"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.