Suspending a two-and-a-half ton Sikorsky HH-52 Seaguard helicopter from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Air & Space museum is without a doubt, a difficult job. Nevertheless, the story behind the museum’s newest exhibit is so fraught with drama, that many guests attending the April 14 unveiling might say that hanging the chopper was the easiest part – bringing to a close a decade-long effort to have a Coast Guard aircraft on display at the Nation’s air museum.
The story began when members of the Coast Guard Aviation Association set out to secure for the Air & Space Museum, the plane they believed to be most representative of the branch’s life-saving mission. The undisputed selection was the 13 seat amphibious HH-52 also known as the S-62. Ninety nine of them were purchased for the Coast Guard in the sixties and they were used well into the eighties.
The association was self-funded but well connected in military circles. When members learned that three of the big choppers were being used for target practice at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, calls were made and the lifesaving helicopters were themselves rescued, and brought to a Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The original plan was for retired military mechanics to do the restoration work, according to Mont Smith, a member of the association and former Coast Guard HH-52 pilot.
“We dubbed them the “Aberdeen Girls,” Smith told me of the three helicopters that arrived from Maryland, but they were anything but youthful. “They were tired, having sat in the undergrowth with weeds and bushes growing out of them.” Dismayed by their condition, members of the association jumped at the chance to pick up a previously unknown survivor of the original fleet of Seaguards that was up for auction on eBay.
But the fourth was not in much better than the first three, “none were deemed to have sufficient structural integrity to be restored to Smithsonian standards,” Smith said.
Many visitors to the National Air & Space Museum think of it as a place to see all kinds of aircraft significant in history. But to the curators, the exhibits are more than that. They are artifacts, each one of which documents a unique story, curator Russ Lee wrote in an article for the museum’s blog.
While all the rising and dashing of expectations was going on among the association, the clock was ticking at the Air & Space Museum. In 2009, the director of rotorcraft exhibits, Roger Connor had given a deadline. The museum would display the mid century pride of the coast guard but it had to be ready by 2016. The sadly deficient Aberdeen Girls were not getting any closer to making the grade with the passage of time.
What changed the Coast Guard Association’s course was one of those serendipitous things; at a meeting in California, retired commander Larry Evans said a mechanics school in Van Nuys was using a HH-52 with the registration number 1462 to train students. The school would give up the helicopter in exchange for some other machine on which to work. The school was happy to accept a newly retired HU-25 Guardian, a fixed wing Dassault jet in exchange for the helicopter. It didn’t happen fast, the swap required approval by the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson.
The restoration of 1462 was itself a miracle, carried out in less than a year by professional restorers at Vector CSP, who had to be hired if the deadline was to be met.
And this is the backstory to the what you’ll read about in the papers on Thursday when, in the cavernous Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, the first Coast Guard aircraft finally takes its rightful place in the Smithsonian.
“It’s a dream come true,” Smith said, “The Coast Guard deserves this recognition in the 100th anniversary of Coast Guard Aviation.” But it is not the only backstory. The other, involves a particularly poignant life saving mission by this particular aircraft
On November 1,1979, pilots J.C. Cobb and Chris Kilgore and flight mechanic, Tom Wynn were rousted from their beds before dawn to fly to a collision of a freighter and a fully loaded oil tanker in Port of Houston. In an interview with the Washington Post, Kilgore, now 67 remembered the scene as the helicopter approached. “There was a sea of fire around it, so it’s got a fire footprint much larger than the tanker itself.”
Thirty one sailors died in the accident and subsequent explosion. But as the aircraft worked in the billowing smoke and leaping flames, the crew was able to rescue 26 men from one ship and 6 from the tanker, ferrying them in repeated flights between the accident scene and an nearby oil rig.
The Coasties involved in the mission will also be on hand in Virginia when that lifesaving helicopter goes on display.
Air museums house so much more than the airplanes before us, they are the temples of the inanimate that open our eyes so that we can see what humans are capable of.
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