How I became a helicopter pilot

Like every Naval Aviator before me, I arrived in Pensacola to report to the training command in June, 1968 right after I earned my college degree. The instructors in what was called “Preflight” emphasized in that everything we do from this point in time onward is going to be graded and we’re going to be ranked. The message was really, “do your best…” because the point they made that 99% of the time, the guy at the top of the standings will get his first choice.”

Back in those days, every Student Naval Aviator or SNA started in VT-1 for the primary phase flying T-34Bs which was a Beechcraft Bonanza with a different cockpit section. VT-1 was based at Saufley Field, just outside Pensacola.

After finishing VT-1, you could ask for either jets and go to Meridian, Mississippi or Kingsville or Beeville – both in Texas for the next phase – Basic Flight Training. Or, you could get sent to Whiting Field north of Pensacola for basic and transition to the T-28.  This was the only option if you wanted to fly the A-1 Skyraider and it was emphasized that you could, after carrier qualifications go to Corpus for advanced and transition into the jet pipeline if you had the grades and there were slots. Guys who wanted to fly multi-engine aircraft or helicopters went to Whiting.

Taking that information to heart, I came out of pre-flight ranked, based on the test scores, in the top five but that included some guys who were going to be Naval Flight Officers, not Naval Aviators. When I checked into to VT-1, I was assigned to the flight that had all the Marine SMCAs (Student Marine Corps Aviators) along with a smattering of Navy SNAs. We were all treated equally, i.e. like know-nothings, which by the way, was true.

Again, I did well enough, i.e. top five and got assigned to VT-2 at Whiting Field. So far so good.  I’m thinking I’m on the way to A-1s a.k.a. Spads or, worst case, fighters! Again, I did really well in every phase, usually in the top four or five. Next stop was VT-5 back at Saufley for carrier qualification.

Everything we did in the T-28Cs at Saufley appealed to the romantic in me. We flew practice carrier landings out of Barin Field with open cockpits and flyingwas a blast. Then, one overcast day, I found myself leading a flight of four out to the U.S.S. Lexington.  The “Lex” was built in World War II and had been modernized with an angled deck and now served as the Navy’s training carrier.

I loved my first trip to the “boat” and as planned, entered the “break” at 500 feet, and, at the bow of the ship, rolled smartly into a 60 degree bank and descended to 325 feet.  After a close-in wave off, three touch and go’s and seven traps (slang for arrested landings), I was headed back to the beach for what I thought was my last flight as a student in a T-28 in the training command. I made seven traps instead of six because they simply lost count. On each pass, I received very few corrections from the landing signal officer (LSO) and after my last trap, he radioed “Good Work, Ensign Liebman, best passes of the day…”

So, leading the flight back to Barin Field which is where we flew all the field carrier landing practice hops, I was pumped. At the debrief with the LSO who went over each pass, I found I came in second out of twenty-four students and had all OK (which is the top grade) passes which is pretty good for a novice.

The next day, I went into the VT-5 administration office at Saufley to find out when I had to report to the squadron that was training future Spad pilots or at worse, one of the squadrons for advanced training in jets. I figured I would get a week or so to make the trek from Pensacola to Beeville or Kingsville.

The admin officer, a lieutenant commander whose name I do not remember, pulled out the list uses his forefinger to find my name. He started at the bottom which surprised me and moved up the list of fifty plus names. I wasn’t sure if this was for effect or the way he looked at the list. “Ahhhhh, Ensign Liebman,” he finally found my name at the top of the list. “We’re going to post this on the bulletin board in a few minutes, so I might as well as tell you. You’re going to Ellyson to fly helicopters.  Your next stop is VT-6 for advanced instrument training in the back seat of a T-28 and then on to HT-8, the helo training squadron.”

“Sir, I think I finished close to the top and should get my first choice which was Spads or my second choice, which was jets.” I was trying not to be (a) argumentative and (b) not show my disappointment as in who the hell wants to fly helos!

The lieutenant commander ignored my indirect suggestion that a mistake had been made by the Navy and said, “Ensign, we received a directive to send the top thirty pilots on the list who just finished carrier qualifications to fly helos. You fall into that category and that’s where you are going. It is called needs of the Navy and it trumps everything including class standing. And, oh by the way, the A-1 pipeline was shut down about six months ago.”

“Sir, is anyone below me going to jets?”

He looked at the list and found a couple of names way, way down from mine. “Yup, three guys. I was directed to send them to Beeville.” He deliberately didn’t use the word ordered.

“But sir, I finished first for the carrier qualification phase and second out at the boat. I should get my first choice or second choices.”

“True, but your father doesn’t have three stars on his collar who expressed his wishes that his son and his two friends want to fly jets.” He paused for a few seconds obviously not happy a lowly ensign was challenging a Navy decision and then said, “The Navy needs helicopter pilots so Ensign Liebman, you have two choices. Go learn to fly helos or DOR.”

DOR stands for Drop on Request which means I quit voluntarily and the Navy could send me to do anything, anywhere to finish my commitment. That was not going to happen because I wanted to wear the wings of a Naval Aviator and the following Monday, I started at VT-6. The rest, as they say, is history.

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