John Moseley, Historian, Coast Guard Aviation Association
The first aircraft built for the U.S. Coast Guard was a Loening OL-5 delivered to the Service in October 1926.
A decade earlier, Coast Guard aviation was established by an act of Congress. It authorized the Treasury Department to establish 10 Coast Guard Air Stations along the U.S. coasts. Coast Guard personnel were sent to Pensacola Naval Air Station for flight and maintenance training. However, with the advent of World War I, the Coast Guard became part of the U.S. Navy and no funds were ever appropriated for this program. After the war, a project was undertaken to illustrate the value of aircraft in the saving of human life. The Navy provided a decommissioned naval air station and several loaned aircraft for the project. The results were highly favorable but there was no money available for operations and the program ended within a year.
This false start could have been the demise of Coast Guard aviation but it was not. Prohibition of the manufacture, importing, transportation and selling of alcoholic beverages had become the law of the land in January 1920. Enforcement of the law fell to the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard was tasked with interdicting maritime smuggling. In the early years of Prohibition, maritime smuggling was slow at first but it grew exponentially. What became known as the “Rum War” had begun.
In 1921, aviator LCDR Carl Christian von Paulsen became commanding officer of Section Base #7 located at Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Gloucester area of responsibility included the coastal waters, harbors and bays from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Portland, Maine. Von Paulsen approached Coast Guard leadership with the idea of using aircraft to search and locate “blacks,” large vessels so named because they ran at night with no running lights, and small rum running boats making a run for shore. Von Paulsen argued that aircraft could search a much larger area in less time than a surface vessel and the Coast Guard commandant approved the concept.
By 1925, the Coast Guard borrowed an aircraft from the Navy for proof of concept. In May, Von Paulsen and another veteran aviator flew out of Squantum Naval Air Station in Quincy, Massachusetts. By June 20, the borrowed Navy aircraft performed the first aerial law enforcement assist and the first aviation interdiction took place on June 24. Over the next several months, the Coast Guard aircraft flew thousands of miles locating smugglers and directing patrol boats to apprehend them. The experience obtained from operating this aircraft convinced Service leadership of the advantages of using aircraft in interdiction patrols and procuring aircraft and air stations.
In 1926, Congress appropriated $162,000 to purchase five Coast Guard aircraft designed specifically for the Service’s needs. The OL-5 was a high-performance amphibian aircraft with a large center float faired into the fuselage and stabilizing floats underneath each lower wing. The wheels were designed to fold up when operating on the water. The amphibian’s wingspan was 45 feet and it was 35 feet in length. The landing gear was retractable by use of a hand crank in the cockpit, and the plane was equipped with a tailskid for operations on land. It had a tandem open cockpit for a crew of two and could carry one passenger. The OL-5 had a 400 horsepower engine, a 450-mile range and a top speed of 120 mph. The Service equipped the OL-5s with radios capable of voice communication within 150 miles. In addition, the OL-5s were each armed with a machine gun and occasionally made use of them in interdiction cases.
In the summer of 1926, the Coast Guard began building an air station at Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor. The Service had to blast and level the granite island and poured concrete for a large steel hangar. On October 14, the first OL-5 arrived at Ten Pound Island with the second OL-5 assigned to a new air station opened at Cape May, New Jersey. The Third OL-5 arrived at Ten Pound Island in early November.
Interdicting illegal liquor smuggling remained the air station’s primary mission. Daily patrols were flown in aircraft not only capable of radio communication with surface units and shore stations but capable of obtaining the bearings for a rum runner’s radio messages. As the mother ships of Rum Row moved farther offshore and the search expanded, the best use of aircraft was locating the blacks. The aircraft would notify Coast Guard vessels of the smuggler’s location, and then circle over the black until a cutter or Coast Guard picket boat arrived to apprehend the vessel.
The combination of the aircraft, cutters, small boats and radio technology helped the Coast Guard win the Rum War.
Editor’s note: the author’s narrative “The Beginning, Demise and Resurrection of Coast Guard Aviation” may be found at https://cgaviationhistory.org/historical-narrative/cg-aviation-beginning-demise-resurrection/