This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
William H. Thiesen, Historian
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
In the early 1930s, Coast Guard Commandant Frederick Billard decided to acquire state-of-the-art flying boats capable of performing rescues by landing on the open sea. The first aircraft designed from the start for Coast Guard use, these new amphibians became known as the Coast Guard’s “FLBs” or Flying Life Boats. The Coast Guard awarded a $360,000 contract to build five seaplanes to the American Fokker Aircraft Corporation, then known as the General Aviation Manufacturing Corporation. They were the last Fokker aircraft built in the U.S.
General Aviation’s planners based the new FLB design on the Fokker F-11 flying boat, a smaller single-engine amphibian produced for civilian use as an “Air Yacht.” The FLB specifications called for a strong and durable aircraft capable of “observing, landing and returning with rescued crew of distressed craft and/or capable of landing, taking aboard fifteen or more passengers and standing by for lengthy periods on [the] surface until rescued members can be transferred to surface craft.” The FLBs incorporated a retractable beaching gear, wheels used only for exiting the water onto land, two reverse-facing pusher engines located above a nearly 75-foot wingspan, watertight bulkheads, long and short wave radio, and the latest in direction finding equipment.
The FLBs differed from other Coast Guard aircraft in receiving names in addition to numeric designations. The FLBs were all named for important stars whose names began with the letter “A.” General Aviation delivered the first FLB, FLB-51, in April 1932, and Billard’s daughter christened her Antares. General Aviation delivered the four other FLBs later the same year. The Coast Guard accepted the last one, FLB-55, in November 1932 and stationed it at Air Station Miami. The Service christened it Arcturus and it would become the most famous of the FLBs.
On Sunday, New Year’s Day 1933, Lt. Cmdr. Carl Christian Von Paulsen, Class of 1913, started out on what would become one of the Service’s most famous aviation search and rescue missions. At mid-day, Von Paulsen and his crew took off from Air Station Miami in Arcturus to rescue a teenage boy blown offshore by a severe storm near Cape Canaveral. Arcturus met stiff headwinds, rain and low visibility during the rescue mission, but Von Paulsen located the missing teenager adrift in a skiff 30 miles southeast of the Cape and managed to land the aircraft in seas between 12-15 feet. The crew rescued the boy, but the aircraft had sustained wing damage during the landing preventing flight thereafter.
Von Paulsen taxied Arcturus toward the coast and the seaplane lost parts of her wings to the stormy seas. However, the amphibian’s boat-shaped fuselage rode the waves comfortably and the crew and survivor landed safely on the beach. Through his dogged determination and skillful handling of Arcturus, Von Paulsen completed the mission. This was the first aviation rescue case to receive the Gold Lifesaving Medal and it demonstrated beyond a doubt the importance of aviation for Coast Guard search and rescue operations.
On Monday, June 24, 1935, U.S. Army Transport Republic radioed from near the Bahamas requesting emergency medical evacuation for an Army officer. The officer required immediate medical attention, so that afternoon, Coast Guard Lt. Carl Olsen, Class of 1928, took to the sky in Arcturus. After flying over three hours and 300 miles through dark clouds and dangerous thunderstorms, Olsen sighted the lights of the transport and landed close to the ship. Despite heavy seas, the transfer of the patient by lifeboat from the Republic to the Arcturus took only 45 minutes. The transport then shone its searchlights into the eye of the wind to illuminate Olsen’s take-off path and the Arcturus was again airborne. On the return flight, Olsen contended with further storms, rain and lightning, as well as faulty navigation equipment broken by the rough water landing. Weather disrupted radio communications, so Olsen could not obtain information on weather or alternate landing fields.
Finally, in the early morning hours of June 25, Arcturus arrived at Miami Air Station and an ambulance whisked away the officer to the hospital for an emergency operation. For this rescue case, Olsen received commendation letters from the commandant and treasury secretary and he received the Coast Guard’s first Distinguished Flying Cross. Regarding these honors, Olsen later commented “Back then in the Coast Guard you were just supposed to do the job—if not, you got court-martialed.”
After Miami, the Service assigned Arcturus to Air Station Salem, Massachusetts and, in December 1938, transferred it to Air Station St. Petersburg, Florida. Arcturus had flown under a number of notable Coast Guard pilots, some of whom earned the highest honors bestowed on aviators. By 1941, after nine years, Arcturus had reached the end of her service life and, in August 1941, the Service decommissioned Arcturus, cut it up and scrapped it. Arcturus served as an important search and rescue platform for members of the long blue line, and helped shape the history of Coast Guard aviation.