I've been thinking about brave young men and ship takedowns since that Marine helo crashed into the Pacific off Point Loma last week. Six marines and a sailor died. During my 16 years as a Navy SEAL and three as a member of a Marine airborne outfit called First ANGLICO, I logged more hours than I care to recall aboard the same kind of helo: a CH-46 Sea Knight.
I've done UDT swimmer casts and recoveries through the so-called hellhole in the belly of the bird, parachuted and rappelled off the rear ramp. Each time my heart was in my throat. I never got used to the hellish noise of the twin rotors, the blast of wind across the ramp, the sudden lurches as the pilot battled to maintain his hover. I've known part of the terror those brave men knew before they died.
The media says the Marines aboard the Sea Knight were participating in a ship-boarding exercise with Navy SEALs who had first approached the ship in high-speed, rigid inflatable boats or RIBs. The SEALs were already on board when the helo went into the ocean. The RIBs rescued 11 Marines from hypothermic waters.
I was mercifully beyond the age of participation when these exercises began after terrorists hijacked the cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985 off the Egyptian coast. I also never "fast roped" from a Sea Knight onto the deck of a ship underway as the Marines may have been about to do when the helo overturned.
To get a firsthand account of what it's like to fast-rope from a helo and take down a ship, I spoke with retired Navy lieutenant commander (SEAL) Bill Davis. Bill lives in Oceanside when he's not in Algeria protecting ARCO refineries from being torched by Islamic fundamentalists. Bill was a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam before he became a SEAL. He was also a "plank owner" or original member of Demo Dick Marcinko's band of not-so-merry men in SEAL Team Six.
"Six," Bill explained, "was commissioned precisely for hostage situations aboard hijacked ships like the Achille Lauro. In fact, we were good to go against the terrorists when they suddenly released the hostages.
"We also trained to recapture oil platforms vulnerable to terrorist attack; during the Gulf War SEALs took down Iraqi platforms in the Dora oilfields north of Kuwait."
How would you hit a ship, train for a takedown?
"We used two methods and sometimes combined them, especially if we were training with Marines. First method was a very low-level approach with a helo that had muffled engines. The helo would flare up above the ship's fantail and land if there was room. If not, the pilot would hover about 30 feet over the ship and we would fast-rope onto the deck. Could put a boat crew or squad of seven to eight men on the target in less than ten seconds."
How is fast-roping different from rappelling?
"A fast-rope is a hawser of braided synthetic fiber about 3 to 4 inches in diameter and 40 to 45 feet in length. The fast-rope is coiled and anchored inside the helo. When the helo comes to a hover, the crew chief tosses the rope out and you slide down, one man after another. You wear heavy work gloves to grasp the rope and squeeze it to slow your fall — and that's what it is: just a controlled fall -- you hope. You should only have your hands in contact with the rope, but if you're loaded down with equipment, you might also have to lock the rope with your feet.
"In rappelling you wear what's called a swiss seat around your butt and waist. The seat, which is fashioned from a length of rope, has a snap link or carabiner to hook onto the rappelling line. Takes a lot longer to unass the helo by rappelling."
What's the second method of taking down a ship?
"Go at it from beneath the stern. Make a high-speed approach but this time in a RIB or other wave-burner. You come in with a 30-foot steel pole that has a caving ladder attached to it. Once under the stern or close alongside so that you can't be seen by anyone on deck, you attach the ladder to the ship with the pole and scramble on up. Usually the ladder is swinging out over the ship's screws and real hairy climbing above those monster steel blades, especially if the ship is pitching and the screws start thrashing out of the water and up around your testicles.
"In Six we had this expression for a mate who died in training or on a mission of any type: we'd say he'd 'fed the screw.' "
Didn't you almost feed the screw when you rescued Governor General Scoon during the Grenada invasion?
"Came close, very close. That was a two-bird op with Army Black Hawks. The lead helo had the command and control element led by Bob Gormley, who had just relieved Dick Marcinko at Six. We came tear-assing up and over these steep hills with the idea of the first helo landing, while those of us in the trail bird would fast-rope onto the front lawn of the mansion.
"Gormley's Black Hawk just got the shit shot out of it by ground fire and veered away. I was leaning out the side door of our helo and saw the lead helo start smoking like a chimney with flames flashing from the teetering rotor. They're goners, I thought, fed the screw. But somehow the pilot managed to make it back to the carrier, where he crash-landed. Everybody walked away. Very, very lucky.
"Meanwhile, the enemy fire shifted to our Black Hawk and rounds started ripping through the fuselage. We got the fast-rope out and just zipped down. I damn near drove the man below me six feet under when he delayed clearing the rope. We put eight men on the ground in about five seconds.