Let’s start a Frequently Asked Questions section on The Finest Hours.
First off: Why no choppers?
The Finest Hours is a fine movie that chronicles one of the greatest small boat rescues in the history of the US Coast Guard. In the movie, its namesake book, and my book, Two Tankers Down, you can find out how Bernie Webber and his crew overcame impossible obstacles to save the crew of the Pendleton.
And in Two Tankers Down, you can also see how another valiant crew on that same day rescued many members of the SS Fort Mercer.
But implicit within the movie is a question: Why no helicopters?
Certainly choppers were in use during this time period. The Navy used them extensively in Korea.
But not in the Coast Guard. Choppers were very late to the game because of a running conflict between the fixed-wing aviators and the choppers.
As the cover copy for a book on the controversy says:
Incredible as it now seems, great resis¬tance to developing and utilizing rotary-wing aircraft was entrenched within each of the armed forces, and only the relentless, dogged determination of less than a handful of Coast Guard officers turned the tide and launched a new chapter in aviation history.
In a nutshell, the fixed way aviators dominated the Coast Guard budget and policy making until in a series of famous impromptu rescues the rotor boys won the day.
Would the choppers of the day been able to help the Pendleton crew? Probably not, given the distances and wind speed involved. But we’ll never know because at that time, the Coast Guard chopped were few and far between. They did not come into play until later in the 1950’s.
In the meantime, the fixed wing aviators did develop incredible new methods of sea rescue — pioneering methods of landing parallel to waves instead of into them. Those techniques are thought to have saved many lives because they are applied in passenger airliner emergency sea landings.
Questions and comments welcome.