By Clay Evans, maritime historian and retired Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat coxswain

When the first International Lifeboat Conference (ILC) was held in London in 1924, the world of aviation was still in its relative infancy. That said, the origins of human flight had strong “life-saving” connections, given that the world’s first successful manned-flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 actually occurred with the assistance of three surfmen from the nearby United States Life-saving Service Station at Kill Devil Hill. Not only did these individuals carry the aircraft to the site, they also operated the signal flags and one, Surfman J.T. Daniels, took the only photograph of the first ever manned-flight, with the Wrights’ own camera.

From an ILC perspective, the first-ever mention of the potential use of aircraft for maritime SAR appears in the papers of the third ILC, which took place in Rotterdam in 1932. Lt-Colonel J.J. Van Santen from Holland described the demonstration of the use of military aircraft to drop messenger lines from shore to a ship, as opposed to the use of line-throwing guns, rockets or mortars. Unfortunately, from the description of the demonstration, things did not go that well, and perhaps this is why the use of aircraft for this purpose never really “took off?”[i]

By 1932, however, aircraft were being used for SAR, and in particular by the US Coast Guard (USCG), who had been experimenting with the use of amphibious aircraft. In 1925, Congress provided sufficient funds to purchase the first dedicated aircraft for the USCG and establish the first air stations at Gloucester, Massachusetts and Cape May in New Jersey. Recognising the benefits of aircraft for lifesaving, additional air stations around the country were established and the first ‘flying life-boats’ were developed and purchased. These amphibious aircraft were General Aviation PJ-15s with boat-like hulls and two large engines suspended high above the wings. All of the PJ-15s came into service in the early 1930s and were named after prominent stars: Acamar, Antarea, Altair, Acrux and Arcturus. These aircraft were the first to be specifically constructed with the USCG’s lifesaving role in mind. They were long-range, could land in relatively rough seas and were built to take a beating. The PJ-15s continued in service right up until 1941 and were responsible for saving hundreds of lives.

USCG PJ15 Flying Boat Arcturus. Credit: USCG

Although there was a break in ILCs between 1936 and 1947 due to the turmoil of World War Two, there was no coinciding break for lifeboat crews on either side of the war. For example, in the first several months of the conflict, 38 naval, 135 British merchant, and 143 foreign merchant vessels were lost off of the shores of Great Britain alone. From November 1939 to February 1940, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) would launch 520 times and 1,552 lives would be saved.

The need to recover downed airmen predominated as the Battle of Britain raged over the English Channel and the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy established the “Air Sea Rescue Service”, using high-speed launches known as “crash boats”, as well as amphibious aircraft and other aircraft to spot survivors and drop life-rafts and survival gear if need be.

Similar services developed in other nations affected by the war, including Canada, which was the primary hub for flight training for the entire Commonwealth. These new war-time services saw an emphasis on “dash-and-grab” SAR and the need for speed as survival times for downed pilots were extremely limited and the longer a resource “loitered” in an area the greater the chance of being attacked. This “need for speed” – and its effectiveness - as a primary element of a successful maritime SAR service would be one of the fundamental takeaways from the period. Aircraft were recognised as a key element of this rapid response and thousands of lives were saved by all nations.

One of the more peculiar aerial lifesaving inventions to also come out of this period was the “Airborne Life-Boat”, which was described in a paper presented by the USCG at the fifth ILC, which took place in Oslo in 1947. In this case the rescue craft was air-droppable and slung under a large, long-range aircraft like a Lancaster or a B-17 or B-29 bomber and let go with parachutes down to any survivors. The life-boats had supplies, sails and shelter, as well as charts and navigational instruments. Another advantage of this aerial invention was that it was designed for those in peril beyond the traditional operating areas of the air-sea rescue services such as survivors of U-Boat attacks far offshore. The original airborne life-boats were invented by well-known British offshore sailor, Uffa Fox, and were used by the RAF quite extensively. The USCG and military took the concept even further, developing a “Glider-borne Life-Boat”, which was essentially an aerodynamic boat with an amphibious hull and wings that could be towed behind a large aircraft, let go and piloted down – by a crew of rescuers – to the scene of the disaster, at which point it would become a floating life-boat driven by an internal engine and propellor.[ii]

USAF B-29 Launching and Air-Droppable Life-Boat. Credit: USAF

These methods of aerial life-saving were soon to be eclipsed by a new, revolutionary aircraft – the helicopter.

On 29 November 1945, two men found themselves trapped aboard a large fuel barge that had come adrift and been blown by strong winds onto Penfield Reef in Long Island Sound, New York. Large, wind-driven seas were breaking right over the barge. The storm force winds had risen to 60kt in driving rain, making rescue from ashore in such conditions extremely difficult. Suddenly, over the roar of the wind and seas, a strange engine sound was heard. As if out of nowhere, an aircraft appeared, but it did not fly past, it just hovered above the barge, the pilot staring down at the astonished men. The strange machine was an experimental Sikorsky R-5 helicopter, which was being flown by the company’s chief test pilot Dmitry ‘Jimmy’ Viner. The lightweight R-5 was being buffeted by the high winds and Viner was doing everything he could to keep the machine stationary. Along for the ride was Captain Jackson Beighle, of the US Army Air Force, who had another surprise in store for the men on the barge. Beighle was on board to operate the new experimental power-driven winch, or “hoist”. A line was dropped down from above and, as if scooped by the angels themselves, both men were lifted, one after the other, into the strange contraption. Without even getting their feet wet, they were taken to the safety of shore.[iii] Thus concluded the first successful rescue at sea to be conducted by a helicopter using a hoist.

From an aerial SAR perspective, there would be no looking back, although fixed-wing aircraft would continue to play an extremely important role in coastal and oceanic SAR, primarily for search, air-drop, communications and top-cover, the ability of a helicopter to “hover and recover” over those on stricken vessels, in the water or an isolated coastal shore was an incredible game changer.

At the seventh ILC in Portugal in 1955, Commander James Cornish of the USCG presented a paper entitled ‘The Helicopter in SAR’ where he outlined how far the helicopter had evolved as a rescue tool, particularly for hoists and medical evacuations during the Korean conflict. In the paper he espoused the virtues of this machine for coastal SAR operations and how the USCG was now using “baskets” to recover persons from the water.[iv] 

By the 1960s the concept of “amphibious” helicopters was in full swing, some of which like the Sikorsky HH52A Sea King, could actually stay afloat and even propel themselves forward in the water. It is interesting to know that many of these venerable machines – especially later models - remain in operation with naval and rescue services around the globe today. One paper, entitled ‘A report on the Flying Life-Boat’, presented by the USCG at the 1963 ILC held in Scotland, espoused the use of helicopters as a “towing” platform, with several actual events being described.

Although there are very few amphibious fixed or rotary wing aircraft used in maritime SAR in a contemporary context, both the improvements in helicopter technology and the risks associated with such use now eliminating the need, almost every coastal state with a dedicated SAR service now maintains some form of aerial SAR capacity, generally with a combination of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. 

Helicopters, in particular, can do what life-boats and surface vessels cannot. They can respond faster, hover over stricken vessels or a breaking shore and recover survivors vertically and they can return them directly to a place of safety and recovery. There have been many examples of successful mass rescues conducted primarily by helicopter over the last several decades but significant ones of note are the Prinsendam in the Gulf of Alaska in 1980 with helicopters lifting all 520 passengers and crew to safety, Oceanos off Cape Town, South Africa, in 1991 with 571 passengers and crew being saved and, more recently, the Viking Sky incident off Norway in 2019 where 464 passengers were hoisted.

Helicopters Being Used for a Mass Rescue Operation off Norway in 2019 and Landing at the Casualty Reception Point. Credit: Norwegian Coast Guard

Advances in aerial SAR technology in the maritime realm have been occurring rapidly in recent years, not only with enhanced search and detection tools for SAR aircrews but also in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for use primarily as search platforms thereby partially removing the risks to air crews. That said, the day may come when “hoist-capable” drone aircraft can be deployed to the scene of a disaster but until that happens the human element onboard SAR aircraft remains a critical component given the requirement for skill, experience and the need to make rapid and effective decisions in an extremely dynamic and often dangerous environment.

An RCAF SAR-Tech standing by. Credit: CAF

[i] Lt Col. J.J. van Santen, Air-Planes, Report of the Third International Life-Boat Conference, Holland, 1932. P.197
[ii] USCG, The Airborne Life-Boat, Report of the Fifth International Life-boat Conference, Norway, 1947. P. 134
[iii] John Charles, Helicopter Rescue, (Ian Allan Ltd., London: 1980), 15-16.
[iv] Cdr. James A. Cornish, The Helicopter in Search and Rescue, Report of the Seventh International Life-Boat Conference, Portugal, 1955. P.217