Helo-casting from a CH-46 Sea Knight. The SEALs were already on board when the helo went into the ocean.
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.
UDT swimmer recovery. "In rappelling you wear what's called a swiss seat around your butt and waist."
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.
Fast-roping from a Pave Hawk version of the SH-60. "You should only have your hands in contact with the rope."
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.
SEALs on SPIE rigging
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.
"Then we secured the mansion with the governor general, his family, and entourage inside. Fought off the Cubans all night with the considerable help of gunships. Marines battled through to us the following day and that was it."
"Not a man."
How do you deal with the terror of fast-roping under fire?
"Stay in the moment. Focus on details. React. Suspend your imagination — I think Hemingway said that was how to maintain grace under pressure. Not an easy task."
Bill Davis and others like those Marines on that downed Sea Knight knew what it was like to ride drenched with fear aboard a helo inbound for a mission. But I wanted another perspective. I got that perspective when I called retired U.S. Marine Corps aviator colonel Floyd Lewis at his home in Coronado. Colonel Lewis had not flown Sea Knights during his 30-year career, but he'd flown many other flavors of troop-carrying helos, including H-34s and Hueys. He'd also flown close air support in Cobra gunships and fixed-wing, OV-10 Broncos. He flew these various birds during two years of combat in Vietnam.
I asked him what his thoughts were when he first heard of the Sea Knight crash.
"Of course, I first thought of the wives and families the men who were lost had left behind."
Did you think about what might have caused the crash?
"Not really. I won't second guess. I'll leave conclusions and lessons learned to the accident investigators. I will say this, though: Marine aviation is essentially safe, and that safety is written in blood. Something might fail and you don't know it will fail until that happens. Then you proceed with a fix and modification.
"Of course, going aboard a ship at sea has its special concerns that helo pilots don't encounter when landing at a ground installation such as Miramar."
What are a Marine helo pilot's concerns when he lands aboard a ship at sea?
"Well, you have your check list, but mainly it's flying the pattern, the approach, coming abeam of the ship at 300 to 500 feet, rolling out at 200 to 300 feet in the groove at 60 to 65 knots, then slowing, slowing, slowing as you near the landing platform."
The media has suggested the Sea Knight may have snagged its landing gear in the safety netting that surrounds a ship's landing platform.
"Again, I'll leave that to the investigators; however, the safety netting was never a special concern of mine when I brought helos aboard. The netting is well away from where you touch down and is for the safety of sailors who might get too near the edge and be blown overboard."
What about the idea that a fast-rope dangling from the helo could have become fouled in the ship's superstructure and caused the crash?
"I don't know what kind of gear the Sea Knight had for the fast-rope, but generally you would have quick-release mechanisms — such as emergency jettison or cutter devices — to prevent that sort of thing."
What do you think of the outcry over Marine helos at Miramar?
"Well, I flew helos for many years in and out of El Toro, Tustin, and other bases near populated areas. We always had ingress and egress routes that didn't take us over those areas. Another thing, the chances of getting a helo down safely — unless it's a total, catastrophic failure— are very, very good.
"In the helo world, you're always anticipating, looking for a place to set down, like a road or a field. You're just not going to jeopardize a community."
How many hours did you log as a Marine aviator, Colonel?
"Oh, I don't know for sure. Something more than 5000, I suppose."
The media has treated us to other perspectives on the Sea Knight tragedy. We listen to NIMBYs concerned about their precious property values. They wail that what happened last week off Point Loma could just as easily have happened at Miramar. That Sea Knight could just as easily have crashed and burned on a school filled with innocents. Yeah. Right. Big difference between bringing a helo aboard ship on a platform that looks the size of a postage stamp from altitude and easing a helo onto a 12,000-foot runway at Miramar.
On the other side of the debate, we have those who wring their hands and say throw more money the military's way. Build newer, better, and safer helos. That's the answer. Maybe. But as long as you have missions that require helos to do what that Sea Knight was doing, you risk tragic loss of life. That's the terrible truth of the business. Helicopters of any type on a military mission can instantly turn into widow-makers, turn nature upside down, and leave parents to grieve for dead sons and perhaps daughters.