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Westwind's HTL-4 Crash
June 26, 1954

The CGC Westwind returning to New York on Sept 29, 1954 after being in the Arctic for 121 days.

CGC Westwind, Arctic Duty and Helicopters

The "Wind"-class vessels represented the latest in icebreaker technology. They were relatively small, broad ships, with a length of 269 feet and a beam of 63 feet 6 inches. Their diesel power plants generated 12,000 horsepower which was ample to drive the hull through ice 3-feet thick. Besides a host of innovations on the new cutters, there was also room allotted for an amphibious aircraft and a pair of derricks to handle it.

The CGC WESTWIND was launched March 31, 1943 at Western Pipe & Steel Shipyard at San Pedro, Calif., and Commissioned September 18, 1944. However, instead of beginning a career as the Coast Guard’s newest icebreaker, it was transferred to the USSR on February 21, 1945 as part of the Lend Lease program. The Soviets renamed the ship SEVERNI POLIUS.

In 1951 the WESTWIND was returned to the Coast Guard after years of very hard use and virtually no maintenance. She was towed to Bremerhavn, Germany and handed back to the Coast Guard on December 19, 1951. The icebreaker required extensive renovation and refitting lasting seven months and at a cost of $1.2 million before becoming serviceable. The ship was recommissioned back into the Coast Guard on September 22, 1952.

From 1952 until 1966, the WESTWIND was deployed primarily in Arctic waters. With a range of 16,000 miles and its icebreaking haul, it was ideal for escorting Military Sea Transportation Service ships re-supplying isolated defense and weather stations in the Arctic.

Just at the early fixed fix aircraft has been used to spot leads and open water in the ice for ice breakers in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, in the 1950’s this role had been taken over by helicopters.

It was during the patrol during the summer of 1954 that tragedy would strike.


Headed North

On June 2, 1954, with the Navy band playing Semper Paratus, the WESTWIND left New York headed for the Arctic. As it cleared the harbor, two Navy HTL-4 helicopters from NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, joined the ship.

Just over a week later, on June 10, the WESTWIND began the first ice-breaking operation of the in season in Hamilton Inlet, the entrance to the air base at Goose Bay, Labrador. Several passes up and down the bay was enough to break up the flows and let the tides carry the ice out to sea. Next stop – Greenland.

Carl Shiber was a RM1 aboard the Westwind during that summer in the Arctic. "There were two helicopters deployed from the Navy and they were use of ice observations," said Shiber. "Everyday they would go out and scout the area ahead and look for leads."

Shiber said that the Executive Officer, Commander Paul. A. Ortman, had a very strict standing order that survival suits were to be worn at all times while flying in the helicopters.

Upon entering Melville Bay, Greenland in late June, the WESTWIND met heavy ice. The weather was clear but cold as Cdr. Ortman boarded the helicopter on June 24, along with the pilot, Navy Lieutenant G. E. Eiswald for an observation flight of the Bay. However, that day the commander didn’t follow his own orders, he was not wearing a survival suit.

The HTL-4 aboard the Westwind. Photo courtesy David Kent

"The helicopter was about 100 yards away when the malfunction occurred," said Shiber. "It came down and hit the edge of the ice. The lieutenant was killed when the engine broke lose and hit him. The Commander got out of the helicopter but was then in the freezing arctic waters."

According to Shiber, the crew of the WESTWIND was able to launch a rescue boat within five minutes and was just minutes after that that the boat was able to get to the Commander, but it was too late. Without a survival suit, he had already succumbed to hypothermia.

The helicopter was in the water upside down. The body of Eiswald wasn’t recovered until the wreckage was retrieved from the icy waters and was back aboard the Westwind.

"I recall hearing that something had gone wrong with the tail rotor, and there was talk that the framework crumpled or bent, said Shiber. "I’m not sure what it was, but I do know that all the HTL-4s were grounded for a while until they could be inspected."

In fact, soon after the crash of WESTWIND’s helicopter, nearby on the EASTWIND, which was also part of that year's operation, one of its helicopters had a malfunction and made an emergency landing on the ice. Fortunately, this time without any injuries to the crew. This second mishap resulted in the Navy grounding its entire fleet of HTL helicopters.

The WESTWIND reached Thule in late June, and transferred the wrecked helicopter and the remaining good one, to the air base for inspection. The remains of the Cdr. Ortman and Lt. Eiswald were piped ashore with full military honors, and flown back home.


As a side note, onboard for the patrol that summer were cinematographers William Fortin and Elmo G. Jones  chronicling the entire trip for a Disney/Buena Vista movie. The entire crash and rescue attempt was filmed by them. In 1955 the film, MEN AGAINST THE ARCTIC, which featured the WESTWIND, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subjects).  Naturally, the crash was not shown in the film.

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