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Coast Guard History

Famous Coast Guardsmen


A photo of Stewart Graham, USCGCommander Stewart Ross Graham, USCG (Ret.)
Coast Guard Aviator No. 114
Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 2

Commander Stewart R. Graham was a Coast Guard aviation pioneer.  He was instrumental, along with another Coast Guard aviation pioneer, Captain Frank Erickson, in developing the helicopter into the multi-functional aircraft that it is today.  The Coast Guard's role in the development of the helicopter has been overlooked, and so were the officers and men who risked their careers, not to mention their lives, in testing and developing this dangerous new technology and then championing its use to seemingly unimpressed bureaucracies.  But these men prevailed and today the helicopter is irreplaceable to the Coast Guard--as well as the world--and these aviation pioneers are beginning to receive the recognition they so richly deserve.  Commander Graham will soon be inducted into the Naval Aviation Museum's Hall of Fame, joining his former flight instructor and commanding officer, Captain Erickson, in the pantheon of recognized naval aviation heroes.  

A photo of Stewart Graham, USCGCommander Graham joined the Coast Guard in 1937 as a surfman, later undergoing flight training and earning his wings on 5 September 1941 as a naval aviation pilot.  He earned a commission in late-1942. 

(Right: Stewart Graham at the controls of a Sikorsky HNS-1, 1943;
click on thumbnail for 300 dpi image) 

Graham then flew seaplanes and amphibians on war-time anti-submarine [ASW] patrols before witnessing a demonstration of a helicopter by rotary-wing pioneer Dr. Igor Sikorsky.  Graham was "awestruck" with the new machine and captivated by its possibilities.  He quickly requested training in the new aircraft.  He graduated from helicopter flight training on 20 October 1943, soloing after only three and a half hours of instruction.  Graham later wrote:

 "It was an extraordinary way to graduate; no written test, no diploma and no curriculum to follow thereafter.  Dr. Igor Sikorsky identified those men who soloed at his factory as pioneers.  As such, I was set free to penetrate the unknown, with an unleashed, unreliable underpowered vibrating revolutionary type of flying machine."  

Graham was designated as Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot Number 2 (Erickson, Graham's instructor, was CG Helicopter Pilot No. 1).  Graham then embarked on a truly remarkable "rotary-winged" career.  

A photo of Stewart Graham, USCGOn 1 November 1943 Erickson and Graham ferried the first Coast Guard helicopter, a Sikorsky YR-4B (Serial No. 46445) from Bridgeport, Connecticut to the Coast Guard Air Station [AIRSTA] Brooklyn, New York.  Stewart was then assigned as a rotary-wing instructor.  In less than three months later, with a total of just 65 hours of helicopter flight time, Graham was transferred to the British freighter SS Daghestan (right) that was transporting two YR-4 helicopters to England.  The helicopters were stowed on an improvised flight deck built over the freighter's stern.  On the morning of 6 January 1944 the vessel steamed from New York Harbor, in convoy, bound for Liverpool, England.

Stewart was assigned as the project helicopter pilot aboard this vessel to evaluate the feasibility of utilizing helicopters aboard merchant ships for anti-submarine patrols around the convoy.  Wind and sea conditions prevented any flight operations until the tenth day at sea, which was 16 January 1944.  On that day Graham made the first helicopter take-off from a vessel on the high seas (below, left).  He flew out ahead of and then around the convoy for thirty minutes and then made a successful landing on the pitching and rolling jury-rigged flight deck.  A photo of Stewart Graham, USCGHe had thus completed the first helicopter flight in history from a ship while in convoy.  The Navy awarded Graham the Air Medal for this daring flight.  After arriving safely in England, Graham then made an adventurous trip back to Brooklyn as a passenger on board a Pan American Flying Clipper.

He was injured in an accident on 2 December 1944 when, flying as a passenger in a Sikorsky HOS-1, the helicopter crashed after its controls failed.  The pilot, LT Gus Kleish, survived without injuries but Graham had injured his back and it was a few months before he could return to flight duties.

On 3 April 1945 Graham demonstrated the helicopter at the U.S. Capital for congressmen and senators.  This was their first introduction to a helicopter, and at the same time the HNS-type Sikorsky helicopter, Coast Guard Number 39040, was christened The Congressional Page.  In June 1945  the Nash-Kelvinator Factory in Detroit, Michigan, was awarded a contract to build the Sikorsky HOS-1 helicopter.  Graham was assigned to test and accept the new Coast Guard machines as they came off the assembly line.  Then, from October to December of 1945 he underwent advanced instrument flying at the Civil Air Administration Flight Center in Houston, Texas.

In February 1946 Stewart was assigned as the project pilot with the Anti-Submarine Helicopter Dipping Sonar program, which was run by the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.  Stewart flew the helicopter used during the successful testing of a special "dipping" sonar, a device that is still in use today by Navy ASW helicopter squadrons.  In July of that same year CDR Erickson and LT Graham, along with a small select group of enlisted personnel, received orders to proceed to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to establish a new Coast Guard aviation section that became known as "The Rotary Wing Development Unit."  Erickson was placed in command and Graham was his executive officer and chief test pilot.  This small group invented and tested equipment that improved the rescue capabilities of the helicopter.  

Both Graham and Erickson played an instrumental role in one of the earliest rescue efforts undertaken by helicopters, the "Miracle at Gander" rescue.  A Sabena Airlines DC-4 passenger aircraft crashed on a hillside 20 miles southeast of Gander, Newfoundland, on Wednesday, 18 September 1946, while attempting to land at the Gander airport.  A photo of Stewart Graham, USCG The aircraft had left Shannon, Ireland airport at 1700 the day before for a trans-Atlantic flight with 37 passengers and a crew of seven.  A TWA pilot, Ray Jennings, while making a landing approach to the Gander airport, reported the location of the wreck the next day after seeing what appeared to be a crash site.  The location was so remote that it was thought the only way to get a rescue party there was by helicopter and the call went out for assistance.  CAPT Richard L. Burke, the rescue officer for the Eastern Area, organized the rescue effort.  

(Left: LT Graham at the scene of the Sabena airliner crash near Gander, Newfoundland, 1946, in the pilot's seat of a Coast Guard HNS-1; below, right: LT Graham safely returns a survivor of the crash to an interim landing site--the survivors were then transferred to a PBY for a flight back to Gander, photo by AOM 1/c Robert O'Leary; click on thumbnails to access 300 dpi images.)

A photo of Stewart Graham, USCGGraham supervised the disassembly and loading of a HNS helicopter on board an Army transport which then flew to the Gander area.  The crew reassembled the helicopter and, along with a HOS-1 helicopter flown in from AIRSTA Brooklyn and Coast Guard PBYs from Argentia, Newfoundland, began rescuing the survivors.  The Coast Guardsmen rescued 18 survivors of the airliner's passengers and crew.  The pilots of the helicopters and PBYs were awarded Air Medals as well as Belgian "Knight of the Order of Leopold" medals.  The rescue demonstrated the usefulness of the new helicopters in saving lives in remote locations and secured a permanent place for rotary-winged aircraft in the Coast Guard's flight line.

A photo of the Gander rescue

(The Coast Guard's Gander rescue crew in front of a Sikorsky HNS-1, from left to right: LT A. Fisher; LT Stewart Graham; ACMM Oliver Berry; ACMM Leo Brzycki; ACMM Cozy Eldridge; AMM1c Merwin Westerberg.)

On 31 October 1946, the Outer Banks villages of North Carolina were brought within an hour's flight time of AIRSTA Elizabeth City, with the first direct air mail delivery and pick-up service which reached them through the combined efforts of the U.S. Postal Service and the Coast Guard.  Graham was the pilot for the first helicopter "Air Mail" flight to the Outer Banks.  

This location in North Carolina was the scene of another record setting flight by Graham.  On 5 December 1947, under adverse conditions, Graham successfully completed the first night helicopter medical evacuation flight when he flew a patient from Cape Hatteras to Elizabeth City at night.  He flew at low altitude along the shoreline and used the phosphorescence from the waves as they washed up on the beach as a navigation guide until he spotted the lights of Elizabeth City.

From 31 July to 8 August 1948, Stewart participated at the grand opening ceremonies of the Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy Airport) in New York.  He flew the new Sikorsky HO3S helicopter and demonstrated the current search and rescue techniques and equipment that he and the Rotary Wing Development Unit had devised.  

A photo of Stewart Graham, USCGLT Graham "chalked up" a long distance and speed record for helicopters when he ferried Sikorsky HO3S-1G (CG No. 234) on an unescorted transcontinental flight from AIRSTA Elizabeth City to AIRSTA Port Angeles in Washington.  The total time in flight was 57.6 hours and the trip was completed in 10 days, from 24 March to 3 April 1949.  He was accompanied by AM 2/c Robert McAuliffe.  The flight set the record as the longest unescorted helicopter flight in history.

In January 1951 he as transferred to the Naval Air Development Squadron (VX-1) in Key West, Florida.  Here he taught Navy helicopter pilots and crew members the techniques he had pioneered while testing the dipping sonar.  On 1 September 1953 he was transferred back to operational duty with AIRSTA St. Petersburg, Florida, as the assistant operations officer.  Here he flew fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on search and rescue missions.

(Left: LT Graham demonstrates the lifting capabilities of the HNS-1 helicopter and its rescue sling by hoisting Dr. Igor Sikorsky, the helicopter's world-famous designer, in 1944.)

On 19 January 1955 Graham successfully flew the first night hoist pick-up when he rescued three survivors from a vessel that was breaking up on a reef in the Gulf of Mexico.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission.  On 1 August 1955 he was transferred to duty as the executive officer of the Coast Guard Air Detachment based out of Argentia.  In August of 1957 he received orders to proceed to AIRSTA Salem, Massachusetts, as the station's executive officer.

From 27 June to 6 July 1959, Graham flew a Sikorsky HO4S helicopter that provided air coverage for the King and Queen of England as they dedicated the grand opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  After the dedication he escorted Royal Yacht Britannia as she made her way through the Seaway from Buffalo, New York to Chicago, Illinois.  

A photo of Stewart GrahamIn July 1960 Graham became the Assistant to the Chief of the Search and Rescue Section of the First Coast Guard District in Boston, Massachusetts.  He retired from the Coast Guard on 30 September 1960, after 24 years of service.  

(Right: LT Graham demonstrates the newly developed rescue basket and hoist on a Sikorsky HOS-3G, 1947.)

During his Coast Guard career, he established a number of aviation firsts, set many international records, and flew on a number of historic search and rescue missions.  He  was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals, and was commissioned as "A Knight of the Order of Leopold" by the government of Belgium for his part in the rescue of the survivors of the Sabena Airline crash in 1946.  

He also earned the European-African -Middle-Eastern Campaign, American Theatre, and World War II Victory medals, a commendation from the Secretary of the Navy and a Coast Guard letter of commendation.  

CDR Graham was inducted into the Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Fame on 4 August 1995.


Click here to access a list of his decorations.


Last Modified 11/17/2014