Cone of Confusion

A hazy situation for the pilot of an SH-3G Sea King.

Like their commercial or civilian counterparts, military pilots must often put up with bad weather. They must also contend with equipment malfunctions. Flights can get rather tricky when bad weather and bad gear occur at the same time.

In the summer of 1980, Lieutenant Commander Don “Blades” Broderick was in charge of a sea detachment from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 1 (HS-1) which deployed on USS Albany (CG-10), the flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. His aircraft, the SH-3G Sea King, was fitted out to carry VIPs, namely the three-star admiral in command of American naval forces in the Mediterranean.

His assignment had taken Broderick to exotic locales like Gaeta, Rome, Nice, Monaco, and Naples. Now he and his crew were flying some staff officers across the Med to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). It was a routine flight, and his crew was used to various hops between ships and shore.

Mother Nature, as it turned out, cared little for their routine. Humidity abruptly spiked and draped the area in an impenetrable haze. Suddenly, as Broderick exclaimed, “Nobody could see a goddamn thing.” He and his copilot could not get a visual fix on Kennedy or any other warship in the battle group. To make matters worse, the tactical navigation system that bounced bits of data between helicopter and warship had unexpectedly failed.

Conditions were suddenly just as bad for the aircraft presently airborne in the JFK‘s embarked air wing. Their pilots were flying by visual flight rules (VFR), the regulations prescribed for flying in reasonably clear weather conditions. When the inexplicable haze set in, “chaos erupted immediately,” as visibility dropped to nearly zero, and the pilots were glued to their instruments to keep course, altitude, and air speed. Every aircraft had to be immediately directed by radar controllers in Kennedy‘s Combat Information Center (CIC) to avoid deadly collisions in this sudden IFR (instrument flight rules) environment.

In the cockpit of his Sea King, LTCDR Broderick immediately descended to 500 feet to get visual contact with the ocean surface, other surface contacts, and continued to “dead reckon” a course to the carrier. Visibility was perhaps as low as one mile—in aviation terms, that offered little room for error. The French carrier Foch was somewhere in the neighborhood on joint exercises and he had to avoid a collision with the 32,000-ton warship and her escorts.

The pilot radioed Kennedy for navigational guidance, but the ship’s radar couldn’t detect the inbound helicopter with their own system. The CIC put him in touch with an orbiting E-2 Hawkeye, a radar-equipped airplane that provided early warning for the carrier group and doubled as a backup air traffic controller.

The Sea King transmitted a signal meant to identify the helicopter as a friendly aircraft—a system known as identification, friend or foe (IFF)—but the E-2 could not detect it, assuming the helicopter was very low in altitude. The Hawkeye directed Broderick to climb to ten thousand feet. The pilot was reluctant to waste precious fuel but had little choice in the matter. As he made the ascent, he continued to think about his rendezvous point based on the projected location of the Kennedy. The carrier was still steaming out in the haze at a certain speed and a fixed heading as it scrambled to recover those aircraft returning from their joint training mission in the Mediterranean.

“We still cannot see you,” called the Hawkeye as Broderick reached a higher altitude. “Climb to twelve thousand feet.”

Broderick’s SH-3G Sea King as it approaches the stern landing pad on USS Albany (CG-10), the flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Note the wake of the cruiser beneath the helicopter. (Photo courtesy of CDR Don J. Broderick, USN Retired).

Broderick glanced over his shoulder. The admiral’s chief of staff was strapped into the after-cabin with the rest of the passengers. The high-ranking officer made eye contact with the pilot and mouthed a pertinent question: “Are we lost?” Broderick didn’t respond.

The pilot called the Hawkeye controller once more. “Can you paint me on radar yet?” he asked, hoping that his Sea King had finally appeared on radar.

The response was unexpected: “You are precisely on top of the carrier at twelve thousand feet.”

How did they reach a point directly over the JFK and not know it? The answer came from a racket-like array bolted to the massive island superstructure on the carrier. This big piece of hardware sent out a signal to guide pilots, but that signal became erratic as both aircraft receiver and beacon grew closer. When an aircraft passes over the array, the signal is virtually nonexistent. That volume of dead airspace is also called the cone of confusion. The SH-3G Sea King was directly over and inside that cone-shaped airspace.

LTCDR Broderick immediately flew down in a spiraling, vertigo-inducing descent. Finally, the John F. Kennedy was visually spotted at four to five thousand feet of altitude, and the aircraft was cleared to land. Like all pilots, it felt good for him to wrap up a rather tense and unusual flight, and touch down on something stable.

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