Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopters

Article excerpt

Beard, Barrett Thomas. Wonderful Flying Machines: A History of US. Coast Guard Helicopters. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996. 304pp. $32.95

On 7 December 1941, a U.S. Coast Guard aviator, Lieutenant Frank A. Erickson, ran to his General Quarters station, a control tower on Ford Island. His post gave a vast panorama of the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. As Erickson watched, he saw there was no method for rapidly recovering the large number of sailors floundering helplessly in the water. Some months earlier, Erickson had read an article by Igor Sikorsky describing a small helicopter he had developed. Erickson felt that here was the ideal rescue tool for U.S. Coast Guard aviators to help those in distress. From this time forward, Erickson was consumed-and this word does not adequately convey his fervor-by an effort to bring the U.S. Coast Guard to adopt the strange machine as a rescue tool.

Barrett T. ("Tom") Beard, a retired U.S. Coast Guard fixed-wing and helicopter pilot with a master's degree in history, uses Erickson's unpublished papers to trace the struggle for acceptance of the rescue in the U.S. Coast Guard. Most readers of naval history do not know the Coast Guard can rightfully claim that "they created the helicopter envisioned by Sikorsky. . . and Erickson. The other military services . . . reaped the benefits of this early development and expanded on it." This book, however, is much more than the recounting of the difficulties of making a military organization accept a strange new technology. How a machine can go from being labeled a "flying palm tree" to becoming one of the service's betterknown resources is indeed an interesting story, one that Beard tells very well. There are, however, two additional currents running through this book.

The first involves the inner workings of the United States' smallest armed force, little known to most readers of naval history, or even to members of the other four, larger armed forces. Wonderful Flying Machines brings out the very divisive arguments between those who felt the Coast Guard's aviation arm should consist only of fixed-wing aircraft and those, led by the strong personality of Erickson, who saw rotary-wing craft as the only logical means of rescuing those in distress at sea. …