Most Dangerous Evolution in Naval Aviation – the Fly Off

It is the end of a cruise, the ship – carrier, destroyer, cruiser, amphib or supply – is approaching the coast after a long cruise. Or even a short, two- or three-month work-up. Everyone in the airwing (on a carrier) or Marine Air Group on an amphib or the helo detachment on the aviation capable ships wants to go home. Those of whom fly off get to see their loved ones before those who must wait for the ship to dock.

On a carrier, the fixed wing aircraft launch about a couple hundred miles from the beach so to speak. If the carrier is approaching San Diego, the West coast, the electronic warfare airplanes fly north to Whidbey Island, the F/A-18s go to Lemoore in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California. If the carrier is based in Norfolk, the airwing flies to NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach.

The helos usually wait until the ship is closer, anywhere from 25 – 50 miles from the shore. West coast helo squadrons are based at North Island and the East coast ones at Norfolk Naval Air Station.

On board the ship, for the past few days, the maintenance crews have been getting the airplanes and helicopters ready. If the detachment or squadron had more than one airplane, it probably had a hangar queen which for much of the cruise had been used as a parts bin.

Cannibalizing parts to keep other airplanes flying is against Naval Aviation rules and regs. However, every squadron commander or detachment officer-in-charge, is faced with an ugly choice – cannibalization and meet one’s commitments or don’t cannibalize and don’t and face a bad fitness report. The fly-off is just another one of those situations where the rules and sometimes common sense are, shall we say, ignored.

Why does cannibalization happen? There are several causes, the details of which are well beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say, there are two primary reasons. One, the parts may not be on the carrier or ship and must be flown out from a shore warehouse. This process could take days or weeks depending on where the broken airplane/helicopter is located. Two, the Navy has a history of saving money by underfunding the parts needed to keep its fleet of airplanes in the air, so there may not be any parts available.

Because no CO or detachment officer-in-charge wants to have one of his airplanes or helicopters craned off the ship, the hangar queen along with the other aircraft must be made flyable. Even with today’s consolidated bases, no squadron wants to assign sailors to a det at another air station to fix a broken airplane.

So the question is, what’s flyable? Any Naval Aviator has been there. It is a decision every time one signs for an aircraft to go fly. But for a flyoff, the criteria of what is an “up” airplane or helicopter changes.

Ego tells the pilot assigned to fly the hangar queen – usually the maintenance officer – he can fly it and handle any emergency. Desire to see his family or significant other hours or even a day before the rest of his squadron helps with the rationalization. So does the desire not to have to assign a det stay with the airplane until it can be “safely” flown home. The operative word here is “safely.”

So when the time comes to man up, if it is a fixed wing airplane, if the engines start, the wings unfold, and the airplane isn’t leaking fuel or hydraulic fluid, it is going off the front end of the boat.

Radios? Don’t need them they’re going to fly on the wing of his flight leader.

Autopilot? Hell, that’s what they make trim tabs for.

Instruments for flying in crappy weather. No problem, it’s forecast to be visual flight rules. Even if it isn’t, I’m an outstanding Naval Aviator and I can tuck onto the wing of my flight leader who can lead me right down to the runway. Or I can make a partial panel instrument approach to a runway even though I haven’t done it in six months.

Us helo drivers are superhuman. Every time we lift off the deck, we wrestle a machine around the sky that is essentially 30,000+ parts flying in close formation. If we’re lucky, none of them have a mid-air collision.

Naval Aviation’s rotorheads violate the rules of common aviation sense because almost every day, we’re forced to make down-wind approaches, or pick-up survivors from a mountain ledge at 7,000 feet above sea level, or, or, or. The list is an article unto itself. For those of you who don’t know, helicopters designed to operate off ships don’t fly well at high altitudes and in mountains.

Land on a deck that is rolling 10 -15 degrees and going up and down 20 – 30 feet, with three to four feet of clearance between the tips of the rotors and the superstructure of the ship, no problem. We go to places where the charts – remember them – are not accurate. GPS? It may not work.

So, for the rotorhead Naval Aviator, if the engines start, the rotors and the tail rotor is controllable, one of the two generators to keep the electrics – the helo’s stabilization system – working, no fuel or hydraulic leaks and we are good to go!

Radios? Don’t need them. Who are we going to talk to? We’re going to fly VFR.

Instruments to make an approach in in bad? Nah, not necessary. We’ll fly low to see the ground and sneak in under the clouds.

Navaids? Why turn them on. We’ll fly to the beach and then follow the roads to where we need to go.

So, if you’re asking was I one of those who flew a helicopter on a fly off that was at best marginal and flew into crappy weather in my hurry to get home, my lips are sealed. Until of course, you read it here.


  1. dc on January 10, 2022 at 8:25 am

    Tail Code on the bird I describe was November Whiskey. We had a helo with a rotor blade issue, since we were supposed to leave the ship a decison was made to cover the offending part with duct tape and fly off to Whidbey, just a short hop from HMCS Provider. Being the juniorest crewman, I was assigned to ride in back for that event and I was naturally worried… Tape was gone a few moments after we launched. No problems when we landed and a replacement blade was found and installed.

    • Marc Liebman on January 16, 2022 at 8:18 am

      BTW, I only log on once a week to check comments.

      This is interesting. I have landings on both HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Provider. I was on a det that made a short cruise on Protecteur when it participated in a NATO ASW exercise in the Atlantic. Protecteur was one of the two supply ships that “simulated” the convoy and we had U.S. and other NATO ships as escorts. It got a fair amount of attention from the Soviets who sent a sub or two for us to “play with.” We found them relatively easily and every day, we were pinging on them and they were trying to get away.

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