Flying secret squirrel operations for the U.S. Navy was seldom boring. Most flights were offshore California on the Pacific Missile Test Range. It was not all over water flying, there were Islands that we flew to as well. San Nicolas Island, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Catalina, San Miguel, and San Clemente.The Channel Islands are made up of two more Islands as well, East & West Anacapa and Santa Barbara Island. The Navy “owned” and operated two of the eight Islands, San Nicolas and San Clemente but had a presence on all the rest except Anacapa and Santa Barbara.
I mostly flew out of Naval Air Station Point Mugu, near Oxnard California, but we often had missions to North Island at San Diego, China Lake, Edwards Air Force Base and a couple of other places that I am advised not to talk about. I flew quite a bit in support of the Phalanx Anti Missile system, which in some countries is known as the goal keeper. Its the last line of defense for a ship when the anti missile missiles have let one get by or are overwhelmed. Hovering over the ocean filming the missiles attacking the ship and using high speed cameras to try and capture the Phalanx doing its thing was a little unnerving. When a missile is destroyed parts and pieces fly generally in the direction they were heading. Some of the pieces often made their way to the ship which made landing back on the target ship a priority. Sometimes the helo landing pad was strewn with smoldering debris.
It was all in a days work and nobody was ever hurt, but on at least one occasion the Phalanx failed to acquire the incoming missile and there was a fairly spectacular hole in one side and out the other on the ship. The missiles were not equipped with war heads lest they accidentally hit and send several million dollars of worth of hardware to the bottom. The work that was done on the range was experimental and there was, of course, a lot of experimental aircraft and weapons destroyed. Any boat getting close to San Nicolas Island today can still see the aluminum remains of remote controlled jet aircraft that impacted the cliffs on the approach end to the runway at San Nicolas. I have seen as many as four remotely operated jets in the circuit at San Nicolas being flown by two operators. Making my way through that traffic pattern was never much fun and when we were landing at the same time, I did a very abbreviated cool down, followed by full rotor brake and a dash to the bunker buildings. It was the early days of UAV development and I had no desire to be a curious footnote fatality as the first man killed by a UAV.
One of the more interesting projects I worked on involved an aircraft that flew to rather incredible heights and was the subject of great curiosity by the Russians who stationed so called “fishing trawlers” near the runway departure end of the Island we launched this aircraft from. My job was to fly my civilian helicopter out into the international waters that the Russians were “phishing” in, and try and persuade them to go elsewhere. I had no legal right to get them to move but merely suggested they move to prevent accidentally being struck by an experimental aircraft or weapon. One day, a large trawler I was conversing with on the Marine radio suggested I stop and land on their Helo deck and join him for a cup of tea. The obvious inference being that his Helo deck was empty. I had a helicopter to find and convince to leave the area as well now.
We had three or four ways to get unwanted trawlers to move out of the area. The first involved us calling in some well armed boats called Hostile Methods boats. The name says it all. The second method and my personal favorite was to call in an F-14 that would approach very low and slow and at the last second pull up at full throttle sending a shock wave and mini tsunami up against the trawler.The third and fourth methods were both audible and electrical. If you have ever been scanned by very powerful radar you know it. Even a mild sweep of radar of that nature will zap every filling in your head. When its cranked up, look out! The audible method I can’t talk about and it gives me the willies just thinking about. The methods to discourage all worked eventually, and I would return to the Island, park my little helicopter and wait for the secret aircraft to launch. I can’t say what the aircraft was but I can say that all the pilots I flew out to the Island to fly this aircraft were in the astronaut program at NASA.
Talk about wanting to perform well in front of your peers. Flying in the low scud with two astronauts on board can be a tad intimidating. But maybe I am kidding myself to even call them my peers. It was mostly fun flying all the same and if it had paid anything I might have hung around longer.
I wonder how many times I have said that in my career?