Stewart Graham

United States of America


1917 - 2016

Stewart Ross Graham was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Sept. 25, 1917. He joined the Coast Guard in 1937 as a surfman (a rescue surf boat coxswain); he later began flight training and earned his wings on Sept. 5, 1941 — as US Coast Guard Aviator #114. Graham was assigned to seaplanes and amphibians on wartime anti-submarine warfare (ASW) patrols and earned an officer’s commission in late 1942.

The following year, Graham witnessed a demonstration by Igor Sikorsky of the YR-4, and was “awestruck.” He graduated from helicopter flight training on Oct. 20, 1943, soloing after only 3½ hours of instruction. On Nov. 1, Erickson and Graham ferried the first USCG helicopter, a Sikorsky YR-4B (Serial No. 46445) from Bridgeport, Connecticut to the Coast Guard Air Station, Brooklyn, New York, where Graham was also assigned as an instructor. (The version for the Coast Guard was designated the HNS-1.)

On Jan. 6, 1944, Graham departed on the British freighter SS Daghestan, transporting two YR-4 helicopters to England and evaluating the feasibility of utilizing helicopters aboard merchant ships for ASW patrols around the convoy. Wind and sea conditions prevented any flight operations until Jan. 16, when Graham made the first helicopter takeoff from a vessel on the high seas. He flew out ahead of and then around the convoy for thirty minutes, and then made a successful landing on the pitching and rolling makeshift flight deck. Graham received the US Navy Air Medal for this daring test flight.

On April 3, 1945, Graham demonstrated the helicopter in Washington, DC for members of the US Congress for the first time. A few months later, when the Nash-Kelvinator Factory in Detroit, Michigan began to build the Sikorsky HOS-1 (R-6) helicopter, Graham was assigned to test and accept the new Coast Guard aircraft as they came off the assembly line. Then, from October to December 1945, he underwent advanced instrument training at the Civil Air Administration Flight Center in Houston, Texas.

In February 1946, Graham was assigned as the project pilot with the Anti-Submarine Helicopter Dipping Sonar program, which was run by the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. He flew the helicopter used for the successful testing of a special “dipping” sonar, a device that is still in use today by Navy ASW helicopter squadrons.

Commander Erickson and Lieutenant Graham transferred to Elizabeth City, North Carolina in July 1946 to establish a new Coast Guard aviation section, which became known as the Rotary Wing Development Unit. The team initiated much of the rescue equipment, helicopter design and tactics still used today by modern naval helicopter crews. These include such innovations as the hydraulic hoist and rescue basket for survivor retrieval, which allowed the Coast Guard to conduct rescues that its conventional fixed-wing aircraft and small boats could not.

Both Graham and Erickson played an instrumental role after the world’s first major airline crash occurred in wilderness tundra near Gander, Newfoundland. A Belgian Sabena Airlines DC-4 passenger aircraft crashed 20 m (32.2 km) from Gander Airport on Sept. 18, 1946, with 37 passengers and a crew of seven. The location was so remote that about the only way to get a rescue party there was by helicopter. Elizabeth City HNS-1 helicopters were disassembled and air transported to Gander in one of the earliest rescue efforts undertaken by helicopters — the “Miracle at Gander” saved 18 survivors. The rescue demonstrated the usefulness of the helicopters in saving lives in remote locations and secured a permanent place for helicopters in the Coast Guard. For their actions, Erickson and Graham were each commissioned “A  Knight of the Order of Leopold” by the Belgium government.

After the war, CDR Graham:

  • Was the first to carry helicopter airmail to the North Carolina Outer Banks villages (October 1946)
  • Was the first to employ a nighttime medical evacuation, by helicopter, when they were not even equipped for night flying (December 1947).
  • Flew 3,900 miles (6,300 km) from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to Port Angeles, Washington, in 56 hours over 10 days (March 1949).
  • Made the first recorded night hoist, retrieving three survivors of a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico (January 1955).
  • Performed a week of helicopter search-and-rescue demonstration flights for the opening ceremonies of New York’s Idlewild Airport, now John F. Kennedy International Airport (June–July 1948).
  • Provided the helicopter escort for the Queen of England on the HMS Britannia after the dedication of the St. Lawrence Seaway, from Buffalo, New York, to Chicago, Illinois (June 1959).

In 1960, after 24 years of service, he retired to Naples, Maine, where he lived with his family until the end of his days. He will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Cmdr. Graham was recognized for his contribution to aviation in the Coast Guard Aviation Hall of Honors in 1995 and in the US Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in 2004. During his career, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals, knighthood from the Belgian government, and numerous other awards for helicopter development. He also earned medals for the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, American Campaign Service, and World War II Victory, a commendation from the Secretary of the Navy, and a Coast Guard letter of commendation.

Stewart Ross Graham Sr. passed away on August 13, 2016; he was 98. The official US Coast Guard history page notes that “He was instrumental, along with another Coast Guard aviation pioneer, Captain Frank Erickson, in developing the helicopter into the multi-functional aircraft that it is today.” Graham was designated as USCG Helicopter Pilot No. 2, after Erickson, who was his instructor.

AHS Update: Vertiflite November/December 2016