Sunday, October 20, 2019
Corpsman Chronicles XXV: Why helos don't have ejection seats
It was 1982. Reagan was president and in the Navy the money was flowing in like the sea through a 16-inch shell hole below the waterline. At Naval Air Stations around the globe Helo Bubbas were working up Combat Search and Rescue (C-SAR) procedures at a feverish pace.
The failed hostage rescue mission in Iran had cast a broad shadow.
The heavies in Warshington didn't want untrained U.S. forces making more stupid mistakes.
The word came down to train and train hard. Money was no object. In my neck of the woods at NAS Oceana we got more helos, more crews, and more maintainers. Flight hours doubled, doubled again, then doubled again. Machine gun mounts came out of storage and old, fat, veet-nam guys appeared to show us how to mount them. Armor kits came out of storage and were bolted on. M-2 and M-60 machine guns appeared and all the aviators -- including the drivers and even some of the girls -- learned the care and feeding of .50 and .30 caliber machine guns. As you might imagine, the Sea Kings could be real pigs when full of gas and loaded down with armor, guns, and a shitload of ammo. At least in comparison to the way they flew in bare-bones SAR mode, when as stripped down Golf models they were pretty sprightly. But if the mission became real world C-SAR, you were taking a pig to the dance so you'd better be able to dance with her.
We started flying with sidearms on dedicated C-SAR hops and some of us flew armed all the time. It seemed to me a prudent habit to develop. The issue piece was the Smith & Wesson Model 59, a double action/single action (DA/SA) automatic pistol chambered in 9 millimeter and featuring a double stack magazine with a 14 round capacity. We added rifles to the mix as well in the form of a couple of M-16-A1's, each with a pair of cloth bandoleers of 20 round magazines. Some of our scenarios included putting a pair of crewmen on the ground to search for and locate the rescuee, and they needed more firepower than a pistol in such situations. We shot thousands and thousands of live rounds.
It was great fun. There were a lot of moments when we'd look at each other, faces split in enormous grins, and channel Flounder from Animal House.
One day we flew a C-SAR profile which we called a snatch. The idea was that an aviator was down in dense tree cover ("triple canopy jungle" as we described it) with bad guys closing in. Our training site was the Navy Dare complex near Manteo in North Carolina. It was a live fire range so we could blaze away.
To rescue the survivor we'd zip in at low altitude, hover over the survivor's smoke while blazing away with an M-60 aft and an M-2 forward, send the jungle penetrator down, haul up the survivor, then haul ass. Of course we couldn't have a real live human on the ground, not with a bunch of half-trained monkeys on the guns, so the penetrator was pre-weighted with 170 pounds of sandbags. We'd fly over the site, toss out a smoke, then make an orbit and come in hot and do our thing. Did I mention this stuff was fun?
As we came hard into the hover with lots of flare and g on the airframe the tail rotor departed the aircraft and the helo immediately began to spin violently. There was exactly one option for survival and that was to dump the collective and put it down immediately. Which is exactly what the HAC did. Straight down through the 40-foot trees. We hit the ground no more than five seconds after losing the tail rotor.
It was an incredibly violent experience. We three in the back were on gunner's belts but we bounced around like rocks in a blender. When all violent motion had ceased and the rain of rotor blades and tree limbs had abated we all unassed and met about 50 yards in front of the nose of the helo. Of what used to be a helo but was now a smoking wreck. All five of us were absolutely beat to shit, but the broken nose I'd collected was the worst injury.
When the range crew showed up to look at the bodies they expected to find they instead found us smoking cigarettes and laughing uproariously. I can't begin to describe how funny everything was at that moment. It was less funny at medical two hours later when the mishap investigation began, and even less funny when the adrenaline wore off and our bodies reminded us of the beating we'd taken.
As things turned out the cause was mechanical rather than human. The investigation was brief and the findings straightforward. We were all back on the flight schedule within a week or two, and we had a replacement helo on station sooner than that.
Now what does any of this have to do with ejection seats?
Well, the following video is quite interesting. One of the reasons the concept was never fielded is that most of the time when helos crash they're already out of the envelope for the system as described. It's usually better and more survivable just to ride the pig in and see if you can limp (or swim) away.
It's a pretty cool video though.