A Navy helicopter pilot called into action.
Search and rescue, known in military parlance as SAR, means everything to a soldier, pilot, or civilian in distress. The ability of a rescue unit to respond rapidly to accidents can be especially important for aviation units that work far away from a mothership or base. Helicopters have long been valued as highly mobile SAR platforms, and a special breed of highly trained aviators and specialists are required to operate them. Unfortunately, there are times when search and rescue just doesn’t work, when vital information doesn’t get to the rescuers in time, or nature claims the victim before they are rescued. Despite their hard work, SAR specialists must always prepare for that possibility.
Dave “Hamburger” Howard was no stranger to the demanding world of SAR. Since 1972, he had piloted the SH-3 Sea King, one of the U.S. Navy’s best multipurpose helicopters. Built by Sikorsky, the powerful aircraft could rescue people from stranded vessels or the water, carry passengers and cargo, and hunt for enemy submarines. Wherever a carrier deployed, there was always a Sea King standing by to rescue downed pilots. The helo was also used to recover astronauts during the Apollo program. Howard served in five different helicopter squadrons, deployed on seven ships, and was commanding officer of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 8 (HS-8). He is a recipient of the Navy Achievement Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Air Medal, and two Meritorious Service Medals.
These are three of his stories.
Fleet Angels and Blue Angels
The Blue Angels have long been the star in any air show. The elite performance team was formed after the Second World War to promote interest and recruitment in naval aviation. Their first stunt performance was in June 1946 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville in Florida with a flight of Grumman F6F Hellcats. The Blue Angels transitioned from propeller-driven aircraft to jet fighters during their storied history, and operated the iconic F-4J Phantom by the early 1970s.
On 26 July 1973, the Blue Angels were headed to NAS Lakehurst in New Jersey for a “pre-show”. Some VIPs had come to the naval station to see the pilots practice maneuvers and acclimate to runway conditions. Blue Angel aircraft mechanics, the senior petty officers known as maintainers, flew up in the back seats of the F-4Js with their pilots.
On that same day, Dave Howard and a detachment of three SH-3G Sea Kings from the “Fleet Angels” of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 2 (HC-2) were on their way home to NAS Lakehurst after a work-up deployment with USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). The squadron had a reputation for solid SAR work: in its service lifetime, the unit had performed 2,318 rescues. The air crews were anxious to get back to dry land and see their families—relatives were already waiting for them at the base. Ten miles south of Lakehurst, the Sea Kings received a radio message from the tower to hold back and make room for the Blue Angels. The trio of helicopters slipped into a “loose trail” formation, approximately 150 feet apart, and waited for their turn to land.
Howard remembered how the arrival of the Blue Angels was “incredible because everything just shook. They were extremely powerful aircraft and they were big and they were noisy. It was a really impressive airplane for an air show.”
Five minutes after receiving the order to hang back, the pilot received alarming news from Lakehurst: “We’ve had aircraft go down. Buster inbound for assistance.”
The four Blue Angels appeared over the Jersey coast in a diamond formation. One of the jets broke away in a solo maneuver, and the remaining aircraft proceeded in a “V” formation. As the F-4Js entered a synchronized roll, two of the fighter jets collided and fell into the scrub pine forest outside the base.
The order for the Sea Kings to “buster” was Navy slang to “make your best speed.” The rescue helicopters broke formation and raced toward the scene at 144 knots. Howard and his co-pilot, Len “Lumpy” Ruperpus, got to one of the crash sites first. One of the blue and gold Phantoms, he noticed, had gone down “just off the base in these pine trees. There was a fire ball, but by the time we got there it was just black smoke.”
From the after-cabin of his helicopter, one of Howard’s crewmen reported that he had seen someone on the ground with a deployed parachute. Only one survivor, Petty Officer First Class Gerald Harvey from Sweeney, Texas, emerged alive. Navy Commander Skip Umstead, Marine Captain Mike Murphy, and Petty Officer First Class Ronald Thomas were dead.
Ground personnel had also arrived in the forest to look for survivors. Had the Sea Kings been the only ones to reach the crash scene, one of their crewmen could have been lowered to the ground to render first aid on survivors. Injured personnel could have boarded the aircraft in a “Stokes litter”, a kind of rescue basket, or gone up in a harness called the “horse collar.” Howard had never been involved in an overland rescue, but some HC-2 crews had responded to flood victims in the States. To this day, helicopters are superb platforms for retrieving stranded people from major disaster areas.
Minutes after orbiting the wreckage, Howard and his fellow pilots were ordered back to base. Following the loss of three personnel, the rest of the Blue Angels’ show season was cancelled. Howard believed that the accident was caused in part due to the large fighter jets which allowed much less room for error, especially when formation pilots flew so closely together. The performance team eventually traded the F-4J Phantom for the smaller A-4 Skyhawk.
The terrible accident did not make a happy homecoming for the helicopter squadron. The responding air crews were “pumped up on adrenaline, but only to find out there’s nothing you can do.” Their families had also witnessed the tragedy and “it was just not a good scene.” From that moment on, Dave’s wife Judy claimed she never wanted to see another air show.
The Bahamian lagoon
Much of the water around the Bahamas are no deeper than a swimming pool, but if you venture over the reef of the Grand Bahama Bank, the seabed drops abruptly into an abyss. This deep underwater canyon is called the Tongue of the Ocean, and it is the perfect place for submarines to practice the fine art of undersea warfare.
For decades, Navy scientists and engineers have worked on Andros Island to the west at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), where they can monitor a submarine’s deepwater performance with high-tech sensors. It made sense for anti-submarine helicopters to be included in AUTEC exercises. They could practice their own anti-submarine operations, and even retrieve exercise torpedoes from the water with more efficiency and expediency than recovery boats. Between 1979 and 1981, Dave Howard was assigned here with a SH-3G Sea King detachment from the “Dragonslayers” of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 11 (HS-11).
The helo crews had a relatively straightforward job. They chased after submarines, listened for them with dipping sonar, and dropped exercise torpedoes on them. They could refuel at the AUTEC helipad and get maintenance from a nearby hangar. Howard recalled how “on Andros Island they have the site that’s run by contractors to keep the instruments at range, a few hundred people living down there, but there’s nothing else there. There’s nice water and great fishing but you’d go stir-crazy.”
The officers’ club on base was called the TOTO Lounge (for Tongue Of The Ocean). Everyone else went to a watering hole called the Hundred Fathoms Club. After a long day of flying, Howard and his copilot, David Whitt, headed over to the TOTO for drinks. Since both had to fly the next morning, they followed a cardinal rule: “Twelve hours between bottle and throttle.” After a relaxing evening, they retired to quarters.
Their sleep was rudely interrupted in the middle of the night by Lieutenant Commander Bob Dunne, the HS-11 detachment commander. “You guys have got to get up!” shouted the officer as he banged on their door. “We’ve got a launch.” The pilots thought the man was joking and promptly ignored him. They had just gone to bed four hours earlier.
LTCDR Dunne was back at their door five minutes later. “This is for real. You guys have got to get down to your aircraft! There’s a boat in the water and lots of people in the water.”
Howard and Whitt managed to get on their flight suits, run down to their Sea King, and perform a quick pre-flight checklist. Neither officer was drunk at the time, although they did have an important discussion over which man had more to drink. “We were the only game in town,” Howard recalled, and since the SAR mission was of the utmost urgency, acting in their weary state was deemed an “operational necessity.” He climbed into the right seat, took the controls, and launched from the helipad.
From Dunne’s brief, they knew that a boat laden with Haitian refugees had struck the reef and dumped its passengers in the water approximately one quarter-mile from Andros Island. Another SH-3 was out there when they arrived and “rigged for rescue” with rescue swimmers in the after-cabin.
Howard turned on the Sea King’s powerful search lights and flood lights to illuminate the surface of the water. They came across a shallow lagoon marked by the underside of a boat which had capsized on the reef. Some of the passengers had been rounded up on the beach by Bahamian authorities. Others had not survived the accident.
“All we found were three or four bodies on the bottom, people that had drowned. There were no signs of anybody else anywhere. We made the decision that we weren’t going to put our swimmers in the water for people on the bottom. You’re not going to endanger them just to recover bodies.”
A continuing search discovered a total of six bodies. The air crews returned empty-handed to AUTEC and reported the bad news to Dunne. It was later discovered that a Navy representative of the helicopter wing had urged Bahamian officials to permit their aircraft to quickly respond to the accident, but the government was too slow to react—a three-hour delay from notification to launch during which a boatful of Haitian refugees perished in paradise.
Sikorsky, the manufacturer of the mighty Sea King, was known to award a “Winged S”, a pin with the company logo, to crews that made a rescue. Pilots considered it a badge of honor. SAR was nearly second nature to a Navy helicopter pilot, and “everybody was so amped up to be involved in a rescue.”
There was no satisfaction this night when the helos returned to base. Sometimes friction got in the way of a successful operation. Howard and his crew “couldn’t save anybody and it was just another one of those situations where you’re shaking your heads. It’s a shame. Too bad we couldn’t do anything, but that’s just the way things go.”
The missing woman
Out of all his SAR experiences, “this was the saddest one.” Howard had gone out on a training flight from NAS Jacksonville as an instructor pilot with Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 1 (HS-1), the East Coast unit responsible for training pilots in the SH-3 Sea King. He was accompanied that day by a young officer in the cockpit, and an instructor crewman and his trainee counterpart in the after-cabin.
He had just flown over Buckman Bridge—a concrete span over the St. Johns River that marks the boundary of the NAS Jacksonville air traffic control area—when someone in his aircraft spotted a body in the water. It was a disturbing discovery. A few days prior, a couple of Navy rescue swimmers had visited an enlisted club on the base and met the wife of a petty officer. Her husband was deployed at the time with a P-3 Orion squadron. After drinks, the sailors and the lady rented a little sailboat from a marina and went off down the St. Johns River. The river itself, Howard recalled, was a muddy place but nice for boating and fishing.
Afternoon thunderstorms were common in the area, and a powerful gust of wind knocked their little boat into the river. The spouse of the petty officer disappeared. Despite all their abilities, the rescue swimmers failed to locate the woman. Over the next few days, Jacksonville air crews were told to keep an eye out for her.
Now Howard’s aircraft was orbiting 150 feet above the motionless body of a woman. She wore a bathing suit. The pilot radioed the tower at Jacksonville to report the finding. Dave was “not familiar with drownings really but I learned from that experience that when you drown, the body eventually comes back to the surface. Bacteria generates gas that bloats the intestines and you become positively buoyant.”
Someone in the after-cabin, likely Howard’s rescue swimmer, muttered something over the intercom: “Please don’t make me get in the water and pick her up.”
Dave hailed the tower again and asked if he should deploy a smoke marker. He was ordered to remain over the river until a boat arrived to recover the corpse. “That woman made a big mistake going out with these guys,” he later said of the encounter. “They didn’t obviously take her out with the intention of doing her harm, but we were asking how two rescue swimmers could not save this girl. It was just really sad.”
To this day, Howard’s thoughts turn to the poor sailor deployed overseas who got the call about his wife. “I really felt for that guy, whoever he was. That stuff happens. Sailors deploy and things happen when you’re gone.”