Thoughts, observations, sea stories and ideas from a former sailor and lifelong rancher
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.
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Aaahhh, life was so much fun when we were young and foolish. ( I think that [ " young and foolish " ] must be a redundancy. ) Also explains many of the aches and pains we have now.ReplyDelete
Please sir, my I ( we ) have some more? I know there are several books lurking inside your head, eager to get out so that your readers may have the joy of them. ( As ever, when you have the time with everything else you must do. )
Thanks for the post.
Paul L. Quandt
It was so remarkably fun! Which is why I'm okay with the aches and pains. Not that I don't bitch about 'em.Delete
You've convinced me Paul. I'm working on it. Which is not to say I'll be successful on the publishing front, but I shall endeavour mightily to have it placed in front of you, one way or the other. As long as I don't get abducted by aliens.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting!
WOW!!! That hilo film shows that the Navy was only concerned about the crew in the front part. "We three in the back..." were SOL. That must have given you the 'warm and fuzzies' when you saw the test results.ReplyDelete
Oh yes. When I saw the cartoon graphic thumbnail for the video I shook my head and tisked. Firetrucking eggheads and their slide rules...Delete
You know, you are damn lucky that you are not included in some bloggers postscript about lost shipmates. Things falling out of the air are dangerous, indeed.ReplyDelete
Yeah, we know, "young and foolish" and "just doing your job." Still damn lucky. For which we are grateful.
I dig it. Not many days go by when I don't realize the gravy of survival is very good indeed. I will always wonder why them and not me. It used to bother me incredibly, nowadays less, though the pain of loss has never abated and will never abate. The universe doesn't allow me to know the why, but faith allows me to navigate anyway.Delete
Autorotations are 'such' fun... Not... Only had ONE live one, thankfully not into the trees. You were lucky to walk away, quick reactions by the pilots saved y'all on that one. And yes, we were young and stupid... And living the dream! :-)ReplyDelete
In theory into the trees is good as they dissipate energy. If they don't also kill you. The HAC was a gem, a Vietnam vet who had more hours flying through trees than I had altogether, may he Rest in Peace. But hell yes, we were living the dream!Delete
When I was 7, my folks took us kids to the Barron County Fair, in Rice Lake, WI. There was a Bell 47 that had been brought in on a truck, and assembled for a helicopter ride company. While taking a test flight, something in the transmission failed, locking the rotor. Fifty years later I still vividly remember that thing falling out of the sky, and how quiet it became after it hit. The pilot hit his head on the canopy dome, and drowned. I do not entirely trust helicopters, to this day.ReplyDelete
Quite a thing for a youngster to experience. It's a good lesson, but reality can have a lot of sting to it.Delete
What's not to trust in a helicopter? Ten-thousand parts vibrating so badly they are rejected by the planet, swooping around in loose formation connected only by spit and baling wire, with idiot apes in colorful scarves and steel toed boots along for the thrill of the thing. Can't see anything there not to trust...
That's a good assessment. :)Delete
Thanks for stopping by and commenting Sarge!
Huh, I always wanted a vehicle with a self-destruct button... just be careful where you set your coffee cup.ReplyDelete
My question is, why not just forgo all the severing, add six more parachutes, and save the whole thing?
It’s because engineers love to play with explosives, isn’t it?
It's a good question. I think you're right about the explosives; who doesn't like 'splosives? I think that sometimes the fun and excitement of making something cool pushes real world considerations aside. When helos are doing helo stuff there is so rarely sufficient time and altitude to push buttons and yank handles. The stuff the driver is already holding on to is the only thing there's time to manipulate. Fortunately there's lots of energy on tap in the rotor system which you can usually trade for cushioning lift at the bottom of an autorotation. There are times when a whole vehicle recovery system or ejection seats could save lives, but they are rare and the tradeoff has significant downsides. So you pretty much rely on young and immortal people to crew the pigs!Delete