1984

Thank God for the U.S. Navy: DESRON 18 at Omaha Beach
An Ocean Away
Oscar P. Dog
Milk Run 

 

Thank God for the U.S. Navy: DESRON 18 at Omaha Beach

By Chris McKenna '84

June 6th, 1944 - D-Day - and the mightiest armada in history strikes at Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Fighting is intense along the entire front, but at 0800 on Omaha Beach, the situation is dire. Within minutes of hitting the beach, casualties in some units approach 70%.

Air Corps bombardiers had dropped their payloads miles inland for fear of hitting American soldiers. The airborne assaults that caused such confusion with other enemy units seemed not to affect the German 352nd Division at Omaha, one of the few full-strength divisions in France.  Perhaps most important, the first waves came ashore at Omaha with virtually no artillery.  Almost all the DD amphibious tanks and field artillery pieces had sunk in heavy seas. Facing a murderous crossfire, disorganized and leaderless GI's took cover behind a raised shingle ledge. The beach master halted further landings and General Omar Bradley gave serious consideration to abandoning the beach and withdrawing the troops.

Captain Harry Sanders ’23, USN, commanding Destroyer Squadron 18 on USS FRANKFORD (DD 497), perceives the unfolding disaster and, just before 0900 orders, "close the beach...and support the assault troops.”

A letter written forty-five years later by a soldier pinned down on Omaha that morning best describes what happened next.

"A destroyer loomed out of the sea...headed straight for me...my first thought was that she had struck a mine...and was damaged badly enough that she was being beached. But suddenly she swerved to the right with all her guns blazing away."

All along the Omaha beachhead, Captain Sanders’ "tin cans" steamed so close that several scraped their keels on the sand and had to back off.  Skippers simply “eyeballed” targets and passed them to gunnery officers.  One particularly innovative fire control solution is relayed by FRANKFORD’s gunnery officer.

"The skipper took her in real close...300-400 yards... Here was an American light tank, sitting at the water's edge with a broken track, that fired at something up on the hill. We immediately followed up with a 5-inch salvo. The tank gunner flipped open his hatch, looked around at us, waved, dropped back in his tank, and fired at another target. For the next few minutes he was our fire control party."

The gunnery officer on USS McCOOK (DD 496) wrote, "As I scanned the cliff, I thought I saw smoke coming out of what appeared to be swallow holes in the face of the cliff. I obtained permission from the captain to fire...The cliff exploded to reveal a honeycombed interior and German soldiers, guns, and supplies cascaded down the remainder of the cliff into the sea."

Commander Boyd '28 took USS DOYLE (DD 494) in to 800 yards to neutralize enemy machine gun nests, allowing army troops to resume a slow advance up the beach.  Commander Gebelin '34 took USS THOMPSON (DD 627) along the beach looking for targets, destroying an ammunition dump and two command bunkers.  Commander Ramey '35 on McCOOK had the most unique engagement of the morning. After pummeling a cliffside artillery position with 5-inch rounds, German soldiers emerged waving a white flag.  Ramey instructed his signalman to use semaphore to order the enemy to come down the bluff and surrender, which they did.

An LCI skipper circling offshore remembered, “Enemy fire on the beach was terrific - 105mm, 88mm, 40mm, mortars, machine guns, mines, everything.  Destroyers were almost on the beach themselves, firing away at pillboxes and strong points.”

Commander Palmer '30 of USS HARDING (DD 625) faced a classic skipper's dilemma. While engaging targets on the beach, his medical officer informed him that their junior ensign had acute appendicitis, and would need an immediate operation to save his life.  Palmer reluctantly agreed to cease fire just long enough for the doctor to operate.

By 1100, army units were able to resume their advance.  The beach was reopened and disaster averted. For two critical hours, the "tin can sailors" had made the difference.

General Bradley later wrote, “Twelve destroyers moved in close to the beach, heedless of shallow water, mines, enemy fire, and other obstacles, to give us close support. The main batteries of these gallant ships became our sole artillery. ... General Gerow's first message to me was emotional: 'Thank God for the U.S. Navy.’”

Much like at Leyte Gulf later that year, the courage and initiative of destroyer skippers had saved the day. Only the "tin cans" were nimble enough to prevent disaster at Omaha Beach.  The skippers of DESRON 18 - all Naval Academy graduates - had given the GI’s at Omaha a fighting chance. 

DESRON 18 Source List
Ambrose, Stephen, D-Day. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1995.
Kirkland Jr, William B., Destroyers at Normandy; Naval Gunfire Support at Omaha Beach. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Foundation, 1994.
Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Two Ocean War. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1963.

 

 

An Ocean Away

By John P. Cordle '84

Cordle (USNA '84) exiting the Seychelles during a deployment where the SAN JACINTO (CG 56) implemented a circadian (3/9) watch rotation (2010)

There are several things that stand out in my memory as I reflect on the recent completion of a 30-year career in the Surface Navy. A round-the-world-cruise in USS CALIFORNIA, security duty in USS TRUXTUN for the 1988 Olympics (and free tickets) in Seoul, Korea, participating in the opening strikes of Operation Iraqi Freedom, capturing pirates off the coast of Somalia, and a tour as an Exchange Officer in Germany where I met my wife nearly 25 years ago.  But something that equals all of that (except the wife part) is my collaboration, during the final few years of active duty, with two fine individuals in combating an issue that nagged me throughout my career both as a watch stander and a supervisor at sea – fatigue.

We all know what it feels like to be tired.  Most of us also know what it is like to be hungry, but we would rarely go without food for any significant length of time given any other option.  Sleep is just as important (in some ways, more important) than food, yet in many portions of the Navy, we go without it for extended periods of time and try to “power through” watches and evolutions with the help of caffeine and energy drinks.  I can recall most of my watch standing career being one of three watch standers in a traditional “five and dimes” rotation, and just being tired all the time.  This occurred over several tours, and it just seemed to be part of the “fabric” of serving on ships.  One of the biggest “butt-chewing” sessions I had in my entire career was when I took the initiative to let my division sleep in an extra half-hour at lunchtime without asking permission – I still remember that day!  It was not until my Major Command tour that I not only decided to do something about it, but also was afforded the opportunity to work with Dr. Nita Shattuck and CDR (Ret) Leanne Braddock on a solution – one that I would like to share with the Naval Academy audience.  Dr. Shattuck has been studying the effects of fatigue on our soldiers and sailors for over 20 years, and Mrs. Braddock has recently spearheaded the new Operational Stress Control initiative, using experienced trainers to mentor crews in dealing with operation stress and minimizing its effects on our operating forces.  Her studies include some interesting research on the sleep patterns of military cadets versus “regular” college students (take a guess what it showed…).  Studies have shown that going without sleep for 24 hours results in approximately the same level of impairment as an alcohol level of .08 – which means that I was standing watch while “drunk” much of the time!  The work of these two great Americans deserves mention and praise from those of us who go to sea in ships – they have worked tirelessly (no pun intended!) for years to make life at sea better.  

Waves crashing over the Hurricane Bow of USS SAN JACINTO (CG 56) during and Atlantic crossing in 2010.

The story of how we worked together to develop a circadian watch rotation and use it in USS SAN JACINTO (CG 56) during a 7-1/2 month deployment is documented in the 2013 PROCEEDINGS article “A Sea Change in Standing Watch”.  The real story is what has happened since and what is happening out there today – some of the Active Duty readers may already have seen it in action.  The concept was endorsed by Commander, Naval Surface Forces in a message, and details of implementation of a circadian “3/9” watch bill have been documented regularly in Navy Times, as has the Submarine Force’s endorsement of a 8/16 rotation for their submarines.  The common denominator is something that we all learned in grade school – that sleep is important to our health, our energy level, and our ability to work and study.  We also have all figured out that our bodies like to sleep at night, and all learned about circadian rhythm in high school.  And yet we put on our blue coveralls and go to sea – and leave this knowledge ashore.  But that is changing.  More and more ships are experimenting with circadian watch bills, as well as other measures to mitigate and deal with stress, as the Navy recognizes that our people require periodic maintenance - just like our equipment.

 

"Who's Driving?" - The crew of USS SAN JACINTO assembled on the foc'sle for a photo while on deployment in 2010

So what is next?  Well, for those of you on ships wearing the uniform and reading this article, it is up to you.  Many of you have studied under Dr. Shattuck and written Master’s Thesis on the subject.  The Surface Navy Association picked the “Sea Change” Article for its Literary Award in 2013, and between this and the continued discussion in Navy Times and the Virginia Pilot, the Navy has started to notice.  Several ships have adopted some version of a circadian rotation and a schedule that supports it.  Not everyone sees the benefits of this approach, which requires some paradigm shifts.  But while some more “senior” leaders sit back and ask “why should we do this” or take the approach that “if this were so good and so simple, I would have thought of it”, the junior Officers and Sailors are embracing it.  It is happening on the deck plates, as Sailors who have benefited from a circadian watch rotation on one ship transfer to a new command and ask: “why would we do anything else?”   Change is an interesting thing.  Sometimes it is mandated from above, but such change often fails to outlast the individual in charge.  True change – a culture shift – comes about when the individuals most affected by that change see tangible benefits with a reasonable investment of their time and energy.  The Aviation Community has long adhered to “crew rest” mandates because they are part of the culture of flight safety.  The Surface Navy has a strong, powerful, deep-rooted culture that does not always embrace change, but this is different.  During a recent conversation with a sitting DESRON commander, now on deployment, he called his the “Circadian Strike Group” because most of the ships and staff at the “tip of the spear” are using a 3/9 rotation.  This occurred without mandate, without direction, and without a formal program with reports, audits, and instructions.  The fact that in the final phase of my Navy career, I was privileged to be a part of this change is incredibly rewarding, and shows that what I learned long ago as a Midshipman is still true – if you believe in something, it is worth your best effort to make it happen, regardless of adversity or cost.  And that it is indeed possible to make a difference.

From my catbird seat in retirement, it appears to me that this cultural change is reaching a tipping point.  If you would like to know more about circadian rhythm – based watch rotation and fatigue, visit the Navy Safety Center web page, Dr. Shattuck’s home page, or look for the stories and articles referenced below.

  • “A Sea Change In Standing Watch”, USNI PROCEEDINGS, Cordle and Shattuck, January 2013
  • “Catching Z's at sea is getting easier for sailors”, Corrine Reilly, Virginia Pilot, 22 February 2014
  • “Navy OKs changes for submariners' sleep schedules”, Michael Melia, Navy Times, 20 April 2014
  • Quality Sleep at Sea”, Dr. Wendy Troxel and Regina Shia, U.S. News and World Report, 8 May 2014
  • Navy Safety Center Web Page: Safetycenter.navy.mil (Fatigue)
  • Dr. Shattuck Web Page: http://faculty.nps.edu/nlmiller

John Cordle is a member of the class of ’84 who commanded USS OSCAR AUSTIN and USS SAN JACINTO, and recently retired as Chief of Staff for Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic.  He resides with his wife Gudrun in Chesapeake, Virginla. Photos courtesy of John Cordle. 

 

Oscar P. Dog

By John P. Cordle '84

This is the story of a stray dog who became a Navy crewmember and went to war – as told by himself.

My name is Oscar P. Dog.

I guess I’m just a regular old American “house dog” nowadays, but unlike most of my neighbors, I have lived a life of adventure on the high seas, travelled around the world (almost) and served in a war zone. I got my name from a Navy Destroyer, the USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79), where I did my wartime service. In fact, if I were a human, I would have a chest full of medals (well, for me a chest full – I’m pretty small!).

But more about that later. My journey started in Cartagena, Spain, in January of 2002, and it started with French Fries.

French Fries – I love ‘em! There was a little open air restaurant in Cartagena, and that is where I would go each day to see if the tourists would drop something for a hungry dog to eat. If you have been to Spain, you know that there are a lot of stray dogs on the street, but I had one thing going for me – one floppy ear. It made me a little cuter than the rest of the local pups and on the street, cute means food!

It turns out that the Oscar Austin was on the very first month of a deployment from Norfolk Virginia and had been out to sea for Christmas, so they got to spend New Year’s weekend in the port of Cartagena, and that is where we crossed paths.

Americans love an “underdog”; all I had to do was beg and get the ear to flop over my left eye, and I had ’em. The crew settled on one particular restaurant and after a few days I had been pretty much adopted and loved it. But all good things must end, and after a few days the ship was ready to sail. The Captain was sitting with some of the Officers at a table eating Paella and drinking Sangria when a group of the Chiefs walked up with me on their arm. “Can we keep him?” they asked. Maybe it was the Sangria talking, but I’m pretty sure the captain said “sure!” and went back to eating. The next time I saw him we were underway and one of the officers was explaining why there was hair all over his uniform. Was that surprise on the Captain’s face, or was he faking it? Doesn’t matter – I was underway!

My routine was pretty good on the ship, up each morning to a breakfast of eggs and toast smuggled from the mess decks, and then out in the fresh air and – well, now we know why it’s called the “poop deck”! But a nearby water hose washed all the evidence overboard, and very quickly I trained the Sailors to take me out in the salt air so that I would not make a mess in their office. With a scarf around my neck and a piece of rope for a leash, I quickly became one of the crew. Who knew it would become such a long-term arrangement?

Oscar Austin pulled into Rota Spain, where it turns out there was a plan to give me away to an orphanage – good luck with that! Giving away a stray dog in Spain is like giving away a Kangaroo in Australia – everybody already has one. Good thing there was an Army Veterinarian on the bases, who gave me a checkup, shots and a de-worming, but imagine the surprise when the bill came for $130! No problem, the Chiefs printed up a set of orders, sent me to Force Protection School and Drug Sniffing School, had the Captain sign them, and all treatments were now FREE! I was officially a mascot – Oscar P. Dog.

I should take a moment to offer my respects to the ship’s – and my – namesake, Private Oscar P. Austin, USMC. He was a young Marine who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam protecting his squad at the cost of his life.

The Navy Destroyer USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79) was named after this American Hero from Nacogdoches, Texas, and I am proud to bear his name as well – sort of!

Little did I know that Rota would be our last port visit for awhile. It seems that the United States had been planning an attack on Iraq and that Oscar Austin was a part of that plan. We started by escorting ships through the Straits of Gibraltar (called the “STROG” for short) and I assisted in this assignment by running around on the main deck barking my head off – pretty intimidating, if I say so myself. I earned the nickname “STROG Dog”, although once in awhile they would practice shooting the guns and I would have the same reaction as I did in the morning to the salt air. Oh well, we can’t all be heroes…

By now word had spread throughout the fleet that there was a dog on board, and some of the hometown newspapers of the Oscar Austin Sailors had run stories about me. Packages started arriving on the ship with dog food, chew toys, leashes, and everything a dog could wish for. I had gained a few pounds and was turning into a happy healthy dog, a far cry from the malnourished mutt that these Sailors rescued from the street.

After a port visit to Palma, where they set up a watch rotation to take me for several walks daily, we were back underway – and off to war.

We proceeded through the “ditch” as we veterans call it – the Suez Canal, and into the Red Sea. It’s an amazing feat of engineering; over 30 miles long and the ships drive through it only a tennis ball’s throw from the sides, for almost an entire day. I patrolled the deck vigilantly, although a dust storm made it really hard to see. We set out for a place called Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – and then we left to go up into the Arabian Gulf.

The night of March 13th 2003 was one that I will never forget. The Oscar Austin is a Guided Missile Destroyer with launchers that hold Tomahawk Missiles. They ended up firing a lot of them that night, lighting up the sky like fireworks and starting what we now know as “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. Boy, are they LOUD – first a little doggy door opens, then flames shoot op into the sky, and a HUGE missile comes out, turns over and flies away at a distant target. I don’t know what we were shooting at – I never did get a security clearance – but I did hear later that some Marines thanked the Captain for helping them march safely toward Baghdad by taking out some of the enemy guns and radars. It seems that the Captain thought our deployment would go on for a long time with no port visits, and he had decided that having me along for the ride would be good for morale. I’d like to think that I made some contribution – at least a diversion from the dull routine.

The remainder of the cruise was pretty routine, and I noticed that my morale perked up when I got care packages with dog toys, treats, and all kinds of dog food – not quite as good as French Fries, but a dog has to eat, you know. Eventually the time came to return to the new United States and a new problem – customs!

When a ship returns to America, it is subject to inspections and I was hoping that my paperwork from the Vet was in order – it’s a long way back to Cartagena! Fortunately, the Captain put me on his customs form: “Dog -$25” and I was in. I was going to argue about the dollar value, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Epi ”dog”: Oscar has adapted well to life in the United States. He was adopted by one of the crew and has been sighted living in Virginia Beach, where he likes to maintain a low profile. He still loves French Fries!

 

Milk Run

by Chris McKenna '84

The Captain of a Navy ship at sea is perhaps the closest thing to an absolute dictator left on Earth. While this is certainly true of most ships, it is not quite the whole truth aboard an aircraft carrier. The Captain rules the ship absolutely, but he leaves the Air Boss to run the flight deck. As a Naval Aviator, I saw the Air Boss as larger than life. He was the voice of authority crackling in my headset, a tyrant with a hair trigger who lashed out at anyone foolhardy enough to disregard him. He used strong language and demanded immediate compliance. He was a man with immense responsibility and an ego to match. And he was addressed by everyone aboard, including the Captain, simply as “Boss.”

I flew the CH-46 Sea Knight, a tandem rotor helicopter typically deployed on supply ships within the battle group. It was our job to deliver “beans and bullets” to the fleet. While not actually stationed on the carrier itself, we “hit” it at least every other day, restocking everything needed to keep a small “city at sea” running. It was exciting, challenging flying, requiring great precision and skill, and I loved it. I was in my early twenties and in command of a four-man crew and a multimillion dollar aircraft. But always there, just below the surface, was the aura of the Air Boss. It would lead me to one of the biggest blunders I have ever made in my flying career. But for a matter of a few feet, excellent training, and some dumb luck, it could well have claimed the lives of my crew.

It was a day like most others for a Sea Knight pilot. We launched before dawn on a vertrep mission, the vertical replenishment of ships at sea that was our specialty. In a synchronized aerial ballet, we flew maneuvers called side-flairs and button-hooks, moving tons of cargo, attached externally to a heavy gauge steel hook beneath the helicopter. Whether it was ammunition, food, machinery, or mail - referred to as “pony” - the ships in the Battle Group depended on us for sustenance. Vertrep allowed the Battle Group to disperse over more than a hundred miles of ocean, and still receive the daily supplies necessary to operate.

By noon we had completed the vertrep, and only had a load of internal cargo left for the carrier. At ten miles out, I keyed the microphone and called the Air Boss for clearance into his domain.

“Boss, Knightrider zero-six, ten miles out for landing.”

“Negative Knightrider, recoveries in progress. Take starboard delta,” he mono toned, referring to the holding pattern designated for helicopters.

Sometimes I thought he put us there just to show his disdain, as there often seemed to be no reason for it. But today he actually was recovering jets, and we took our interval in the delta pattern with the carrier’s Sea King helicopter already orbiting. I watched as the jets made their approaches and either “trapped” - caught one of the four arresting cables on the flight deck, or “boltered” - missed the wires and went around. As many times as I saw it, I never lost my fascination for carrier operations, and my admiration for those guys. With all the jets aboard, I anxiously awaited our landing clearance. We hadn’t eaten since around 3am, and wanted to get back to our ship for chow. But the voice of authority had other plans.

“Knightrider, I’ve got another cycle fifteen minutes out. I’m going to recover them first before I bring you aboard,” he said matter-of-fact-ly.

“I haven’t got the fuel for that Boss,” I shot back.

“Then you’ll have to bingo,” he replied, without a hint of sympathy in his voice.

“That cocky so and so,” I thought. I could land, offload, and be airborne again in less than five minutes, and he knew it. But he was the Air Boss and his word was law, so I shut my mouth and turned for home. But then I remembered those big orange bags on the cabin floor behind me - the ones with “U. S. Mail” stenciled on them - and realized that they represented my landing clearance. As any sailor knows, “mail-call” ranks just below “liberty-call” in a mariner’s heart. Not even the Air Boss could resist the powerful lure of his mail. I keyed the mike, and played my trump card.

“Be advised Boss, we have pony aboard.”

I knew that everyone in the tower was staring at him right then, silently willing him to reverse himself. And if he didn’t, word would spread like wild fire to each of the six thousand sailors on that ship that he had denied them a mail-call. He couldn’t say no.

“Ok Knightrider, you’re clear to land, spot three,” he spat, specifying the area all the way forward on the angled deck.

He was obviously annoyed, but what did I care? In minutes we would be out of his airspace and on our way back home for chow. I flew a slow, shallow approach, careful not to let my rotor wash disrupt the activity on the flight deck. As soon as I touched down, my aircrewmen lowered the aft deck and began pushing pallets down the rollers to the waiting forklifts. It was like clockwork. Only minutes after receiving his grudging clearance, we were empty and buttoned up.

“Boss, Knightrider zero six is ready to lift, spot three,” I transmitted.

“Hold on Knightrider,” he ordered. “I just got a call from supply. They want you to move a load of milk back to home plate for dispersal. How many gallons can we load max?”

It was a question I had never gotten before. I knew we could lift about seven thousand pounds with our current fuel load, but I hadn’t a clue how many gallons of milk that equated to. I looked over at Dave, my copilot, and wondered if he had any more insight on the nature of milk than I did.

“Got any idea what a gallon of milk weighs?” I asked.

He just looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and turned his palms upward in what is commonly referred to as the Ensign’s salute.

“Come on Knightrider, I need a number. I’ve got Tacair inbound,” the voice of authority growled.

I could feel my palms starting to sweat as the forklifts came off the elevators with pallets of milk.

“Come on Knightrider!” he snarled.

I pulled the calculator out of my helmet bag and input 7000. Now I just needed to know what to divide it by. The supply officer usually did all this for us. But here on the carrier I was on my own, and for some reason it was important to me to impress the Air Boss. I was determined to take the biggest load we could.

“Hey Knightrider!” he barked. “I need a number and I need it now. How many gallons?”

“I guess milk weighs about the same as fuel, right Dave?”

He rendered another Ensign’s salute.

I knew that jet fuel weighed 6.5 pounds per gallon. We used that figure all the time. Even though that voice in my head told me it was a mistake, I convinced myself that a liquid was a liquid, and milk must weigh about the same as jet fuel. I plugged it into my calculator and, just as the Air Boss started to growl again, closed my eyes and gave him his number.

“One zero five zero gallons Boss,” I transmitted with far more confidence than I actually felt. It was meager comfort that I had actually left a twenty-seven-gallon “cushion,” just in case milk was a little heavier than fuel. How much heavier could it be?

“Ok Knightrider. Here it comes. Be ready to go as soon as we button you up,” he ordered. “I have Tacair inbound.”

The forklifts dropped the pallets on the ramp, and our aircrewmen pushed them up the rollers and secured them to the deck. In minutes the cabin was filled with enough milk for the entire Battle Group, the ramp was closed, and I was ready to lift.

“Boss, Sabre Seven, five miles out for the break.”

“Cleared for the left break Saber Seven. Caution for a Helo lifting spot three. Break, Knightrider you are cleared for immediate takeoff.”

That was it. My welcome, as tepid as it was, was officially worn out now that the fighters were on station.

I had hoped to do a thorough power check while hovering in the ground effect cushion of the flight-deck before transitioning over the deck edge.

Ground effect, or the extra lift derived from operating close to the ground, can be a blessing or a curse. Given a long hover run, a pilot could accelerate in ground effect until reaching flying speed, thereby lifting far more weight than would be possible from a standard climbing transition. The carrier however, presented the opposite situation. From our position forward on the angle, I would take off into a ground effect hover, and then transition over the deck edge ninety feet above the water, to an immediate and complete loss of ground effect. It would require tremendous power at max weight . . . every ounce the aircraft had. The little voice inside my head kept telling me about it as I slowly raised the collective to hover, but the big voice in my headset kept drowning him out.

“Come on Knightrider, I need my deck!” he bellowed.

I stabilized in a ten-foot hover and glanced down at the torque gauges to evaluate the power required. Back on my ship, I would have taken thirty or forty seconds in the hover to evaluate a takeoff this critical. But this wasn’t my home deck. It was the Air Bosses deck, and he wanted it back.

“I want that damn Helo off my deck Knightrider, and I mean now!” he screamed. So without ever getting a stabilized torque reading, and against all my better judgement, I eased the stick forward and the aircraft lumbered across the deck edge.

As soon as I saw blue water through the chin bubble, I knew we were in trouble. The aircraft immediately settled, and I instinctively countered by raising the collective to add power. But instead of checking the sink rate, the helicopter only settled faster. The steady whirring noise of the rotor blades changed to a distinct “whump, whump, whump,” and the familiar peripheral blur slowed to the point where I could clearly see each individual rotor blade. A quick glance at the gauges confirmed that both engines were working normally. I was simply demanding more power than they could produce, and the rotor speed was decaying under the strain.

I should have predicted what would happen next. With a perceptible jolt, both electrical generators “kicked” off. Powered by the rotor system itself, they had been designed to “shed” at 88% of optimum rotor speed. Thankfully it was daylight, so lighting wasn’t an issue, but the jolt I felt was the loss of the flight control stability system. The helicopter was still controllable, but it was far more work without the stab system. Things were starting to go very badly.

As the rotor speed continued to audibly and visibly decay, I realized the only chance we had was to somehow get back into ground effect. If I continued to “wallow” like this, the helicopter would eventually “run out of turns” and crash, or simply settle into the ocean and sink. Neither of those appealed to me, so I determined to try a maneuver the “Old Salts” called “scooping it out.”

Any pilot will understand when I say it is counterintuitive, when faced with an undesirable sink rate, to decrease either power or pitch. But “scooping it out” required both. In order to dive back into ground effect, I lowered the nose and the windscreen filled with the sight of blue water and white foam. To preserve some of the rapidly deteriorating rotor speed, I lowered the collective and descended. The ocean rose fast. Remembering my crewmen, I managed to blurt out “Brace for impact!” over the intercom. Dave immediately sensed what I was attempting, and began a running commentary of altitudes and rotor speeds.

“Fifteen feet, 84% .”

I needed forward airspeed and knew I had to trade some more altitude to get it, so I eased the stick forward a little more.

“Five feet, 85% .”

I stopped descending and stabilized in the ground effect run.

“Three feet, 85%.”

“Ok,” I thought. “We’re not settling anymore, and the rotor speed has at least stopped decaying.” But I couldn’t seem to coax any acceleration out of it, and this close to the water, even a rogue wave could bring us down. That’s when I decided that I really hated milk.

“Three feet, 86 %.”

With just the pitiful speed I had brought from the dive, and no sign of any acceleration, I began to despair. What else could I do? I thought about asking Dave, but didn’t think I could bear another Ensign’s salute. Then I remembered those Old Salts in the ready room again. “Remember, this aircraft has no tail rotor. If you ever need just a little something extra, try a fifteen-degree right yaw. The increase in drag is negligible, but it feeds undisturbed air to your aft rotors.”

Well, what did I have to lose at this point? I gently pushed on the right pedal and the helicopter yawed. Again, it seemed counterintuitive. If I was trying to accelerate, shouldn’t I streamline the aircraft? But I was out of options.

“Two feet, 85%.”

I began running through the ditching procedures in my mind. But then I noticed that the waves were gliding by slightly faster than they had been only seconds before. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we were accelerating.

“Three feet, 88%.”

I glanced down at the airspeed indicator and my heart leaped; it had moved off the peg and was passing through forty knots. The next thing I felt was that beautiful shudder every helicopter pilot knows as translational lift - the point where the aircraft is flying more like an airplane than hovering like a helicopter.

“Five feet, 92%.”

Then I felt another jolt, and knew the generators had come back on the line, bringing the stab system with them. We were a fully functioning aircraft again. I accelerated through our normal climb speed, remembering those Old Salts once again. “Speed is life.”

“Ten feet, 100%.”

At ninety knots and all our turns back, I finally felt confident enough to climb. Passing through one hundred feet, and over a mile from the carrier, the voice of authority spoke.

“It’s great to see you flying again Knightrider. We were all holding our breath up here. I hope I didn’t talk you into doing something ugly.”

Well what do you know. The guy was human after all. Who knew?

Turning for home, I passed the controls to Dave, and sat back. For the first time, I took a deep breath and noticed that my hands were shaking. I had made a rookie mistake, and very nearly paid for it with four lives and a helicopter. I had allowed myself to be intimidated by the Air Boss, and sacrificed my judgement as a result.

I did some checking the next day, and found that the weight of a gallon of milk is 8.7 pounds, a far cry from the 6.5 I had estimated. So even with my little “pad,” we took off from that carrier more than 2,100 pounds overweight. And that doesn’t even consider the weight of the pallets and packaging. All in all, I was very lucky to get away with it.

That was almost twenty years ago, and I guess I’m the Old Salt now. I’ve accumulated thousands of flight hours and more than a few gray hairs since then, but I try never to forget the lessons I learned that day. Besides a life-long loathing for milk, I came away from that episode with two rules.

First, never allow external pressures to force a rush to judgement on any matter of safety. There’s simply too much at stake. If I ever feel rushed, I make a conscious effort to step back, slow down, and think the matter through.

And second, I never, ever ignore that voice in my head when he tells me something just isn’t right. I’ve learned over the years that he is frequently the only one in the conversation making any sense.

Oh yeah, and when the guy at the supermarket asks me if I want my milk in a bag, I always ask him if he would mind double bagging it for me - just in case.

 

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