MH-53E

I was in the Navy for 4 years. I spent most of that time in Norfolk, Virginia at NAS Norfolk working at Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 12. This was during the early 90’s mostly during the George H.W. Bush Administration, Desert Shield/Desert Storm and the Tailhook scandal. It was before Don’ t Ask. Dont Tell. During that time I worked in the geedunk as a shopkeeper, in the tool room as a clerk, in the line shack as a plane captain, and in the Air Frames shop working on hydraulics and flight controls with a little fiberglass repair thrown in on the side. None of which were the job I had been originally trained in. I had been trained in Airframe Structural Repair, which is mostly metal work. The thing is the military puts you where it needs you then gives you the training to do that job. Sometimes that’s the job you were originally recruited for and trained in out of boot camp, sometimes it’s not.

One night while out in the dark on the flight line I was doing a plane inspection. This consisted of a very long checklist you had to know by heart that took you completely over, around and under the aircraft to look for problems. With the helo I worked on it took 1 person 4 hours to hit all the points on the checklist if nothing was wrong that had to be documented. Note: there was always something wrong.

The flight line was a large concrete area between the hangar and the the bay. We worked in all types of weather and with the wind whipping off the water it always lowered the temps on the line by a fair bit, nice during the summer brutal during the winter. It was dark out there when the helos weren’t turning because light posts tend to get in the way of rotors so my only light was a handheld flashlight.

We had a saying about these birds. If it ain’t leaking its empty. Hydraulic fluid and engine oil were a constant battle to keep filled. Those leaks also made it hard to keep the birds looking clean. We went through bales and bales of rags each day just wiping the damn things down. As a new plane captain I was doing my due diligence and taking my time on the inspection. My trainee had been up on top of the bird and filled all the reservoirs and was already lugging the pump over to the next bird on the line while I finished inspecting the last blade on the helo. I was standing 10 feet in the air on top of the tail of the helo squinting up at the rotor blade illuminated in my flashlight beam while feeling for delamination and gentling taping with my screwdriver listening for the telltale dull ponk! that would mean there was a damaged spot.

So there I am 10 feet in the air on top the bird, with my trainee over 200 ft away on the other side of the next bird over and no other maintenance crews working on the line right then. I am quite alone. That is ofcourse when the wind gusts started. They shook the entire bird. Even as huge as the thing is it is made to fly so the rotor blades started flexing up and down and I felt the wind push the tail on the aircraft enough to make the section under my feet bobble around. I abandoned the rest of the blade inspection and headed towards the rotor head to scramble down the side of the helo. The rounded side of the helo. The rounded oil covered side of the helo.

First one foot went out from under me. I tried to recover by going down on one knee on the 6” wide curved surface while grabbing the cowling cover. But you see, rain and oil pooled in that little indent. My gloved hand, that was also trying to hold the flashlight, found no purchase. I face planted into the area between the cowling and the engine. Then my other leg slipped down the side of the helo and the momentum pulled me out of that nook and down onto the teardrop shape of the starboard sponson. A 4 foot drop. Dazed and with the wind knocked out of me I tried to roll on my side only to find I was too close to the edge of the sponson. My now oil covered self slithered/rolled right off. Another 6 foot drop to the wet concrete.

It took me a little while of laying there to determine if I had hurt more than my pride. I was bruised for sure. But nothing seemed broken. While I was down there laying next to the landing gear I reconsidered my career choices. The pisser of it was my trainee had seen the whole thing from the other bird so I didn’t even have the comfort of knowing no one would know about my less than graceful deplaning. Oh and I still had to go back up and finish the blade inspection once the wind gust died down.