Before there was Lindbergh, there was U.S. Coast Guard Aviator Comm. Elmer F. Stone, a seaplane pilot who took part in an epic rescue of sailors, set the seaplane world speed record, and was part of the team that completed the first-ever trans-Atlantic flight, earning accolades for the U.S. from around the world.
Coast Guard Commander Elmer F. Stone, an aviation pioneer, world-record setter, and search-and-rescue hero.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
Stone joined the Revenue Cutter Service at the age of 23 and was assigned to study the engines of his assigned ship, quickly rising to be an engineering officer on board and paving the way for his future expertise in steam and gasoline engines. The Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service were combined in 1915 into the Coast Guard, and some officers of the combined military branch pushed the use of aviation in search-and-rescue missions.
The young Stone was one of those visionaries, and he attended flight training at Pensacola, Florida, from April, 1916, to April, 1917, receiving designations as the Navy’s 38th aviator and the Coast Guard’s first. Soon after, he was sent to the Navy for service in World War I, taking part in cutter patrols and convoy escorts in the Atlantic.
The flight crew of the NC-4. Coast Guard Lt. Elmer Stone is the second from the right.
But it was after World War I that he really made his fame. Soon after the Armistice, Stone was assigned as the pilot of NC-4, a Coast Guard seaplane, and involved in a six-team race to conduct the first trans-Atlantic flight. There were three U.S. teams (the other two teams piloted NC-1 and NC-3), and three British teams.
The NC-4 team faced early trouble after their New York takeoff as the plane’s four massive engines were finicky at best. They were forced to land to replace a broken rod and discovered that their steel propellers had cracked. They acquired wooden replacements and flew up to Canada for their final jump off before crossing the Atlantic.
The victorious crew of the NC-4 poses with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt after a meeting.
The three American teams headed east together but NC-1 and NC-3 lost their bearings and conducted sea landings to try and obtain celestial navigation. This was a risky move as the planes needed to skim the waves for two miles before they could take off again. Unfortunately, both planes were damaged during the landings and could not attempt the long take off, forcing them to retire from the race.
So, Stone and his team continued alone, landing in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 27, 1919, and winning the race. Team members, including Stone, were decorated with honors from the Portuguese government and received a cash prize from the London Daily Mail. Soon after, they received medals from the French, British, and American governments, and Stone received a letter from Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Eight years later, Charles Lindbergh made history for making a similar, solo flight.
The Naval Air Ship Akron was the largest man-made flying object of her time, but was tragically lost in a storm in 1933.
He was farmed out to the Navy once again in 1920 and assisted in the creation of gunpowder catapults to launch planes from cruisers and carriers as well as hydraulic arresting gear for carriers. He was released from the Navy back to the Coast Guard in 1926 and spent the next few years as the executive officer and then commander for Coast Guard cutters and destroyers used in Prohibition duty.
In 1931, he returned to aviation duty, conducting trials of seaplanes and taking command of a Coast Guard air station. While serving as the station commander, Stone went to a meeting at Naval Air Station Anacostia in 1933 and learned that the air ship Akron, a flying aircraft carrier used for reconnaissance and observation, had gone down in a storm.
Stone was personal friends with some of the Navy aviators on the Akron, and he immediately piloted his way into the same storms and rough seas that had doomed the air ship. At the time, most Coast Guard stations were reporting that their boats couldn’t safely reach the crash site due to the rough seas.
But none of that deterred Stone who not only reached the site, but managed to recover the bodies of two doomed sailors. Unfortunately, he was unable to save any of the aviators who served on the airship. The event would go down as the single-deadliest crash of an airship in Navy history.
A few years later, in 1934, Stone piloted a seaplane over a course at Buckroe, Virginia, reaching 191 mph and setting the amphibian plane speed record at the time, again earning accolades from his government and helping lead to his promotion to the rank of Commander, the last promotion he received.
Tragically, he died two years later of a massive heart attack while inspecting planes at Air Patrol Detachment San Diego.