Rescue aircraft Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aircraft capable of rescuing individuals in distress either on land or at sea.

U.S. Coast Guard Rescues

In 1920, the U.S. Coast Guard borrowed several Curtiss HS-2L flying boats from the Navy and began the first air rescue operations out of the former naval base at Morehead City, North Carolina. The following year, the station was closed due to a lack of funding. Four years passed before Lieutenant Commander C. G. von Paulsen convinced officials that the Coast Guard needed aircraft to prevent the smuggling of alcohol during Prohibition. The U.S. Congress appropriated $152,000 for the Coast Guard to purchase three Loening OL-5 amphibians and two Chance Vought UO-4’s, which were stationed at Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Cape May, New Jersey.

Although law enforcement remained the primary function of the Coast Guard, pilots also executed rescue operations. During the 1920’s, the number of seafaring vessels increased and the Coast Guard received more and more calls for assistance. By 1928, the number of rescues had increased to a level that justified the creation of an aviation section, under the command of Commander Norman Hall. The Coast Guard purchased five General Aviation Flying Life Boat PJ-15’s and two Douglas Dolphin RD-2’s capable of landing on rough seas to perform rescue operations.

Over the next few years, the Coast Guard engaged in numerous rescue operations. Although the aircraft were capable of taking off from water, sometimes the seas were too rough and the plane and pilot were stranded along with the victims. Some of the aircraft were later recovered, including one plane, the Arcturus, which washed ashore with the pilot and the little boy he was sent to rescue still on board. During the Great Depression, the secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, transferred the aviation department of the Customs Service to the U.S. Coast Guard and then persuaded Congress to designate Public Works Administration funds for the purchase of forty-two additional planes and the establishment of six air stations.

During World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard defended the coast of Greenland and in the process engaged in many rescue operations during snowstorms and in frozen areas. In 1943, the Coast Guard formed an Air Sea Rescue Squadron in San Diego, California, and within two years, the agency had 165 aircraft and operated out of nine air stations. The extreme weather conditions of the Arctic required the development of the Northrop YC-125 Raider that could land on short, uneven runways. The first of the Raiders were delivered to the Air Force in 1949, but within a few years the planes were declared surplus.

By 1945, the importance of the air rescue operations had led to the use of helicopters. After two aircraft attempted and failed to rescue nine members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who had crashed in Labrador, the Coast Guard shipped an HNS-1 helicopter to Goose Bay, Labrador, where it was reassembled and flown to the crash site by Lieutenant August Kleisch, who successfully retrieved all the survivors. The post-World War II period witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of rescues conducted by the Coast Guard, with helicopters providing the quickest method of extricating people from dangerous situations. With the ability to hover between objects in close proximity, such as trees and telephone lines, the helicopter provided the maneuverability necessary to perform the delicate operations.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Coast Guard participated in search-and-rescue operations that commenced in 1968. Assigned to the Thirty-seventh Aerospace Rescue and Recover Squadron at Da Nang, Vietnam, more than seven thousand pilots rescued marines under fire from enemy forces. During the 1980’s, the Coast Guard utilized Sikorsky HH-52 Seaguards, HH-52’s, and Aerospatiale HH-65 Dolphins, as well as the now-retired amphibian Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican helicopter. By 2000, the Coast Guard continued to rely primarily on the HH-65 for its search-and-rescue operations.

U.S. Air Force Rescues

The Air Force used the Sikorsky R-6A Hoverfly II, designed primarily for observation, as a rescue aircraft beginning in 1944. The helicopter, with a main rotor diameter of 38 feet and a length of 38.25 feet, was equipped with capsules on each side of the fuselage that could be used to carry litters for medical evacuation. Capable of flying at speeds up to 96 miles per hour with a range of 305 miles, the Hoverfly II also carried 650 pounds of bombs and continued to be used throughout World War II.

During the Korean War, the primary helicopter used by the Air Force for search-and-rescue missions was the Sikorsky YH-5A Dragon Fly. The YH-5A, built with a main rotor diameter of 48 feet and capable of reaching speeds of 90 miles per hour with a range of 280 miles, rescued United Nations troops from behind enemy lines and evacuated wounded personnel from the front lines. The Sikorsky UH-19B Chickasaw rescue helicopter was also used during the Korean War. Equipped with a 400-pound capacity hoist mounted above the door and an external sling with a 2,000-pound limit, the Chickasaw was used mainly for rescue and medical evacuation. Capable of traveling at 112 miles per hour, the aircraft has a range of 330 miles and is able to carry 8,400 pounds. The large cargo area allows for the evacuation of several people at once.

By 1952, the Chickasaw was joined by the Vertol CH-21B Workhorse on rescue missions. Originally designed to transport troops, the aircraft was modified to carry twelve litter patients. The Workhorse had a longer range than the Chickasaw, being able to fly 400 miles at speeds of 132 miles per hour, making evacuation quicker. In 1958, the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command received the first Kaman HH-43B Huskie helicopter. The Huskie was used in Vietnam for both aerial firefighting and for rescuing downed pilots. Capable of being airborne within sixty seconds, the helicopter reaches speeds of 120 miles per hour and has a range of 185 miles. The aircraft is manned by two rescuers or firemen, who use foam pushed down by the backwash of the rotors to clear an area large enough to extricate trapped persons. The Air Force purchased over 175 Huskies at a cost of $304,000 each.

In 1955, Bell Helicopter introduced the UH-1P Iroquois that would later be known as the Huey. Used in Vietnam as a medical evacuation aircraft, with enough room for eleven passengers or six littered patients, the Huey also flew as an armed gunship. The Huey was the first Air Force helicopter capable of cruising on one engine. The maximum speed for the Huey was 140 miles per hour, with a range of 330 miles at altitudes below 24,830 feet. Each aircraft cost $273,000. The Hueys replaced the Huskies in 1970.

Another rescue helicopter used by the U.S. Air Force is the Sikorsky CH-3E. The CH-3E, nicknamed the Jolly Green Giant, was modified for combat rescue and is fully armored, has defensive armaments on board, and is equipped with self-sealing refueling tanks and a rescue hoist. It also has the ability to refuel while in flight. The CH-3E has a rotor diameter of 62 feet, a length of 73 feet, and weighs 22,050 pounds when loaded. The aircraft is armed with two .50-caliber machine guns. With a maximum speed of 177 miles per hour and a range of 779 miles with external fuel tanks, the three-man crew flies missions at altitudes of 21,000 or less. Each costs $796,000.

In addition to rescue helicopters, the U.S. Air Force has also relied on various airplanes for medical evacuation or extrication. One of the earliest airplanes used for rescue was the Cessna O-1G Bird Dog. Although designed for reconnaissance, the Cessna O-1G, with a top speed of 150 miles per hour and range of 530 miles, rescued many downed pilots and trapped military personnel.

By the time the Vietnam conflict reached its apex in the late 1960’s, the Air Force relied on the North American OV-10A Bronco. Designed for combat support and equipped with four 7.62-millimeter machine guns in fuselage sponsons and 3,600 pounds of mixed ordinance carried externally, the Bronco performed rescue missions and was capable of transporting two litter patients and a medical attendant. The key characteristic of the aircraft was that it was capable of short takeoffs and landings. Each aircraft cost $480,000 and had a maximum speed of 281 miles per hour and a much longer range of 1,240 miles. With a wingspan of 40 feet, length of 41 feet, 7 inches, and height of 15 feet, 1 inch, the aircraft flew at altitudes below 26,000 feet.

During World War II, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force used different versions of the Consolidated OA-10 Catalina aircraft. The Catalina had twin engines and was a parasol-mounted monoplane with a flying boat hull, retractable tricycle landing gear, and retractable wingtip floats. Used primarily for amphibious rescues, the Catalina was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of pilots. The aircraft, nicknamed the Dumbo, had a wingspan of 104 feet, weighed 36,400 pounds fully loaded, was armed with two .50-caliber machine guns in the waist and two .30-caliber machine guns, with one located in the bow and the other in the rear tunnel, and carried 8,000 pounds of bombs. Each aircraft cost $50,000 and had a maximum speed of 184 miles per hour, a range of 2,325 miles, and a service ceiling of 22,400 feet.

On June 9, 1945, the first Grumman OA-12 Duck joined the sea-rescue aircraft of the U.S. Air Force Air Rescue Service and performed numerous over-water rescues. With a 39-foot wingspan, the Duck had a maximum speed of 188 miles per hour and a range of 780 miles. Each airplane, capable of flying to altitudes of 20,000 feet, cost $69,000.

The most versatile of the rescue airplanes is the Grumman HU-16B Albatross, with a design that allows for operation from land, water, snow, or ice. The first Albatross flew on October 24, 1947. During the Korean War, the Air Force used the Albatross to rescue U.N. forces along the coast and behind enemy lines. In 1962, the Air Force received 297 of the airplanes and assigned most of them to rescue duty in Vietnam. Since the 1960’s, the Air Force has relied on helicopters as the primary aircraft for rescue operations. Working with civilian authorities through the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service, these rescue aircraft and their crews save hundreds of lives a year.

  • Green, Michael. Air Rescue Teams. Mankato, Minn.: Capstone Books, 2000. An easy-to-read description of the men, aircraft, and equipment used for aerial rescues by the Coast Guard and the Air Force. The training team members receive and the current and future of rescue aircraft is also discussed.
  • Holden, Henry. Black Hawk Helicopters. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2001. The author examines the effectiveness of the Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter. In addition to combat operations the helicopter performs numerous rescue missions, primarily for medical evacuation.
  • Schreiner, Samuel Agnew. Mayday! Mayday! The Most Exciting Missions of Rescue, Interdiction, and Combat in the Two-Hundred-Year Annals of the U.S. Coast Guard. New York: D. I. Fine, 1990. A collection of real-life adventures showing the Coast Guard in action. Written for the general reader.
  • United States Coast Guard. Air Search and Rescue: Sixty-three Years of Aerial Lifesaving—a Pictorial History, 1915-1978. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1978. A pictorial history of air rescues performed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Interesting accounts for the general reader.

Firefighting aircraft



Vertical takeoff and landing

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