Navy Seawolves
 
Somebody Asked Me
by John Gana
 

Somebody wanted to know if any of us had ever survived a stabilizer bar failure on a Huey. I did one on New Year’s Day 1971. It was a wild ride and I almost did not make it out. We were climbing out of Ca Mau at 1,300 feet heading into the 33rd light CP in the U Minh Forest, a notably bad place. I was flying when the aircraft suddenly began violent vertical vibrations. The nose dropped down 70 degrees and the aircraft rolled left 70 degrees. A very unusual attitude for a Huey – it was a K model with the dry rotor head and it was about to drill itself into the earth.

We both hauled back on the stick as it was wiping the cockpit out. We dropped the collective and tried to auto rotate. Those K’s come down in a controlled autorotation at about 800 feet per minute which would give us a couple minutes to get to the deck. We weren’t very controlled due to the unusual attitude and were coming down like a fully laden double door refrigerator. I switched between the #1 and #2 hydraulic systems expecting to isolate a hydraulic failure but that did not help. Also, the dry head made manhandling the stick very difficult due to the main rotor blade damping system on those 540 heads.

I got two Mayday calls out on the intercom before I could switch to the UHF and got about two more out before the nose miraculously came up just as we hit the deck in a flat attitude. The K had a rotor brake and we slammed it full on locking the aircraft body to the residual rotor energy and literally screwed the bird into the rice paddy.

I instantly did the shut-down check list, turned the battery off – the aircraft quit crashing and pretty quickly everything got quiet. I looked at the pilot and he looked at me and we simultaneously said “get out”. All you could hear were the gyro instruments and a few of the little cooling fan motors coasting down. We were out before they stopped. I remember a couple of the little gauges tried to jump out of the instrument panel on the ride down and I shoved them back in the panel on the way out of the aircraft. We were blessed for sure.

We lost half the stabilizer bar assembly – the entire round bar on one side, the counter weight and most of the little safety cable that was inside the bar. We had about 8 inches of the cable left and it was clearly broken when inspected on deck. We never really figured out if it broke off or was shot off.

We ended up in a fairly deep rice paddy, about mid-thigh deep. When we got out, some folks on the ground began to shoot and were getting closer. Thankfully our Det 3 gun team at Ca Mau showed up in short order. I still remember the lead bird door gunner on the 50 cal. He had his clear visor down and they flew directly over me – rotor tip was only about 8 feet above me as they turned hard and low. He gave me a thumbs up and I returned the salute – we were going to be OK.

The shooting stopped and not a single person except us was all that was left on the ground anywhere near us. A Vietnamese H model came and picked us up a little while later.

That was my first dip in the water if you want to count it. Somebody also asked if anyone rode a bird into the drink. In addition to the rice paddy ride, I had others too. I went to Det One, Nam Can, “Solid Anchor” right after the K model incident.

I got a bad rash on my feet from the rice paddy immersion. The rash would not go away even with all the creams, powders, oils and all that the flight surgeon could think of.

We had an aircraft shot up on Det One and got a replacement early morning the next day. Along with the aircraft, the flight surgeon sent a new pair of flight boots to me at Det One, Solid Anchor so I could let one pair dry out each day.

We got a call about 10:00 am for a mission up at Song Ong Doc. I jumped in the replacement and we flew up there. We landed on a barge that was tied to the river bank to pick up a Vietnamese interpreter and an Army Lt so we could provide fire support for their little field team in contact. We landed and the two guys weren’t on the barge. They were about 200 yards down the river at a little make shift Army pad.

We lifted off and intended to just scoot down there and pick them up. When we crossed the deck edge, the engine went to half power and we were headed into the muddy river. The gunners threw out 1,300 pounds of ammo and jumped out into the river. We hit belly first and the filthy river water came in the cockpit up to our butts. All I could think of was that I was going to get my brand new boots all wet. This was the first mission I wore them on and I even had on a dry pair of socks.

The belly of the aircraft, a B model, went under water and the 1,500 pounds of fuel became buoyant along with 400 pounds of missing crew men and 1,300 pounds of dumped ammo. We shed over 3,000 pounds instantly on an 8,000 pound aircraft. That was enough to keep the aircraft from completely sinking in the 70 foot deep river.

The engine caught up and we actually lifted the aircraft out of the river amid all the water spray and hate and discontent. The engine was putting out good power now, water spray everywhere and torrential amounts of dirty river water pouring out of the aircraft. The dripping wet crew climbed up on the skids and back into the bird. We slid sideways, landed and tried to pick up the two Army guys. They would not get on the aircraft. No joke – the Army would not ride with us.

The trail bird landed and picked them up. We flew five continuous combat missions for about as many hours and never shut the engine down. We finally headed back down to Det One, Solid Anchor – home.

When we landed and rolled the engine to idle – it seized up. The power turbine was severely welding itself to the engine case. Again, we were blessed. Five nonstop combat missions with an engine that unquestionably failed us and a night flight over very bad territory back to Solid Anchor. God is very good to us idiots.

About a year later in an H-2, I left the USS Sterett and lost #2 engine just as we crossed the deck edge. We jettisoned both auxiliary fuel tanks, about 1,300 pounds, and hit the water over the Philippine trench in the Pacific Ocean just east of the Philippines. We were heavy, it was hot, and there was no time to burn down. The aircraft simply would not fly on one engine. We broke off about a third of one of the four main rotor blades when we hit the water. At that point the ride got wild. The aircraft hesitated for about two seconds at the water surface and then rolled over, quit crashing and sank!

There were three of us and we all got out OK. I remember seeing my Natops check list and a little secret tactics book swim by me on the way out. I grabbed them both and shoved them in my flight suit. The copilot was having some difficulty and I got his float gear working for him. He about drowned me when I got close to him. The crewman was a well-trained combat rescue swimmer and he had no problems. Sterett immediately turned toward us and 8,120 tons pulled up right next to us, about 8 feet away.

The water was warm and kind of nice - just wasn’t where we planned to be or what we planned to do that day. We were supposed to pick up the battle group chaplain and move him around that Sunday. I have to tell you, that little ship I spent the last few months on is so much bigger and so much more impressive when you are in the water next to it. We were blessed again, back on board in time for supper that night.

So, three times in the water if you count them all; a lost stabilizer bar, helmet cord shot off with a 51 caliber AA gun, multiple other gun fight incidents and the Navy retired me in ’93. A good run. We are so blessed!