History: Carl Christian von Paulsen & the establishment of Coast Guard aviation

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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 aviation pioneer Carl Christian von Paulsen.

Lt. Cmdr. Carl Christian von Paulsen, his dog Brutus and co-pilot Ensign Leonard Melka pose in front of their borrowed navy Vought UO-1 amphibian biplane at Gloucester, Mass. Photo courtesy of the von Paulsen family.
Lt. Cmdr. Carl Christian von Paulsen, his dog Brutus and co-pilot Ensign Leonard Melka pose in front of their borrowed Navy Vought UO-1 amphibian biplane at Gloucester, Mass. Photo courtesy of the von Paulsen family.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian.

One hundred years ago, during the dawn of the twentieth century, a technological revolution took place that ushered in the use of steel, internal combustion engines and new sources of power. During this era, American visionaries rose to the challenge to develop these important ingredients into modern machine, such as the automobile and aircraft.

Arcturus was one of several early Coast Guard amphibian aircraft given names rather than numeric designations. von Paulsen was aboard Arcturus when he earned the first Gold Lifesaving Medal awarded for an aviation search and rescue mission. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Association.
Arcturus was one of several early Coast Guard amphibian aircraft given names rather than numeric designations. von Paulsen was aboard Arcturus when he earned the first Gold Lifesaving Medal awarded for an aviation search and rescue mission. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Association.

One such visionary was 1913 Revenue Cutter Service Academy graduate Carl Christian von Paulsen. Von Paulsen was an early proponent of Coast Guard aviation, and by 1920 he had completed flight school at Pensacola, Fla., and transferred to the service’s first air station in Morehead City, N.C. To prove the value of aviation for service missions, the Coast Guard took over this surplus naval station and patrolled the treacherous “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for derelict vessels, ships in distress, menaces to navigation and vessels run aground. In 1921, Congress failed to see the benefit of Coast Guard aviation, cut funding for the Morehead base and abruptly ended the Coast Guard’s pursuit of an aviation branch.

Von Paulsen’s next assignment would alter his career and the future of Coast Guard aviation. In 1924, he assumed command of Coast Guard Section Base #7, a cutter base located at Gloucester, Mass. Von Paulsen instituted aggressive cutter patrols to enforce Prohibition and interdict illegal alcohol smugglers. More importantly, he unofficially re-established Coast Guard aviation, using a surplus Navy Vought UO-1 seaplane and borrowed waterfront property to improvise an amphibious air station.

Using the UO-1, von Paulsen proved the value of aircraft for spotting rum runners and ensured aviation’s role as a branch of the Coast Guard. Ten years later, von Paulsen flew from Miami in the amphibious aircraft Arcturus, making a successful water rescue in a severe storm. This was the first aviation rescue case to receive the Gold Lifesaving Medal, and it demonstrated beyond a doubt the importance of aviation for search and rescue operations.

Lt. Cmdr. Carl Christian von Paulsen and crew receiving the Gold Life-Saving Medal. In attendance are Capt. C.F. Howell, the mayor of Miami and the governor of Florida. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Lt. Cmdr. Carl Christian von Paulsen and crew receiving the Gold Life-Saving Medal. In attendance are Capt. C.F. Howell, the mayor of Miami and the governor of Florida. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Von Paulsen was one of many unique individuals who pioneered the use of aviation in the service. He successfully championed the cause of Coast Guard aviation and proved the importance of aircraft in the service’s law enforcement and search and rescue missions. By doing so, he helped to establish Coast Guard aviation on a permanent basis, which proved a monumental step in the history of the service and U.S. military aviation.

1 comments on “History: Carl Christian von Paulsen & the establishment of Coast Guard aviation”

  1. Captain Von Paulsen was my great grandfather and it’s wonderful to learn more about him through this article. Thank you!

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