Confessions of a Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot - Part II

By Jack McCormack

Edited by Don Gardner

 

Most of our flights were easy beans ...............................

After closing Coast Guard Air Station Salem, Mass. and moving the operation to the new station at Cape Cod, our stay was short.

Ten months to be exact—we had orders to CGAS San Diego. The CO of, knowing we had just purchased a home in Falmouth, offered to run interference for us and get the orders canceled for at least a year. I said, "Thank you, Sir, but no thanks." Where might they send me the next time around? Certainly not my first choice of San Diego. It could be icebreakers in the Arctic or Antarctic, or worse yet, Alaska.

The only other duty I could think of that would have been worse would have been to volunteer for the Air Force exchange program. This program consists of a number or Coast Guard and Air Force pilots exchanging duty for two years. A great program for exchanging ideas and standard operating procedures (SOP) within the services. The only problem, being an H3 driver (the original Jolly Green Giant), I probably would have gone directly to Vietnam without passing go. SAR in the U.S. can be hairy enough, but the natives don't try to shoot you down. Unfortunately, we lost a Coast Guard pilot in this program, along with the rest of the Air Force H3 crew, and others during this war orchestrated by civilians in Washington.

Being New Englanders, our arrival in San Diego was quite a shock. The desert on one side, the Pacific on the other, and mountains in between. The weather was June-like all year around, with only two weeks of heat and very little rain. The flying was not as challenging as it was in New England, but the sailing and surfing was great. The Beach Boys were the "in" thing. Twelve months a year of summer with skiing in the winter at Big Bear, only a two and a half-hour drive up to the mountains east of LA.

Most of our flights were easy beans because of the great weather. There were medevacs from charter boats with heart attack victims or the serious injuries from commercial fishing vessels. Occasionally, we would get the jet jocks out of NAS Miramar (home of Top Gun), who would have to punch out. We would go out and pick them up and bring them home. Just a walk in the park unless someone was hurt in the ejection.

Then there were the long flights into Baja Mexico, for the troubled Americans at sea, south of the border, down Mexico way. I'm talking of south of La Paz, at the end of the Baja peninsula, 500 miles south of San Diego. We could depart San Diego and fly to La Paz on one bag of fuel, refuel there and do the mission. Coming home was the trick.

Due to the prevailing winds from the northwest, we couldn't fly directly back to San Diego. Thus, we had to fly a northeast route to Hermosillo on mainland Mexico to pick up fuel. Hermosillo is farm country Mexico, no turistas. There I had the best cheese enchiladas I've ever eaten. I miss the real Mexico and the real Mexicans, unlike Tijuana. From Hermosillo we could fly directly back to San Diego. All in all, just a very scenic trip home.

Not that the Coast Guard was not needed in southern California, we were. Numerous times we would be called upon to pick up heart attack victims from charter fishing vessels or to transport a premature baby from Imperial Valley in the desert. But not quite the challenging flying I had become used to in New England. Very satisfying to save a life, yes, but real challenging flying, no.

 

Then there was the oil spill near Four Corners, Monument Valley (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet). It seems a pipeline ruptured and dumped crude into the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Not a very good place to dump oil.

Why call the Coast Guard to the desert for an oil spill? Because the Coast Guard has the expertise and the equipment to contain and cleanup oil. We have strike teams on both the east and west coasts specially equipped for such emergencies, albeit for harbors and such; but then, who else would you call?

Monument Valley is a beautiful place, with large pinnacles rising out of the flat desert floor, up to 1000 feet in places. The pinnacles are beautiful, but not when you are trying to dodge them with a helicopter in driving rain and fog. The H3 has a weather radar that will pick up boats/ships at sea in addition to weather and a radar altimeter to keep you from bumping into the water. Neither of these worked well here in the desert, just plain old visual scud running at it's best.

As the Coast Guard helicopter resource, we were hauling people and supplies (sling loading where necessary) to the site of the containment boom and back as required. But then it started to rain. Rain and fog it did with a vengeance for the entire week we were there. It only rains out there about one week a year, our week. Things turned into a quagmire, ground transportation to the boom were almost impossible; flying wasn't much better.

During the middle of the week, the On Scene Commander decided that communications to the boom site would be improved by placing a Coast Guard Radioman on a butte midway between there and the command center. Good idea, but bad weather intervened. We placed him up there early in the morning by helicopter, where he spent the day relaying messages. By evening, when he was to be picked up, the ceiling had lowered. He was now in the clouds and had to spend one hell of a cold night on top of that butte until we could retrieve him in the morning. At least he had a way to call home, toll free. If you want a challenge, join the Coast Guard, you never know what you might be doing.

We eventually contained the oil, cleaned up the mess and prevented the oil from getting into the Colorado River, saving the drinking water for southern California. All in all, very satisfying and demanding flying.

On the way home to San Diego, we had to refuel at Nellis AFB, which is near Las Vegas. On shut down the master switch would not disconnect the battery. We had to manually disconnect to secure the ship and spend the night in Vegas. Oh, poor us.

The problem was water in the circuits because of all the rain in the desert with the aircraft sitting unprotected for a week. We opened all the compartments to let everything dry out. Everything worked well the next morning.

After winning about $15 dollars in Vegas from the night before, we flew home. Yes, that's no BS, things do break down at the right place and the right time, sometimes. Really Boss!

 

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