By Al Bruss
Just a Test Flight
It started out to be a routine test flight for some work done on a 25-hour inspection. The pilot was Major Hugh Rhodes, the 390th Detachment Commander. I was flying in the left seat and the crew chief was in back.
We were flying around Ninh Hoa doing the prerequisite test out of the ship when we received a radio call from a FAC pilot in one of those little Cessnas. He was looking for a Chinook. We told him that as far as we knew, all the Chinooks were up north around Que and asked what he needed. He said that a Navy SWIFT boat (one of those 40 ft converted cruisers) had lost its engines and had drifted into shallow water by Big Charlie, a mountain near the base. They were too far into the shallow water for a sister boat to come in and tow them out. They needed a tow out to deeper water.
A 4000lb HUEY towing a 20,000lb+ boat did not sound reasonable. However, it was well know that Big Charlie was under the control of the Viet Cong and that meant that SWIFT boat was not is a good place. So we decided to have a try.
As we approached the boat we started to encounter the problems. First off the boat did not have a radio we could talk to. The FAC had both FM and VHF radios so he had to act as the message switch. Next problem was trying to attach a line from the boat to the HUEY.
The SWIFT boat had these 20 whip antennas for those radios we could not talk to and they precluded us from hovering low and attaching a line to the HUEY cargo hook. So we improvised. The boat crew tossed a line to the crew chief and he tied the line to the port gun mount. Our quick release mechanism was the crew chiefs machete.
And so we started our tow. Actually towing was hardly what we were doing. The waves were pushing the SWIFT boat towards the shore. The boat crew had placed anchors out towards the sea. So we put pressure on the boat and when a wave broke, the boat would move out a few inches and the boat crew would tighten up on those anchor lines.
Because the line to the boat was attached to the port gun mount, we were pulling sideways at about 50 altitude. Major Rhodes decided that the way to get more energy into the towing action was to pull more horizontally. So on our side we went with the rotor disk just a couple of feet from the water. Major Rhodes could only see the horizon so it was my job to keep an eye on our alignment with the boat.
When the rope broke lose from the gun mount, the HUEY, on its side, rotor disk just a few feet from the water dropped quickly and tried to become a boat itself. Quick actions by Major Rhodes kept our amphibian activities to just the skids in the water. However we did kick up a lot of the South China Sea into the air. That is when just about every warning light came on. We landed on the beach by the boat, by Big Charlie. We were really not armed for a land exercise by Big Charlie but we did need to check out the HUEYs condition. We dried off the chip detectors and the warning lights went out.
So we lifted off and reattached ourselves to the boat again. We used a better knot this time. Out friend the FAC said he had to go, so we continued our adventure without the ability to talk to the boat. So there we were, pulling against the waves of the South China Sea, gaining a half a foot or so on each wave. It seemed like we were getting nowhere.
Pulling at full power like we were, eventually depleted the fuel supply. So when we got to a point that we felt we had to go back to base, we used the quick disconnect (the crew chief chopped the line with his machete) and flew home. We landed at the fuel dump and took on a load of fuel. While we doing that, the discussion of what in hell were we doing came up. The insanity of it all also came up. The final discussion was about a boat crew on a boat stranded by Big Charlie and the enemy. That when we decided to go back.
The boat crew seemed a little joyous when we returned. We attached the line again and began the pulling contest with the ocean waves again.
I started to worry about Major Rhodes. Here he is, holding this HUEY in a sideward pull, the horizon at an angle and he cant even see what he is pulling. He has been doing this for a couple of hours with only a break during the refueling. I was in no position to take over. I could kind of hover in an area about the size of a football field. My flying skills were mainly to get the ship back on the ground in a controlled crash if the pilot was incapacitated. So we continued on.
We did have a backup plan. We would land on the beach, have the boat crew swim in and we would destroy the SWIFT boat. It would have been a stretch to take the whole crew but we were not leaving those guys to Charlie.
Eventually our little steps got the SWIFT boat out to where the sister boat was waiting. We applied the quick disconnect tool again and made one pass over a boat full of smiling faces.
Sitting back in the revetment, Major Rhodes asked how he should write this flight up. I said it was a test flight. Just a real long one.
|Sp6 Alvin M. Bruss Tech Inspector 390th TC Detachment|
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