Way back in the late 1970s, I was assigned to a helicopter anti-submarine squadron based at Lakehurst, NJ. Our annual training syllabus in the H-3 required that we take cross-country flights to practice navigation under visual and instrument flight rules.
We –that’s my co-pilot and me – decided to fly to the Naval Air Station at Brunswick, Maine, get gas and come back. Brunswick was just under 400 air miles and, as a practical matter, as far as we could go without having to stop and refuel. The H-3s we flew carried about four and a half hours of fuel and at 100 – 110 knots, you could fly somewhere around 450 – 480 nautical miles before one ran out of gas.
Brunswick made a lot of sense. It was a Naval Air Station so if the H-3 broke and couldn’t be fixed by the base’s transient maintenance folks, we had a place to stay while waited for parts or the mechanics from our squadron to come fix it.
Another reason Brunswick was a popular destination was that you could call a local lobster fisherman who had access to the base and he would meet you at base operations. Once it was known where we were going, several of our squadron mates placed orders and gave us the cash. Another order came from my father who lives on Long Island.
We took off early on a Saturday morning and flew the usual route from Lakehurst direct to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, up the Hudson River (along with the zillion other helicopters in the New York Area) to the northern end of Manhattan. As we turned northeast, the controllers would ask us to stay below 100 feet over the East River (why would we go higher?) until we were well clear of the approach path to LaGuardia’s Runway 22. Then we would parallel the Connecticut coast to the base of Cape Cod, cross it and hug the coast until we got to Brunswick.
It was a bright summer day and the trip north was routine and fun. We refueled, had a greasy hamburger at the Navy Exchange and most importantly, picked up the cardboard boxes stuffed full of lobsters packed in seaweed to keep them moist.
On the way south we had to make a slight detour to deliver the lobsters to my dad. He told me where he would be in his thirty-foot sailboat. Finding the yellow-hulled sailboat in Long Island Sound about a half mile north of the Long Island Power Company plant wasn’t a problem. When he saw us approaching – we didn’t have radios that operated on the same frequency – he dropped the sails, fired up the engine and turned into the wind going as fast as the boat would go which was about 10 knots.
We – in the helicopter – would hover over the sailboat and lower down the lobster in the rescue basket. Sounds simple. It wasn’t.
Challenges came one right after another. First, we thought that hovering at eighty feet would give us plenty of clearance above the sixty foot mast of the sailboat. That meant we were hovering out of ground effect that meant we were burning a lot more fuel than we would if we were hovering at forty feet. Twice as much to be accurate. We were consuming at almost two thousand pounds an hour.
Second, in the swells of Long Island Sound, the sailboat bobbed, pitched and rolled a lot which made it difficult to get the basket down to the deck without getting tangled in the wire stays that kept the mast up
Several times, the wind and motion got the box and the hoist cable wrapped around the stays. Thankfully, it was only one wrap and, thanks to the skill of my air crewman, it didn’t get serious. It did, however, cause a major tightening of the growing knot in my gut.
Third, my dad had to deal with static electricity. The rotor blades generate about 40,000 volts and while its not enough amps to kill you, it can give you a nasty shock. He was, as briefed by his son, well prepared. My dad had wrapped the handle of his metal boat hook with extra rubber and ran a grounding wire down into the water. The good news he didn’t get shocked.
So you have to imagine this scene in the middle of Long Island Sound, about a mile off Northport, NY. Yellow hulled sailboat, mainsails draped over the boom, the jib lying on the foredeck bobbing along and almost hidden in the helicopter’s rotor wash. Boaters could see a a nineteen thousand pound helicopter with gray and white paint and a fifty-five foot rotor diameter attempting to lower a small box of a dozen lobsters down by a hoist cable.
From the cockpit, we couldn’t see the boat. All we could see is the spray from our rotor wash and the people on their boats taking pictures as they watched this spectacle.
In the H-3, the pilots could turn over control to the hoist operator and he had limited lateral and fore and aft control of the helicopter. He used what we called the swizzle stick to keep the H-3 over the sailboat. I had to keep the helo at a steady eighty feet. The rotor wash caused too many problems for the rescue basket and its box of lobsters so we tried 90 and finally at 100 feet off the water.
We were hovering well out of the cushion of air known as ground effect. The closer to the ground, the stronger the cushion and the less power is needed to hover. At a hundred feet, we were hovering in an area known as out of ground effect. And, we were near the edge of the helicopter’s performance envelope. If one of our engines faltered, even for a second, we would have crashed.
At a hundred feet, we needed a lot of power and that meant we were consuming a lot of fuel. The fuel burn rate was now well north of two thousand pounds an hour.
Technically, lowering the lobster’s to my dad’s sailboat wasn’t illegal. Unusual, yes. Unauthorized, maybe. Illegal and against FAA regulations, no.
What I thought would be a simple transfer of a box of lobster turned out to be a fifteen minute exercise in flying skill which created our fourth and last problem – fuel, or the lack of it.
The H-3 burned so much fuel hovering first at eighty, then ninety and finally at a hundred, that when my dad pulled the box out of the rescue basket and we started to fly away, we had less than twelve hundred pounds of fuel. An H-3 burns one thousand pounds of fuel an hour at normal cruise of ninety knots.
From where we were, as the crow flies, it was about ninety-five nautical miles back to Lakehurst. Assuming no wind, no detours, I figured we would land with about two hundred pounds.
About fifteen minutes out of Lakehurst, the low fuel warning light came on telling us we had about, emphasize, about three hundred pounds left. H-3 fuel gauges are notoriously inaccurate as one nears empty. When we landed, the fuel gauges indicated we had one hundred and fifty pounds left.
Just as we started the shut down checklist, the number two engine began to unwind. We finished the checklist, applied the rotor brake and finished the flight “normally.”
BTW, all concerned enjoyed their lobsters. But, I never tried to transfer lobsters to a small sailboat again!!!