Our helicopter detachment was traditionally stationed in Atsugi, Japan. Even today, there is someone from a descended unit sitting in that old hangar, wishing he was home. The base is comfortable and not as old as most, making it a good overseas assignment.
The shoebox that housed our tiny, battered chopper could not be considered a true hangar -- closer to a tin lean-to bolted to the side of a permanent structure. This building housed the American Foreign Legion's only full-strength helicopter squadron, the Spearguns of HS-12. This squadron had 5 helicopters, and deployed to sea aboard the aging veteran carrier, USS MIDWAY.
If out of sight, out of mind is the cornerstone of forgotten legions, these guys were a fine example. Perched on the tip of America's sword, the units on the MIDWAY were as far down the supply line as the line goes. Spare parts were cannibalized or stolen; some of the technicians were discards that the Navy was hiding on the far side of the planet. Ultimately, these men did better in head to head competition than their US-based contemporaries and often won in mock battles with newer aircraft carriers and navies.
When I arrived in Japan, I stayed away from the Detachment that I had been sent to join. I had little in common with them, and a good friend had just been killed in a helicopter wreck near San Diego*. To make matters worse, I had been sent out there to replace a flyer that had lost his nerve over that same accident. I wasn't in the mood to make new friends.
My experience with the big SH-3H helicopters drew me to the squadron living in the main hangar. During off-hours (or DFOT - designated fuck-off time), I would hang out with the aircrewmen of the Speargun squadron. In fact, I used my INTEL knowledge and position as Senior Crewman to get access to their Secret Board (the daily folder kept full of the latest gossip about what the Soviets were doing). In this way, I was able to keep my Det up to date, even when our own ship was not receiving daily Situation Reports. We got along, and I renewed old acquaintances during my visits.
With our little Detachment, it was vital that we receive all of our training prior to deploying to sea. The lack of space and time aboard a Fast Frigate makes it impossible to do the same dry-runs that we did back home. The same was not true for the Spearguns -- this WAS their home.
We had down time, waiting for a gearbox to replace the one we fried off Russia. I went next door to read the 'Board, and the AW Shop ( the 12 aircrewmen of the squadron) were all climbing into wetsuits for training jumps from their helicopters into Tokyo Bay.
SAR (Search and Rescue) jumping is a complex act where the pilot flies low and slow over the water, until he is very near the survivor. At that time, the crewman staying aboard the helicopter signals the SAR Swimmer, and he leaps into the sea. After hooking up to a survivor, the helo moves back to hover 40' above us, and snatches both of us out of the water on a braided wire cable. There are some variations, but essentially, that's it. I've successfully brought back a 'wiggler' (a live guy) only twice, but I've made dozens of these practice jumps.
* AW3 Michael Ampong, 3.1.85, off USS REID. Killed at sea, when CDR Carlson overshot the ship and crashed alongside. Two survivors -- Mikey "Boomer" Boomenglag and LT Wick Paul. Carlson drowned while awaiting rescue.
The variations include pilots that prefer the 'loft-bombing' approach; others felt that a 15' drop was not challenging enough. The reverse was also true -- on one occasion, the helo flew so low and slow, that the passing waves snagged my swim fins and jerked me into the water! In truth, we never knew what would happen when we went out for a jump.
Well, the prospect of getting in some free jumps from a nice stable SEAKING helo was enough to make me salivate. These helicopters were twice the size of our little aerial go-carts, plus, it was a chance to do something no-one else did, which was my specialty.
I went through the Chain of Command, getting permission from some, steering around others, finally approaching my boss. I copied a page from the Wing's Instructions, outlining requirements for such things as these jumps, when available. I served him fresh grilled bull, and he ate it. With arrangements made, I grabbed my gear and headed over to the Speargun camp.
Even after many jumps, they still sharpen your senses to a razor's edge. Dressed in a full wetsuit, harness packed with flares and other survival equipment, I waited my turn to go fly.
The first two groups of men flew away, to return an hour later, exuberant and dripping Japanese water. It was our turn, and the three of us 'bullets' climbed in the idling helicopter.
It had been three years since I had ridden in a SEAKING, but you remember how steady they are. It always made me sleepy and even during a major malfunction, it felt like it was still a safe way down. Just totally stable, no matter what. This observation is included as a noticeable variation on how most heloes feel -- even the President rides in a cushy, modified SEAKING.
We strapped in as the helicopter rose on its landing gear, and began to taxi out. In a moment, we were airborne; skimming across the inky waters of the Tokio Wan (Tokyo Bay). From my place, I could see the familiar wide-spread skyline of Yokosuka and the Naval bases. I watched the supertankers and cargo ships rush by the window, until suddenly Frank "Never" Fails was slapping my shoulder: time to get out!
I slid into position in the wide doorway, and I had time to look around for the last three seconds. Out ahead was the monstrous blue crane on the Yokosuka Naval Base; ships were in the near distance ahead and behind the track that our helicopter was flying. It looked about 15 feet high (who knows?), so Frankie gave me three slaps, and I pushed up and out.
The reflex action, after years of doing this, is to spring to full extension, while locking one hand over your face mask to prevent losing it -- guess what the other hand covers? This offers the most protection, as there is usually debris in the water near survivors.
Splashdown hopefully occurs before you even register the leap. If you have time to think about how far you fall, then the pilot has screwed you and you are going to be a lawn dart. If nothing else, it is very entertaining for your friends to watch. Another time, I watched Frankie himself hit the water so hard he bounced! Rowch!
Not this time. The pilot was an old pro and he planted us with care. Splash and it was over; no sweat. He came around and recovered us, slowly, and one at a time.
All together, we each lept three times, with about 10 minutes paddling around in the Bay each time.
I couldn't get over how AWFUL the water tasted! I realize we were in the shipping channel, but the amount of pollution and the heavy layer of DF/M (Diesel Fuel/Marine, or 'ship gas') made it the worst water I've ever been in. Even worse, each of the few patches of clear water contained a dozen tiny, luminescent jellyfish. I stayed in the oil. It still seemed incredibly cool to be leaping into the Bay right in front of the startled Japanese ship crews.
After the third jump (6 were scheduled), the helicopter hovered a short distance away. Being close enough to yell, the three of us swimming in the water called out and joked while we waited. Then, the mighty SEAKING was back, snatching all of us in very short order.
Back aboard the helo, water streaming off me, Frank yells in my ear, "We're losing oil like a big dog! The rest of the jumps are canceled, and we're RTB (returning to base)!"
Three jumps beat no jumps, and I was quite happy with the day.
After rollout, we stepped out of the helo to find that the #2 engine had failed completely due to oil starvation. The missing oil cascaded down the side of the SEAKING, coating the entire right side, painting the helo a golden brown instead of dirty white. With a last shudder, approximately three gallons of Mil-spec Aviation oil hemorraged out of the engine, like some metallic trauma victim.
But, it was still very stable. :)
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Last Modified: Sunday July 05, 2009