness and the Navy was not interested in developing helicopters. Unfortunately for Lieutenant Commander Erickson the Coast Guard was part of the Navy during World War II and needed the Navy’s permission to acquire any helicopters. Due to some interest in helicopters by the Army and the British and some intense behind the scenes work by Commander Kossler, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Waesche, was able to convince the Chief of Naval Operations to authorize the Coast Guard to establish a helicopter test and evaluation program. In June 1943 Lieutenant Commander Erickson began helicopter flight training at the Sikorsky factory and was later designated as the first Coast Guard helicopter pilot (Beard, T., 1996). By the end of 1943 he was promoted to Commander and named the Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn which became the world’s first helicopter training base. Commander Erickson began qualifying Coast Guard, Navy, and British helicopter pilots. This small group of newly qualified pilots then trained more pilots and helped develop helicopter procedures. The Coast Guard had sold the Navy on the idea of using the helicopter for anti-submarine warfare missions. The Navy was interested in this mission due to mounting losses in the Atlantic from German submarine attacks. In reality, Commander Erickson used the opportunity to further the development of a rescue helicopter. The training and development was no easy task as helicopters were in their infancy. The first machines were scarce, very underpowered, unreliable and not well understood. Commander Erickson’s enthusiasm for the helicopter isolated him from many of his colleagues and superiors who believed that seaplanes were the way of the future. They were committed to getting rid of the helicopter as quickly as possible. Many senior officers in the Navy were equally unenthusiastic, often delaying Commander Erickson’s requests and trying to take away the control that he had of the helicopter development program.
Although many things lined up against Commander Erickson and the future of the helicopter, occasionally luck was on their side. One such instance occurred on January 3, 1944, when the Navy destroyer USS Turner suffered two internal explosions and sunk while anchored off the coast of Sandy Hook, NJ. Luckily there was a hospital in Sandy Hook were many of the wounded were taken but it quickly exhausted its supply of plasma treating the wounded sailors. There was a storm around the New York City area with snow, sleet and 25 knot winds which hampered all fixed wing efforts to re-supply the hospital and driving plasma there from the nearest source would have taken several hours. Commander Erickson was asked if it would be possible to fly plasma over to Sandy Hook from downtown New York City (only a short distance by air but a several hour trip by boat or car). Commander Erickson realized the importance of this opportunity not only to help the injured sailors but also to showcase the helicopter’s abilities. He took off from the Coast Guard Air Station in Brooklyn with his copilot, Ensign Walter Bolton (Beard, B., 1996). They flew at almost ship level to avoid the clouds and made an extremely difficult confined area landing at the Battery on the south end of Manhattan. Ensign Bolton departed the aircraft to make room for the plasma. Commander Erickson had to back out of the landing zone before rotating the nose around and continuing on at low altitude to Sandy Hook single pilot. This event marked the first helicopter rescue mission and received significant attention in the media helping to bolster the fledgling helicopter and to reverse its image of being an impractical machine.
Towards the end of World War II the British created their own helicopter training unit at the Coast Guard Air Station and by the end of 1944 they had moved all helicopter training back to England. Around this same time the Navy stopped sending students to helicopter training. It was in need of fixed wing pilots and was convinced that the helicopter would not be advanced enough to be able to make any real contribution before World War II ended. The sixth and final class of helicopter pilots graduated in February of 1945 and the school closed for good (Beard, B., 1996). In the short time that the school was open Commander Erickson and his men trained 102 helicopter pilots and 255 mechanics while making significant advances in helicopter flight which included, search and rescue, shipboard operations and anti-submarine warfare (Induction Citation, n.d.). They also worked tirelessly to refine helicopter flotation systems, instrument flight capabilities, autopilot systems and possibly most important of all for an aircraft in need of increased capability, develop the rescue hoist and rescue basket. The rescue hoist was a huge step forward for the helicopter and really maximized its unique flight abilities. The original hoist was made from parts salvaged from a junkyard and was painfully slow and underpowered. Commander Erickson and his men solved this problem by switching to a hydraulically powered unit that could lift up to 400 pounds at two and a half feet per second (Sikorsky, S., 2006). Today the rescue hoist is the key piece of equipment that has made some of the most daring helicopter rescues possible; it is standard equipment on all rescue helicopters and the rescue basket is often referred to as an Erickson Basket.
In the mid 1940’s, as British and Navy support for helicopter training and development was drying up another roadblock to Commander Erickson and the helicopter was emerging at Coast Guard Headquarters. Longtime helicopter advocates and Erickson supporters Captain Kossler and Admiral Waesche passed away. New people in influential positions were convinced that seaplanes were the way ahead for the Coast Guard not helicopters. Commander Erickson lost much of his support and was relieved of his command in Brooklyn. He was eventually transferred to the Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City, NC where he was put in charge of an ill-defined and poorly resourced helicopter development project. With a small staff, a badly damaged reputation and all but a few of the Coast Guard’s helicopters put in storage, the once promising future of the rescue helicopter seemed bleak. Commander Erickson led one last ditch effort to make the helicopter the great search and rescue vehicle that he still believed it could be. He took advantage of the relative remoteness of the eastern seaboard of Virginia and North Carolina, employing the few remaining helicopters on search and rescue missions. He also kept some Navy interest in the helicopter by continuing to develop the helicopter’s role in anti-submarine warfare.
Commander Erickson’s helicopter development unit was decommissioned on March 31, 1950. Commander Erickson was reassigned to the Aviation Division at Coast Guard Headquarters and later as the Chief Search and Rescue Officer in Buffalo, NY. Although he did get promoted to Captain, he never again held the position of Commanding Officer or flew Coast Guard aircraft. Captain Frank Erickson retired on July 1, 1954, after 22 years of commissioned service. He went to work as a commercial test pilot and later, after being grounded because of a medical condition, worked in the aircraft industry as an engineer (Erickson, F., 1966). Although while on active duty he oversaw and participated in several dramatic rescues, he never saw his dream of the helicopter becoming a widely accepted tool for search and rescue come to fruition. Part of this was due to the strong resistance from within the Coast Guard to replacing seaplanes with helicopters and part of it was due to the limited ability of the earliest helicopter models. By the time Captain Erickson passed away in 1978 helicopters had become widely used in military and civilian aviation and accepted as an extremely important part of the national search and rescue system by the Coast Guard. Captain Erickson was inducted into both the Naval Aviation and Coast Guard Aviation Halls of Honor and a flight training building at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, AL bears his name. The Coast Guard Aviation Association sponsors the annual Erickson Award which recognizes rotary wing flight crews who demonstrate exceptional performance while engaged in search and rescue operations. In August of 2005, rescue helicopters from Coast Guard bases across the country responded to the destruction caused in the New Orleans area by Hurricane Katrina. At one point during the recovery operations there were 62 Coast Guard helicopters, one third of the entire Coast Guard helicopter fleet, conducting rescue operations (Coast Guard Response to Hurricane Katrina, n.d.). Coast Guard aircrews were credited with saving 12,533 lives in what has since become known as the largest air rescue operation in history. This was a crowning moment for the rescue helicopter and a testament to the foresight Captain Erickson had over 60 years prior.
Beard, B. (1996). Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopters. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Beard, T. (1998). Despair and Visions: Birth of the Rescue Helicopter. Paper presented at the Eleventh Annual Maritime Archaeology and History Symposium, Honolulu, HI.
Coast Guard Response to Hurricane Katrina. (n.d.). U.S. Coast Guard Website. Retrieved March 2, 2008, from http://www.uscg.mil/hq/gcp/comrel/factfile/Factcards/ Hurricane_Katrina.htm
Erickson, F. (1966). A Brief History of Coast Guard Aviation. Speech given at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Air Station Houston, reprinted in the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Bulletin, 418-427.
Induction Citation. (n.d.). (Frank Erickson’s induction citation into the Naval Aviation Hall of Fame.) Unpublished and obtained from Naval Aviation Museum Curator’s Office, Pensacola, FL.
Sikorsky, S. (2006, January). Development of the Helicopter Rescue Hoist, Sikorsky Archives News, 5-6