Right after I joined my first squadron after getting my wings, I started hearing stories about what happened on first flights as a helicopter aircraft commander (HAC). Some were funny, some were scary and some were, well, just stories.
They all seemed to happen sometime late in one’s first cruise right after you get a check ride and voilà, one is designated a HAC. Again, the custom is that the junior HACs either fly together or with more senior ones for a few weeks. The idea is that it is a transition period so they don’t do something dumb and bend a helo or crash.
About a halfway through my first cruise, my annual NATOPS check was due. NATOPS is an acronym for Naval Aviation Training and Operations Procedures Standardization that is a set of rules, standards procedures that govern how Navy aircraft are operated. Every airplane has its own NATOPS manuals and there ones for every aspect of carrier and air station operations.
NATOPS came about as a way to reduce Naval Aviation’s accident rate back when it was implemented in 1961. Its effect was dramatic. In 1961, the Navy and Marine Corps had nineteen major accidents every ten thousand, non-combat flying hours. By the time I made my first deployment in 1970, it had dropped to nine and shortly thereafter to two per 10,000 flight hours.
The NATOPS “check” consists of an open and closed book tests, an oral quiz and a flight check. Back in the old days, the flight checks were done in the helicopter. Your grades on each element went into your training record and your annual fitness report. NATOPS also dictates the minimum amount of flight time both total and in the particular helicopter one needs to be designated a co-pilot and a HAC. To make a long story short, I passed along with three other 2Ps.
Right after I made it, my best friend in the squadron – also a newly designated HAC – were told to take some mail, parts and two people to the guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Oklahoma City stationed about twenty-five miles off the coast of Haiphong Harbor. The cruiser was about a hundred and fifty miles north northeast of the carrier U.S.S. America located at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Other than dodging armed sampans and fishing boats, it should be a routine flight. Take off, climb to a thousand feet and head toward the Oklahoma City. Just before the America lost us on radar, she gave us what is known as “pigeons” – bearing and distance from our position to the last known position of the cruiser.
My friend flew the outbound leg as the HAC and we landed, discharged our passengers and cargo, picked up a sailor going on emergency leave and about a half a dozen bags of mail. It was a nice fall day and we took off and headed back to the America.
About halfway back to the America, our aircrew man –we were only flying with one because it was a logistics flight, not a rescue mission – keys his mike. “Ahhhh, Lieutenant Liebman, we’ve got jet fuel all over the floor.”
“Are you sure it is not residue from spilled fuel?”
“Yes sir… Its coming out from somewhere on the floor and not dripping from the overhead or spraying out of the fuel lines.”
That was good to know because the lines are pressurized and would spray out of a pinhole leak. Besides being messy, the fuel mist coming out of a tiny hole quickly vaporizes and will catch on fire if there is a source of heat.
The engines in the H-2 are mounted on the roof of the cabin, just forward of the main transmission. The fuel lines are inside the cabin and run from the belly of the helicopter to up along the structure to the engines. Brackets hold them to the airframe.
The Navy jet fuel is known as JP-5. It is less volatile than JP-4 that the Air Force uses. In fact, you can toss a match into a bucket of JP-5 and it will not burst into flame. However, if one exposes it to a constant flame source or electrical sparks, JP-5 will burn.
“Unstrap and see if you can see where it is coming from?”
By now, on his own initiative, the aircrew man had stacked the mailbags on the empty canvas seats. The pungent smell of JP-5 filled the cabin and the cabin floor glistened. Our passenger was sitting crosslegged on the canvas seat and his eyes wide. Even he could tell this was not routine or a prank.
First decision – How do we prevent the helicopter from becoming a fireball?
Answer – turn off all the electrical equipment not absolutely needed to stay in the air. Even though they were in the nose compartment, well away from the fuel, the wires to their antennas ran through the belly of the airplane, right where the fuel cells were located..
Second decision – Do we go back to the Oklahoma City or to we continue on to the America?
Answer – even though the cruiser was closer, once we landed, its maintenance facilities were limited. Plus we’d clutter up her helicopter deck. On to the America.
By now, there was enough fuel on the deck of the helicopter so that it was dripping out the doors and had migrated forward to the cockpit because in forward flight, helicopters fly nose down. The floor under my heels was slippery.
The aircrew man happened to be one of our jet engine mechanics and he kept a small tool kit on board. He was busily unscrewing the cover that provided access to the forward fuel cell’s boost pump. Once it was open, he could look into the belly of the helicopter and see the fuel cell.
The forward one was dry which meant the leak was in the aft cell. So far, the fuel gauges weren’t showing a big difference between the fore and aft tanks. There was always some difference between the two.
When he unscrewed the aft access panel, fuel sloshed out. He didn’t need to shine his flashlight into the compartment to tell him that the aft tank had ruptured. We turned off the pumps in the tank and pulled the circuit breakers.
Third decision – How much fuel have we lost? If it was out of the tank, it was unusable.
Answer – It was unknown. After a quick discussion, we decided to pump whatever fuel we could out of the aft tank and into the forward a.k.a. the sump tank. The way the fuel system worked on the H-2 is that fuel is pumped to the engines from the forward tank. As it empties, fuel is pumped from the aft tank into the forward tank. By the time this all started, we had burned the fuel from the two external tanks. From what we could tell, the forward fuel tank was full and not leaking. That was the only good news.
The forward/sump tank only contained about 675 pounds of JP-5 when it was packed full. That translated to about 40 minutes of flying.
The assumption we made was that we were landing in 35 to 40 minutes. Ditching in an H-2 and surviving was not a sure thing. Assuming we could put it in the water and get out, we’d be afloat in the shark and sea snake infested waters of the Gulf of Tonkin where we often saw both animals basking near the surface.
And, the gulf was full of fishing boats. Where we were, they were primarily North Vietnamese who would get a nice bounty for bringing in four American POWS. If the boat that picked us up was Chinese, who knows what would happen?
We turned the TACAN – that’s a gadget that gives a plane the range and bearing to the ground station – back on. Thankfully, the helicopter didn’t blow up or catch on fire and it worked. The America was less than 50 nautical miles away. At our maximum range airspeed of ninety knots, it was going to be close.
Fourth decision – do we stay at a thousand feet or do we descend to a hundred feet so that if the engines started to unwind or we caught on fire, we could just plop the helo in the water?
Answer. We decided to stay at one thousand feet where the TACAN worked.
At forty miles out, we turned on the UHF radio and declared the obvious – we had a serious emergency. The ship wasn’t conducting flight operations but scrambled one our detachment’s helos to fly out and escort us back to the ship.
Right at about thirty miles out, the low fuel level light came on. We now had twenty minutes of fuel left. The good news was that the light and the fuel totalized now agreed. The bad news was that we would land with less than hundred pounds of fuel that translates to about six minutes of flying.
I looked into the Plexiglas “chin” bubble just forward of my feet watched about. six inches of JP-5 slosh around. My co-pilot had a similar amount in front of his feet.
When we touched down on the America, the fire crew had their silver suits on, their fire hoses laid out and charged and the fire truck was just outside the runway markings on the angled deck. Thankfully, we didn’t need them.
We also didn’t need to shut down the engines. As we were being chocked and chained down, the engines started to unwind. The front tank was empty.
After they pumped out the aft fuel compartment, they pulled out the bladder. It had a split that was about two feet long and when the tank was pressurized to feed fuel to the engines, the fuel just gushed out. Getting the smell of JP-5 out of the helicopter took much longer. The cabin had to be washed with a strong detergent so that the fuel and its residue wouldn’t linger and the fuel compartment had to be flushed and drained.
Looking back, I smile when I think about it. The one good thing about the flight is that the JP-5 got into my leather boots and ruined them so I got a new pair. Instead of laces, they had zippers up the front. They looked cool if nothing else.