by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
One rainy morning in February 1979, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter took off from the island of Maui to scour the ocean for five missing fishermen. Inside a cage underneath the chopper, three pigeons—yes, pigeons—kept watch for any signs of the sailors or their boat.
It was a real-life demonstration of Sea Hunt, the military’s pigeon-powered sensor. A day before, the 14th Coast Guard District in Honolulu asked the Naval Ocean Systems Center—a.k.a., NOSC—if it could use the experimental device in the search.
Three years earlier, the Coast Guard had teamed up with the Navy to build Sea Hunt. “Research … demonstrated pigeons can perform the ocean searches better than the crew flying the helicopter,” one Navy report on the project declared.
The birds “remain vigilant to complex visual tasks for many hours,” the report added.
Scientists determined that the birds’ eyes — and their basic nature — made them well suited to search and rescue missions. With a better overall field of vision to begin with, pigeons could scan large areas faster than a human being.
“Pigeons are highly adaptive, easy to train and to maintain and have a life expectancy of more than 10 years,” the Navy’s review added. NOSC trained the birds to recognize red, yellow or orange objects—colors commonly used for life jackets and other emergency gear.
The prototype Sea Hunt system consisted of a box — a sort of pigeon command center — housing three pigeons strapped below a rescue chopper. Each bird could look down at the ocean through one of two windows.
When the avian observers spotted colored debris floating on the waves, they would peck at a switch in the compartment. If two birds hit the switch, a light would flash on in the cockpit.
Alerted to something down below, the human crew members could then focus their search on that specific area. To test out how well the system actually worked, NOSC engineers rigged up the Sea Hunt boxes on Marine HH-46 Sea Knight and Coast Guard HH-52 Sea Guard rescue choppers.
During the experiments, the birds spotted test targets — floating orange spheres — on the choppers’ initial passes 90 percent of time.
During these same tests, Marine and Coast Guard aviators noticed the same spheres less than half the time on the first go.
Even on missions lasting nearly three hours, the pigeons remained alert. During some flights, the birds proved to be too vigilant, picking up “nuisance targets” such as brightly colored civilian pleasure boats.
“The consensus of the pilots who have flown this mission is that the pigeon apparatus will be a great aid in search missions off shore,” Marine Col. M.H. Sautter, commander of the Marine Corps Air Station at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii, wrote in a letter to NOSC in 1978. “The rapid onset of human eye fatigue is a well documented fact.”
And while the pigeons didn’t find the fishermen in the real search off Maui, the birds did spot small debris the chopper crews might have otherwise missed. But no one knows whether the Sea Hunt birds would have finally found the missing men.
On the second day of the search, the Sea Guard’s engine gave out.
The helicopter made an emergency landing, but sadly, the pigeons died when their container broke away from the chopper and smashed into the ground. The human crew escaped the accident unharmed.
In spite of the incident, the Coast Guard bought into the idea. Two years later, the service had largely taken over Sea Hunt and recommended sending the pigeons to helicopter units across America.
The Coast Guard even imagined using the birds in safety campaigns akin to the Forest Service’s famous safety mascot Smokey the Bear, according to a 1981 NOSC report on Coast Guard projects involving animals.
Coast Guard officials also wanted to expand on the basic concept. With owls instead of pigeons, the scientists figured Sea Hunt would be able to “see” at night. Patrol boats and cutters might carry teams of pigeons or hawks to find boaters or swimmers in distress.
With tracking collars and special training, the birds would lead rescuers to areas of interest. But the Navy experts weren’t convinced this plan would work.
“Concepts which required fitting electronic packages on birds and guiding them in flight are riskier,” the review of animal projects explained. “Training birds to fly out searching with no identified termination point to the flight … could prove difficult.”
Despite the Coast Guard’s support and the project’s successes, Sea Hunt quietly faded into obscurity. More conventional gear such as night vision goggles, spotlights and infrared cameras won out in the end.
Besides, the Pentagon had more advanced helicopters under construction — forgoing the need for pigeons. Nearly a decade after NOSC got started on Sea Hunt, the Coast Guard replaced the aging HH-52s with new HH-65 Dolphins. With advanced radars and flight computers, the French-designed choppers were easier on pilots than the older Sea Guards.
Most importantly, the Dolphins had an autopilot so the crew could focus on scanning the waves—without any help from the pigeon-powered sensor.