Confessions of a Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot - Part I

By Jack McCormack

Edited by Don Gardner


Not a typical Coast Guard Flight ..................

In 1959, I joined the Coast Guard right out of high school with the only intention of receiving more education and then out after four years, but something about the Coast Guard got to me. Maybe this is not a bad way to make a living, I thought. Hell, we're not just practicing for war or fighting one, we are doing many other missions, including Search and Rescue.

After four years, and reaching the rating of Electronic Technician 2nd class, I decided to reup for two more years in the hope of being selected for Officer Candidate School. After making First Class, taking the required college courses, and getting a good recommendation from my Commanding Officer, off I went to Officer Candidate School to become an officer.

While in OCS one of my classmates suggested I apply for flight training at the completion of training. I had been enlisted for six years with most of it on sea duty.

I thought—why not! The Coast Guard usually does not send pilots to sea for months at a time, and I remembered a cold, pounding sea one winter day on Ocean Station "Bravo" aboard a 311-foot Coast Guard Cutter. Bravo was located approximately halfway between Labrador and Ireland; we gathered weather data and provided a navigational aid, and served as a SAR facility for overflying transcontinental aircraft, if needed. With the advent of more reliable jet transports and satellites for weather observations, ocean stations are now past history. On that day however, a Coast Guard C130 delivered a part badly needed by the ship and, as they departed, I thought that those lucky bastards will be home by nightfall while we would be out here another two weeks, plus the five-day passage back to Boston, before we see land again. Sign me up for that program—throw me into that briar patch!

I managed to pass the required tests (my technical background didn't hurt) along with the flight physical, and started navy flight training in 1965 in the T34, the primary trainer at the time, and then on to the North American T28. The T28 has a Pratt & Whitney R1820 round engine, producing 1425 HP, enough to kill any prospective naval aviator

I loved it. My only responsibility was to learn to fly—those six years at sea were well worth the price to pay for this. That time in flight training was some of the best years of my life and I knew it, I mean knew it then! Wine, women, and airplanes, and I am only 25 years old, What a deal—I'm in for at least 20.

In 1969 my first assignment upon graduating from flight training was Air Station, Salem MA. I was now an officer and a pilot, achieving several major goals in my life. What a great place for a nugget aviator to learn his trade. It was also near Malden, MA., where I grew up, and thus near home and family. In addition, I was living off base in Marblehead, where I learned to sail, met my wife and started a family. As time passed, paying my dues flying copilot on various missions, I finally made aircraft commander in the H52. 

Our mission for the day was a milk run up to Southwest Harbor, Maine, to supply the various lighthouses in the area, hauling out the mail, spare parts, and groceries . . . and milk. It was early April and a great day for flying. The weather was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) with light winds from the northwest at no more than 15 knots. A great day to get out of the office to do what they pay me for.

On our way home, the four of us, copilot, crew chief, civilian technician and myself were sitting there enjoying the ride when we noticed our course would take us directly over Rockland Airport at 1000 feet; we changed to fly southeast to avoid their traffic pattern.

Continuing on our way the poop hit the fan about five miles southeast of Rockland. To be more precise, one of the stator vanes in the compressor section of the engine broke off and took out the rest of the fan (compressor). Of course, at the time we didn't know the cause, but the engine quit, or so I thought. When a turbine engine stops, it doesn't complain like a "recip" will by coughing, sputtering, or making noises, it just stops.

I happened to be driving at the time and the collective went full down without a thought, entering an autorotation. This action keeps those rotor blades turning, but down you go. The engine was cooked, and flames were probably coming out of the tail pipe at this point. I secured the engine and concentrated on the auto in progress.

Landing in the water with a boat-hulled helicopter should be no problem, providing I didn't screw it up. Not having turned completely into the wind when it was time to flare, I did a modified side flare, kicking in tail rotor pedal, and we splashed down more or less into the wind. We hadn't capsized and were not taking on water. All was well. From engine failure to touch down was approximately 40 seconds, a very long 40 seconds.

We sat there half a minute getting our act together, I realized I am no longer an aircraft commander, but the captain of a ship (OK, a small boat) drifting onto the islands about a half mile away. I had the crew chief deploy the auxiliary flotation bags for stabilization—a helicopter on the water is very top heavy. We then started to deploy the anchor (a regular Danforth boat anchor). After breaking out the anchor, I realized there might not be enough anchor line to reach the bottom to set properly. Prior to securing the anchor line to the line running from the bow to the cabin door, we checked for depth by lowering the anchor from the cabin door. It didn't touch bottom, now what? If we just dropped the line over, drifting as we were, it most likely would just skip over the bottom as the water became shallower as we neared the islands.

Well, someone thought of the trail line, a line that is normally used when making hoists, which is lowered first, tied to the basket or litter and used to stabilize them on the way down and back up. This line is made of polyethylene and is not very strong, but we had 200 feet of it aboard in two bundles; not great stuff, but we better do something, because, if I let my first sea command go aground, my boss, CAPT A.J. Tatman, a fellow sailboat owner living in Marblehead like myself, would have had me for lunch.

He once said in the wardroom, "Gentlemen, remember you are sailors first, officers second and pilots third." Nah, we can't go aground, I don't want to go to truck driving school.

Well, let's give it a try folks. We tied the trail line to the bowline and the other end to the anchor line and lowered about 100 feet into the water, feeling for the bottom. This left approximately 200 feet of line in the cabin, so when we set (firmly hooked) the anchor to the bottom, we could then let out the rest of the line, giving us sufficient scope about 200 yards off shore. What a good feeling!

Sitting there bobbing around everyone except myself was getting a little green around the gills. Good sea legs on my part I guess. About this time along comes a typical Maine lobster boat to offer help.

"Ha there sonny, havin’ any trouble?"

"Well, we did lose our engine but we are safely anchored at the moment."

"Thought somethin’ was wrong, never seen you guys do that before. Would you like a tow into Rockland?"

"Thanks for the offer, but a Coast Guard 44-footer is en route to take us in, but thanks again for the offer."

About 10 minutes later, in zooms a Grumman HU16E Albatross with the boss, CAPTA.J. at the controls. "How is everything going, Jack?"

"Fine captain, we just need a tow into town. We're riding at anchor with no other damage but the engine."

"OK, looks like everything is under control, see you back at the station."

The tow into town took what seemed forever—you can't tow a helicopter very fast; even though it has a boat hull, it's not a hydroplaning hull. The engineering people had a new engine in Rockland practically before we arrived, it installed overnight and flew the ship home the next day, none the worse for the ware.

The next morning I was asked if I wanted to fly that day. "You bet—I didn't want to be just a sailor all my life!"


This is part one of a four part series. These articles originally appeared in a regional aviation magazine and are reprinted by permission of Jack McCormack. Don Gardner has edited them to make them more readable for non-aviator types. Don has since crossed the bar.


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