Seasnake's Aviation Page

 

Mission for Tonight

[Recorded aboard USS KIRK, 30 June 1985]

 

          Scheduled flight is at 2100 hours (9 p.m.).  My preparation begins at 1900 when I arrive at our Berthing Compartment down in the bow of the ship. 

 

          I rarely deviate in what I wear on a flight.  Everything has a reason so I don't change it.  Under my flight suit, I wear a loose pair of running shorts or Levis and a drab green t-shirt with a Soviet emblem on it for Aviation Excellence.  My broke-in boots, buttery soft with age, go on over thick wool Diver socks.  I hang my gloves out of my calf-side pocket - an odd trait no one else shared (due to a regulation against it).  I carry a beat up helicopter flight helmet, adapted from an older style to make it work with current equipment. 

 

          Dressed, I head up seven ladders to the Combat Information Center, that is abreviated CIC or simply Combat.  It is the nerve center of the fighting capability of the ship.  Other members of my crew stand in the dim phosphorous glow of a gigantic circular plotting table.  It shines with red radiance and we are surrounded by other voices in the near-darkness.  Radio transmissions, encrypted signals, male voices muffled by distance and tension. 

 

          For 30 minutes, we discuss points of the flight profile (our intentions) and tactics.  When the ship folks and the aircrew agree on all aspects of the mission planning, we break up to continue individual aspects of our preparation.  Pilots do pilot shit; I do mine. 

 

          From the TACTIC room (my office), I pull either a worthless Government-issue 35mm camera or a pair of night vision goggles from the safe.  Why anyone would steal one of them, I'll never know.   I check the lenses, power them up, and get all the various logs that I will need to record the flight. 

 

          In the tiny ship's hangar, my crew of three briefly reviews safety and emergency procedures concerning the helicopter.  Night and helicopter ops means mortal danger, so we don't take this part for granted.  In the event we splash, I am designated to swim free with the survival gear and the bag of rafts.  If there is time, I will be dropped into the sea before the impact. 

 

          Briefing complete, we each take our time and inspect different sections of the helicopter for damage and security. 

 

          Satisfied, I gather up my gear and dress out.  Over the sage green flying suit, we wear a vest that contains roughly 25 pounds of emergency supplies.  A radio, signal mirror, water, that sort of thing, plus an elaborate floatation system.  Held on by straps and buckles, it rides high on your chest.  After several years, its weight passes completely unnoticed.

 

          The ships general silence is broken by the call on the public address system, or 1-M-C.  The matter of fact statement, "Flight Quarters, now Flight Quarters", sends about 60 men to their special jobs.  Sailors from every department jog to their places in the area just forward of the helicopter hangar, on the exposed weather decks outside the ship's protective skin. 

 

          This ship lost a helicopter attempting to land on their last cruise.  Several of these men - waiting to fight fires or extract us from a wreck - already have practical experience.  The motor whaleboat is also manned in the event we get wet.

 

          That wreck was due to one thing - the environment we fly in.  Sea Snake One Two was trying to get a oil tanker's crew safely off during a raging storm at sea and at the moment of triumph, a wave staggered the ship and the little rescue helicopter flipped on its side, to lay broken on the pitching deck.  Another of the pilots from this ship died in an accident only three months ago, in the waters off San Diego.  At night.

 

          Preparations complete, I give my driver a thumb's up and he starts our turbine engines.  Both engines light off without a hitch, and he releases the parking brake on our massive rotor head.  The four 28-foot long blades begin to spin, and soon, our helo is ready to be a flying machine. 

 

          In a moment, the blades merge into a whirling disk, illuminated by the rotating anti-collision light mounted high on the tail.  The two General Electric dash-58s sing nice and strong while the pilot does control and throttle checks.

 

          This bird is Sea Snake Two Zero, an SH-2F Rescue and Anti-submarine helicopter produced by the Kaman Electric Guitar and Naval Helicopter factory, twenty five years ago.  We are stationed in Atsugi, Japan.  Soon, it will be rotated home, but it has one long journey ahead of it first.  I will make that journey as well.  I have flown in her for five months so far, and she treats me okay.

 

          We lift into a quick hover over the darkened landing pad.  The ship, a black mass 15 feet ahead and 15 feet below us, heaves about on the sluggish waves of the South Seas.  In a very quick moment, the pilots are satisfied and we swing our tail over the water to clear the ship.  They point the nose over, and we accelerate away, gaining altitude.

 

          I run through the detailed checklist, warming up my sensors. 

 

          Turn this one on; feed that one paper.  Magnetics, sound waves, even cloaked electrical signals -- Soon, the outside world is represented to me in several dimensions.    My RADAR sees 70 miles into the night, giving me basic clues about what is out there.  I tweaked this LN-66 set into a crystal ball you couldn't imagine.  Once, I found a US Submarine in the Sea of Japan at 12 miles, with only one periscope up.  (Please, be impressed; it is normal to not find them at all, past 3 miles.)

 

          The MAD system is towed behind us on a 180' cable, like a tethered dog.  Its job is to sniff below the waves, seeking submarines to a depth of a couple of hundred feet.  The MAD recorder scrawls red and black traces down it's recorder as it searches.  I don't see the lines as they are drawn  -- my face painted in the eerie glow of the sweeping trace on the screen is under a large rubber RADAR hood (looks like you are putting your face into a grammaphone horn!), so my fingers have to tell me if they feel the MAD recorder make a wide trace.

 

          The pilot uses small explosive cartridges to blast 30-pound sonobuoys out of the launcher that my seat is crammed against -- these buoys provide me with an accurate tactical picture of the major sound sources within several miles of each buoy.  We drop them within a grid that we plant, like a mine field.  (They sink soon after the batteries die.)

 

          Under the half moon of a Southern Pacific night, my RADAR looks far beyond the horizon for targets, weather, and land.  It is a clear night, so we fly at 100 knots (around 115 miles per hour) at 50 feet, investigating my contacts.  There are numerous small ships in these confined waters and they constitute the greatest threat. 

 

          We are in an exercise with frigates of the Royal Singapore Navy, and we are tasked to locate three of their lil' boats in the middle of the Malaccan Straits.  At any given moment, there are approximately 100 to 200 vessels in these Straits, and finding three gunboats is just stupidly impossible.  One of the pilots commented drily that we were searching the hive for left-handed bees. 

 

          My RADAR leads us to within a mile of the unseen watercraft, and I hang out the doorway to take a look with the NVGs (Night Vision Goggles). 

 

          We read the name (hopefully in English!), chart direction of travel, and visible cargo.  I've actually gotten some skill at transliterating Cyrllic, but if the name is in Arabic, forget it. 

 

          At our speed, most of the ships don't even know we are coming until we scream over.  Prudent Captains click on their lights, to preclude anyone thinking that they are hostile or illegal. 

 

          The rudimentary identification complete, we race on to the next contact, and the next, as the hours burn away.

 

          I insist we fly with the door open, more because I enjoy the cool night air than anything. I have a odd habit of flying completely outside of the helicopter, in the howling embrace of the night winds.  If you can think of a better way to spend your life, I will respectfully disagree. At the wily old age of 25, I am quite senior to most of the crewmen that fly with me so I am allowed some degree of self-determination in how I conduct my business in the cabin of the aircraft.

 

          Midnight in the Straits of Malacca, Singapore thirteen miles that-a-way, I look up at the stars of the Southern Cross.  This is tits!

 

          Hours later, we have conducted dozens of RADAR run-ins (approaches) to targets and the path of our ship has been completely swept to 60 miles ahead.  The weary pilots ask me for a bearing to HOMEPLATE (our ship, of course), and we climb steeply to make radio contact. 

 

          In the velvet darkness, we hear a distant, faint reply.  On my LN-66, I locate a shadow on the Eastern horizon.  We turn toward it and 48 miles away, the old frigate turns toward us, as it repeats our nightly courtship dance. 

 

          The radio chatter picks up in intensity as we close; the ship calls Flight Quarters for the thousandth time.  Men crawl back into the comfortable spots they claim on the weather decks, waiting for our return so they can get some sleep. 

 

          Luckily, the seas are nearly calm tonight. 

 

          The pilots guide our tired helo back and in short order, we are in that 15 foot hover over the tiny landing pad.  Some nights, that deck really shrinks.  We get a signal and plop heavily down onto the USS KIRK.  On deck, our “Sea Snake” thunders loudly at the men that rush forward from the darkness to chain it down, lest an errant wave flip us, as well. 

 

          Another signal in the dark, and the copilot cuts the fuel to the engines -- in seconds, they begin to freewheel and wind down, slowing the rotor blades down as well. 

 

          The last things to stop are those heavy swinging blades and two whiny generators for the radios.  When even that source fades into silence, I remove my straps (if I used them) and pull myself out of the tight sensor station. 

 

          The officers return to COMBAT to debrief the mission and the targets we detected. 

 

          The maintenance crew and the fire party cluster around while I relate the interesting points of the flight.  Sometimes, this is the only word these men will get about how we did in a particular exercise.  When this summary is done, I walk into the hangar to stow my helmet and fill out reports.  I log all equipment failures so the maint guys can fix them before Danny's ‘Dawn Patrol’, two hours away. 

 

          I put away my gear and leave a perverse note for Danny while I wait for the tension of the sortie to wear off.  The cooks in the galley give me cold sandwiches that I eat in silence, alone.  The clock on the galley wall reads 0310...three a.m. on a Sunday morning.  The buzzing in my teeth and ears won't stop for hours.  I don't want to talk, or think, or do anything but sleep, until it is time again.

 

          The mission is complete.

 

Gordon Permann


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