Coast Guard Air Station Humboldt Bay – Then and Now

Smith River Rescue

SAR missions in Humboldt Bay are generally significant and challenging. Photo courtesy Sector Humboldt Bay

Story by Lt. Taylor Andrews 

The Coast Guard Air Station responsible for the northern coast of California was established in the 1970s, but the airport’s history dates back to the early 1940s.

In 1943, the U.S. Navy acquired land in the area known as Dow’s Prairie (now referred to as McKinleyville) for an auxiliary air station to supplement their forces in Alameda.  Just south of Dow’s Prairie, the town of Ferndale was home to the Navy’s 12th Regiment, but they had no ties with aviation — they were focused on horseback shoreline patrols and intelligence collection on Japanese submarines.

Soon after opening the Naval Air Station, the area was determined to be one of the foggiest in the nation.  Not to be discouraged, the Navy used the unique area to further develop the landing aids and fog dispersal techniques invented during WWII.  The Fog, Immediate Dispersal Of (FIDO) system featured ignited fuel lines running parallel to runways to truly “burn off the fog” and provide a clear landing pocket. This system, in addition to newly developed ground-controlled approaches, high intensity approach lights, and an instrument landing system were used to complete the first consistent safe landings in thick fog.  With the exception of the FIDO system — which at today’s prices would cost nearly $45 thousand in fuel alone for the standard 10-minute approach — much of the technology developed at the Landing Aids Experiment Station is still in use today.


The Ferndale flood of 1964. (File credit unknown)

The Navy has long since departed, and ownership of the airport has changed hands to Humboldt County but the military presence and fog remain.  Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay currently resides at the nearby Arcata airport, having grown from a summertime air detachment of Air Station San Francisco to a fully fledged air station since 1977.

Storms like the Ferndale flood in 1964 — in which the Eel River rose 29 feet above flood stage and submerged the entire town — were a driving force in local citizens’ demand for a permanent Search and Rescue (SAR) facility in northern California.  Coast Guard HH-52A helicopter, tail number CG1363, responded to this particular storm from Air Station San Francisco, over two hours away.  The crew saved 16 people before getting lost in the fog while attempting to return for fuel, and crashed six miles north of the Arcata Airport.  The three-person crew and the four civilian survivors were lost in the crash.  Ultimately, the storm took 29 lives and caused $100 million in damages.

Tragic stories like this one are known to all the aircrews stationed in Humboldt who continue to deal with the fog.  Southern currents along the Pacific’s steep coastal shelf result in an upwelling of cold water along the shoreline while maritime air masses passing over this band of water are cooled, releasing their moisture as fog directly over the Air Station.  Changes in weather occur rapidly and often without warning. Aviators who fly in the area are skeptical of even the sunniest days.

Surf OPS

A helicopter rescue crew from Air Station Humboldt Bay trains for surf operations. Photo courtesy of Sector Humboldt Bay)

Although SAR missions are infrequent in relation to other parts of the country, the cases that occur are generally significant and challenging.  Aviators leaving Humboldt Bay feel confident in their abilities to handle a variety of conditions outside the Coast Guard’s normal niche including cliffs, surf zones, confined areas, and mountain flying.

Lt. Brian Ward, a recently transferred pilot to Sector Humboldt Bay, says that operating in the Humboldt area comes with a whole new set of challenges that can be intimidating to a new pilot.

“The training I’ve received has prepared me to take on the unique challenges of this AOR.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to hone my professional skills and provide a service to the community,” said Ward.