When my daughters were young, they liked to go to amusement parks. We lived near Busch Gardens and Paramount Studios in Virginia. There were a lot of options in the mid-Atlantic in the 2000s for getting one’s thrill-ride on.
…But I was not a big-fan. Never have been.
The truth is, I f***ing hate those death-defying rides.
I would always think, “What would it be like if the cart lets go on that corner of the roller coaster? What do you think is going through the minds of those poor bastards as they’re flying – unattached – through space… clearly not on the original flight plan, as it were?”
This isn’t normal ill-wishing; nor the product of an overly active imagination.
As it turns out…
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
After my winging ceremony on May 21, 1993 – ahem. Excuse me. With more gravitas. After my graduation from Naval Flight Training as a basic rotary-wing (i.e. helicopter) pilot, my young wife, my two daughters, and I all got into my piece-of-shit, blue ’87 Chevy Corsica that I modified to put a tow hitch on bound for the west coast. We pulled away from NAS Pensacola with a U-Haul filled with our worldly possessions dragging behind and headed west on I-10 through Louisiana, endless Texas, and the rest of those big square states.
Destination: Camp Pendleton, California, for HMT-303, the Marine Corps’ skid training squadron for AH-1 “Cobras” and UH-1 “Hueys,” both helicopters progeny of the Bell Helicopter Co. that traced their origins to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In some cases, the data plates on the doors of our squadron’s Huey’s had birthdates older than the pilots flying them, originally entering service in the late-1960s. My aircraft, however, was the newer AH-1W SuperCobra, the -W variant of the breed, sometimes called simply ‘the Whiskey,’ from the military’s use of the phonetic alphabet for the letter.
After completing training in December 1993, we headed back east to my fleet squadron – HML/A-269, the Gunrunners. We lived in base housing: me, my wife, and our two girls, just across the road from one of the airfield’s two runways, nestled back in among the ubiquitous pines of North Carolina. By June of 1994, I had become a Pilot Qualified in Model (PQM): our CO, the inestimable R.E. “Saint” St. Pierre, said I was worthy of signing for one of the $15 million (or so) AH-1s on the flightline and assuming all responsibility for it. The next designation was AHC – Attack Helo Commander: that would mean that I could sign for a bird loaded with ordnance and was considered qualified to put steel-on-target. Big-boy toys.
And, oh! the Whiskey Cobra carried an awesome array of boomsticks: a 20MM three-barreled chain-gun in the nose that was good for somewhere in the range of 600 rounds per minute at max-blast, four wing-stations that could be loaded with everything from anti-radiation air-to-ground missiles to AGM-114 HELLFIRE missiles – squat, fat, tank-killers, of the laser-guided variety, that dropped down on top of a designated target, where no tank had adequate armor to protect from the roughly 7 pounds of composite-B explosive in a shaped charge rather impolitely knocking on the hatch; 19- and 7-shot pods of 2.75” rockets that could be stacked wing-to-wing, leading to apocryphal stories of guys who had fired “76 Trombones” – named for the old Broadway and Movie musical closing number of “The Music Man.” I didn’t care for the 2.75” much – they were just as likely to go off to the right 100 yards as they were to hit the target, but we had fired the remainder of our 5” Zuni rockets – the big boomers that the F-4 Phantoms used in diving fire against the North Vietnamese Army in Vietnam. The problem was that the rockets were so powerful that they would scorch the bejezus out of the side of the aircraft – AND they would wash out your night visions goggles when you fired them at night, something nobody really cares much for while trucking along toward a target at a couple of hundred feet off the ground and at about 150 mph in the pitch black. For all that, though, they flew straight as an arrow – just point. aim… and whoosh!
Insta-f*** somebody’s sh*t up.
This is not mere hyperbole, I feel compelled to add. When I was in Afghanistan ten years later, on the ground, I would occasionally be on the receiving end of rocket attacks in both of these rocket-flavors. The Russian 107MM (frequently) and 122MM (far less frequently, thankfully), were occasional delivered to our doors from Taliban and foreign fighters who found ingenious ways of using delayed fuses to fire these without consequence to them. (They would emplace them overnight and then walk back out of the mountains before the rockets would fire – an ammo can filled with water with a float switch and a hole punched in the bottom of the can). At any rate, the 107s whoosh and you can hear them incoming, but the 122s – a match of the 5” Zunis I mentioned above – would just “arrive.” And make a heap, big boom. One hit a girl’s school near our base, one we had built to educate the local Pashtun girls and generate goodwill, at the request of the tribal elders and local governance. They were over-the-moon about the opportunity for their daughters. We built it close enough to be within the ambit of our base’s protection, but a slightly long rocket hit it directly, mid-morning.
That was all in the future, however. In July 1994, I just wanted to use the upcoming Combined Arms Exercises (CAX-9/10) at 29 Palms as a chance to get most of the training flights I needed to become an AHC. And have a helluva lotta fun firing rockets, missiles, calling in artillery and “fast-movers” – F18s loaded with the real, big-boy bombs, ready to drop on targets we marked and directed them onto out in the desert ranges of a Marine Corps Base known as “Twenty-Nine Palms,” located in the high California desert in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of the only places the Marine Corps can train in big numbers because there is enough space to use all of the combined arms in a place big enough to contain the sheer scale of the destructive force that a Marine Air-Ground Team can generate: F-18s and Harriers, attack helicopters, M1A1 Abrams tanks, 155MM artillery batteries, plus all of the weapons integral to a Marine Infantry Battalion, include 60MM and 81MM mortars, .50 cal machine guns, and (my favorite) Mark-19 grenade launchers, a 40MM belt-fed machine gun that fires hand-grenades. (I’m telling ya, until you’ve fired one of those things… man, you just can’t really appreciate how insane the technology we have for f***ing each other up is).
In parallel, I had begun working on my Post-Maintenance Functional Check Pilot (PM/FCP) designation. We called them FCPs, or ‘testers,’ but ‘guinea pigs’ would do. It was a local syllabus that gave pilot’s the ability to conduct tests after certain kinds of maintenance are performed on a helicopter – in order to ensure the aircraft is safe for the rest of the squadron’s pilots to use. For example, if you take the rotor blade off of the aircraft in order to conduct some maintenance on the transmission, after it gets put back on, the whole system – the rotor head – has to be tracked and balanced, and then vibration testing done using special equipment that is attached to the helicopter, both on the ground and in the air, in order to ensure the rotor is within safety limits. I was one of those knuckleheads who volunteered to get trained and do that nonsense.
I was well-into my functional check pilot syllabus when the whole squadron picked up, got loaded onto the massive C-5 Galaxy transport planes, and shipped to March Air Force Base that late-June of 1994. I was 24 years-young at the time. We unpacked and flew our helos out to the base through Banning Pass, took a lazy-left and swooped north just before Palm Springs, flying north of Joshua Tree National Park and following the highway until we popped north and landed at the EAF – expeditionary airfield – at Camp Wilson. Our home would be an aluminum quonset hut for the next 7 weeks, during two separate exercises for two different infantry battalions running three weeks of exercises. We would be the air support for both, with a one-week break in between. At the end, some of us would fly aircraft to Yuma in support of the Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course, like “Top Gun” for Marine helo pilots, except… an entirely professional affair because flying tactical aircraft is a dangerous business and acting like an asshole is a good way to go nowhere professionally, as well as also (possibly, likely?) earning you an ass-kicking in the O’Club after everyone’s had a few beers.
August 11, 1994, dawned scorching hot at the EAF, just like the day before, and the day after would be.
The EAF is made up steel matting, so in addition to the sun and outside air temperature, the matting heats up enough that you can occasionally find the troops showing a newbie that yes, an egg will actually cook on that steel decking at midday. My outside air temperature gauge showed something above 40, so Bill “Schlep” Dunn and I strapped in and got the engines started quickly. Thankfully, the AH-1W was equipped with a fantastic air-conditioning system that was piped through the seats. The Hueys next to us could open their doors and blow the outside hot desert air into the whole bird. They would swelter until we got off the ground and into some cooler air; we would mock them over the radios while the sweat dripped off their faces and onto their checklists.
Bill and I were joined by our wing aircraft. My closest peer and friend in the squadron Clark Cox was flying with a senior Captain from another squadron who had volunteered to augment us because we were short qualified instructors. We were scheduled to call-in artillery on some targets in Quackenbush Lake, while using our own rockets to mark and/or suppress other targets, under the watchful eye of some of the Marine Corps’ training staff who monitored our joint exercises to ensure we were blowing things up in the prescribed military manner.
While we were hovering in the foothills, and I was watching Clark finish up his call for fire, the “Rotor RPM” warning alarm went off. One of the investigations would later note that it was about 6.5 seconds from the moment the first engine coughed and rolled-back until we impacted the hill below us, breaking both sets of skids, the upslope set snapping off completely, the tail-stinger buried into the ground, fortuitously also sticking the helo to the ground, keeping us from bouncing down the side of the hill upon which we had crashed, rack-to-rack ordnance and two full buckets of magnesium flares, plus the 700 rounds of 20MM HEI in the ammo-can under the nose-gun – the thing that I was sitting on top of because I was in the front seat and Bill in the back.
A roughly 150’ drop, unpowered, into the foothills on the southeastern edge of Quackenbush Lake.
We walked away from it.
The CO came to the hospital, stood by our hospital beds, and told us that he had been to the crash site. We waited in silence reclining in our flight suits and boots. (We had walked down from the helipad carrying our own gear, but the hospital had gone nuts, we could secretly have broken backs and be moving on adrenaline, blah blah blah, so we laid in the beds feeling ridiculous.) Bill had signed for the bird and I knew his reputation as a pilot was on the line, so I waited quietly and seriously, though in truth I was giddy that we were alive.
Rich “Saint” St. Pierre, worthy of his callsign, shook Bill’s hand, then shook mine, and told us he was proud of us. He told the flight surgeon: “Doc, as soon as they’re cleared med-up, I want them back on the flight schedule. Bill and I flew less than 48 hours after the crash. 4 days later, with both an aircraft mishap investigation and a JAG Manual investigation ongoing into our crash, the CO signed my test papers. Everyone in the squadron knew, including the enlisted maintainers, who were well-aware of the crash – they’d had to pull the wreckage off of that hill and bring it back to the EAF.
It was right out of Wordsworth.
“that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
The CO could have waited, done a dozen different things, played the bureaucrat, but he didn’t. I was testing his aircraft every day, my signature The Word that the aircraft I had just tested was safe-for-flight: it would go on the sked the next morning, for one of the other pilots to fly, with confidence, because I had tested it.
He could have delayed all of it while the investigations were pending.
Six-and-a-half seconds from first blurp until impact.
The hardest part about it is that you have to drop the collective immediately, instantly, unthinkingly, because you need to get the rotor blades at as flat a pitch as possible, hope the sprag clutches work, cause the rotor-blades to disengage from the rest of the transmission drivetrain so it can freewheel, and save those rotations for the very bottom, when you pull up on the collective, but with no engine power behind it, only the momentum left on the blades as the turns decrease, the lift lessens, and the ground rushes-up-as-you-mush-through-the-last-fifty-feet…
I sat bolt upright in my cot in the quonset hut, my heart pounding in terror. It was two nights after. I tried to control my breathing in the desert darkness. A hot wind blew under the side door and across to the opposite one. It was loud when it gusted, and felt like a hair dryer.
My eyes adjusted and I looked over, two racks to my left and the opposite row. Another figure was sitting up. I let my senses expand and I could hear Bill’s ragged breathing. His silhouette turned and looked at me. He grunted a greeting, a question…?
Yeah, I whispered back, barely audible over the wind.
He grunted, then laid back down.
…Imagine you’re on that roller coaster and you’re coming around one of the twists and you see that the track is broken and you’re only chance is to pull a lever that disconnects the car from the track, and that gives you only a slim chance of living, but a chance, if you manage to time it right and land in a nearby tree…after careening through the sky for six-and-one-half seconds.
Now, I tell this story not so as to make my daughters or kids feel guilty. I’ve gone happily onto some of these stupid coasters, twisters, and tumblers with friends and cackled and just let go… but it took a lot of years to get there. And so I say to my beloved daughters…when I was younger, and Lauren, and then Becca, and Molly, and Rachel, all wanted to go on the Alpengeist? (Some ghoulish coaster in which you are fundamentally in a swing, with your legs dangling, and dragged across the sky in loops and twists, and– at one point – hurtled at the ground because a part of the ride includes swooping below ground-level, in a cut- out, your feet and legs dangling perilously close to the ground…)
Wonderful shit. Really.
Anyway, I never said anything because of my love for you girls. I never wanted to disappoint you, or let you down, but f*** me, I’ve gotta tell you this: the thing I was clenching my jaw against saying? Every time we would hit that chlunk, and lock in at the start of some gut-wrenching terrorfest, designed to produce adrenaline junkies by the hundreds… and I was looking stoically forward, resigning myself to my Fate?
I say this with all the love of a true “helicopter parent”:
That six-and-a-half seconds that you get, kids…if something goes wrong and one of those cars or seats or what-have-yous lets go…?
It’s a LOT longer than you think it is.