One sunny summer afternoon, I was the aircraft commander and had a helicopter and four and a half hours of fuel to burn. We, i.e. the crew, needed to log flight time to ensure we reached the minimum of 110 hours per year. For the record, 120 was desired and 140 hours was the real number.
Our SH-3A didn’t have an operating sonar so we couldn’t go out into the Atlantic and practice dipping, i.e. lowering our sonar dome and listening for submarines. Other than the engines and rotor system, only the UHF radio and transponder worked, but not the tactical air navigation (TACAN) system. The limited our options to a VFR (visual flight rules) cross-country or spending 4.5 hours shooting touch and goes or practice hovering.
So what’s there to see within 225 nautical miles of Lakehurst, NJ? One could fly up and down the Hudson and East River of New York past West Point. Or venture into the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Or take a beach tour down the Jersey and Delaware shores.
We knew where all the nudist colonies and their beaches were on the East coast from Brunswick, Maine all the way down to Key West, Florida and were very careful to avoid them like the plague unless we were above 1,000 feet. Why? Our helicopters had large numbers on the side and if we flew too close, lifeguards on the nudist beach with their binoculars plenty of time to record our number and call the Navy or the FAA. The result was not pretty, i.e. one was asked to leave the squadron and the Navy.
After discussing the best way to spend our 4.5 hours, we decided on a low level sightseeing trip up the Hudson River past Manhattan to around Kingston, NY and then weave our way through the mountains of Northern New Jersey back to Lakehurst. As a helicopter, we didn’t have any altitude or route restrictions.
Viewed from either the New York Harbor or the Atlantic side, from sea level or standing on the short, the Verrazano Narrows bridge is an imposing structure that towers above you. At its highest point, the base of the roadway is 228 feet above the water at mean high water. In other words, when one is flying at 100 feet above the water, the base of the bridge is 100+ feet above you.
Understand that flying around Manhattan over the Hudson and East Rivers, helicopters are restricted to 500 feet. We were expected to fly over or around the George Washington, Manhattan, 59th Street and Williamsburg bridges even though there were heliports on both sides of the island. Some were restricted to police and NY Port Authority helos, others were open to the public.
One time, we were sent to the East Side Heliport on 34th Street and that was a hoot. That’s a story for another time and place.
We’d been following the Jersey shore north toward New York City at 500, supposedly a quarter mile off the beach. Flying past Sandy Hook, we descended to 100 feet. Rather than climb or go over the Verrazano Narrow Bridge or fly around it, for reasons known only to broccoli and God, I decided to fly under the bridge. At the time, my co-pilot and I thought this would be a cool thing to do.
Approach the bridge, we could see scaffoldings on the sides and below the lower roadway. We could see by the different shades of the structure, workers were painting the bridge. Again, no big deal until I realized they were along the entire underside of the bridge. Being the hard charging, confident Naval Aviator, rather than turn around, fly out over the harbor entrance and climb to get over or around the bridge, we continued straight ahead.
Halfway under the bridge, to my surprise and horror, I saw a ladder and a bucket of paint tumble from the scaffolding. Both passed less than 50 yards from the helicopter. Thankfully, there wasn’t a body following or preceding the paint and ladder.
Had that ladder or paint bucket come down through our rotor blades, I wouldn’t be writing this story and my survivors, as well as those of my crewmembers, would be cursing my stupid decision to fly under a bridge. I still get the chills thinking about that moment, 50 odd years ago. What in God’s green earth was I thinking?
By the way, I have not flown under a bridge since then!