“The helicopter is a damnable affaire; fairly fully designed to shake itself apart.” – Unnamed mechanical engineer
I have been involved in a heaping helping of helicopter mishaps. By God’s grace none that I was directly involved in produced fatalities. I mean to shed no disparity toward the venerable flying machines; the mishaps were certainly not the fault of the helicopters themselves, the fault lay rather with the men rode them and performance extremes to which they were pushed: make it go faster, turn sharper, land harder, carry more. Push them until they broke, we did. That is how you learn the true worth of a machine.
Helicopters fascinated me as early as in my minor years watching the helo cavalry scream over Vietnamese hamlets in the movie Apocalypse Now. It was pretty cool in the movie, but when it got right down to getting on the actual helos… I was only too happy to continue to worship them from the movie screen and not be in the movie.
All my experience with helos while in the Green Berets was only transportation between points. Mind you, some of those points were tactical insertions and pickups, but never were any of them the full-caliber ass-whipping frontal assaults like I did in Delta, where men are hammering away at targets on the ground with assault rifles as they approach; mini-guns red-roping buildings and Hydra rockets auguring in not far behind.
Yet it was with the First Green Berets that my incidents with helos began. Hard landings are an introductory-level thing with helos; just the nature of the beast and hardly a thing men even talk about anymore after the first few… but the first time:
“OMG — was that ever a hard landing… I bit my tongue and crapped my pants! I can’t believe we didn’t break something on the bird… ow, my back — and my neck too!!”
They will happen during the day during brown-out conditions where the rotor wash raises so much dirt and dust that the pilots become effectively blinded by brown. When that situation occurs the pilots are trained to lay the bird down immediately so as not to drift dangerously into an obstacle trying to feel their way around in the brown.
The brown-out phenomenon becomes exponential at night with the same mitigation procedure applying — lay the bird down! While the brown-out even can be expected, it cannot be predicted with percent certainty. I ventured at one point that thermal markers on the ground could be viewed by thermal vision devices worn by the pilots aiding to line up and gently touch the bird down on a landing zone. Maybe… but I kept that Einstein moment to myself where it was safe from humiliation.
One unusual scenario came in the form of an emergency bailout from a CH-47D Chinook helicopter over the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea. We had been out over the water practicing for an infiltration we were planning for the days ahead. In this scenario we used a technique called Delta Queen: we pushed out a small rubber raiding craft from the helo and then jumped in after it to swim up and board. The helo’s job is to attempt a “ten-ten low and slow” where it flies forward at ten knots airspeed and ten feet from the water, or the closest approximation thereof. The altitude is just enough to prevent the boat from a free-fall, and the speed ensures a comfortable dispersal of the men in the water.
The hullaballoo came when the pilots received an emergency engine chip-light on their instrument panel. A combination of their procedures and judgment brought them to the decision to dump us in the ocean as soon as possible and dash for land. That sounded legit to me. The less-than-legit part of the plan was the speed and altitude involved.
I remember falling farther than usual and then blacked out. The speed, it turned out, had been the “killer”. When I recovered, I was being towed to the raiding craft by our junior medic. The brothers pulled me aboard and we motored back to land. I just had my bell rung and was coughing blood, but it was sinus rather than intestinal. I was ok with that.
The most unusual serious mishap was onboard an MH-60 Blackhawk flown by none other than the venerable TF-160 Night Stalkers. It was somewhere in the bitter cold of the New York State Winter. Ice and snow quilted the ground below rendering a conducive training environment for the operations in Bosnia that we were training for at the time. We were our usual dog pile of pipe-hitters on the deck of the ship, having just exfiltrated from a hostage rescue target. I entertained myself listening to the pilots and aircrew chatter over a set of ship’s earphones. The passenger doors on both sides were closed to stave off the icy air.
Suddenly I nodded off, so I thought, for just the quickest of seconds though I was not sleepy in the least. I was aware that the interior of the aircraft was opaque with choking white smoke that was rapidly being evacuated by the absence of both sides’ passenger doors. My ear rang and icy air rushed in as the helo went into a sharp dive. Something had exploded in the helo. What was bizarre to the greatest magnitude was hundreds of shreds of paper flying all about. Had we had a file cabinet onboard?
“This sucks; we’re going to die,” I remember thinking sadly, “…and this is a really great TV night,”.
The pilot leveled the helo out heavily and as calmly as one might request: “Please pass the salt,” at the dinner table, he came over the ship’s earphones and:
“Crew, systems check; inspect for damage, and see to the condition of the customer.”
“Wow, the customer… is that us? Huh, I guess it is us and it makes sense when you think about it,” I thought. It’s just a thing that amused me so at the time — I was the customer.
We were a mess: in disarray, burned, torn, disheveled, stunned. Steve T., our senior medic, began to recite a loud and boisterous prayer to the god Odin over the din:
“FATHER, BY THE DARK POWERS OF THE AFTERLIFE WE BESEECH THEE DO NOT FORSAKE US IN THIS OUR HOUR OF NEED! GIVE US A SIGN, GIVE US A SIGN!”
I knew not what it was all about but it made us laugh and took the edge off. We recovered and investigated. When we landed, the chalk from the flight behind us was already upon us with unhappy looks about them. On the tarmac lay two, 200-lb man-size mannequins that we had pulled off of our target objective as hostages. Both had clothing blown away and were scorched black. I shook my head slowly as I imagined them being a couple of my brothers.
“Man! We saw both PAX door blow off of the sides of your helo then it dove with smoke pouring out; smoke and… paper? It looked like you had been shot down by a SAM! We got to go back right now and fly a back-track along that same route to find them cock-a-doody doors!”
“Yeah well, we were almost shot down by a banger pouch full of flash-bang grenades on Jeffro’s kit. They just went off for no reason according to him.”
“But, what the phuq was up with all the paper, did you guys have a file cabinet in there?”
“War and Peace… Jeffro had a paperback copy of War and Peace in his banger pouch… probably saved his life but he got scorched pretty good.”
“Well… toujours l’audace, but bangers don’t pull their own pins, man,” and he was off in search of the missing doors.
It’s not known for certain if the presence of the paperback somehow caused the accidental discharge of the grenades, but it was known for certain that flash-bang grenades were not to be mixed with anything else in a flash-bang pouch. Jeffro took a major ding for that. That coupled with the accidental discharge of a paintball gun put him on thin ice with a thick ruck during Spring thaw.
His demise caught up with him when he was questioned about being last on a certain event we all participated in one morning. His response was to the effect: “Well, statistically someone HAS to be last.” Everyone’s jaw spanked the floor but his. He truly was NOT aware of what he had just said. He made a remark of mediocrity about himself and accepted it. At the moment, he knew he was now in trouble.
He came in very early the next morning to do PT, a thing I am positive I had never seen him do in all of my time with the Unit. Later that day his wall locker was empty of all trace of him. It wouldn’t stay empty for long because Selection was coming up, and the fresh pipe-hitters in wooden shoes were marching up the stairs to replace Jeffro’s silken slippers as they passed him by.
“Selection is an on-going process.”
By Almighty God and with honor,