USCG CDR Stewart Graham - Helio Pilot #2

He was born in 1917 and grew up in Rosedale NY. He enlisted in the US Coast Guard in 1937. In 1940 he was transferred to Guard Air Station in Charleston, South Carolina, to participate in their flight training program. He graduated on September 5, 1941, received his gold wings, and was designated as the fortieth Coast Guard enlisted pilot with the title of Motor Machinist Mate Second Class Aviation Pilot.

He was then transferred to the Coast Guard Air Station, Floyd Bennett Field, in Brooklyn and assigned as the assistant to the operations officer, flying Grumman amphibians and the Hall aluminum flying boats.

On November 2, 1942,  he was given a spot officer’s promotion to Ensign and assigned number 114 in the officer ranks.

On November 12,1942, he was assigned to fly, Commander Watson Burton, the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Frank Erickson, and the engineering officer, Lieutenant Alvin Fisher to Bridgeport, Connecticut to witness a flight demonstration of Sikorsky's VS-300 helicopter.

After witnessing the helicopter demonstration, he requested rotary-wing flight training. His request was eventually granted, but had to wait patiently along with three British and six Americans, including Colonel Charles Lindbergh, until enough machines became available for student training.

On September 1, 1943, he was promoted to Lieutenant, junior grade.

In late 1943 a few YR-4A (HNS-1) helicopters were made available for training purposes. Mr. Morris,  Sikorsky’s chief test pilot, checked Commander Erickson as safe to solo, which awarded him the prestigious designation of Helicopter Pilot Number One in the Coast Guard. Erickson became Stewart’s instructor and, after three and one-half hours of flight time deemed him safe to solo earning him the designation of Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot Number Two. This took place on October 20,1943.

The Coast Guard received its first helicopter (Bureau Number 46445) off the assembly line on October 30,1943. Frank Erickson and Stewart flew an acceptance flight on this machine, which proved it to be air-worthy. Now it was up to them to deliver it to Floyd Bennett — the first Coast Guard helicopter ferry flight.

In 1944 he was assigned as lead instructor in an intensive integrated pilot training program at the Coast Guard Helicopter Flight and Engineering School in Brooklyn.

In 1946 the Coast Guard aviation had no search and rescue operational helicopters.  The outlook for USCG as helicopter advocates was very bleak and disheartening The helicopters they had were used indifferently for pilot proficiency and were considered useless for coast guard operational purposes. It was up to Stewart and his staff to alter the rotary-wing machines they had on hand to accommodate the various components they were designing to enhance the helicopter's potential for search and rescue operations. They garnered recognition and publicity almost immediately through demonstration.

The first major rescue mission in Coast Guard aviation history whereby helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army, and Canadian personnel were employed successfully to carry out an operation. The incident occurred outside of the United States when a Belgian commercial airliner crashed in Gander Newfoundland, Canada, in September 1946.

The following is an account of the chain of events as related by CDR Stewart Graham.

September 17, 1946
A Belgian four-engine passenger aircraft with identification number OOCBB on the rudder and SABENA on the vertical stabilizer was airborne from Brussels with 37 passengers and a crew of 7. The transatlantic flight to New York with scheduled refueling stops at Shannon, Ireland, and Gander, Newfoundland, was considered routine until it arrived over Gander.

September 18
At 3:37 A.M., the pilot, Captain Jean Ester {formerly of the RAF and the Belgian Air Force), obtained landing instructions from the control tower operator. The weather was bad; rain and fog shrouded the entire area, requiring an instrument-landing approach to the airport. During a precision turn to the assigned runway, communications were lost between the Gander approach controller and the aircraft. After several futile attempts to obtain voice contact, an overdue aircraft alert was broadcast throughout the immediate area. Search and rescue units were advised of the inclement weather, which precluded an air search. However, a Coast Guard PBY amphibian aircraft and its crew were airborne from Argentia, Newfoundland, and attempted to search the area but were forced to abort the mission due to heavy ground fog. They landed at Gander to wait until the weather improved.

September 19
Several air searches were conducted under marginal weather conditions, with negative results.

September 20
Conditions improved. A Trans World Airliner (TWA) during a final approach to the Gander airport spotted the crashed and burned remains of the missing Belgian aircraft. The large "SABENA" letters on the vertical stabilizer positively identified the wreckage, The pilot radioed the Gander tower operator of the sighting, reporting that several survivors were observed near the wreckage. The location was approximately 27 miles southwest of Gander, in a densely wooded area, close to the top of a mountain. The TWA captain determined it to be inaccessible to any kind of surface vehicle to reach the survivors.

A ground search party was immediately organized, consisting of Coast Guard and Army personnel with a local guide (Roland Pinsent). They brought with them inflatable rubber life rafts, walkie-talkie radios, along with the standard search and rescue equipment. To expedite their trip to the crash site, a Coast Guard amphibian aircraft landed them at a nearby lake. They then walked to a stream, inflated the rafts and, after a harrowing, pell-mell journey down the rock-strewn rapids, finally arrived at the base of the mountain.

The searchers proceeded up the rugged terrain, cutting a path through the thick underbrush. At dusk, they reached the survivors. The ground party had been vectored to the scene by a Coast Guard aircraft circling overhead, communicating via the walkie-talkie radios. The survivors were huddled together beneath the tail section of the airliner. Food, water, medical supplies, clothing, blankets, and extra batteries for the two-way radios were air-dropped.

Captain Samuel P. Martin, a U.S. Army medical doctor, who was a member of the search party, took command of the situation and worked tirelessly to treat the injured with the medical supplies that had been air-dropped. Some of the victims were severely burned; others had broken bones; and all were suffering from exposure, hunger, thirst, and insect bites.

When the captain had them resting fairly comfortably, he contacted the orbiting Coast Guard aircraft to report his findings: "18 survivors, of which 14 are stretcher cases, 4 ambulatory, and 26 dead. Condition of the injured demands immediate hospitalization. After a thorough survey of the situation, I suggest evacuation via helicopter, due to the remoteness and impenetrability of the terrain." 

Meanwhile, September 20 was a typical working day at the U.S. Coast Guard Rotary Wing Development Unit, located serenely in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Commander Frank A. Erickson, the skipper and number one Coast Guard designated helicopter pilot, was on assignment in New York. I was his executive officer and the number two designated helicopter pilot when I received a telephone call at 2:45 PM from Captain Richard Burke, U.S. Coast Guard, the Eastern Area Air-Sea Rescue Coordinator.

He relayed the details regarding the sighting of the crashed Sabena airliner and instructed me to have a helicopter disassembled in such a way as to fit into the cargo compartment of an Air Force C-54-type transport aircraft. Similar instructions were given to the Coast Guard Air Station in Brooklyn, New York, and that a second aircraft would be provided to airlift their helicopter.

When word reached Commander Erickson that helicopters were being assigned for a major rescue mission in the wilderness of Newfoundland, he immediately made arrangements to return to Elizabeth City. By the time Frank arrived (about 7:00 PM}, my crew and I had the disassembled helicopter neatly arranged on the hangar floor with all necessary components, tools, and spare parts awaiting the arrival of the cargo aircraft.

The military air transport arrived during a torrential downpour, which didn't deter the crew from expeditiously loading the helicopter and essentials into the huge cargo compartment. When all equipment was secured and the assigned personnel were aboard the aircraft, we received our flight clearance to Newfoundland. At 11:25 PM, we were airborne for Gander. The rain continued until we broke out in the clear as we approached Atlantic City, New Jersey, at 12,000 feet altitude. The rest of the flight was uneventful.

September 21
Arriving in the vicinity of Gander (6:25AM), we were vectored by the approach controller to the crash site and circled the area several times to become familiar with the terrain in which we had to operate. After landing at Gander, we experienced some delay in-off-loading our helicopter because the only one crane available was in use unloading the helicopter from Brooklyn which had arrived about twentyminutes before we did.

Both helicopters had to be reassembled and test-flown, which took most of the day. The four helicopter pilots (Erickson and I, along with Lieutenants August Kliesch and Walter Bolton from New York) took advantage of the time by having another look at the crash site from a Coast Guard aircraft. During this flight we were able to determine the best possible procedures to use to expedite the evacuation of the survivors, A relatively grassy area on top of the mountain close to the wreckage seemed to be an ideal location from which to operate the helicopters.

By late afternoon, one machine had been reassembled and test-flown satisfactorily. Immediate evacuation of the most seriously injured was begun and continued until nightfall. However, the landing sites, which appeared to be ideal from the air, turned out to be muskeg and was not suitable for the wheel-type landing gear installed on the helicopters. The pilot was taken by complete surprise when he made the first landing on what appeared to be a well-groomed grass mat. The wheels sank at least eight inches into the muskeg ooze. It required full power to break loose from the muck. We realized it was necessary to provide a platform for the helicopters to land on.

September 22
At the break of dawn, lumber was air-dropped to the clearing, and members of the ground party constructed a platform. Both helicopters were now deployed in the evacuation. However, valuable time was being used flying victims, one at a time, the 27 miles to Gander in the slow single-passenger helicopters.

A lake (Wolf Lake), large enough for the Coast Guard amphibians to operate from, was found approximately 7 miles from the Sabena wreckage. These aircraft could be used to transport several survivors at a time to Gander, which would certainly save time. The helicopters shuttled the survivors the short distance from the mountain to the waiting aircraft at the lake, and eventually the remaining victims were transported in this manner.

A total of 44 persons were aboard the Sabena aircraft when it plowed into the mountain; 18 miraculously survived. The dead were buried in the vicinity of the crash, while burial services were conducted from an aircraft circling overhead. By nightfall, of the remaining survivors, ground support personnel, and equipment were transported to the Gander airport.

September 23
A representative of Sabena arrived from Belgium to investigate the wreckage. I flew him to the scene and, after his mission was completed, we returned to the Gander airport. This flight terminated the Coast Guard's successful participation in this first-of-a-kind major rescue operation. The helicopter from the Rotary Wing Development Unit was transferred to the Coast Guard air detachment in Argentia for search and rescue operations in Newfoundland; the other machine was returned to Brooklyn.

Due to the publicity we received from the Gander rescue mission, we were besieged with requests to demonstrate the helicopter to the military as well as to civilians. When it was feasible for us, we tried to accommodate these requests. Dignitaries often arrived for demonstration rides. Commander Erickson was in his glory showing these people just what the helicopter could do, claiming (to me) that it was worth our while to maintain good relationships with the other military establishments as well as with the general public.

Stewart Graham

From his experience in the first rescue mission with the use of a helicopter, Stewart Graham continued to develop helicopter rescue procedures for the USCG, later many of them adopted by other countries in the world. He was eventually promoter to Commander of the United States  Coast Guard until his retirement on Sept 30, 1960

During his Coast Guard career, he established a number of aviation firsts, set many international records, and flew on a number of historic search and rescue missions.  He  was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals, and was commissioned as "A Knight of the Order of Leopold" by the government of Belgium for his part in the rescue of the survivors of the Sabena Airline crash in 1946.  

He also earned the European-African -Middle-Eastern Campaign, American Theatre, and World War II Victory medals, a commendation from the Secretary of the Navy and a Coast Guard letter of commendation.  

CDR Graham was inducted into the Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Fame on 4 August 1995.

Information was extracted from documentation provided by the US Coast Guard Association




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