HS-11 observer

During my tour in VS-22 as maintenance officer (1971-73) at NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island, our squadron’s operations officer assigned me to ride along with an HS-11 crew to observe a night dipping sonar exercise. They were flying a later model SH-3 with the latest dipping sonar, and HS-11 was part of our air group (CAG-54).

We met in their ready room around sunset for the flight briefing where I was given a checklist of things to observe — crew coordination, communications, flight safety — all standard stuff. The HAC gave me a quick walk around on his preflight and showed me how “things” worked, introduced me my ditching station and gave me instructions on how to work the walk-around head set.

The exercise

It was after sunset and getting dark when we got airborne. He proceeded south of Block Island flying at around 1,500 feet, looking for a target. He found a fully loaded tanker doing about 10 knots, a perfect target. We proceeded to the tanker and let down for the approach. He got down to 40 feet and engaged auto hover.

The bird maintained 40 feet above the water using the radar altimeter plus four Doppler beams connected to the flight controls (autopilot). When stable, he lowered the sonar ball. Once in the water, the bird maintained position over the ball.

The wire from the ball went through a circle that is hooked up to the flight controls. If the bird should drift and the wire touches part of the circle, the auto pilot corrects until the wire no longer touches the circle — that’s how I understood it anyway.

The flight corrections were small and the bird maintained a 40-foot stable hover over that one little piece of ocean while the crew did its operational thing with the sonar.

So there we were, pinging off that tanker; I asked my assigned questions and made notes. Hey, this wasn’t so bad, I thought to myself.

What a ride!

Suddenly the bird went into a steep climb attitude followed by a steep dive attitude. I had no idea how steep those nose changes were, maybe 40 or more degrees. It was a ride and while looking for something to hang on to, I fell down.

The flight crew up front was pretty busy, to say the least. In the course of their recovery, the HAC accidentally overtorqued the transmission and most assuredly, deliberately guillotined the ball. He got the bird under control before we got wet, however, and did a slow climb and headed back home to Quonset, maybe 50 to 60 miles away, sans sonar ball of course.

On the ride home all seemed well, and the crew was cleaning up. Then, we lost an engine!

I could hear the sound change and felt the loss of power. After a shutdown of the failed engine, we continued home on one engine and everything seemed well once again, but at that point I wasn’t too sure what to expect.

That SH-3 flew fine on one engine, but the HAC had to make a normal runway airplane-type landing with airspeed through the rotor for extra lift because we did not have enough power on one engine for a hover approach and landing.

Back on the ground

We made it safely back to Quonset Point that night and he taxied to his squadron’s hangar area by the sea wall. What a night! I shook the HAC’s hand and “thanked” him for the ride.

I don’t know what that sonar ball cost the Navy that night, and I know they don’t give them away in Cracker Jacks, but I never got wet (with sea water anyway).

The next day I wrote up the COMPET sheets, and, yes, they passed. I went to see my friendly operations officer and told him I had done my share, and it was someone else’s turn to fly with HS-11. I came to realize that night that the only time I wanted to fly in a helicopter again was when being rescued — and that’s the lesser of two evils. Too many moving parts all going in different directions.

I learned years later from a friend and a retired SH-3 aircrewman that the steep climbing and diving was called “emergency streaming,” where the pilots raised the aircraft straight up until the sonar dome was clear of the water, then transitioned to forward flight and stabilized whatever necessitated the streaming. Then the crewman reeled the dome up.

If the reeling mechanism was inoperative, a hand crank was used to manually reel that beast in. Every NATOPS check ride required the aircrewman to manually retrieve the dome, maybe not all 450 feet — the maximum depth of the cable — but enough to make him “miserable.”

Anyway, night streams were a leading cause of many class-A mishaps over the years. In most squadrons, it was an “unspoken agreement” that if things got squirrelly enough to do an emergency stream, just guillotine the “damned thing” and focus on flying the aircraft and keeping everyone dry.

A lost sonar dome is a lot cheaper than a lost helicopter, and possibly a dead aircrew. Amen to that.