Christmas Eve on Chinaman’s Hat

Christmas Eve 1975. We’re in a ten foot hover. The check-out of the tandem rotor CH-46A over the Search and Rescue (SAR) pad is about done. After checking through the systems we can shut down and set up the bird for an emergency response.

The normal start sequence is a ten-minute challenge and respond checklist.
But with our systems check complete, we set it up for a quick start. Then, if the emergency horn sounds, we’re ahead of the game.

After a short dash to the helo, the first pilot in the cockpit reaches up and hits the APU START and jumps in his seat and straps in.

The second pilot, crouching in the cockpit door, moves #1 ECL (engine condition lever) to START and monitors the start sequence. When the first pilot is strapped in, he protects the ECLs with his hand and completes the start on #1 as the other pilot climbs in and straps in. And so on.

With the Takeoff checklist quickly done, we’re off like a prom dress. The turn up and launch can be safely accomplished in just over a minute.

Our base, MCAS Iwakuni, Japan is seventeen miles from Hiroshima. Operations in 1975 include squadrons of F-4 Phantoms, A-6 Intruders, AV-8 Harriers, assorted station aircraft, numerous transient aircraft, and our three SAR birds. In my tenure here thus far I have rescued (hoisted) one motorcycle that was sailed over the seawall to the rocks down below. The driver that landed next to it had a re-arranged smile.

The Baby Chinook, or Frog, was not my first choice. The Cobra was much more sexy. I did get some time in them. But I quickly came to appreciate the H-46 and its mission. It was designed for aggressive troop insert so it was highly maneuverable and surprisingly responsive, and the peacetime mission was great.

Back in Hawaii we wore jams (flowery longish swimsuits) under our flight suits in case we decided to stop and have lunch on a beach. After five years I had completed all of the available ratings and the cockpit was a good, welcome, comfortable fit.

But today during the hover check the copilot is in a snit, acting like a spoiled seventh grade girl.
He can’t stand that he is the only SAR pilot not rated as a HAC (Aircraft Commander, Helicopter), not yet having logged enough hours. He makes life miserable for the other four pilots, trying to show them up. During my first few weeks here I realized that they were scheduling him with me all the time. No one else wanted to fly with him. Their pretense was that, as SAR OIC (Officer in Charge) it was my job to prepare him for his upgrade to HAC, a few months off. True enough.

During the hover check today he again acted in an unsafe manner, purposefully moving his hand too far away from the cyclic stick during a critical check. I have cautioned him on this several times.
After a significant confrontation, I am in the process of calling in another pilot to replace him. But we get a call from the base commander to fly to Hiroshima- to pick up the station Christmas Tree for the party tonight.

It’s a welcome relief from the copilot’s melodrama. I hope the flight will force him out of his funk. Walking out to the aircraft he makes his usual demand to sit in the aircraft commander’s seat. I relent.

Ten minutes later we are feet wet at a thousand feet and approaching Chinaman’s Hat. The island is five miles from the base. Halfway up the slope, there is a fairly level spot that we periodically use to practice precision pinnacle landings. Except that it’s not a pinnacle, but rather a little flat spot halfway up the slope.

With ocean on one side of the base and mountains on the other, it’s our only outlying practice site. When hovering over the clearing after a careful approach, the (tethered) crew chief leans out the door as far as he can and cautiously talks us down the last few feet. At touchdown he sometimes directs a slight reposition of a few inches.

In the hover, the pilot can’t see the slope below and his only reference is the ocean horizon out front. The copilot watches the gauges. Another crewmember watches the rotor tip clearance from the slope off to the side. After touchdown there is about a foot of level ground outside of the tires, and the rotor blade tips are pretty close to the uphill slope to the side.

I have only made two approaches there and think that this afternoon might be a good time to get another.

Passing the little island I call “Pedro 26, five miles, clear”, and ask the copilot to switch to Hiroshima, seventeen miles away. He refuses to play. He folds his arms and flips his nose and looks out his window, pouting. He is still in a snit, now because he didn’t get to make the takeoff and departure.

Suddenly there is a loud bang and a hard jolt. I think that the aft pylon clamshell doors have burst open- not a good thing (but it is actually a failed aft transmission gear that came apart and exploded out the case next to it).

The caution panel is lit up big time. I bank hard around back toward Iwakuni and declare an emergency. I don’t know how long we will be able to make turns safely, only seconds for sure.

Looking back in the cabin there are four big wide eyeballs peering out of a cloud of vaporized transmission fluid. The crewchief and swimmer are slipping and sliding on the wet floor…

I holler “Complete the Transmission Failure Checklist!”
The copilot stares blankly at me for a second and then grabs for the checklist in his lower leg pocket. The binder hangs up on the pocket zipper and it won’t come out.
The checklist is a memory item. But he struggles with the pocket and then stares straight ahead, out over the water toward the runway I guess.

No time. I complete the checklist while slowing to eighty knots and selecting HOVER AFT. This tilts both rotors aft so they are clear of each other on almost parallel planes, at different heights. In the event of a de-synchronization, the helo can only be flown straight ahead. Initiating a turn would tilt the rotors in opposite directions and they would hit.

In a turn now we have obviously not experienced a de-sync yet. But I am very aware that there is no fluid in that howling transmission back there…

Chinaman’s Hat! Right there! …Hard left!
“I’m putting her on Chinaman’s Hat! Landing Checklist! Lock the brakes! Strap in back there!”

The copilot jerks on his leg pocket again. I complete most of the landing check…
I am banking left in a hard autorotation down toward the spot on that slope. Eight hundred feet…Thirty more seconds…just thirty more seconds…

Got that spot nailed! Glide slope good. Hold eighty knots all the way down, there goes the slope under the chin bubbles, back on the stick, gentle on the power, gentle, Feels good…maybe I can keep just a little peripheral reference out the right…power... power now…
BAM! …Down good, solid with no hover, not sliding, can’t help but get on the brakes hard… we’re good!...

“Shut ‘er down!”
The copilot grabs for his checklist…

I thrash the engine levers aft and hit the overhead rotor brake switch. It’s smoking! It’s normally only applied in a lower, mid RPM range. It’s cooked. Easy to change. The rotor blades grind to a halt and rock the helo back and forth.

Sure is quiet.

The copilot has wet himself.

“Everyone OK back there?”
All good. All good.
I announce starting the APU and reach up and hit it. The radio crackles back to life and the Tower says the crash boat will be pulling up to the shore below.

I realize that the landing was made without the engines ever coming up to full power. With the collective full down, after adding power it takes them eight seconds to spool up. The landing was over before that, using the inertia of the blades.

We stand unsteadily on the slippery cabin floor looking at the hole in the transmission case and the chunks of metal on the deck. I say that we might should say a word of thanks. The crew chief shouts out AMEN and beats us all to our knees.

Outside, the crew chief is again on his knees, grinning at me past the nose gear tire, with exactly a foot of level ground outside of it. Same for the main gear. No damage to the aircraft.

We try to tie the blades down. The swimmer climbs on top and slips a boot over one blade tip. The crew chief on the ground pulls on the rope to swing another blade over to the swimmer. The blades won’t move. The transmission is locked up.

Several months later, my CO came in and tossed two accident reports on my desk. One accident was six months before mine. The blades intermeshed and the aircraft came apart in the air. The other was four months after mine. Just as they set down it de-synced and the blades went through the cabin.

It was about this time that I saw the Air Progress Magazine laying on the table in the BOQ. The one with the 390 lb. N7EZ on the cover….

Merry Christmas
Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze

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