The H-3 is the Chevy Suburban of helicopters. It is adaptable, functional, and for its day, pretty reliable. The H-3 is or was flown by the armed forces of many countries and they were built in the Canada, Japan, the U.K. as well as the U.S. There are so many military and civilian variants that it would take a book to describe them all. This discussion focuses on the Navy variants I flew rather than the Air Force CH-3C/Es and the Coast Guard’s HH-3Fs.

The official name for the Navy versions of the H-3 is the Sea King. The helicopter was designed in the mid to late 50s as an anti-submarine helicopter that could take advantage of the additional power and capabilities of turbine engines. As a result, it had a large cabin on top of a boat shaped hull and sponsons for stability should one have to ditch. The large cabin was needed because it had to house the reeling gear for a sonar dome that could be lowered into the water to listen or ping for submarines.

The original AQS-8 sonar had about one hundred and fifty feet of cable which, when lowered through a hole in the H-3’s cabin floor from a forty foot hover to about one hundred feet below the surface of the ocean. Later U.S. versions had the AQS-13 sonar, which besides being more reliable, smaller and lighter, had twelve hundred feet cable on the reel. The sonar reel and sensor stations took up most of the cabin in the ASW version of the H-3.

The mission for the ASW H-3s was to go fifty to a hundred miles or more from the carrier, hover and lower the sonar dome into the water and listen for submarines. We called this “dipping” and did it day and night, regardless of the weather. By operating in pairs, one could hold contact on a submarine either by active pinging or listening passively for noise emanating from the submarine and direct your wingmen to a position ahead of a maneuvering sub.

If there was a problem with the sonar dome’s hoist, you had two options, one was to cut the cable and let the expensive sonar transducer sink to the bottom of the ocean. Or, you could climb straight up until you got the transducer a.k.a. “the dome” out of the water and then fly back to the ship, wait for everyone else to land. As you circled the ship, you watched them bring out some mattresses and then from a hover, you descended until the dome as it was lowered onto the padded surface. You kept coming down and the flight deck crew tried to coil the cable as you came descended. If you were lucky, they let you guillotine the cable and come around and land. If you weren’t lucky, either one of the air crewman disconnected the cable or used the personnel hoist to bring a technician on board to either disconnect the cable or cut it.

The worst scenario was if one was hovering and had a lot of cable out and you had an engine problem.  If that happened, there was a very high probability that you were going to ditch. Whomever was flying the helicopter in the hover had his thumb over the guillotine switch because if you were fast enough, you could cut the cable and fly away. In the daytime, it was difficult and depending how much fuel had been used, the H-3 would start to settle and you’d have to decide how much rotor rpm you wanted to trade for altitude.

At night, darkness and the lack of a well defined horizon made it much worse.  Unless you were really quick and skilled, an engine failure at night with the cable out meant you were about to make a single engine water landing.  The key was touching down, wings level at less than five knots at a slow rate of descent. If you managed to get the helo in the water without major damage or it rolling over, you had a chance to spend the rest of the night in the water or dumping as much gear as you could and trying a single engine, night take off before the H-3 took on much water.  Was it possible, yes.  Has it been done, yes.  Have I done it?  Thankfully I never had too!

On the original SH-3A, there were four ordnance stations and theoretically, it could carry four Mark 48 homing torpedoes, or believe it or not, airborne depth charges. There even was a training film in which an H-3 crew carried a nuclear depth bomb! In later models, the four ordnance stations were used for other things such as auxiliary fuel tanks (on the two forward stations), chaff and flare dispensers (on either or both of the aft stations) and a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) on the aft port station.

The MAD bird, as it was called, was towed about one and fifty feet behind and about fifty feet below the helicopter and detected changes in the earth’s magnetic field made by large metal objects, i.e. submarines. When it was out, you had to be careful of your altitude because the closer the bird was to the water, the deeper its detection range. All the Navy fixed wing ASW aircraft had MAD booms that extended out behind the tail. Beginning in the late 1970s, the H-3s had one as do all the current model ASW helicopters fielded by the U.S. Navy.

The H-2s were much more maneuverable than the H-3 but they didn’t have the range, cabin size or payload of the H-3. So, for rescue missions during the Vietnam War, the Navy began to task H-3s assigned to ASW and utility squadrons for combat search and rescue. It’s range and payload made it ideal for the mission but very quickly, the Navy realized it needed a dedicated combat search and rescue helicopter.

Enter the HH-3A. In a crash program, the Navy modified twelve SH-3As into HH-3As by taking out all the ASW gear and fitting self-sealing tanks, armored seats and mounts for a GAU-2B/A 7.62mm mini-gun firing out the cargo door on the right side and a 7.62mm M-60 shooting out the passenger door on the left side, just behind the co-pilot’s seat.  Composite armor plates were added around sensitive hydraulic and flight control components along with some on the floor and by each of the doors.

They were painted a dull gray or matte black and a small, U.S. “star and bar” insignia was in a noticeably darker shade of black. The GE T-58-8F turbo shaft engine gave the HH-3A about fourteen hundred and fifty horsepower which was about two hundred more than the original ASW models to improve its performance.  However, the modifications jumped the empty weight jumped from around twelve thousand pounds to close to fourteen thousand. Instead of taking off at a maximum designed gross weight of nineteen thousand, four hundred pounds, the HH-3A, with a crew of four or five – pilot, co-pilot, rescue swimmer and one or two gunners – often weighed at much more depending on how much ammo and other gear the crew was carrying. These helicopters became the workhorses of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron SEVEN (HC-7) whose squadron’s official name is the Sea Devils but is better known by its unofficial name and call sign Big Mother.

Even though the H-3 had a theoretical top speed of one hundred and forty knots, as the age and weight of the H-3s increased, the top speed dropped. When I was flying them, getting one hundred and ten to one hundred and twenty knots out one was all you could manage. By the time Desert Storm rolled around, the top speed of the SH-3Hs was reduced to ninety knots because the Navy wanted to reduce the stress on the rotor blades and increase their life.

One entered the H-3 through either the passenger door on the left side just aft of the cockpit. The top half went up while the lower half provided steps. Or, one could clamber up and go in through the large, sliding cargo door at the aft end of the cabin. Once inside, one could stand upright, unless you were an NBA basketball player. It took a step up into a spacious cockpit which had what looked like two thrones, one on each side of the center console.

Anyone who has flown the H-3 will tell you that the seats were not thrones. Instead, they were pilot torture devices designed by a sadist! Sikorsky created the most uncomfortable seats known to aviation. We were told their design minimized the damage to the pilot’s spine in case of a hard vertical landing, i.e. a crash by telescoping to absorb the impact. I never had to test the theory, but good God, they were uncomfortable. Double cycle missions when we were in the cockpit for eight to nine hours were painful experiences.

Once ensconced in the flight deck, the view was spectacular. Unlike the H-2, where everything was close, the windscreen in the H-3 was well out in front of you and the side windows were eight to ten inches away from the seat which gave the cockpit a feeling of spaciousness. Like the H-2, it had Plexiglas windows under the rudder pedals which I never understood why they were there other than to see where you were about to land if one had to autorotate.

Along the roof of the cabin, fuel and hydraulic lines along with several wiring harnesses were clamped side by side to the fuselage’s ribs and longerons. This simplified troubleshooting and made repair easy. It also made them extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. In the non-ASW versions, there were canvas bench seats along the cabin walls. Depending on the model, there were seats for anywhere between six and nine passengers.  On one flight when we were rescuing survivors from a hurricane in Pennsylvania, we had thirty odd people and pets crammed into the cabin.

Flying the H-3 was easy but you were always mindful of its size. Although the rotor blades were only twenty-five feet long, the diameter of the rotor system from tip to tip was close to sixty feet which was about twenty wider than the H-2s. The Navy used the H-3 like a mid-sized pick-up truck. If you could get it inside, it would lift it unless it was very heavy.

The G models had an external hook for carrying large loads that wouldn’t fit in the cabin. It was modified so that the ASW equipment could be easily removed, a floor plate installed over the hole through which the cable was lowered so that it could be quickly converted into a logistics helicopter. I rarely flew a G model that had an operable sonar system installed.

When flying the G models we were often asked to carry bulky parts from the carrier to a smaller ship in the task force. Normally, that mission was flown by the vertical replenishment squadrons flying the twin rotor, H-46.  Since the aircraft carriers didn’t have any H-46s assigned to the air wing, the ship assigned the mission to the helicopters on board.

Flying parts, people, and mail from the carrier to another ship was simpler and faster than having the destroyer come alongside the carrier and sling the large cans or pallets between ships using lines. When the parts came out, for us to carry, they all had tags showing their weight. Every H-3 crew looked, out of necessity, at the tag and then the cargo and doing a mental validation to answer two questions.  One, would it fit and two, could we handle the weight.

On one occasion, as we approached for landing after being airborne for about three hours, the Air Boss asked if we could take some cargo to one of the escorts that was about one hundred miles away. We shut down the rotors so we could load the cargo and take on fuel. I would never take off without a full bag of gas because you never knew where you would be sent next and many times ships were not where they said they were.

It is not that the ship captains are malicious, but back in the old days when there were no ship to ship data links or GPS, they relied on celestial navigation.  You were given a bearing and distance to the ship based its last reported position which could be several hours old. Ships at sea move about in their assigned block of sea space and the difference between one end and the other could be twenty or thirty miles. In this instance, the co-pilot and I alternated running to the head (bathroom) while the pallet was loaded via the cargo door.

When I saw the mini-forklift by the H-3, I should have known something was wrong. As strapping back in, I asked the senior air crewman who was new to our detachment, how much the pallet weighed and he reported back that the weight tag said two hundred and sixty pounds which also matched what was on the manifest. I figured the forklift was needed due the bulk as opposed to the weight.

As we started to lift off with full fuel, the rotor RPM drooped as I pulled power and we weren’t getting light on the wheels. Sensing there was something wrong, I had one of the air crewman get out and walk around to see if any chains were still attached to the helicopter. Finding none, we tried again with the same result. By now, the carrier’s air boss was impatient because he wanted to land airplanes on the angle and we were in the way. So, again, I pulled power and the rotor rpm dropped to ninety-six percent and still, the H-3, now with full fuel on board, wouldn’t come off the deck.

Being the resourceful HAC and not wanting to tell the air boss we couldn’t take off without having a good reason, I eased the cyclic stick forward to make a running take-off. The H-3 settled rapidly as we rolled off the front end of the angle of the carrier which was making about fifteen knots at about forty knots of airspeed. We managed to level off without hitting the water and by milking the collective (a technique I learned and practiced in the UH-2A/B), we staggered up to about two hundred feet a couple of miles from the carrier. Milking was a technique where one added power and let the RPM droop to a specific rotor speed and then eased down to regain rotor RPM. In BIG MOTHER 40 the technique is described in detail.

Once I had the H-3’s rotor RPM back up to one hundred and two percent which is where it was supposed to be, the air crewman began, at my encouragement, to look around the packaging to see if there was any indication of its true weight. Lo and behold, he found markings that said the container weighed twenty-six hundred pounds, not two hundred and sixty on the weight tag given to us by the carrier’s air transport officer!

All the H-3’s flight controls were hydraulically boosted which meant that you didn’t need a lot of strength to move the cyclic stick, collective or the rudder pedals. The helo had two separate hydraulic systems for flight controls and one for the brakes, raising and lowering the landing gear and the blade fold system.

As effective as they were, they were also the helicopter’s Achilles heel. In Vietnam, the H-3 was being asked to fly missions that its designers never intended it to fly, i.e. combat search and rescue. All of the hydraulic actuators for the main rotor system were located in a compartment behind the pilot’s seat called the broom closet.

The HH-3A had armor around the broom closet that would stop 7.62mm rounds, but anything larger could penetrate the armor. A 12.7mm or worse, a 23mm round exploding in the broom closet would bring down the helicopter because both twelve hundred psi (pounds per square inch) hydraulic systems and/or the actuators would fail making the H-3 uncontrollable and seconds later you were dead. It was as simple as that.

Another vulnerable area was the area just aft of the transmission where the two hydraulic reservoirs were located. Between the transmission which would run for less than thirty seconds without oil before seizing and the need to have at least one of the hydraulic systems functioning in order to control the H-3 made it very, very vulnerable to ground fire.

The first H-3’s carried four thousand, five hundred pounds or about seven hundred and fifty gallons of jet fuel. In a ninety to one hundred knot cruise, the fuel burn was about one thousand pounds to twelve hundred pounds (that’s about one hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty gallons) of jet fuel (the Navy calls it JP-5) per hour which enabled you to fly about four hours before the low fuel warning lights would come on. Later versions had two, one hundred and ten gallon drop tanks which extended the time in the air to about six to six and a half hours depending how much time one spent in a hover. The D models had what we called the doughnut tank which was an extra fuel cell around the hole in the floor. This gave the D model six plus hours of internal fuel.

One of the great things about the H-3 was its auto-stabilization equipment, a.k.a. the “ASE” and its auto hover capabilities. Early on, when flying the H-2, I learned how to approach a forty foot hover at night. You learn to do fly it by hand at first and then with the autopilot. The first few times you do it, getting to a hover, much less hovering at night, is a hair raising, sweaty palms experience. The pucker factor is always high because of the proximity to the water and all the variables that can easily result in an uncontrolled water landing.

By the end of my first cruise, I actually enjoyed hovering at night satisfaction of doing something well that was very difficult. Unlike the H-2 whose auto hover capability was, at best not very reliable, the H-3’s was a dream. Yes, you had to monitor it all the time – who wouldn’t – but the approach to and the auto hover feature worked well in the A models and even better in the later D, G and H models.

The H-3 could be trimmed and maneuvered using the autopilot while in a hover. This capability was critical when the sonar ball is several hundred feet in the water but is also very important during a rescue while you are trying to maintain a stable, steady hover trying to pluck someone out of the water.

For rescues, the standard procedure was to come into a hover close by the survivor and then the senior air crewman would guide you over the survivor.  Once there, we could transfer lateral movement of the helo to the air crewman who had a a joy stick through which he had very limited control of the helicopter. The joy stick would be overridden by any control inputs by either the pilot or co-pilot who maintained a steady hover at forty feet.

The H-3 was also great instrument platform and had decent range which made it, for a helicopter, a pretty good cross country machine. It was stable and easy to control and trim as long as the ASE was working. Without the ASE, flying it on instruments was like trying to stand on a rapidly rotating greased sphere.

There were two other things one had to be mindful about the H-3. First, unlike the H-2, one had to be very careful when doing quick stops. If one flared (raised the nose) too violently, the main rotor blades would flex and could hit the tail pylon. At the very least, one would damage one of the main rotor blades and create a hellacious vibration that could cause the rotor blade to come off. Or, it could damage the drive shaft to the tail rotor causing a loss of tail rotor control or worse, do enough damage to the tail pylon so that it could come off. All of these could ruin your whole day!!!!

Second, landing on destroyers and cruisers in the H-3 was a challenge. In the H-2, because of its smaller rotor diameter, it was easier to land on what we referred to as “small boys.” Back in the early seventies, helo decks were often added as afterthoughts to the ship years after it was built rather than, as is the custom today, to include the capabilities to operate a helicopter in the original design. I’ve landed on destroyers, frigates, light cruisers, heavy cruisers and even battleships.

In most cases, the larger the ship, the larger the helo deck, but that was not always the case. During the Vietnam era, there were large destroyers called DLGs that had decks designed for much smaller helicopters. DLG stood for “destroyer, leader, guided missile.” Later, the ships were renamed CGs or “cruiser, guided missile.” On many of these ships, the clearance between the H-3s rotor tip to the ship’s structure was often less than ten feet. On some ships, it was five or six or less.

While this seems like a lot of room, keep in mind that the ship was often pitching and/or rolling. During the day and in a smooth sea state, landing on a destroyer required careful flying but was more or less “routine.” At night, the pucker factor went way up and if the weather was bad, i.e. rain or worse, snow and the deck moving up and down five to ten feet makes it much more challenging.

Getting the H-3 down on the right spot wasn’t a matter of precise flying, it was a matter of life and death because a little left or right and one main mount was off the deck and you could to roll off into the sea. Too far aft, the tail wheel was off the deck and the helicopter could roll right or left as the tail rotor came off. Too far forward and the rotor blades were beating themselves to death against the ships superstructure.