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stoker - DokuWiki

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A Search and Rescue Helicopter Pilot's Story

by LaRon L. Stoker
Captain, USN (Retired)
5 May 1956 to 31 August 1989
6,500 hours of flight time, 4,700 hours in helicopters, the rest in fixed wing aircraft.

Awards earned:

Legion Of Merit W/Combat V

Air Medal (3 Awards)

Navy Achievement Medal W/Combat V (2 Awards)

Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation (2 Awards)

Combat Action Ribbon

Meritorious Medal

Defense Superior Service Medal

National Defense Service Medal

Antarctica Service Medal W/ Bronze Clasp And Disc

Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal

Vietnam Service Medal (5 Awards)

RVN Air Gallantry Medal W/Bronze Wings

Vietnam Armed Forces Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Medal Color W/Palm

RVN Meritorious Unit Citation (Civil Action Medal, First Class Color W/Palm

Vietnam Campaign Medal

Expert Pistol Shot Medal

White Elephant Medal 2nd Class (Thai)

December 1965

Near the end of December 1965, I checked into my new duty station HC-1, then known as NAF Ream Field, later changing name to NAF Imperial Beach, located at Imperial Beach, CA. At this time the Vietnam War was building very fast and shortly after checking in my Commanding Officer called me into his office. He told me he had checked my flight records and that I had more flight time than any of his pilots and he need pilots with my experience for a new task in Vietnam. That task was to take a rescue helicopter on board a non-aviation ship to rescue pilots being shot down over North Vietnam. I had approximately 4 months to qualify in a new turbine engine helicopter called a UH-2A/B Kaman Sea Sprite.

May 1966

By early May I had met all requirements, was given a copilot, Ensign Jansen and 8 enlisted personnel to make up my detachment, (Det. 23). We departed on a chartered flight for Cubi Point in the Philippines, arriving at Clark Air Force Base at the start of a Typhoon. We spent 3 days there in temporary quarters mostly soaking wet and finally arrived by bus at the Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. I was told when I arrived there would be a newly configured armored UH-2A/B helicopter waiting for me. There was a helicopter but it was stripped down in parts and pieces. I now had relatively inexperienced maintenance crew with me and a job to put this machine back together to meet a deployment date of 28 May 1966. At this point it gave me approximately 10 days to do this and after about 4 days of hard work, I could see we could not meet the deadline. I sent 7th Fleet a message and related my problem and told them I could not meet the deployment date. I received a message back telling me the ship would pull into Cubi Point the next morning and for me to be there waiting to see 7th Fleet Operations Officer. This I did and the operation officer was a Navy Capt. who informed me I would have that helo on my assigned ship, the USS Coontz (DLG-9), a guided missile frigate, on time and on schedule. He told me he did not care how I got it there even if I had to shit it, it would be there! I was able to get some help for Cubi Point maintenance, I then split my crew into two shifts and we worked around the clock. At around 3:30PM, on 28 May I took the helo out for a test flight and my ship was pulling into Subic Bay to refuel. I contacted them on the radio and they cleared the flight deck on the fan tail of the ship and I made my first landing on a light cruiser. They had a circle helo pad behind their missile launcher and that would become my new home for the next 30 days. The ship refueled, we brought our gear on board and departed that night at 10:00PM for the Tonkin Gulf.

Early the next morning when the ship held quarters, we were missing one enlisted man. He had last been seen around midnight and he could not be found after a full search of the ship. We reversed course, called general quarters and launched the helo for a search on our reversed course. We flew and searched all day looking for him but he was never found. This turned out to be very good for us as we were able to make some practice approaches and landings, plus it gave us a chance to see how well we had put the helo together.

July 1, 1966

Our 30 days on North SAR (Search and Rescue) station, a position we maintained where we could see the light house of Haiphong Harbor at our nearest point to Vietnam, had been exciting but no rescues were made. On our last day on station the USS King (DLG-10) (same class ship) arrived to take over our position. We had just brought the Commanding Officer and a couple of staff officers over to do a briefing for the turn over. Then all of a sudden, bells were ringing and the call for general quarters was blasting over the loud speaker including a call to standby to launch the helo. I ran up to OPS to see what was going on and they said there was a pilot shot down way north and he had parachuted into a waterway in a location just off the Gulf. A quick look at the map and I could see we would have to fly between two Islands to get to his location. It was also a longer distance than my fuel range. I told the C.O. I would launch and proceed to the site but he would have to close the distance in order for me to return without running out of fuel. It took almost an hour to reach the entrance point and as we approached the entrance we started to receive gun fire from a gun placement on one Island. I called in support from overhead fighter aircraft. They came down and completely wiped out the gun implacement. We proceeded in and searched the area where an overhead plane had marked the downed pilots position but we could not locate the pilot. We searched for 15 more minutes and I had to depart in order to meet the ship before I ran out of fuel. It was assumed the pilot had been injured when he ejected and was not able to release himself from his chute when he hit the water. If he was alive when he hit the water, he most likely drowned when his chute pulled him under the water. As we flew back between the two islands all was clear, the gun implacements had been destroyed and we were able to land back on board our ship with only minutes of fuel left.

We shut the helo down and my crew was busy refueling when we got another call over the loud speaker, “launch the helo immediately”. We were lucky enough to have a full load of fuel and as I started the helo up and contacted control, they ordered me to fly out in front of the ship. I still did not know what was going on but finally they passed the word to me that we were under attack by 3 high speed Vietnamese Patrol Boats. Our ship was at full power doing about 33 knots and we were headed back out to sea to draw the boats away from the coastline. They had alerted the Aircraft Carrier and we had fighter jets coming in to assist us. When they arrived, they attacked the patrol boats with heavy gun fire and air to ground missiles. One boat was destroyed, one left disabled and soon become dead in the water and the other one was able to escape back to Vietnam. I made a survey of the destroyed boat and saw several bodies in the water, the other boat had been able to pick up a few survivors. It took us about two hours to get the crew to surrender in the boat that was dead in the water. We took 21 prisoners on board, the ship gunners sunk the boat and we departed south for Danang. This was now a really big issue because this was the first prisoners that had been taken by U.S. Forces form the beginning of the Vietnam conflict. It took us two days before the U.S. Forces could figure out what to do with them and we finally off loaded them on to a fleet troupe carrier ship, where they had a brig (jail) to house them in. We now were free to head back to Cubi Point in the Philippines for a little R & R.

Our R & R and maintenance repair time was to be for 30 days but we were cut short when the USS Chicago (CG-11) pulled in with a new developed battle staff on board. They were headed for the Tonkin Gulf and they had a large helo pad on the fan tail and they wanted a helicopter. We received orders to fly onboard and go with them. Their mission was to control the air battle group, so I was never in a position to support the rescue operations. In over two weeks I had not been able to get them to let me fly any more than about 5 launches. Finally my luck changed, the USS King was coming back out to the North SAR and their helo was hard down for lack of support parts at Cubi Point. They had received orders to come by our position and pick us up to be their rescue helicopter. We were now a happy crew, going back to what we came out to do, rescue pilots!

We had been on board the U.S. King for about 2 days when a A-4 pilot got hit over Hanoi and could not control level flight but could maintain some level of flight by keeping the aircraft in a roll. He basically rolled his plane all the way to the coast line and once out over the water he ejected. On board the ship we could listen to all of the conversations going on so we were on our way to intercept him when he landed in the water. This was a great day for us as it was our first at sea rescue.

August 11, 1966

Fortunately, the Captain (Capt. Tesh) and I had been discussing what would be the procedures and the responsibility of the ship in the event we were called on to make a night rescue. Several days later I was awaken by general quarters, being blasted over the intercom. By the time I was in my flight gear they were calling launch the helo. I ran to Ops and learned we had two Air Force pilots ejecting from an F-4 approximately 30 miles from our position. By the time I reached the helo, my co-pilot had it turning. The ship gave us clearance to launch and as we lifted off it was like flying into a black wall. There was no light in the sky, and it was like you had a blindfold on, no horizon what-so-ever!! We climbed out to a 1000 ft. and picked up our vector to the downed pilots. As we approached the area, we could see a flare go off. Now was the time to see if all of those night practice rescues were going to work. I flew over the flare at 500 feet, down wind, made a 30 degree left turn adjustment and timed myself out bound for 1 minute. Then I started a standard rate right turn, which lined me up on the flare and I began a decent, reaching a 20 foot hover prior to the flare and the pilot. As I tried to position myself over the downed pilot I could sense vertigo very bad. I told my co-pilot he had to do nothing but monitor my flight gages and controls and not attempt to look out side. It was his responsibility to ensure I did not fly the helo into the water. Now it was going to take both me and the rescue crewman’s guidance to get me over the downed pilot in order to pick him up. With me fighting off vertigo and the crewman’s directions, I was able to get over the pilot and the crewman hoisted him onboard. Once he was onboard I climbed back to 500 feet and began a search for the other pilot. I was receiving his emergency radio beep signal but there was no sign of a flare. In that it was so dark I had to navigate by my RMI (Radio Magnetic Indicator) needle which pointed to the pilot’s position from his emergency radio. I made several approaches over him with my landing light on trying to locate him and finally spotted the reflection off his reflective tape on his hard hat. We dropped a flare and commenced the same type approach to pick him up. Once again it was the same difficulties in making this rescue but luck was with us and we successfully made the rescues.

As we climbed out I picked up the ships navigational aides, they had close to with 15 miles of our position. As I approached the ship they set there course into the wind for me to make my approach. The only light on the ship was a red beacon on top of a high mast, making the approach was as difficult as the rescue approach. Plus this was my first night landing on this type ship, which had never been done before. By the time I saw the ship we were too fast and I had to wave off the approach and set up for another one. My second approach was successful and we landed onboard with the two rescued Air Force pilots. Later after we had let them take a shower and clean clothes I was questioning the second rescue pilot if he had a flare with him? He informed me, yes I had one, when I ask him why he did not light it off. His reply was I really do not like helicopters and would have preferred to have the ship pick me up. Hell was I mad. I told him next time he had to bail out and is on top of a mountain he can wait for the ship, I sure the hell wasn’t coming after him!! Note of interest: They were hit in the fuel tank by enemy fire over Hanoi and they were losing fuel. They had been given a vector to a standby refueling aircraft that was positioned out over the Gulf near us. As they were approaching the refueling probe, they were only about 6 feet from it when they ran out of fuel. That was the reason they had to bail out.

We had spent the required 30 days on station and returned to Cubi Point. The ship was going to stay there a few days and then proceed to Hong Kong for 5 days of R & R. Capt. Tesh asked me if any of us wanted to go with them. We had a required amount of maintenance work on the helo that must be done before next deployment, which meant some one had to stay to complete this. My co-pilot and 5 crewmen did not want to go so they stayed to take care of the maintenance. We took off and arrived in Hong Kong for some relaxation. We had been there two days when a typhoon approached the area and were ordered to clear out of Hong Kong harbor. We sailed right into that damn typhoon and rode it out for two days. That was a scary ride, we took on rolls up to 25 degrees and I spent most of my time strapped into my bunk. We returned back for one more day and left for Kaoshiung, Taiwan, where the ship would receive 7 days of maintenance up-keep. After this was completed we returned to Cubi Point, took on fuel, supplies, picked up my helo and crew and departed for the Tonkin Gulf.

We had been on station now for about a week, when there was a big Alpha Strike scheduled into Hanoi. During the afternoon attacks a Navy A-4 was hit over Hanoi and the pilot was having difficulties controlling his plane and headed for the Gulf. His calculated point of crossing the beach was about 45 miles from our position, so I launched and headed in that direction. We heard him call “May-Day, May-Day” as he punched out, which put him just off the beach. When we arrived we could see many small Vietnamese boats paddling out from the beach. We made a high speed run in the direction of the pilot’s radio beeper and could see him in the water about 1 mile off the beach. I needed to know which direction the wind was coming from in order to make an approach to pick him up. So, I flew parallel to the beach and over the downed pilot and dropped a smoke light about 300 yards from the pilot. The boats from the beach thought that was where the pilot was and they headed in that direction. Then we saw some mortar fire hitting the water. I alerted my crew to standby for a very fast pickup of the downed pilot. I came in over the pilot down wind (all most no wind) and did a maneuver I had developed that I called a rotor-over. It is pulling the aircraft into a steep climb, and before going into a full loop rolling and turning it in the opposite direction of flight. At the same time reducing power to bring the helo to a hover just above the pilot. However, as I started to pull power to recover I knew something was wrong as I did not have the required power I normally had. I waved off the approach, had the crew standby to make a firing run at the boats to drive them away from the downed pilot. We had two M-60 machine guns mounted in each door of the helo. As we made the firing runs the boats started to turn back but we were taking fire from the beach. I dumped all of my fuel from the aft tank to make us lighter and started another rapid approach but as I started to pull into a hover I began to lose power again. I rechecked all of my engine flight gages and everything was normal. We had no wind so I knew I had a problem because of the weight of the helo. I told the crew to start throwing every thing out of the helo, extra ammo, flack vests and anything that had weight to it. I told my crew chief we had one chance to pick this pilot up. I would have to fly the helo as close to the water as I could to use the rotor wash to help me maintain a hover. The other crewman was to keep firing at the boats and the beach. We would approached the downed pilot and the crew chief was to drop the rescue collar as close to the pilot as possible. As I started my approach and began to bring the power on, I began to lose some RPM’s, as I reached approximately 3 to 4 feet above the water the power held. As I eased over the downed pilot the crew chief put the rescue collar right over his head, he grabbed hold and the crew chief grabbed his arm. I could hear the chief yelling go, go, go, as I eased the helo forward we began to skip the nose off the water and gradually I gained flying speed. During all of this time the other crewman was blasting away with his M-60 and boats were scattering every direction. With one big sigh of relief, our adrenaline began to come down we were headed for home plate, our ship.

By the time we reached the ship we were low on fuel and the red warning light came on. With this fuel system it meant I might have 10 minutes of fuel left or maybe none. I told the ship to give me all the speed they could as I knew I would need all the wind they could make for me. As we crossed over the fan tail of the ship and set it down, the power had held okay. Once on deck we shut down and I told the maintenance crew to check the engine with a fine tooth comb. After debriefing the pilot, a shower and clean clothes we (the ship) headed south to take on fuel and supplies. This meant we would be very near the pilot’s carrier and I could fly him to his home plate. When we arrived I went to start the helo but the engine would not turn??? I ask the crew if they had checked everything and they said everything but trying to start it. They pulled the starter out to see if that was the problem and discovered a bearing behind the starter had completely disappeared. This particular bearing was on the main shaft to the accessory section that controlled the fuel pump drive shaft. Basically the fuel pump shaft was free to wobble all over and to this day I don’t know what kept it operating while we were flying!?!?! One helava lot of good luck!

This now caused a new problem we now had an inoperative helo and we could not leave station. After evaluating the situation, I decide we could change the engine onboard the ship. The big problem was how to get a new engine out to us?? We pulled the old engine out and made plans to get the new one flown onboard, some how!!! They had a new engine on the helo carrier and I talked to the pilot that was to fly it up to me, and discuss how to get it onboard. He was flying in a SH-3 which was much larger than our helo and he was going to lower it to me on a hoist. On the first try his crew could not get it out of the door while in flight. As he flew around we moved our helo as far forward as possible and beside the missile launcher. With it in this position he could land as far back as possible but his rotors would still over lap my helo. So the plan was to have him just touch down and still keep power on his rotors to keep them above my helo. This he did and as he touched down we rushed out, lifted the engine out and he departed. Two days later we were again flying with a new engine. “This was a first, an engine change at sea on a non-aviation ship”!!!

During this on line period we had another situation that we had thought about and actually tried it. The combat control staff would send up one of their SH-3 helicopters every day as a backup rescue vehicle and they would fly around the area. Sometimes they would be there 6 to 8 hours and they were approximately 100 miles from the carrier task force. During this time they would come along side our ship every two hours and we would pass them a fuel hose and they would in-flight refuel. I thought what if something happened to one of these flights and they had to make an emergency landing because of some malfunction. My helo pad was all that was available but where would I go?? If I departed immediately I could fly down to the carrier but if I was out flying I would not have enough fuel to get there. I did not have the in-flight refueling that the SH-3 had. So, I had my maintenance crew check where the fuel went into the helo and I came up with the idea that if I had a special spacer wrench my crewmen could open the fuel tank inside the helo. I could then hover along side the ship lower my hoist pick up the fuel hose, bring it up and pump fuel into my fuel tank. I tried it and it worked great. I sent out a message to the Fleet Commander telling everyone I had figured out a way to in-flight refuel my helo. Wrong thing to have done, they came back and blasted me it was a safety violation to do this.

However, not more than a week after this the SH-3 in the area developed a major hydraulic leak and they had to land immediately before their transmission failed. We launched and they landed and once they checked the problem they would need a hydraulic line from their ship, which was located about 200 miles south of us. I took off for the nearest carrier, a CVA (the carrier with the fighter aircraft on board) about 100 miles south where I landed and refueled, then on to their carrier where I picked up the hydraulic line and refueled again. On the return flight I again stopped at the CVA refueled and flew back to my ship. I hovered along side dropped the line and they passed me up the fuel hose so I could take on more fuel. It took the crew about 2 hours to fix the SH-3 so if I had not been able to in-flight refuel I would have run out of fuel. My next message to the Fleet Commander on my in-flight refueling came back and gave me a well done for my ingenuity. What happened to the safety??? Hell, I saved the loss of a helicopter!!!!

We were lucky enough to make several more at sea rescues, 8 all total during my SAR operation on the North SAR station. In November that year we were relieved by another rescue detachment, from our home squadron and we returned to CONUS. I was very proud of my entire crew they had worked and performed above and beyond what anyone could have ever expected. We were given a hero’s welcome back home.

Webmaster's Note: The following continues the Pilot's story but does not apply to the USS King (DLG-10) history.

My return home started another new beginning for me. The navy had been working with the Kaman Aircraft factory and agreed that we needed a helicopter for rescue with more power. The new plans were to do a modification to the UH-2A/B and make a twin engine helicopter that would be designated the UH-2C Sea Spirit. I had now received my promoted to Lt Cdr. and my new assignment was to be the fleet project officer for the development for the new UH-2C. I made many trips from HC-1 at NAF Imperial Beach to the main Kaman factory in Bloomfield, Connecticut. In early 1967, I went TDY to NAS Pax River, the Navy Test Center, where they had placed the first prototype UH-2C. I was to be the fleet pilot to fly with the test pilots through a Board of Inspection Survey, (BIS) which would qualify the helicopter for fleet operations. My first couple of test flights that were flown with the Navy test pilots, were unbelievable. One of the test pilots started one of the engines while I was still doing the pre-flight on the rotor head. After that I went to the Capt. in charge of the BIS program and related my experience with his test pilots, and told him I refused to fly with them. The next day he called me into his office and gave me a letter designating me the official test pilot for the entire program. Two weeks later I stopped the program as I had been out flying a profile flight and developed severe tail rotor vibrations. When I returned to the flight line and inspected the tail rotor the bearings had disintegrated. They brought the engineers in from the Kaman and agreed that it was a major problem and a new tail rotor would have to be developed. I returned to HC-1 and Kaman began the development of a new tail rotor. It took almost 3 months to get this completed. In the mean time the navy had decided they wanted to deploy the first Detachment on the USS Ranger, which was to deploy in November 1967. They had also designated me to be the Officer-in-charge of that detachment.

In early June of that year The UH-2C program was back on track and I went back to Pax River to finish the BIS trials. During this test phase, I was on a night flight, flying to Washington, DC where we would fly around the beltway. I was flying at 1000 when I got a transmission oil warning light. This meant I was losing my transmission oil and I had to land immediately. I saw a lighted area below me that appeared to be a parking lot and I made an approach to the area where I saw a clear area and set the helo down.

Once we were down and I shut the helo down. I discovered I had landed at the Naval Dock Yard, where naval engineers test and design ship hauls. We had to have the maintenance people come up the next day and repair a faulty oil line that had broken and we flew the helo back to NAS Pax River. How lucky can one be, to land at a Naval Installation, when you have had an emergency in a major city!!!

It was near mid July when I completed all profile flights and agreed with Kaman that the helicopter was ready for fleet operations. Kaman had three helo’s near completion and I need them as soon as possible because the USS Ranger was starting their pre-cruise training and they wanted me onboard to train with them. Kaman had the first two helo’s ready around the end of August and I took the three best qualified pilots of my new DET and we went back to pick them up and ferry them to Imperial Beach. We spent three days at Kaman checking my new pilots out and headed off on our cross country flight. Because of bad weather it took us three days to get to Dallas, Texas. We had one day to meet a big ceremony at planned at NAF Imperial Beach, so we were pushing as fast as we could. We had refueled at El Paso, Texas and were en-route to David-Monthan AFB, at Tucson, AZ flying about 1000 ft above the terrain. WE had to start a climb to fly over Mt. Galiuco, my copilot was flying and as we reached approximately 5000 feet the helicopter went into a violent vibration. I grabbed the controls and told him I had control and went into an immediate auto rotation. As we began our decent and I slowed the air speed to 60 knots the vibration became less. I advised the other helo we were auto rotating and going to land as soon as possible. There was a cattle corral and a watering tank with a clear area and I set the helo down there and shut it down immediately. I advised the other helo to contact Flight Service and alert them of our emergency landing and would advise results later. As we started to inspect the rotor system my crew chief could see our rotor brake disc had cracked and started to separate. Here we are out in the mountains of Arizona and about 100 miles from Tucson, what do we do now?? After discussing the problem the crew chief recommended we remove the rotor disc, which was not difficult to do. We figured that was the best solution, but we always started the engines with the rotors brake on. This meant when the engine started, the blades would start to turn. In order to prevent the helo from going into a ground vibration (known by helo pilots as ground resonance) the rotors had to be turned up very rapidly. My crew chief acted as the rotor brake by holing the end of one rotor until I had the engine running and once again we had the helo in flying condition. We took off and everything worked okay with no vibrations. We flew on to Davis-Monthan AFB where we could talk to our home base and let them know the homecoming would have to be delayed for one day. The next day we flew both helo’s on to home base where they had a big ceremony for the arrival of the first two UH-2C helicopters to be operational in the fleet. We arrived by a big welcome from our home Squadron HC-1 and the entire Air Station.

Additional Note: The crack in the rotor brake disc was now a risk problem and a new disc had to be developed. Prior to the arrival of the new rotor brake discs, one of the UH-2C’s from the USS Kitty Hawk was on a flight from Clark AFB to Manila, PI. crashed and all onboard were killed. It was determined in the investigation that the rotor brake disc failed. Pieces flew into the rotor system, causing a main rotor blade to separate from the helo. Helicopters do not fly with one blade missing. It is called an out of balance situation and the whole rotor system departs the craft!!!!!!!

Within the next few weeks we had to deploy on the USS Ranger (CVA-61), which was home ported at the Alameda Naval Station, in San Francisco. In order to make the full deployment I still needed one more UH-2C, which the following week I flew back to Kaman and picked it up. We were being pressured to make this all happen, so to try to expedite I made a record flight time from the Kaman to Imperial Beach. I drew a straight line on the map and flew as close to that route as possible and still find refueling stations. We made the flight in 19.1 hours of flight time, spending only one night in Amarillo. TX. We made 3 training deployments on CVA-61 out of Alameda and made plans for out departure in November 1967. I took the family to Wyoming for a 2 week vacation prior to my leaving for a 9 month cruise. While we were there we received a phone call from the Adoption agency we had been working with to try to adopt a child. They had baby girl for us but we had to pick her up in 2 days. We left almost immediately and collected out new daughter Darrete.

Within approximately a week we flew the 3 UH-2C’s to Alameda and flew on board the USS Ranger, which would be our new home for the next 9 months. The day we left, once we were out to sea the Fighter Squadrons were to fly their planes onboard. We set up for flight ops. And our main job was to be the helo plane guard in a flight standby position. This was maintained on the right side (starboard) side of the ship in a race horse pattern flying at approximately 500 ft. We received a Squadron of F-4’s and we had two squadrons of new (first deployment) of A-7’s to fly aboard next. As they started to arrive one at approximately 20 miles from us lost his engine in flight and the pilot had to eject.

I was flying at the time so they gave me a vector to his position where I rescued him and returned him to the ship. First day out, first rescue on the cruise and first rescue for the new UH-2C which performed remarkably well. Because of this incident they decided to not bring the remaining squadron onboard until the next day. The next day I again set up in the plane guard position and the other squadron started to arrive. Again, we received another A-7 lost an engine about 70 miles from the ship and the pilot had to eject. We were given a vectored to his position and the second rescue was completed. We were now on our way, next stop Hawaii, which took about one week to get there and on the way we conducted may training flights with out incident.

After about a week in Hawaii we were briefed on what our future schedule would be once we arrive on station in the Tonkin Gulf. We had nights flights scheduled for a training exercise before we departed the Hawaii area. The first night I had taken one of my junior pilots with me for a night training flight. The ship had scheduled the A-7’s for practice night landings and as we around in our race horse plane guard pattern, I saw one plane coming in and as it was landing there was a bright flash. The pilot had come to low and hit the back of the carrier with his landing gear. As the aircraft slid up the flight deck the pilot tried to take off. The aircraft lifted off the deck but lost control and it began to roll to the right and as it passed in front of the control tower the pilot ejected. It shot him across the deck in front of the tower and he landed in the water on the starboard side of the ship. Several crewmen saw him hit the water and threw lights in the water to mark his position. I received the emergency call that we had a pilot in the water but no sighting of him. I made an approach to the lights, now aft of the ship and began to search for him with my landing lights. I spotted his hard hat with reflective tape on it and it was floating just under the water. As I checked around, I spotted him floating in the water with his water survival vest inflated. I alerted my crewmen to send down one crewman to assist getting him in the rescue collar. This took us about 15 minutes to finally get him in the rescue collar and hoisted onboard. We flew onboard and they had a medical team waiting to get him to the ships hospital. Later, we found out he was not injured at all and had survived with out a scratch! He was an Air Force exchange pilot and damn lucky to be alive! Later I had a chance to talk with him and I ask him if he had lost his hard hat when he hit the water? He told me no, he had taken it off because it was wet and bothered him. What he didn’t realize was, I found him, because I found the hard hat from the reflection off the reflective tape. He told me he did not realize how important it was and he would never take it off if anything like that ever happened again!

The trip to the Gulf took us to Yokosuka, Japan then Cubi Point in the Philippines arriving on station in the Tonkin Gulf first of December, 1967. The line period was for 30 days and they passed very rapidly. However, our luck changed the second week there. I had just completed a 2 hour flight in the plane guard position and landed to refuel and change flight crews. The next launch started in about one hour and I had gone down to the Ward Room (Officers Dinning Room) to get something to eat when I heard over the loud speaker, helo in the water! helo in the water! I ran towards the flight deck to see what was happening and in doing so I hit my knee on a knee knocker (a metal ridge you must step over in the passage ways). When I arrived on deck my helo (the first one I flew) had gone into the water along side of the ship and lost at sea. My crew were able to get out and one of our Destroyer ships picked them up. Everyone was okay except me and I had a knot on my knee the size of an egg. The Dr. checked it and said the only way to fix a bruise like that is put my leg in a cast. So for the next month I was out of the flying business and the Aircraft Controlling Officer put me to work in Pri-fly (This is the tower where you control all flights on the carrier). The ship returned to Cubi Point in time for the New Year, I got my cast off and was able to barrow a single engine UH-2A/B from the helo detachment at Cubi Point for our next line period.

We were back on station around early February 1968 and had just about completed our 30 days on line when we received word the USS Pueblo (A U.S. Navy Spy Ship) had been captured by the North Koreans. We were given orders to proceed north to the Sea of Japan, for what we did not know??? We were there for another 60 days, basically doing nothing. During this time we had a crew for a new squadron Atsugi, Japan fly out and pick up our borrowed helo the UH-2A/B. They flew it off the ship and en-route to Atsugi now over Japan, they had an engine failure and landed the helo in a rice paddy. No one was injured and eventually the trucked the helo to Atsugi. We were finally given a port call and spent 7 days in Sasebo, Japan. From there we went on to Yokosuka, Japan and picked up a new UH-2C that was brought out to us on the USS Kitty Hawk, now we were back to our full complement of 3 UH-2C helicopters.

We did not arrive back in the Tonkin Gulf until about July 1968. During our time there we also was in company with the USS Kitty Hawk and they also had the second UH-2C detachment on board. During one of their night operations a good friend Scott Milner was flying and they had a bad accident by flying into the water. They all got out okay and were picked up by the night plane guard Destroyer. Scott had a very bad back injury and they had to fly him to Cubi Point hospital. The next day the USS Kitty Hawk did not have a helo in an up status for their flight operations. They called us and ask if we could provide a helo and crew to standby for a large Alpha Strike launch and a recovery cycle. I had a spare helo up, so I took it over to be the rescue helo.

The launches were completed and during the recovery flights a F-4 came in for landing and hit the deck to hard and the left wheel sheered off but they were able to get air born. The ship sent him up to refuel with a tanker, bring the remaining flight recoveries. Once all other aircraft were on deck the ship rigged the emergency barrier, (a very large net for a plane to fly into in an emergency) The plans were to have the pilot fly the F-4 into the net. On the approach he got a little low and the stub of the left gear caught one of the landing wires. This threw the plane into a left skid as it hit the net and the plane started over the side of the flight deck. As this happened the pilot hit command eject and the pilot was ejected out of the plane. The rear seat did not eject and the plane ended up hanging from the net with its nose dangling in the water. I spotted the pilot in the water and came to a hover over him and he gave me a thumbs up that he was okay. We lowered the rescue collar to him and hoisted him onboard. Once inside my crewman told me he was in shock and difficult to control. I alerted the ship to let me land ASAP. They had a medical crew standing by and as I landed he jumped form the helo and had to held by the medical people. What I didn’t know was he had a broken foot and the jump almost caused him to lose his foot. We had to take off and rescue the other pilot because he did not like hanging in the net and jumped into the water. What was normally a routine day turned out to be very exciting with two more rescues to our credit.

We had completed this line period and was on our last 30 days before we would be going home. The ship received a call from the South SAR ship and ask if we had a pilot that was qualified and could be brought over to there ship. The Pilot and Officer in Charge of the Detachment had become ill, which meant they had no rescue helo available. The operation officer called me asking if we had a qualified pilot to do this job, I told him yes! I was a SAR rescue pilot and I am qualified, the next thing I know I am on my way to the South SAR ship. After arriving, I was briefed by the ships commanding officer of the days scheduled strike operations and where rescues may be required. I had been onboard for approximately 3 hours when over the loud speaker came, general quarters, general quarters, prepare to launch the helo. I received a quick brief that a pilot had been shot down north east of Vinh. We launched and were given a vector towards Vietnam east of Vinh, I was advised the pilot was down in a mountain area and we were to cross the beach at a point where we would be escorted inland by Air Force A-1’s. We met up with the A-1’s and as we proceeded inland, they would fly crosses under me as protection from any ground fire. At about 25 miles from the beach, we picked up the emergency beeper from the downed pilot. Minutes later we were talking to him on the emergency radio and he advised us he had many enemy troops near him but he was hiding in some deep brush. The area was dense Forrest with a high canopy of tree tops above his position. We made one fly by and set up for an approach above the trees where we had marked his position. As I started the approach near the top of the trees, fire tracers were coming up through the trees from every where. I waved off and headed down the mountain made a fast climbing turn and told the A-1’s we had heavy fire from the area. In that we could not see below the trees we were not sure where the enemy troops were located. It was then we got a call from the downed pilot and he told us to get out he was surrounded and he was destroying his radio. We returned to the ship much disappointed that we had not been able to rescue the pilot. I never did find out his name but I am sure he was one of our POW’s. The next day the pilot was well enough to assume his flying duties and I returned to the carrier with my new experience behind me. It is after one of these experiences you look back and thank God you are still alive!