Way back in the late 1970s, I was assigned to a helicopter anti-submarine squadron based at Lakehurst, NJ. Our annual H-3 training syllabus required we take cross-country flights to practice navigation under both visual and instrument flight rules.
My co-pilot and I decided to fly to the Naval Air Station at Brunswick, Maine for gas and come back. Brunswick was just under 400 air miles and as far as we could go without having to stop and refuel. The H-3s carried about four and a half hours of fuel, and at 100 – 110 knots you could fly somewhere around 450 – 480 nautical miles before running out of gas.
Brunswick made a lot of sense. It was a Naval Air Station so if the H-3 broke and couldn’t be fixed by the base’s transient maintenance folks, we had a place to stay while we waited for parts or the mechanics from our squadron to come fix it. Another reason Brunswick was a popular destination was the fresh lobster we could buy from a local fisherman who had access to the base and would meet us at base operations. Once it was known where we were going, several of our squadron mates placed orders and gave us the cash. Another order came from my father who at the time, lived in Northport on Long Island.
We took off early on a Saturday morning and flew the usual route from Lakehurst to the base of the Sandy Hook peninsula before cutting across the entrance of New York.Harbor to the south shore of Long Island. JFK’s tower asked us to stay below 100 feet which we did gladly before diagonally cutting across Long Island and Long Island Sound and zip along the Connecticut coast. From there, we crossed the base of Cape Cod and hugged the coast until we got to Brunswick.
It was a bright summer day and the trip north was routine and great sightseeing. We refueled, had a greasy hamburger at the Navy Exchange snack bar in base operations and took delivery of the cardboard boxes stuffed full of lobsters packed in seaweed to keep them moist.
On the way south we had to make a slight detour to deliver the lobsters to my dad. He told me about where he would be in his 30-foot sailboat. Finding the yellow-hulled sailboat in Long Island Sound about a half mile north of the Long Island Power Company plant wasn’t a problem. We didn’t have radios that operated on the same frequency. When he saw us approaching – he dropped the sails, fired up the engine and turned into the wind at full throttle which was about 10 knots.
The plan was simple. We – in the helicopter – would hover over the sailboat and lower down the lobster in the rescue basket. As an ace helicopter pilot and Naval Aviator who’s landed on the pitching and rolling deck of small frigates and destroyers and hovered over the sails of submarines, it sounded simple, even routine. It wasn’t.
Challenges came one right after another. Some we anticipated, some we didn’t. I thought that hovering at 80 feet would give us plenty of clearance above the 60 foot mast of the sailboat. That meant we were hovering out of ground effect which is the cushion of the air created by the rotor blades. The closer to the ground, the greater the effect. In the H-3, ground effect disappears around 40 – 50 feet depending on the ambient wind. Ground effect also reduces the power required and as a result the fuel burn.
Unfortunately, the rotor wash caused too many problems for the rescue basket and its box of lobsters, so we tried 90 and finally at 100 feet off the water. At 100 feet we were well out of ground effect and near the edge of the helicopter’s performance envelope. If one of our engines faltered, even for a second, we would have crashed. Adding to my anxiety was knowing we were burning north of 2,000 pounds an hour.
On prior trips to Brunswick, we had landed at Lakehurst with about 800 pounds of fuel. From where this evolution would take place, we needed about 1,000 pounds to get back to Lakehurst, but when we started to hover, we had 1,800. We would have to make the transfer quickly. The next challenge we encountered was the swells of Long Island Sound. The sailboat bobbed, pitched and rolled a lot which made it difficult to get the basket down to the deck without getting tangled in the wire stays that kept the mast up.
The wind was both a blessing and a curse. The steady 15 knot breeze reduced the power we needed to hover. But between the wind and the movement of the sailboat, the basket and the hoist cable wrapped around the stays. Thankfully, it was only one wrap and, thanks to the skill of my air crewmen, it didn’t get worse. It did, however, cause a major tightening of the growing knot in my gut.
In addition to our struggles, my dad had to deal with static electricity. The rotor blades generate about 40,000 volts and while it is not enough amps to kill you, it can give you a nasty shock. He was, as briefed by me, well prepared with the handle of his metal boat hook wrapped with several layers of rubber and a wire attached to the boat’s ground. The good news was that he did not get shocked. Imagine the scene in the middle of Long Island Sound: A yellow hulled sailboat, mainsails draped over the boom and the jib lying on the foredeck, churning through the water almost hidden in the helicopter’s rotor wash. Boaters witnessing the event saw a 19,000 pound gray and white helicopter with a 55 foot rotor diameter attempting to lower a small box of lobsters down by a hoist cable. We could not see the sailboat from the cockpit. All we saw was the spray from our rotor wash and the people on their boats taking pictures of this spectacle.
When my dad pulled the box out of the rescue basket we had less than 1,200 pounds of fuel. An H-3 burns 1,000 pounds an hour at 90 knots. As the crow flies, it was 95 nautical miles back to Lakehurst. That gave us a margin of about 200 pounds.
Fifteen minutes out of Lakehurst, the low fuel warning light came on telling us we had only about 400 pounds left!! H-3 fuel gauges are notoriously inaccurate as one nears empty. When we landed, the fuel gauges indicated we had 100 pounds left.
Just as we started the shutdown checklist, the number two engine began to unwind. We finished the checklist, applied the rotor brake and finished the flight “normally.”
All concerned enjoyed their lobsters. But I never tried make a transfer to a small sailboat again!!!
© Marc Liebman, March 2018, all rights reserved