|The class at Naval Air Station Pensacola included 3rd Lt. Elmer Stone, 4th from right, back row.|
They became the first Coast Guard Aviation Group. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard
That honor goes to a much-less-remembered Coast Guard commander, Elmer Fowler Stone, who once, before beginning his career as an aviator, worked as a press operator for The Virginian-Pilot. I’m not kidding. And I’m as surprised as you probably are.“Archie” Stone was born in Livonia, N. Y., near Rochester, in 1887 but moved as a youngster to Norfolk. His father, F.E. Stone, apparently died in 1900. Census records that year show the 13-year-old Elmer living with his mother, Flora, and two sisters, Marion and Lucy, in the home of James and Laura Fowler, his mother’s parents.
They all lived on East Willoughby Street, likely a small blue collar neighborhood near what is now close to the entrance to the Downtown Tunnel. He probably attended and graduated from the former Norfolk High School in that neighborhood. By age 18 he listed his occupation as “printer” and later as “assistant pressman” and “pressman,” and the family moved to Redgate Avenue and later Graydon Avenue.The young Stone was definitely upwardly mobile, but seemed to have no inkling he’d be an aviator. The Wright Brothers had just gotten off the ground in 1903. Lindbergh wouldn’t make his attempt until 1927. But soon an intriguing opportunity dawned. In 1910 he qualified as a cadet in the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard, graduating in three years. He’d quickly prove himself.
In June 1915, while Stone was a line officer on board the cutter Onondaga stationed at Newport News, the ship’s radio officer received a message that a three-masted schooner, the C.C. Wehrum, heavily laden with lumber, was in a sinking condition in a storm off False Cape.“We arrived there early in the morning and a volunteer boat’s crew from the ship took off the crew of the schooner and we laid by the Wehrum for three days,” the quartermaster reported, “and when the weather moderated we got the schooner in tow and brought her into Norfolk.”
All seven crew members were saved, and Stone, who led the rescue effort, received a letter of commendation praising the “skill and judgment which you displayed in the handling of the Onondaga.” His action reflected “great credit upon the service to which you belong and stamps you as a man of that resourcefulness that overcomes obstacles.”The characterization would prove to be fitting.
Monumental things were afoot in Hampton Roads. Daredevil flyer Eugene Ely had taken off from the deck of a Navy ship off Old Point Comfort in a Curtiss Model 1D “pusher” aircraft in 1910. At the same time, aircraft pioneer Glenn Curtiss was shopping around for a place to begin a flying school, and in December 1915 opened the Atlantic Coast Aeronautical Station in Newport News.Hundreds of would-be pilots and instructors, including legends like Eddie Rickenbacker and Billy Mitchell, descended on the Peninsula to train and be trained in those wonderful airships. The school was almost within shouting distance of the Onondaga’s homeport, and Stone was fascinated.
He witnessed Navy seaplane training exercises at the school and hopped a ride on a Curtiss Model F “flying boat.” It was a watershed moment for the fledgling Coast Guard, which was formed that year when the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service were merged. Why not, Stone wondered, use aircraft for search and rescue operations?Stone helped plan just such a strategy and borrowed a Navy pilot and flying boat for a demonstration. It was an unqualified success and led to the creation of several Coast Guard air rescue bases.
Stone was sent to flying school in Pensacola, Fla., and soon found himself in a unique class of airmen. With the U.S. at war in Europe, the Navy had hoped to develop planes that could fly across the ocean to attack German submarines. The effort stalled at war’s end but a British newspaper, the London Daily Mail, offered a $50,000 prize for the first team to make the passage successfully.The race for the first to cross the pond was on and Stone would be facing one of the most intriguing and dangerous missions in aviation history.
Next week: the flying boats that could. And almost couldn’t.