2011 is the Centennial of Naval Aviation and will honor aviation pioneers in the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps. The year-long celebration includes air shows, art exhibits, flyovers and tactical demonstrations nationwide. As part of our ongoing celebration of the centennial, we bring you the story of Capt. David Gershowitz, Coast Guard aviator No. 232 and helicopter pilot No. 7. Please continue to visit Compass throughout the year as we feature pioneering aviators and those who dared to take to the skies.
Written by Dr. David Rosen, Coast Guard historian
Captain David Gershowitz was one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s early helicopter enthusiasts, alongside helicopter pioneers Capt. Frank Erickson and Cmdr. Stewart Graham – Coast Guard aviator No. 1 and No. 2 respectively.
Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot #7
Originally an enlisted Coast Guard fireman from Brooklyn, N.Y., he trained as a pilot in Pensacola, Fla., from August 1942 to May 1943. After earning his wings and becoming helicopter pilot No. 7, Gershowitz returned to Air Station Brooklyn under Erickson as his executive officer at Floyd Bennett Field, the service’s test site for Sikorsky helicopters. Despite skepticism and hostility from Coast Guard leadership, Erickson convinced headquarters to allow Sikorsky to supply helicopters for training purposes with the aim to develop helicopters for antisubmarine warfare.
From Floyd Bennett Field, Gershowitz flew several of the service’s earliest search and rescue cases executed by helicopter, including airlifting an inhalator to an icebound ship in Long Island Sound. Gershowitz continued to excel as a search and rescue pilot, and after he hoisted a doctor to a rowboat in the Ambrose Lightship rescue case, he achieved national renown as a Coast Guard hero.
Order of the Penguin
In 1946, then Cmdr. Erickson recommended that the Coast Guard send Gershowitz to the new Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent, Md., the largest Naval Air test center in the U.S. When he arrived at the school, he already had 500 hours of flying time. Gershowitz was not only the first Coast Guard pilot to graduate from Naval Test Pilot School, but stayed on to train some of the earliest students and undertook some of the first experimental flights. It was while stationed at the test pilots school that he demonstrated the helicopter to Congress by landing at the U.S. Capitol and circling it repeatedly.
Afterwards, Gershowitz, then a Lieutenant, served as one of three pilots on the icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Northwind as part of Operation High Jump under Admiral Richard Byrd. His helicopter, called the Flying Penguin, flew ahead of the Northwind seeking passages through the ice floes. During these missions, flying conditions were extremely dangerous as sudden fog materialized.
High Jump lasted from December 1946 to March 1947, encompassing 11 ships and 4,000 men. Capt. Charles Thomas, commanding officer of the Northwind, called the helicopter “the best piece of equipment ever carried on ice vessels.” Gershowitz received the Order of the Penguin for crossing the Arctic Circle, and two penguins journeyed back to the U.S. with him and were donated to the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan.
U.S. Air Medal
As a pilot, Gershowitz logged a total of 3,000 hours of flight time in a career lasting from 1942 to 1974. Serving as a search and rescue pilot in Port Angeles from 1954 to 1958, he was awarded the U.S. Air Medal for multiple successful search and rescue cases. Later in his career, Gershowitz served as Captain of the Port both in Honolulu and in Seattle, chief of intelligence in the 14th Coast Guard District and chief of Reserve forces in Districts 9, 13 and 14.