That time the Coast Guard tried using pigeons for sea rescues

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, the Coast Guard thought they had a better way to search for people lost in the ocean. They tested using pigeons affixed to the underside of helicopters.

Yes, like the pigeons in the park. And, yes, it did work. The birds performed about twice as well as their human counterparts at spotting “appropriate targets” on their first pass over an area.

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The pigeons performed amazingly at spotting debris in the ocean but were only trained on orange, yellow, and red objects. Photo: US Coast Guard archives

The pigeons involved in Project Sea Hunt, as the effort was known, were first sent to “basic training.” For obvious reasons, about the only thing pigeon basic shared with human basic was the name.

Pigeons were placed in training chambers with “peck keys” that released food when pressed. Once the pigeons got the hang of the keys, their training boxes would be faced toward Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, where a buoy with a radio-operated orange plate floated. Trainers would expose the orange plate and then reward the pigeon when it hit the keys, but wouldn’t feed the pigeons if the plate wasn’t exposed.

Over time, the target would be moved further away from the pigeons to train them to look further out to sea.

Once the pigeons passed basic training, the top graduates would proceed to advanced training where the pigeons were actually placed in chambers mounted beneath a helicopter and had to find orange, yellow, and red objects in the ocean. Each bird covered a 120-degree window, so a pod with three pigeons could see in 360 degrees.

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A pigeon is loaded into its pod during training in Project Sea Hunt. Photo: US Coast Guard archives

In testing on the helicopter, the pigeons spotted targets on the first pass 90 percent of the time. The human crewmembers were capable of finding the target on the first pass only 38 percent of the time. In a later test, when the humans knew they were trying to catch up to the pigeons, the humans scored a 50.

In passes where both humans and the pigeons spotted the target, the pigeon spotted it first 84 percent of the time. The pigeons were proving to be amazing day-time searchers.

There were a few drawbacks to the use of pigeons. First, the weight of the pigeons had to be carefully maintained. Pigeons at 80 percent of their “free food” weight were generally hungry enough to search the ocean for hours without losing focus. Dropping below that weight threatened the pigeons’ health but going above it would reduce their effectiveness.

And there was one tragedy in the program. A flight was sent to hunt for a missing boat and the helicopter stayed out too long. It ran out of fuel and conducted a forced landing at sea. The crew escaped with no injuries but they couldn’t get the pigeons out in time.

A second batch of pigeons was sent through training to both replace the lost pigeons and to increase the number of pigeons available for missions.

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The small bubble on the bottom of this helicopter contains three pigeons trained to spot life rafts. Photo: US Coast Guard archives

Overall, Project Sea Hunt was so successful that a 1981 audit of the program recommended that the pigeons serve at a Coast Guard air station on proper missions and that new pods be developed so that the birds could fly on newer helicopters. Federal budget cuts resulted in the program being shuttered instead.

Advances in technology have made the pigeons less necessary. Planes designed to hunt subs using magnets are much better at finding plane debris than pigeons ever were, and improved homing beacons for rafts and wrecks make the job of scanning miles of ocean less necessary.

Still, there’s a niche that pigeons could still fill better than almost any gadgets, that of looking for orange rafts and flotation devices in the open ocean.

(More photos and background on the program are available at the Coast Guard’s web page for Project Sea Hunt.)

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