features The Flying Lifeboat’s Second Life

Over 50 years ago, the Sikorsky HH-52A began a quarter of a century of service in the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet. Now an enterprising operator is showing that there’s still life in the groundbreaking amphibious aircraft.
Avatar for Skip Robinson By Skip Robinson | October 7, 2016

Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 35 seconds.

From the early 1960s till the late 1980s, the Sikorsky HH-52A (S-62C) was the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) primary Short Range Recovery Helicopter. By the mid-1980s, the HH-52A began to be replaced by the Aérospatiale HH-65A Dolphin at air stations around the U.S. By September 1989, the conversion from the HH-52A was complete, but the aircraft has never been forgotten. For one aircraft, this has led to a whole new life after retirement, thanks to an enterprising operator in Riverside, California.

Over 50 years since its first flight, the S-62/HH-52 is still a graceful aircraft and looks contemporary. Skip Robinson Photo

The story of the HH-52A begins with the USCG’s intended procurement of 96 Sikorsky HUS-1Gs — a military version of the Sikorsky S-58 — in 1959. After the first six were put into service, two unexplained ditching accidents within an hour of each other in Tampa Bay, followed by another airframe loss in a crash in the Gulf of Mexico, forced the USCG to cancel the procurement. The search began for a different aircraft to meet the mission requirements. The new amphibious Sikorsky S-62 was examined, and almost perfectly fit the USCG’s needs. With a boat hull fuselage, it was able to land and taxi on water, and it also had a cabin large enough to carry 10 survivors. The fact that it had an economical and reliable turbine engine, as well as the proven drivetrain of the Sikorsky S-55, gave the USCG the confidence it had a winner. The aircraft was tested and refined with the USCG’s equipment, including a three-channel Automatic Stabilization Equipment (ASE) system. Other Coast Guard additions included a hydraulic rescue hoist, a rescue basket, and a sea rescue platform that allowed the crew to recover victims while on the water by sliding them into the cabin. In January 1962, with final testing complete, the USCG put an order out for 99 HH-52A Seaguards (or HU2S-1Gs, as they were known at that point). The first was delivered on Jan. 15, 1963, and the last on Jan. 17, 1969.

Airframe (1403)
This particular airframe (1403) started its career in the U.S. Coast Guard at Air Station Los Angeles in 1964. Skip Robinson Photo

After procurement, the HH-52As were based at air stations and on ships, including Coast Guard cutters and icebreakers. The HH-52A traveled the world performing missions for the USCG, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everything in between. Over the years, it was credited with rescuing over 15,000 people — at the time, the most of any helicopter in the world. The Seaguard worked for the Apollo space program during training scenarios, during post-hurricane rescue operations, and on daily and nightly rescues across the U.S. The aircraft flew its last operational USCG flight on Sept. 12, 1989, after which the airframes were either sent to museums, testing facilities, or the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.

USCG Air Station Los Angeles
A historic family picture before USCG Air Station Los Angeles closed in May 2016. Skip Robinson Photo

Starting a New Life

Today, a surviving HH-52A Seaguard still flies with Aris Helicopters of Riverside, California. “We’ve been operating older Sikorsky helicopters since the early 1990s, when we bought two piston radial engine S-58 helicopters to do lift work,” Scott Donley, owner of Aris Helicopters, told Vertical. “We flew these workhorses till until 2004, and stayed with the S-58 series, but upgraded to the PT-6 Twin-Pac Turbine powered S-58T.”

N52NP (formerly airframe 1403)
N52NP (formerly airframe 1403) now belongs to Aris Helicopters. Here, it cruises its old patrol area off the coast of Los Angeles. Skip Robinson Photo

Today, the company still operates two S-58Ts — and recently added to its fleet of Sikorsky helicopters when the opportunity arose to purchase a standard category Sikorsky S-62A from an operator in Australia, and a flyable Sikorsky HH-52 from a company in Alaska.

From Aris’s records the last USCG operational base of the HH-52 (ship number 1403) was New Orleans. It was bought by Northern Pioneer Helicopters of Alaska in 2000, and operated by the company until 2006. Two owners later, Aris found the aircraft for sale.   The company flew up to Alaska to inspect the aircraft, bought it, and then trucked it straight down to California. The flight to Australia to inspect the S-62A soon followed, and, following an inspection, Aris purchased the aircraft, disassembled it, and packed it into a container for shipment across the Pacific.

“When 1403 arrived at our hangar, we disassembled it, did inspections and repairs, sent the engine in for inspections and updates, and then the HH-52A was reassembled,” said Donley. “After this two-year process, the aircraft was repainted into Aris company colors, all the details sorted out, and finally test flown. The helicopter flies great, and now we are progressing to making a water landing.”

The HH-52A sits beside its replacement
The HH-52A sits beside its replacement, the Aerospatiale MH-65 series. This HH-52A did yeoman’s work at Air Station Los Angeles for a few years in the 1960s. Skip Robinson Photo

In terms of its size, the main rotor diameter of Aris Helicopters’ HH-52A is 53 feet (16 meters), its overall length is 62 feet and three inches (19 meters), and the static ground height to the top of the rotorhead is 14 feet and two inches (4.3 meters). The aircraft has a large main cabin — large enough to allow a person to stand and have room to move about. This helped reduced fatigue during search-and-rescue missions. Aris’s HH-52A sits at an empty weight of 4,927 pounds (2,235 kilograms), giving a useful load of 3,373 lbs. (1,530 kg) with no fuel. The helicopter has two fuel tanks: one forward that has a 187-US gallon (708-liter) capacity, and one aft at 138 US gallons (522 liters).

“With a total of 325 [US] gallons [325 liters] and an optimal best burn rate of 70 gallons [264 liters] per hour, we can fly about four hours before needing to refuel,” said Steve Bull, a pilot at Aris Helicopters. Bull has recorded many hours in both the S-58 and S-58T, and has also spent time in the Sikorsky S-55B and CH-54A Skycrane — as well as flying the latest members of the company’s fleet, the HH-52A and S-62A.

In a lifting role, the aircraft’s cargo hook system is rated at 3,000 lbs. (1,360 kg). “We’re confident [that] with a light fuel load it can lift 2,500 to 2,800 lbs. [1,134 to 1,270 kg] without problem,” Bull added.

He said the most unique characteristic of the HH-52A is its ability to land and taxi on water. “In calm seas it could be shut down if needed,” he said. “It’s truly a flying lifeboat. Although other helicopters followed its lead, the S-62A series were the first amphibious helicopters to fly.”

The Pilot’s Perspective

The history behind the Seaguard made flying it “an honor” said Bull. “In many ways, it’s like flying any other helicopter with the typical cyclic between the legs for the right hand, pedals to control the tail rotor with your feet, and a collective with two throttle grips on the pilot’s left side for the left hand,” he said. The furthest forward throttle works as the primary, and is very similar to a typical throttle, said Bull. The other, located immediately behind the primary on the same collective, is an emergency throttle, and serves as a backup in case of a primary fuel control problem.

Sikorsky S-55 drivetrain
The HH-52 uses the Sikorsky S-55 drivetrain and a single T-58 turbine engine, as used in the SH-3 Sea King. Skip Robinson Photo

The aircraft is powered by a General Electric T58-GE-8 turboshaft, capable of producing 1,250 shaft-horsepower on a standard sea level day. When installed in the HH-52A, the engine is de-rated to 730 shaft-horsepower due to the limitations of the helicopter’s dynamic components. This was accomplished by derating the fuel control and limiting fuel flow to a maximum of 575 pounds per hour.

General Electric T-58-GE-8 turbine engine
The intake for HH-52A’s General Electric T-58-GE-8 turbine engine. Skip Robinson Photo

“During engine start, the engine can have the rotor brake applied while at flight idle,” said Bull. “After verifying all the items on our flight checklist, we can release the rotor brake and allow the rotors to start slowly turning at engine idle speed. We then verify the primary and aux hydraulic system are functional per the checklist, freewheeling unit check ‘split the needles,’ and we can then gently and smoothly roll up the throttle to the detent position, setting NR to 100 percent, and [we then] release the wheel brakes, unlock the tail wheel by pushing in the knob between the pilot and co-pilot seat, and start our ground taxi out to the runway. Or, if desired, we can pick up into a hover like a skid-type helicopter and make a normal departure, or a vertical takeoff to clear an obstacle if in a confined area.”

Bull said the aircraft’s flight characteristics were somewhere between the other Sikorskys that he has flown. “The HH-52A is leftseat pilot certified and looks like a Sikorsky and feels like a Sikorsky both inside and out,” he said. “The S-62/HH-52 were designed by many of the same engineers as the S-58, so if you understand one, you’ll know the other. What I have noticed with the HH-52A are the three main rotor blades turn comparatively slowly.”

Bull said this was the reason the HH-52A sounds like a Bell UH-1H when it comes in for a landing. Calculating the comparative blade movements, he said the Huey’s two blades turn at 325 rotations per minute (for a total of 650 “whops” each minute), and the HH-52A’s three blades turn at 221 rotations per minutes (a total of 663 “whops” each minute).

“It’s also a bit sluggish to cyclic inputs compared to the four-bladed S-58T that I fly,” said Bull. “It’s like comparing the Hughes 500D to the Bell 206B-3, which, like all helicopters, have their own particular handling characteristics. Its not that one is better than the other — just different.”

Tail rotor of the HH-52A
Aris mechanics work on the tail rotor of the HH-52A. Overall, they said the helicopter is easy to maintain. Skip Robinson Photo

Overall, Bull said the HH-52A is a stable and predictable flying machine without showing any bad tendencies. “It also has amazing visibility from the cockpit, and even the cabin with as many windows as it has must have been an excellent search platform with its excellent internal and external visibility,” he said. “The turbine engine has good power and the rotor system is very smooth, quiet, and relatively responsive. That said, the HH-52A is no speedster with a maximum never exceed speed of 109 knots at sea level at a gross weight below 6,500 lbs. [2,950 kg]. Bring it to its maximum gross weight of 8,300 lbs. [3,765 kg] and you need to slow it down to a never exceed speed of 88 knots.”

Aris's HH-52A
Aris’s HH-52A arrives for a visit at Air Station Los Angeles. Skip Robinson Photo

The HH-52 is a classic helicopter, and despite being over 50 years old, it still has some life left in it. “We’re not sure what the future holds for HH-52A 1403, but its nice to see the old bird still flying,” said Bull.

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  1. It is great to see at least one of these is still flying. I enjoyed every minute spent working on and flying in the venerable H52 during my 2 1/2 years at USCG Air Station Brooklyn NY as an AD (Aviation Machinist Mate).

    1. A museum in Reading Pa. is also flying a HH52A on the air show circuit. As a former Coast Guardsman I almost wrecked my car when it flew overhead following I 81 enroute to the Syracuse N.Y. airshow.

  2. I love knowing one of the greatest rescue helos is still flying
    My 3 and a half years flying as a Flt. Mech.
    I’m them was definitely worth all the training it took to achieve the honor to do so.
    Having done 4 rescues including 2 storm rescues convinced me there will never be another that can equal it and to this day I scratch my head and wonder why they never upgraded them instead of buying what’s essentially a corporate bus you can’t stand up in.
    Thanks for the article.

  3. My 1st tour with the 52 was in Astoria, 1970-1974. Then to San Francisco 1974-1976 where I ran the Helo-Shop for two years. Had a good crew, AD Billy Smith, AM Tom Isley, Ad Doc Warner. and buch more that I can’t remember. Then on to North Bend where retired in1977. Would have stayed longer but was going to send me back to San Fran. to run the Helo shop again. I always felt that this was an AD billet. Should have stayed in because I was going to make E-8. Loved the 52, and loved working on it.

  4. Enjoyed working on and flying in the 52. Started in Astoria, 1970-74, and San Francisco, 1974-76 and on to North Bend, where I retired in 1977.

  5. Earl Newman, What years were you stationed at CGAS Brooklyn? I was there from 1961-1963 as an AD also. Was Chief Osborne still there? He was my chief of the helo shop and I worked with James (Mouse) Oldham, Freddy George, Terry Singer, and John Graham all AD’s. The pilots I flew with were Lt. John Wypick, Lt. Carl Swickley, Lt. James Esposito, and Capt. Benny Engel.

    1. I was at AS Brooklyn from 11/79 until 8/82. I don’t remember a lot of names but I do remember one, my CO Captain Bobby Wilkes.

  6. I really liked the 52, a joy to ride, many sorties , Mobile, Icebreakers Burton Island and Polar Star maiden voyage to the south, AT1 Charly Bratton

    1. Great to see your comments. Burton Island and Staten Island were my ships while on Deep Freeze 74 and 75…..great crews…..

  7. I was at St Pete when the H52 was introduced to the guard and worked with it at Broklyn Barbers Point, kodiak and San Fran. A fine machine enjoyed working and flying as a crewman For 14 Years.

  8. Great Aircraft responsible for thousands of important rescues, and probably a million sea stories, some of which could be exaggerated, but most start with true basis. Loved the opportunity to get over two thousand operational hours on this bird, with hundreds of shipboard landings, in additions to off site landings in the weirdoes places. Flew with a great crew who kept these hero’s in remarkable shape.

  9. I flew as a Hospital Corpsman Third and Second Class in HH-52A’s at Coast Guard Air Station Cape May in 1978-1979. Air Station Cape May only had a pad, not a runway, meaning vertical take-offs only. One of the things I remember was that with a full fuel-load combined with my defibrillator, my medical kit and my box-lunch on especially hot summer days that fuel sometimes had to be burned off before a vertical lift-off eventually became possible. And after reading this article, now I know why.

  10. I was so fortunate to fly the HH-52A for 15 years and always remember the wonderful crewmen who flew with me and helped maintain the machine. Well Done !!!!

  11. Friends and helicopters “Gone but not forgotten!”

    The H52 Seaguard, litterally an amphibious flying “lifeboat” was a great machine and a joy to fly. My 1st official flight that resulted in a life saved was with this machine and received the Sikorsky Winged “S” and Rescue “S”.

    My USCG personal friend and Aircraft Commander LT Al Seidel allowed me to fly from the “left seat” on my 1st operational flight at CGAS Miami, FL that resulted in flying the aircraft while saving this life.

    Thanks AL for the memories.

  12. The 1426 was inducted into the Smithsonian last April. The first CG aircraft to have that honor and helps to celebrate the Centennial of CG Aviation.

  13. I spent many an hour working and flying in the HH-52A and enjoyed every moment. Many stories on flight and rescues over the years I could tell. First saw an H-52 while stationed at Corpus in 1963 as one flew in from New Orleans. Got to be part of them in Astoria in 1966-69, then Miami 71-73, and Port Angeles 1974–78. Great machine to work from. Over 1000 hours in them on multiple missions. Almost taxied off the taxiway in Eugene one day in 2007 or so, when one was taking off out of the FBO there heading south. Had the old CG colors on it also. Spoke to them on the radio, but only briefly.

  14. My greatest moments in a H-52 were at CGAS Port Angeles while on a visit from
    HQ (EAE). I needed some flight time so I signed on for some shipboard training.
    We made 29 landings and take offs from a cutter in the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
    9/12/73, A/C 1416, 2.7 hrs.
    The H-52 was/is a great aircraft.

  15. Hey JJ K flew with Espo in ’62 under the ny bridges on ps patrol that x marine was great, then took a txfr to Italy. Remember Lcdr Farley

  16. God Bless Len Hennel and Mike Stafford for their many rescues in the Seaguard. One of them was the saving of my life. Many thanks to the Coasties that supported this Amphibious Helicopter.
    Semper Peratus!
    AT-1 K Nass

  17. Had the pleasure of fling the HH52A for about 13 years. Of all the great and scary times during those years my fondest remembrance was working and flying with AD1 Melvin Blocker. He saved my bacon on many an occasion.

  18. I have the highest respect for those pilots and crew members who flew some of the toughest missions and rescues over the deep waters of our oceans. My flight was on a beautiful and sunny California day, and it was a pleasure to fly an honorable piece of helicopter history ✅

  19. I was flying in 52’s from September of 1979 (Airsta Houston) to December of 1986 (ATC Mobile) until my transfer to Airsta NOLA in December of 1986, where I transitioned into the 65. I will have the pleasur of getting together with many of my shipmates from those days at a reunion at Airsta Houston, to recognize the 100th anniversay of CG aviation, and to brag a little about the induction of the 1426 into the Smithsonian (mentioned above).
    Jim McMahon
    Former AD1 and H52A Plane Captain

  20. Super article! Flew these great birds from 1963 through 1976 in Salem, Kodiak, Astoria, and Traverse City. Wonderful memories, with great teammates, and many challenging times. Oh, for a chance to do one more flight!
    Read CAPT PETERSON’s new book, A Miracle on Attu, and fly along on his mission to rescue crash survivors. It’s a book helo crews will truly enjoy

  21. AECS Jack Meyers ret 1977
    I loved the H-52. Flew in them 13 years from 64 to 77 at Astoria, Selfridge, Miami, and Mobile. Had 6 different ones on three artic north trips. Had many left seat hours. Loved that plane.
    I really enjoyed all comments from old friends.

  22. I would be remiss if I didn’t say something here. I had flown the Huey in combat but you can’t land the Huey in 6′ waves and drag a sailor aboard in a storm. You don’t put a Huey aboard a USCG Cutter and ‘wander’ the Bering…or the Caribbean. We never spent an afternoon in the Huey dragging soggy bales over to the 41’s with “mailboxes” rigged too ummm..distribute the wealth..LOL. ‘We’ saved some Cubans, some Haitians, some sailors and even some garbage barge heros…and sent more than one druggy to contemplate his/her misdoings. She wasn’t fast. Not real “bullet proof” but she sure did what she was bought to do. And kept doing it… Any day or damned near any night.

    Thanks “Old Girl”

  23. Great article! The HH-52A was the first Coast Guard aircraft I was privileged to fly. My first aviation assignment was to the Icebreaker Support Section (IBSEC) in Mobile, AL. I deployed with DET-23 on CGC Westwinf for a Summer Arctic East, DET-29 on CGC Burton Island for a Winter Arctic West, and DET-35 for a 6-month Operation Deepfreeze ’73. We operated in extreme cold temperatures and she never misbehaved…even doing self-contained battery starts! I thought she was a technological marvel at the time. The Army guys couldn’t believe we had so many instruments and radios! When I got to CGAS Cape Cod, the HH-3F crews were the glory guys. The humble 52 was constrained to offshore fisheries patrols on cutters. I logged over 350 shipboard landings and 1,360.2 hours!

    1. I was in YOUR back seat during AVDET 35( GCC Glacier) ! Although I LOVED the 52, ( what other USCG A/C allowed the enlisted air crewman to be in the the left seat, and also had the head room to stand up while hoisting). It did from a few quirks in fixing it such as when CGNR 1378 had 2 defects in it , so that every time it flew during a 2 wk period it had that caused a flight control issue that required an emergency flight quarters during crews mess that made the enlisted AVDET REALLY unpopular with the ship’s crew.
      (I loved what you did by turning the CGNR 1423 (?) “simulator” into a display @ the Naval Aviation Museum)!!

      1. I forgot one of the things about being in IBSEC /TRACEN Mobile was that if you were a 52 guy you did BOTH training ops. Which meant -20% F survial sessions in FL (Egland AFB) . And FULL auto rotations to the water Top THAT 65 guys!!!!

  24. What a great time working and flying in the 52 – so many fond memories of people worked with to maintain her. Eventually went on to big brother the H3, liked that second engine.

  25. Great memories of the 52 and the family of pilots and crew that flew her. My first duty station in aviation was Kodiak, AK 69 – 71 the Helo Shack team was George Barron, Tom Lawley and Doc Warner QC. Helos where 1442, 1423 and 1427. Some of the pilots I flew with Malcom Smith, Benjamin S. Beach, Ed Nelson X.O., Frank Carmen, David Andrews and Neil Wagstaff. A/C I remember Robert Parker, Michael Ainsworth, Danny Kukla, Ray Wadsworth and Ed Nemetz as I was rotating out.
    Houston, TX 71 -72 Helos where 1400, 1428 and a 3rd. I can’t seem to remember. Pilots H.H. Keller C.O., Joseph Russo X.O., Richard Long, Richard Buhl, David Jones and Max Roe. A/C as I remember Bob Tomas, Ernie Costigan, AT Allman and Lightfoot.

  26. I am writing a book about my experience as a flight surgeon from 1971 to 1973 at US Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco and need to interview an HH 52 A pilot for technical advice and medical rescue stories If interested text me at Lee Fanning MD 7048864177 and thx for considering sharing your knowledge Lee Fanning MD Flight Surgeon 1971-1973

  27. I used to watch the LA Based HH-52As fly past my family’s beach house near the Marina Del Rey Breakwater in the late 1970s…..they even did the Gilligan Islands retake out front…..the HH-52 was out there all day flying by the “Raft” Gilligan was on….for me , it was awesome ! To write about this life saver Helicopter is my pleasure.

  28. While at boot camp 1980 I saw for the first time the HH-52A flying overhead. I immediately went to the Yeoman and asked to change my rating. I wanted to do “that”! I didn’t know what “that” was, but was more than willing to try. Fast forward and there I was at “A” school. Ended up at Sitka, and later on to San Diego. Both times as an AD working and crewing on the HH-3F’s. To any crewmember their bird of choice will always be “that old girl”. Both of them did what was asked & more. Anyone ever picked up by one was as happy to see us than anything they ever hoped for. A Sikorsky helicopter was by far the best aircraft anybody could need for such a wide range of services. Rescues being the most important. However cargo slings, aerial refueling, fisheries patrols, training, and law enforcement were just a few of the more common jobs. Hats off to all the Coastie’s past & present who went out, but did not have to come back.

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