USCG Flying Life Boats

The first rescue by a Flying Life Boat in USCG history, the FLB-51 Antares taxiing up to the tanker Samuel Q. Brown 50 miles out to sea off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey.

Published on June 1, 2012

Today in aviation history, 81 years ago on June 1, 1931, the US Coast Guard introduced its first dedicated search and rescue aircraft, a Douglas RD as the first of a new fleet of aircraft that were dubbed the “Flying Life Boats” (designated FLBs).

As maritime shipping increased steadily in the 1930s, the Coast Guard Cutter fleet was hard pressed to respond to the increasing demand for their services. Whereas before, most rescues were taking place close to the nation’s shorelines, the requirement had evolved considerably as shipping had gone from coastal sailing vessels to ocean-going motor ships. Even the coastal shippers had moved their routes farther out to sea so as to avoid shallows and rocks, which they were able to do for the first time due to the improvements in shipping technologies and engines. The downside was that when an emergency happened farther offshore, rescue by a Coast Guard Cutter was at least hours away and might even be days later.

Clearly, another method had to be devised and the USCG leadership recognized that aviation held the promise of a solution.

Early Coast Guard Aviation

The Coast Guard had come very late to acquiring aircraft to support its mission. Its first aircraft, a Vought UO-1, was loaned from the US Navy in 1925 and flew for a year with the service, primarily to in flying patrols against rum runners in those early years of the Prohibition. As the Vought UO-1 was to be returned to the Navy, the USCG acquired three Loening OL-5s and two Vought UO-4s.

Thereafter, with the rising prominence of aviation in Coast Guard service, in 1928, an aviation section was established at the US Coast Guard Headquarters and placed under the command of Cdr Norman Hall, USCG. The new aviation section immediately went to work drawing up a set of specifications for an aircraft of its own to better serve its unique search and rescue needs.

Aircraft Design Goals

Based on the evolving mission, it seemed clear that a large seaplane or amphibious aircraft with long endurance and great range was the best answer. With that sort of aircraft and capability, when a ship in distress called for assistance, the USCG could deploy an aircraft to fly there in a few hours at most. On arrival, if the sea conditions were suitable — even if somewhat rough — the aircraft would be designed to enable it to land and come up alongside the ship to effect the rescue of its crew.

The design specifications were challenging, even for the Fokker company and defined a durable aircraft capable of “observing, landing and returning with rescued crew of distressed craft and/or capable of landing, taking aboard fifteen or more passengers and standing by for lengthy periods on [the] surface until rescued members can be transferred to surface craft.” For the late 1920s and early 1930s, this was an extremely challenging requirement. Fokker was won the bid and delivered its aircraft in response in exchange for a payment of $360,000 authorized by USCG Commandant Frederick C. Billard.

The aircraft concept was nicknamed the “Flying Life Boat.” To more rapidly achieve these goals, the designers elected to not create an aircraft from scratch but rather to modify two types of existing, proven types. Ultimately, two Douglas RD Dolphins, one RD Sinbad and five General PJ-1 Model AF-15 twin-engined flying boats built by American Fokker Company. The aircraft were built in Dundalk, Maryland, and were based on the civil F-11A design. These would prove to be the last Fokkers built in the USA. The F-11A design was modified and immediately pressed into service in the USCG’s new aviation branch.

Named after the Stars


As with the Coast Guard’s fleet of Cutters, the aircraft were all christened with names — in the case of the aircraft, they were named for important stars. The two Dolphins were as follows: an Douglas RD-1 Dolphin (c/n 1003) named “Sirius” and a Douglas RD-2 Dolphin (c/n 1122) named “Adhara.” The Douglas RD Sinbad flying boat (c/n 703) was named “Procyon.” The PJ-1 and PJ-2 Model AF-15s were all identical and were christened, “Antares”, “Altair”, “Acrux”, “Acamar” and “Arcturus”.

Rescue Stories

Together, all of these aircraft were involved in numerous rescues. In fact, the first PJ-1 (FLB-51 “Antares”) was still undergoing acceptance testing at Air Station Cape May, New Jersey, in 1932 when the first emergency call was received. The U.S. tanker Samuel Q. Brown called and reported that two of its crewmen were seriously injured and in need of urgent medical assistance. When the call came in, LCdr von Paulsen was already aloft doing testing and he immediately responded to the distress call.

Just 30 minutes later, he landed near the tanker and taxied up in smooth seas to effect the rescue. On returning the men to Cape May, medical staff advised that the care they needed was available in Philadelphia and so von Paulsen then transported them a second time inland to land at the naval aircraft factory. An ambulance then took the seaman to the hospital.

Another interesting rescue took place in January 1933 off of Cape Canaveral, Florida, where LCdr Carl von Paulsen (again!) landed the PJ-1 “Arcturus” in a heavy seas to rescue a boy adrift in a small skiff. The seas, however, proved too rough for the aircraft, which sustained considerable damage. Unable to take off, LCdr von Paulsen sailed and motored the Arcturus as best as was possible until he was able to beach it. The boy was rescued, there were no injuries among the flight crew and the plane was repaired. For this action, von Paulsen and his crew were awarded the Treasury Department’s Life Saving Medal of Honor, the Government’s highest peacetime award.

The “Arcturus” would fly on and into USCG history, undertaking numerous other rescues before finally being retired and scrapped in August of 1941, just a few months prior to America’s entry into World War II in the wake of the December 7 attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.



The following was drawn from USCG records regarding the PJ-1 and PJ-2 aircraft:

CG-51 “Antares” FLB-51 as it was originally numbered began its life as a PJ-1. It was accepted by the Coast Guard on 16 April 1932. It was christened as Antares on that day by the wife of the then-Commandant, Mrs. F. C. Billard. Its engines were modified from a pusher-type to tractor-type by the Coast Guard in 1933 and it was redesignated as a PJ-2. It was later given the designation V-116. It was initially stationed at Air Station Cape May, New Jersey, and later transferred to Air Station Biloxi, Mississippi.

CG-52 “Altair” FLB-52 was accepted by the Coast Guard and commissioned in August, 1932. It was christened Altair and launched on that day by Miss Aline Beverly Chalker, daughter of CDR & Mrs. Lloyd Toulmin Chalker, USCG, at the General Aviation Manufacturing plant in Dundalk, MD. It was later designated V-112 and was decommissioned in May, 1940.

CG-53 “Acrux” FLB-53 was accepted by the Coast Guard and commissioned on 1 September, 1932. It was christened Acrux and launched on that day by the daughter of the Commandant, Miss Jean Hamlet. Its designation was later changed to V-113. It was decommissioned in October, 1940.

CG-54 “Acamar” FLB-54 was accepted by the Coast Guard and commissioned in September, 1932. It was christened Acamar and its designation was later changed to V-114. It was decommissioned and “abandoned” in August 1937.

CG-55 “Arcturus” FLB-55 was accepted by the Coast Guard and commissioned in November, 1932. It was christened Arcturus and its designation was later changed to V-115. In 1935 it was stationed at Air Station Miami. It was at one point assigned to Air Station Salem before being transferred to Air Station St. Petersburg, Florida on 11 December 1938. It was decommissioned in August 1941. It may have then been cut up and burned as scrap.

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