Situation Normal

Another oh dark thirty wake up, for a first light departure. I could never see the urgency in getting people off a ship that would still be there, at say, 07:30, rather than by the dawns early light at 05:45.The U.S. Navy that I was subcontracted to liked to fly people off their old World War II target ships at either the last minute,early,early or at sunset.
Offshore California is often low ceilings and visibility with fog patches to; or just above the water.The Russians and the North Vietnamese trailed our ships in their so called “fishing trawlers”” and I suppose the low weather offered some cover to our not very covert operations.
This particular morning I had preflighted in the dark and launched for a target ship somewhere about 70, or more miles west of the Pacific Missile Test Range base at Port Hueneme,(pronounced whyneemmee) near Ventura, California.While we are dealing with pronunciations, its (Ventoora) not (Venchura).Anyway…
The Navy liked to launch the helicopter and then give us the target ships coordinates on a secret squirrel frequency which was not encrypted, so, was mostly likely listened to, by the Russians.
Inputting the coordinates in the G.P.S. as I scooted along about 300′ over the water I could see that it was going to be about a 38 minute flight if I didn’t have to deviate around fog banks.It was likely I would be slowing or deviating since I could see fog banks looming ahead. Often the fog banks stayed off the deck because of temperature differences between the ocean and the air above. It was a tight squeeze some times and the Navy had pretty good surface radar that could advise me of traffic in the shipping lanes and fishing vessels that might ruin my day if I ended up scooting above the waves @ 50 or so feet. I often did just that and after a few months I became a fairly proficient I.M.C. pilot without actually being rated for I.F.R. flight. Our flying was all visual flight rules but I knew that if I hoped to survive long in this environment , I would need to have some formal instrument flight training and soon.
After about 8 minutes the bored sounding Navy voice on the radio asked how I was progressing. He could no doubt see my zig zag routing as I dodged around the low fog ,slowing and turning as my low level world shrank along with my options. ” Ok, so far and confirm the ship is in clear conditions”. “Affirm” came to the Navy voice.” ” At your 12 on a heading of 276 for 54″. Fifty four nautical miles that could take 27 or 54 minutes or more depending on this dam fog.
Fortunately the next passing fog bank showed higher clouds behind it lifting the ceiling and my spirits.A few seconds later my Navy watcher came back with a question. He wanted to confirm that my helicopter was a six passenger aircraft since the call sign I had given him was for a four passenger helicopter.
“Negative,” I answered this is a four pax ship. “Sir, we have five pax to take off the ship.” “So we will need a larger helicopter”. “Roger that ” I said as I did a 180 degree turn to base. Another trip through the low weather was just a wee bit better as I called my base and advised them I would need a different aircraft.
SNAFU number, too many to bother counting.The Navy and the defense contractors never seemed to be on the same page and this type of mix up was common. Your tax dollars at work.
Outbound to the target ship the weather was improving as it usually does with fog when it gets some sun.
The fog had turned to haze and the target ship now about three miles at my twelve was invisible to me. The Navy paints those things gray for a reason. I called the target ship as I sipped my second coffee of the morning and told them that the G.P.S. showed me about three miles back from the coordinates given.
“More like four and a half” came the voice from the target ship,” but your heading is good”. “Cook wants to know if you might like a western sandwich to go with that coffee” . Affirma… “, I started to say,”Uh, how’d you know I had a coffee”.What else would you have in a styrafoam cup at this hour ?” came the reply.
I know my mouth must have hung open for a few seconds because the voice from the target ship started laughing and added, “if we can see a missile with the cameras at 8 miles and Mach 3 we can surely see your big head at 4 miles and 120 miles an hour.”
It was another minute till I saw the ship. The target ship was on old World War II “Fletcher” Class destroyer that had room enough on the fan tail to land a Bell 206 Jetranger,so with the LongRanger I had, it was a bit tighter. Today the diesel outboard motors they had welded to the stern were sitting up in the stowed position making the landing even tighter but when asked,the ship said they were expecting the smaller helicopter. No problem, it would be a tight landing but the sea state was not too rough and although slightly sideways in the swell it was going to be OK.
Timing the swell was the critical part to the landing and after completing a few dozen landings I had it figured out. Once on deck it was always a little unnerving sitting on the steel deck as the ship moved side to side,fore and aft,up and down. A sideways swell meant that the helicopter often slid a few inches one way or another. Unless it looked like you might really start start sliding, the all clear for loading was given or a visual thumbs up returned and the always eager to get the hell off the ship passengers scurried head low and got in quickly. Hopefully.
The worst case scenario involved baggage and arriving and departing pax who lingered around the open doors shouting back and forth as the helicopter skittered across the deck perilously close to a roll over. Screaming something like, ” Jesus Christ, get in or get clear” usually conveyed the sense of urgency and people reacted accordingly.
Today my two pax loaded quickly,one of them handing me a wax paper wrapped warm sandwich and smiling said ,”we are glad to see you”.
“What about the other three people”? I asked. “Just two of us from General Dynamics” came the response. I manifested their names gave the safety brief and we were off. SNAFU a la Navy. ” I am taking you to San Nicholas Island, correct?” “No , we are going to Naval Air Station Point Mugu on the mainland,” they answered in offset stereo.” “Well,yes you are,I said, but first we will go San Nicholas Island because I fueled for five people and a short trip.” “I have a 10:00 a.m flight that I need to make back to D.C.” came a voice from the back. “Yes sir, when we are fueling at San Nicholas Island please feel free to get out and rebook your flight”
Excuse me while I call the tower for clearance. San Nicholas tower responded with the unpleasant news that they were as the Navy called it.”Walks Off” , or zero zero ,as we say back on dry land. I’ll eat that sandwich now. It was going to be the best part of my morning, so far.

About Heligypsy

Has it really been forty three years flying helicopters all over the world? I guess its time to share some stories, I hope you enjoy my adventures.
This entry was posted in Flying Stories, Helicopter Pilot and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Situation Normal

  1. JennH says:

    What great stories to tell. Have you thought about podcasting?

    Merry Christmas to you!

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