In Memoriam: Commander Stewart Graham; Coast Guard Aviation Pioneer

As the Coast Guard continues to celebrate 100 years of distinguished aviation service by the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, it is with sad hearts that we remember a true aviation pioneer – Commander Stewart Ross Graham. The aviation community today is still ensuring his legacy lives on, and even more so in light of the recent floods in Baton Rouge where Coast Guard aircrews have saved numerous lives.

The below message comes from Vice Adm. John Currier (retired), Tom Beard and John “Bear” Moseley of the Coast Guard Aviation Association:

Stewart Graham at the controls of a Sikorsky HNS-1, 1943. Coast Guard Photo.

Stewart Graham at the controls of a Sikorsky HNS-1, 1943. Coast Guard Photo.

Commander Stewart Ross Graham, United States Coast Guard (retired) passed on August 13, quietly in the presence of his family at his Naples, Maine, residence. Graham was 98 years of age and is nationally recognized as a pioneer in rotary wing (helicopter) flight, including having served as a Coast Guard aviator during WWII. A devoted family man, Stewart was preceded by his wife Mae. He is survived by his sons Stewart Ross Graham of Naples, and William Graham of Jacksonville, Ore.

He was inducted into the Naval Aviation Museum Hall of Honor and the Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Honor.

On September 15, 1946, the world’s first major airline crash occurred in wilderness tundra near Gander, Newfoundland. “Stew” spent that birthday flying an early model Sikorsky helicopter, rescuing survivors from the inaccessible crash site. This September, the Gander Airport Historical Society will host a special celebration, 70 years later, remembering and honoring those involved. For his actions in this unique helicopter rescue, he was commissioned “A Knight of the Order of Leopold” by the Belgium government.

LT Graham safely returns a survivor of the crash to an interim landing site--the survivors were then transferred to a PBY for a flight back to Gander, photo by AOM 1/c Robert O'Leary

LT Graham safely returns a survivor of the crash to an interim landing site–the survivors were then transferred to a PBY for a flight back to Gander, photo by AOM 1/c Robert O’Leary.

Cmdr. Stewart Ross Graham, US Coast Guard (Ret), Coast Guard Aviator #114 and Coast Guard and Navy Helicopter Pilot #2 compiled many “firsts” following his three and a half hours of instruction on how to fly helicopters at the Sikorsky factory in Stratford, Conn., on October 20, 1943.

To begin proving the helicopter’s usefulness to many doubters in the U.S. military, he made the first helicopter antisubmarine warfare (ASW) patrol flying against the German U-Boat threat from a British freighter in convoy, in January 1944. He and a Royal Air Force pilot flew from a makeshift flight deck on the M/V Dagestan on a stormy North Atlantic crossing. He further proved the helicopter’s usefulness to the Navy in 1951 as a weapon for ASW, and then instructed the Navy crews in tactics.

Graham was the first Navy test pilot for helicopters at NAS Patuxent River test center as Head of Rotary Wing Development. Today, U.S. Navy ASW helicopter squadrons represent a major arm of naval aviation. The basic tactics that Graham helped develop are currently in use by many of the world’s navies.

The Coast Guard's Gander rescue crew in front of a Sikorsky HNS-1, from left to right: LT A. Fisher; LT Stewart Graham; ACMM Oliver Berry; ACMM Leo Brzycki; ACMM Cozy Eldridge; AMM1c Merwin Westerberg. Coast Guard Photo.

The Coast Guard’s Gander rescue crew in front of a Sikorsky HNS-1, from left to right: LT A. Fisher; LT Stewart Graham; ACMM Oliver Berry; ACMM Leo Brzycki; ACMM Cozy Eldridge; AMM1c Merwin Westerberg. Coast Guard Photo.

Working with Cmdr. Frank Erickson, his mentor, Graham established the “Rotary Wing Development Unit,” at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City in July 1946. Their goal was to advanced helicopters for search and rescue (SAR). The team imagined and created much of the rescue equipment, helicopter design, and tactics still used today by modern helicopter crews. These included such innovations as the hydraulic hoist and a rescue basket for pick up of survivors.

Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, not from the site of the Wright Brothers first flight, is where Graham started conducting rescues that conventional fixed winged aircraft and small boats were unable to accomplish. Regional newspapers remarking on phenomenal successes of these first-reported humanitarian services, dubbed the still largely unknown helicopter “hovering angels.” With Graham as a key player, the Coast Guard was in the helicopter rescue business by 1946.

“Firsts” for Graham piled up:

On October 31, 1946, he carried out the first helicopter airmail service to isolated North Carolina Outer Banks villages.

LT Graham demonstrates the lifting capabilities of the HNS-1 helicopter and its rescue sling by hoisting Dr. Igor Sikorsky, the helicopter's world-famous designer, in 1944. Coast Guard Photo.

LT Graham demonstrates the lifting capabilities of the HNS-1 helicopter and its rescue sling by hoisting Dr. Igor Sikorsky, the helicopter’s world-famous designer, in 1944. Coast Guard Photo.

Graham did the first night medical evacuation by helicopter on December 5, 1947. He accomplished this by flying along the beach using phosphorescence glow from crashing waves for visual reference. Helicopters, at the time, were not instrumented or equipped for night flying.

For a week in August 1948, he performed helicopter demonstration flights for the opening ceremonies of the New York’s new Idlewild Airport (now JFK).

In another first, Graham departed Elizabeth City March 24, 1949 on a helicopter transcontinental flight. The, 3,900-mile solo trip ended in Port Angeles, WA, after 56 hours’ flight time, in ten and one-half days.

A decade later, Graham provided the helicopter escort for Queen of England during the dedication of the St. Lawrence Seaway in summer of 1959. He attended Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia through the newly opened seaway from Buffalo to Chicago.

Back to rescue, Graham, flew the helicopter’s first recorded night hoist in the Gulf of Mexico, retrieving three survivors from a vessel breaking up on reef in January 1955.

Graham retired from active Coast Guard service in September 1960 after 24 years. His career began as an enlisted Surfman walking the cold and lonely beaches of Long Island, New York, looking into storm tossed surf for ships in distress. Following his commissioning and designation as a Naval Aviator in the early days of WWII, he progressed quickly, retiring as a Commander. His proven effectiveness as a leader contributed significantly to worldwide helicopter development.

LT Graham demonstrates the newly developed rescue basket and hoist on a Sikorsky HOS-3G, 1947. Coast Guard Photo.

LT Graham demonstrates the newly developed rescue basket and hoist on a Sikorsky HOS-3G, 1947. Coast Guard Photo.

Stew’s pioneering efforts in helicopters resulted in the rescue of thousands of people in distress around the globe over the past seventy years. He helped prove the value of the helicopter as a revolutionary aircraft through his own imagination, tenacity, and exceptional skill.

Cmdr. Graham was recognized for his contribution to aviation in the Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Honors in 1995 and in the United States Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in 2004. During his career, Graham received the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals, Knighthood by the Belgium government and numerous other awards for helicopter development.

We often refer to the incalculable loss we all suffer with the passing of members of the “Greatest Generation.” There is no more profound example than the end of life for our friend and mentor Stewart Ross Graham, Commander, US Coast Guard, retired.

Godspeed.

The family plans for internment in Arlington at a later date.

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