Saturday, February 18, 2017
Corpsman Chronicles XVII: Days Like That
In late 1982, October IIRC, we were making our merry way across The Pond en route to a Mediterranean adventure. We'd left Norfolk a few days earlier and were not quite half way to Gibraltar.
It was essentially a no-fly day although there were several helo logistics flights, taking and fetching parts, people and paperwork between the carrier and her escorts.
The weather was typical for the mid-Atlantic in October. Air and water temperatures in the 50's, mostly cloudy skies, 10-12 foot seas, and a brisk wind tearing foam and spray from the tops of the swells. Pretty and majestic.
In the early afternoon I was standing an Alert-30 watch in the helo ready room. There were four of us; HAC (Helicopter Aircraft Commander), 2P (Second Pilot), Crew Chief, and myself.
Alert-30 is a posture which requires the designated helo to be airborne within 30 minutes of the call. The watches are four hours in length. At the beginning of the watch you accept the aircraft from the off-going crew, making sure it's up and configured correctly. Then you repair to the ready room and find a way to while away the hours until you turn the watch over to the next crew. Except for brief head calls you have to stay in the ready room. You can take most of your flight gear off as it takes only moments to don your helmet and life preserver/survival vest. If weather and air/water temps require the wearing of an exposure suit, as they did that day, you do have to leave it on. Which rather complicates the "brief" head calls, but it goes with the territory.
Not long into the watch a man overboard was called away. A young sailor had decided that life was no longer worth living and had thrown himself into the sea from the aft hangar bay. We didn't know the details at the time, but since the primary role of the Alert-30 helo is rescue, we were out the door and heading for the aircraft in a flash.
We cranked and were airborne in under 10 minutes, handily beating the port motor whaleboat. The carrier had slowed and turned and the bridge crew had eyes on the overboard sailor most of the time. Within only a couple of minutes we were overhead the terrified lad and I deployed into the water from a 20-foot hover. The sailor was hysterical and hard to control. As often happens in such cases he tried to climb on top of me to escape the sea. It never works, and can be rather hazardous to the swimmer. It's no use telling a survivor in full-blown panic to calm down, their mind is simply not capable of reason. On the plus side, he was no longer suicidal. But to get him in the horse collar so we could rescue him required the use of an attention getter.
Just like that, only on the other side of the body, with the knee. And in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As usual, it worked. Some things will trump panic, and a shot to the testículos is one of them. Once I got his attention he became quite cooperative.
We were back on board within a few minutes, having logged less than 30 minutes of flight time. A stretcher crew whisked the sodden sailor away, and we turned to getting the aircraft ready to fly again -- we were still on watch!
As rescues go, that one was short, sweet and straightforward. It was anything but simple, and we were only able to pull it off thanks to the training, skills and dedication of every member of the helo squadron, and in a very real sense, of every member of the ship's crew.
All of that is by way of introduction to the following video. It's my favorite segment of the 1976 BBC series Sailor. Perhaps you can guess why! As I watch this segment I'm struck by how very similar some of my experiences have been. Different Navy, different colored Sea King -- built by Westland rather than Sikorsky and powered by Gnomes rather than T-58's -- but a Sea King nonetheless. Same sounds, same crew coordination, same glowering sea. Takes me back, it does.