Power, power, power!

Power, power, power! – SH-608 helicopter use in counter-drug operations

Mike J. Gillio

I was a new H2P on my first SH-60B cruise. I had been in the squadron for three months and had completed the six-week work-ups. We were deployed in the Caribbean, conducting counter-drug ops (CDOPS).

Anyone who has been on CDOPS knows the general routine is fairly benign, but it often is interrupted by high-priority, quickly changing intel and tasking. This night was no different. The detachment OinC and I had been scheduled for a standard SSC mission, only to be called to combat 30 minutes before the flight for new tasking.

We launched on our new mission at 2200. A thick overcast layer at about 700 feet obscured most of what little moon existed. We were to head 70 miles north and help one of our ships find and recover 50 bales of cocaine. The drugs had been dumped by a go-fast (drug boat) earlier in the day. No further info was provided.

When we arrived on-scene, just south of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, we discovered the ship was not where it should have been. We later learned it had been diverted several hours earlier with last minute tasking. We were not an NVG-capable aircraft, and our FLIR was down. With no datum, which our non-existent surface friend would have provided, or other information, we could not conduct an open-ocean search with our searchlight. We headed to the south and resumed our original mission.

Almost immediately, our crewman picked up a fast-moving radar contact directly south of us. We quickly looked in that direction but didn’t see any lights. Things started to get interesting. We descended to 200 feet, our minimum night-SOP altitude, as our crewman vectored us toward the contact. At one-half mile out, we turned on the searchlight, and there it was: a go-fast, running dark at 20 knots. Surprised, they kicked it up to 35 knots and swerved to escape the light. The chase was on.

Fortunately, we had approached and over-flown the go-fast from the north. The boat turned and headed south, right toward mom. It was difficult to maintain an accurate radar track, as the boat constantly swerved, changed speed, and even went DIW, in an effort to evade. None of the aircrew had any CDOPS go-fast experience, but we had discussed some tactics during precruise preps. We decided the best action was to continually mark-on-top the boat so mom could use our position to plot all intercept course.

We kept the spotlight oil the go-fast as much as possible. Its skipper didn’t like the light, and his evasion tactics slowed him down as mom closed.

At 200 feet, on a pitch-black night, we were flying 50-knot racetrack patterns around a violently maneuvering go-fast, while trying to keep a searchlight aimed at him. If it sounds like alarms should have been going off in our heads, they were.

We discussed our options and came up with a chase plan. The flying pilot was to be inside the cockpit at all times, on instruments and responding to vectors from the aircrewman. The aircrewman was to stay oil the radar. The non-flying pilot would slew the searchlight and handle all comms and coordination with mom. This setup worked great for the first 45 minutes of the chase: then, in about 20 seconds, all of our crew coordination went out the window.

The pilots had been swapping controls and crew responsibilities when the go-fast jinked from side to side below the helo. The go-fast then went DIW, before suddenly taking off and swerving to my OinC’s side as we flew overhead. My OinC, who had the controls at the time, banked hard right and took control of the searchlight–without giving up the flight controls.

I was distracted by a radio call from the TAO on mom. 1 saw my OinC staring out the window and down at the go-fast as he leveled the wings and slewed the searchlight. Just then, the hair on my neck stood up. Out the corner of my eye, I saw the unmistakable sight of saltwater spray in my side window. A quick look at the RADALT confirmed we were booming through 50 feet, in a descent. The aircrewman noticed the same thing as we simultaneously yelled, “Power, power, power!”

I pulled the collective nearly to the stops and watched all the engine instruments spike into the red as torque reached 139 percent. The RADALT needle stopped descending at 20 feet. Total elapsed time was about 20 seconds from control swap to power pull.

It’s amazing how a short lapse in crew coordination almost led to a 40-knot, running-water landing. We had taken the time to brief the dangers, and we had an effective coordination plan. The first time we deviated from the plan, we almost put the helo and three people in the water.

We leveled at 500 feet, breathed a sigh of relief, and debriefed what had happened. RADALT HOLD had been engaged and working all night, and it should have been engaged at the time of the descent. I suspect the OinC, as he slewed the searchlight with his thumb on top of the collective, inadvertently squeezed the trim button on the bottom of the collective with his forefinger. This would have disengaged the RADALT HOLD. Couple that with a slow-speed turn, a pitch-black night, and an outside scan, and we were asking for trouble.

We realized the dangers before we began the chase. Our safety depended on good crew coordination. All it took was a momentary lapse to get us into trouble. We reemphasized crew duties and coordination and decided to reenter the chase at 500 feet, instead of 200 feet. This time, we stuck to our rules, and there were no further incidents on what turned out to be a seven-hour pursuit.

Lt. Gillio flew with HSL-44 Det. 4.

COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Naval Safety Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group