The history of aviation has its roots in the Mid-Atlantic region, and although the Wright brothers’ first flight occurred with the help of surfmen from Life-Saving Station Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Coast Guard didn’t officially sanction aviation until an act of Congress on Aug. 29, 1916.
As the Coast Guard celebrates its official centennial anniversary of flight, a group of prior-service and active-duty members rejoiced at the inclusion of the first Coast Guard aircraft to be put on permanent display in the Smithsonian, at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
Most of the credit goes to members of the Coast Guard Aviation Association, a fraternal association with the goal of preserving and displaying Coast Guard aviation history. Within this organization, there were about a dozen members who were vital to the restoration of an HH-52A Seaguard helicopter to be inducted to the Smithsonian, and one member stands out as having worked on this project the longest – retired Coast Guard Capt. Thomas King.
Although King retired in 2004, his work in preserving Coast Guard history began in 1986 when he served at Coast Guard Headquarters.
The Coast Guard was in the process of replacing the nearly 100 H-52A Seaguard helicopters it acquired, and King needed to find a home for nearly 75 of them.
“I wanted as many H-52s to go in museums as possible,” said King. “The Coast Guard was really the only organization that flew the H-52, and frankly, it is a very iconic Coast Guard item.”
The act of retiring an asset comes with a required General Services Administration process. Even with King’s desire to preserve the 52s in museums, he had to offer them in a tiered process to federal, state then local agencies, but because the aircraft wasn’t very desirable compared to others, King was able to explore other options.
King set his sight on a couple of specific museums – The Coast Guard Museum in New London, Conn., and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
“It was probably around 1988 that I began trying to get one in the Smithsonian,” said King. “At that time, the only National Air and Space Museum facility was the one at the National Mall, and they didn’t have any room for it.”
King's attempt at the Coast Guard Museum came near the end of his Coast Guard career but was abandoned after he learned the museum was too small for the helicopter, and efforts with other museums met similar fates.
A year after King retired, he became the vice president of museums, artifacts, aircraft and restoration for the Coast Guard Aviation Association. There he continued the work to preserve the 52s.
In 2003, the National Air and Space Museum opened the doors to the new Steven F. Udvar–Hazy Center, and King renewed his efforts to put a Coast Guard helicopter on display.
The Smithsonian was willing to display the aircraft, but in order to do so it would need to be fully restored. The process of finding a viable candidate began, and Project Phoenix began to take flight.
The CGAA was once again on a holding pattern until October 2012, when they held their annual roost in Sacramento, Calif. At the roost, retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Larry Evens informed the CGAA he knew where a good candidate might be.
“[Evans] made us aware of the fact that when he retired, he became director of a vocational-technical school in Van Nuys, Calif.,” said retired Capt. Mont Smith. “It was called the North Valley Occupation Center, and he said there was a helicopter there that was in relatively good condition.”
The CGAA began to negotiate with the North Valley Occupation Center to see what the possibility would be of acquiring the helicopter. The school was anxious to get something more modern.
At that time, the Coast Guard was retiring the fleet of HU-25 Guardian jets, and after many negotiations between the CGAA, the Coast Guard and the school, it was determined the Coast Guard could fly an HU-25 candidate to the school in exchange for the helicopter.
In November 2014, the final intricate piece fell into place. Retired Coast Guard Capt. Stanley Walz, who owns Vector CSP, an engineering and logistics company mostly made up of retired and former CG aviation personnel, met with King.
Walz’s company had a number of people in its workforce who worked on the H-52s when the aircraft was in service. Some were original metal benders and knew the parts and work that would be needed for the project.
The company took on the project, and retired Coast Guard Capt. John Siemens and retired Chief Warrant Officer Craig Simmons took on the bulk of the workload.
“That was really a blessing in disguise,” added Smith. “The concept of trying to get the right number of skilled volunteers to work on this aircraft, people who were very familiar with the systems of aircraft that was over 50 years old, would have been very difficult for us.”
A year later, the restoration was complete – just in time to meet their spring 2016 deadline.
"The National Air and Space Museum has always recognized the importance of the United States Coast Guard, but we have never had the opportunity to acquire and display an appropriate Coast Guard aircraft until now," said museum curator Roger Connor. "This HH-52A is fully representative of the service's life-saving mission and is arriving just in time to celebrate the centennial of Coast Guard aviation."
Thanks to King, the Coast Guard Aviation Association and the large effort and sacrifices of a few, the H-52 is the first aircraft in the world’s largest aviation collection to represent the nation’s smallest armed force – the Coast Guard.
“I think it is always great for people to be able to look at an aircraft in a restored condition and say, ‘wow, that’s our history right there,’” said Smith. “Having the H-52 in the Smithsonian is really an opportunity for notoriety.”
Editorial Note: King would like to acknowledge retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert “Bob” Johanson, who got the current effort started with King in 2005 and then kept it alive until its completion.