[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2007]
The preflight brief consists mostly of what to do A) to stave off disaster, and B) if disaster strikes.
Put on fire retardant jumpsuit, PFD, Kevlar vest, helmet and steel-toed boots, the collective weight of which if we do go into the drink ought to take me right straight to the bottom to howdy and shake with Davy Jones personally. It’s one way to become a shellback. (There are others, but I have been forbidden to go there.) Buckle on safety belt. Don’t bang your head on the helo’s Darwin sorter, a dandy little DNA sampler.
In the event disaster strikes, pull red tab to pop out window. Don’t hit door handle the wrong way or the door will pop open. Do hit it if you need to get out in a hurry. If the helo does go splash, there are flotation devices fore and aft. We will probably remain upright, but if we don’t, pop the window or the door, pull yellow tab to release life raft, get out, inflate your life vest and swim forward to meet the rest of the crew at the nose.
Point of reference, hand strap over door. Hang on.
Yes, I get to fly in the helo. I get to do flight ops. I get to do take-offs to starboard. I get to do box patterns. I get to do touch-and-goes. I get to watch break-in LSO ENS Jason Berger fancy dance through the take off signal from the front instead of from behind on the flight deck or on the bridge’s CC TV screen.
(For my aunt in Cordova: Aunty Pat, take deep breaths. It’s okay. The Coasties do this every day. For Kathy and Kevin in Anchorage, eat your hearts out. For Lucky in Texas, ya shoulda been here.)
We launched the helo this morning and they did a SURFPAT, looking for go fasts. If they’d found one I would have been schnookered out of my ride, and I can’t decide how I feel about that, but never mind that now. When they landed, I duck-walked down the deck beneath the spinning rotors, climbed in back with the gunner, got my helmet jacked into the comm system, and started hearing all the same communications I’ve been listening in on from the bridge. The only ones that matter today are “Helo is cleared for takeoff to starboard. Take all signals from the LSO. Green deck!” “LSO, green deck, aye!”
The green lights flash on the hangar, the pitch of the rotor blades increases, and my door is still open so I have a real good view of the deck of Munro falling away from the side of the helo. The flight deck crew, the LSO and the Blueberries wave us off nonchalantly (don’t they understand that this time it’s ME in the helo?). We hover off the port side of Munro and the gunner heaves a cardboard box with “Shoot me!” written on the side into the water.
Remember the other day when I wrote about the 50-caliber gun shoot? They’ve got one in the helo. It’s what they use to shoot out go fast engines. It’s marginally smaller and lighter than the 50-calibers on the ship, and it’s got a scope. The gunner rests it on a strap slung across his doorway and, well, let’s just say that poor little defenseless cardboard box didn’t stand a chance.
Then they unlimber the M-240 machine gun, and the gunner runs through a 100-round clip in stitches or lines of shots designed to convince the driver of a go fast to stop. “They never do,” the right-seat aviator says, “but we try.”
Then back we go to the ship and the left-seat aviator trades places with me. I get to ride in front. We lift off and we keep going up. I admit to a tiny panicked feeling as Munro shrinks in size but I also have to admit it vanishes along with the ship when at 6,000 feet we break through a big bank of puffy cumulous clouds and up, up and over and down and around the other side we go. We have slipped the surly bonds of earth.
“About time to go back?” the right-seat aviator says.
“I want to go find a go fast,” I say.
A very sexy little radar system (you should see the instrument panel on this machine, it has more bells and whistles than the starship Enterprise) brings us straight home to Munro, no passing Go, no collecting $200, but one more fun thing, we get to do a fly by, straight down the starboard side of the ship, thirty feet off the deck at about 140 knots. There might have been someone watching from the bridge, but I couldn’t see them for the blur. And then the ship asks us to do it again. Well, gee, okay, if we have to. And then home. Fly out beyond the ship, pull what the power and acceleration makes it feel like straight up, bank right, level out, slow to a sedate, matronly pace, and tuck her down neatly inside the white circle on the flight deck.
I wanted to do a hot refuel and get back in the air. Who knew flying a helo was this much fun? I’ll tell you who, our AVDET (Aviation Detachment), that’s who. In fact, “Don’t tell anyone how much fun this is,” they said, scared someone will take their helo away. Too late.
I wish I could talk more about the aviators, but the nature of our mission precludes using their names or their photographs. They’re funny and smart and self-deprecating (“We’re just a bunch of knuckle-draggers”), and they are very, very good at what they do. It was an honor to ride with them.
I have to say it. This really is the red shift limit most fun you can have with your clothes on.
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