That’s the first thing you say when something sounds or feels wrong in any aircraft cockpit. You already know the answer of your copilot even before he utters….”No.” The inevitable next words spoken are “Aw, shit.”
There it is. The stinks on you to handle whatever those warning lights were when they blinked on and off. You knew there position on the warning panel and you pretty much know what they were but you hit the panel test button to confirm ‘what’ they were by lighting them all up. Yep, it was the Fuel Pressure, the Fuel this, and the Fuel that. All the caution lights were for the number 2 engine.
Please, not now.
Here you are heading to a seemingly random spot in the water flying the Navy’s SH-2F Seasprite helicopter and you’re already 25 miles from your little ship (Knox Class Frigate). We’re doing real world Anti-Submarine Warfare Tactics (against a real live elusive Soviet Submarine) in the middle of the Atlantic, and it’s Oh-Dark-Thirty (actually 2330), the moons waning (whatever that means – it’s just dark), and my co-pilot is an Ensign (and his first time out on a boat). In fact, this is my first time back out to sea after a tour as an instructor pilot in Pensacola Florida, and almost through the Fleet Replacement Squadron syllabus. The squadron I’m in, pulled me out of the Fleet Replacement Squadron early (Called me Sunday night, checked out Monday, checked in Tuesday and gone Thursday to catch a ship departing from Charleston, SC) because they needed me on this detachment, NOW.
We turn our helicopter around and start heading back to our only landing spot for about 800 miles around. We radio the ship and brief our situation and our desire to land ASAP before anything does go wrong (besides warning lights flashing in your face). They were skeptical at first (remember we were tracking a real Soviet Submarine off the United States east coast) but when I became adamant we were RTBing (Returning to Base), they conceded.
That’s when my co-pilot makes this utterance, “We’re loosing the # 2 engine!”
I didn’t hear or feel anything different in the controls, but I was in the left seat away from the right-side # 2 engine. Checking the instruments with a quick scan showed a definite reduction in power and before my eyes it all came back up to normal power range.
Oh boy, fuel caution lights followed by an engine slowly flaming out can only mean one thing. We might be going for a swim tonight.
I announced to the ship we were declaring an emergency, described what was happening with the aircraft (starting to sweat), performed the emergency landing checklist (harness – locked, doors – open, gear – down, stores – dump them if you got them but not yet, lights – on, IFF – squawk emergency but no need to because the only people that hear you is on the ship and they already know, restart the engine – she’s still running, sort of), requested to speak to one of the other 2 helicopter pilots (that way he can go over anything I might have missed in diagnosing what was going on), and continue to motor back to the ship staying within the single engine airspeed range (my preflight information indicated minimum 42 kts and maximum 94 kts but that’s at our takeoff weight), 90 kts is just fine. My true wind is 30 degrees to the right of the nose (man it’s dark out there) just in case we have to do a real autorotation* to the water (22 miles to go).
“An autorotation is a condition of non-powered flight in which the rotor speed and lift result from the reverse flow of air through the rotor system. An autorotation enables a pilot to perform a safe landing in the event of a loss of power.”
I thought we were pretty smart by not wearing our dry suits (rub your neck raw, hot and sweaty, and a little restrictive in your movement ‘dry suit’) on this flight because the water temperature had come up to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, all I could think about, if we go down, is that damn water is cold and it will take the ship an hour to get in the area and more time to pin point our position and even more time to lower the gig (their little boat) to retrieve us out of the water. Wet, cold and swimming at night is not what I want to do. The longer I keep this aircraft in the air, the better our chances of staying dry. I’m sort of old school, they pay me flight pay and not crash pay. So, I’m going to do all I can to get this aircraft back to my ship. I don’t care, call it self preservation (probably) or protecting my men with me (maybe) or looking out for the tax payer dollars (naaww). I just didn’t want to get wet.
While I’m monitoring the gauges, the # 2 engine looses a little power (20%) and then gains some power back (10%). We call that a slight fluctuation. Then it looses a lot of power (50%) and again gains just a little back (10%). We call that a major fluctuation. Then she slowly looses all the power. Again, “Aw shit.” Boys, we are flying on one engine and we have 20 miles to go. I gingerly pull the levers and switches for the affected engine only after both of us confirmed the handles I was holding was for the #2 engine. Don’t touch the good one.
From our first call to the ship with the initial problem, the Captain ordered the ship to steer a direct course to our position (bless you) but on the other hand the Combat Information Center (CIC) Duty Officer was still trying to do an Anti-submarine Warfare operation, requesting information from the helicopter sensors (bastard). I’d like a reality check, please.
After the realization and chill of flying on one engine back to the ship, my training kicked in. “Let’s get rid of some this weight.”
Sonobouys are expendable tracking devices that are used in the prosecution of submarines. For this situation the optimum word is expendable. At 40+ lbs each and 15 currently aboard for the mission, we jettison over 600 lbs. I did this by the manual method of one at a time and then I got rid of the 8 smoke markers at 2 lbs each. If we go in and one of the salt water activated smoke markers ignite, we might have a problem if the fuel starts to float up around us and then mingles with the torch(es). Now, to get rid of some real weight, dump fuel.
Back on the ship the CIC Duty Officer was asking Ensign Ferguson what the frequencies of all of the sonobouys we just jettisoned (rat bastard). I’d like to see what your pucker factor would be sitting in here.
Our maximum fuel capacity is 3000 lbs but at this time period we had about 2500 lbs left onboard. I was now speaking with one of the helicopter pilots aboard the ship who had the Naval Aviation Training and Operations Procedure Standardization (NATOPS) manual out. He was working the emergency procedures and figuring the charts on flying ability with weight and relative wind speed while the other pilot went aft to the Helicopter Flight Deck Tower. I had a warm and fuzzy about the min/max airspeed on takeoff weight but I wanted to punch the books again for landing weight (figuring multiple weights) and flight characteristics. We came to the decision for the amount of fuel to dump, which I had already decided in my head before we began to hit the charts. Dump until 900 lbs are left, which we did. (15 miles to go).
Flying towards the ship and the ship steaming our way would seem like we would eat the distance up quickly but when the adrenaline is pumping, time and distance tends to drag. This is when my co-pilot announces to me “we’re loosing number 1 engine!” (13 miles to go).
I’m at the controls flying, and as all good helicopter pilots do when informed of loss of total power (remember, I just left the training command teaching this shit), you enter an autorotation by pushing the collective down but the Barometric altitude hold is pushing back. Wait a minute, the instruments are all reading in the normal zone of operation. Stop the auto, crawl back up to altitude (from 400 to 500 ft) and ask my co-pilot “What the fuck, over?”
He showed me what gauges he was monitoring closely and how they were oscillating. He was correct. They were oscillating because of the Barometric Altimeter Altitude hold is on and it oscillates the remaining engine power to maintain the altitude that was initially set. Works like your car’s cruise control, plus or minus 2 miles per hour. Okay, at least he’s focused on the problem.
After we achieved our decided weight for approach I decided to try to re-start the dead engine. Co-pilot thought it was a good idea too. Fuel switch was still on, so pushed the start button and started motoring the engine to the proper engine rpm and rotated the engine condition lever to the start position. Still nothing. So I continued for the maximum starter motor time limit (a time limit for the motor’s longevity) and continue for another minute.
My co-pilot informs me I’m exceeding the starter limit, which I reply with “I really don’t give a shit. This bitch of an engine is trying to kill us.” After that extra minute, I know the starter is red hot but there’s another one in the supply pack-up somewhere. (8 miles to go).
The pilot on the ship asks me where we wanted the relative wind for landing (because they didn’t know which seat I was sitting in and the landing line up lines are painted at 30 degrees to the right and left of ship’s center line). This way, when we hit 5 miles of separation, the ship turns to the final helicopter recovery course. I requested 20-25 knots (kts) of relative wind 20-25 degree on the starboard (right) side. This means, the relative wind will be 20-25 degrees to the right of the ship’s bow at 20-25 kts of speed (that’s true wind plus the ship’s speed adding up to the relative wind). You might ask why we didn’t ask for the relative wind speed of 35-40 kts? Anything above 25kts of relative wind aboard a single spot ship such as a Frigate, Destroyer, or a Cruiser, you enter the battle of being buffeted by swirling winds around that big barn door we call the hangar. It’s not real comfortable with two engines and power to spare, much less with one engine and only enough power to do a no hover landing. Thus, I made my choice. (7 miles to go).
You could see the ship’s itty bitty running lights as we approached each other. Then, right on cue, at 5 nautical miles of separation, the ship starts its turn to the final helicopter recovery course.
Approaches to the back end of a boat starts at 1.5 NM from the ship at 400 feet with a gradual descent to the flight deck, hitting check points (specific altitude per quarter mile closure) along the glide path. With visual aids on the ship (Aldis lamp and Line-up strobe lights which look like an airport’s approach lights but can go steady state) you can fly the glide path crosschecking your references outside with what your instruments inside are reading.
Flying from the left seat is no big deal. You have the same controls on both sides. The only thing you can not see with a quick visual check when your close aboard the ship is your Nr. Your Nr is the RPM gauge for the main rotors. The SH-2F flew at 106% Nr and everything starts to go to hell at about 92-95% Nr. So, the idea was not to droop the main rotors (no sudden power changes) while you slow the aircraft during your approach all the way to the deck. This is what is known as a no hover landing to a spot. One engine may or may not be able to keep the aircraft flying in a hover with the main rotor rpm maintained at 106%. Thus, it’s imperative to know where your Nr is headed (drooping or steady state).
My instructions to my co-pilot were pretty simple, “When I call for the strobe lights to go steady (meaning - I have the landing area in full view, Landing Signalman Enlisted (LSE) in sight and my scan is totally outside), all I want to hear from you is a constant reading of the Nr. I have my visual cues; I just don’t know where the Nr is.”
At a half mile from the ship I hear some one over the radio saying “On course, on glide slope.” What was that?
So, when the same voice came over the radio a second time, with the same call, I quickly stopped it by saying “Whoever is on the radio, SHUT UP.” (the individual was the Detachment Officer in Charge, watching from the tower, and by the way, he was turning the detachment over to me after this short underway period). Oh well, niceties had to be set aside.
Take a deep breath and make the call. This is just like what you have been teaching for the past three years (in a pig’s eye). I took that breath and made my call, “Steady.” The line-up lights stopped their strobe effect and went steady state. The slow repetitive call from my co-pilot commenced, “ 106….106….106”
I made the landing with a slow controlled pull of the collective (power) to slow the closure and all the way to touchdown without ever hearing anything but “106…106…106.” After shutdown and unstrapping from the seat, I saw the hangar door start opening and the Captain was the first under the door and on the deck. I was standing next to the helicopter checking the aircraft footprint on the landing spot and noted I was a little right of dead center but the landing gear was in the circle.
“Nice job.” The Captain says patting me on the back.
“Thanks Captain. Can we say ‘Splice the Main Brace’?” feeling that chill growing up my neck.
“Yes, you can but it will never happen on my ship.”
“Okay, how about a cup of coffee?” I countered.
“Sure, I’ll buy.”
That’s when everyone started the attaboys and that chill started to melt. The next comments were something like “Boy, Mr. Voorhies you could of put the helicopter more on the center line. You weren’t paying attention to your LSE again. Who’s going to wash the engines and do we have to wash # 2 since you didn’t use it that much?”
The chill was gone.
The coffee was strong, sweet and creamy.
Splice the Main Brace!- The great sailing ships were propelled only by the wind in their sails which were attached to spars called yards. The lines to trim the sails were called braces and ran from the ends of the yards to the deck. The main brace was the largest and heaviest of all the rigging being up to 20" diameter on the big ships. To splice it was one of the most difficult tasks on board ship. Sometimes in the heat of battle, the braces were shot away making the ship unmanageable. To those that "Spliced the Main Brace"! went a double issue of rum. It became customary to always "Splice the Main Brace" before battle, always after victory, and to reward a ship's crew, or sometimes the entire fleet, with the order to "Splice the Main Brace!" which meant a double issue of rum for a job well done. The ritual was always preceded by hoisting the flag signal to "Splice the Main Brace!" In recent times, to say to a friend, "Let's 'Splice the Main Brace'!" is akin to saying "Let 's have a drink!".
Why the engine failed.
When we changed the engine, the pack-up engine was missing some lines and other small components. We did what any detachment would do; we robbed the lines and old components off the bad engine. The engine re-work facility was ticked but we had an operational ready engine/helicopter doing real world ASW.
The re-work facility found the inside components (stators & rotators in the compression section; combustion area and the drive rotor) were at their max limits or more after running it for awhile. The consensus (nothing definitive) was after heating up for that time period of flight the insides of the engine expanded out of tolerance and slowly quit. Doesn't explain the caution lights that blinked at us. Remember, before we removed the engine I started it the next morning. So, that theory fit.
However, fast forward from all of these engine failures of Spring/Summer 1987 to Spring 1991.....I'm flying the H-60 now and I'm down at AUTEC dropping torps and run into the Senior Helicopter pilot stationed there. We were instructors at HT-8 and he was a Reservist. The Navy brought him on active duty to fly the H-3 in support of AUTEC. Great deal for both. After telling some sea stories back and forth he let's drop about a paper he's writing. It's about the multiple engine failures the H-3 community were experiencing. The H-3 and H-2 flew with the same GE-T58 engine but different fuel controls. I data dumped all of my engine failures and the ones I heard about. He got on the phone with the H-2 Wing Maintenance Officer and got the details. Long story short.............His paper hit, an investigation was done and it was revealed that one engine re-work facility wasn't doing a very good job. Those engines were all pulled and the community suffered awhile for a lack of ready engines but the engine failures went away.
I feel like Paul Harvey.... now you know the rest of the story.............