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A Search and Rescue Helicopter Pilot's Story

by LaRon L. Stoker

Captain, USN (Retired)

5 May 1956 to 31 August 1989

6,500 hours of flight time, 4,700 hours in helicopters, the rest in fixed wing aircraft.

Awards earned:
Legion Of Merit W/Combat V; Air Medal (3 Awards); Navy Achievement Medal W/Combat V (2 Awards);
Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation (2 Awards); Combat Action Ribbon;
Meritorious Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal;
Antarctica Service Medal W/ Bronze Clasp And Disc; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal;
Vietnam Service Medal (5 Awards); RVN Air Gallantry Medal W/Bronze Wings;
Vietnam Armed Forces Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Medal Color W/Palm;
RVN Meritorious Unit Citation (Civil Action Medal, First Class Color W/Palm; Vietnam Campaign Medal;
Expert Pistol Shot Medal; White Elephant Medal 2nd Class (Thai).

December 1965

Near the end of December 1965, I checked into my new duty station HC-1, then known as NAF Ream Field, later changing name to NAF Imperial Beach, located at Imperial Beach, CA. At this time the Vietnam War was building very fast and shortly after checking in my Commanding Officer called me into his office. He told me he had checked my flight records and that I had more flight time than any of his pilots and he need pilots with my experience for a new task in Vietnam. That task was to take a rescue helicopter on board a non-aviation ship to rescue pilots being shot down over North Vietnam. I had approximately 4 months to qualify in a new turbine engine helicopter called a UH-2A/B Kaman Sea Sprite.

May 1966

By early May I had met all requirements, was given a copilot, Ensign Jansen and 8 enlisted personnel to make up my detachment, (Det. 23). We departed on a chartered flight for Cubi Point in the Philippines, arriving at Clark Air Force Base at the start of a Typhoon. We spent 3 days there in temporary quarters mostly soaking wet and finally arrived by bus at the Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. I was told when I arrived there would be a newly configured armored UH-2A/B helicopter waiting for me. There was a helicopter but it was stripped down in parts and pieces. I now had relatively inexperienced maintenance crew with me and a job to put this machine back together to meet a deployment date of 28 May 1966. At this point it gave me approximately 10 days to do this and after about 4 days of hard work, I could see we could not meet the deadline. I sent 7th Fleet a message and related my problem and told them I could not meet the deployment date. I received a message back telling me the ship would pull into Cubi Point the next morning and for me to be there waiting to see 7th Fleet Operations Officer. This I did and the operation officer was a Navy Capt. who informed me I would have that helo on my assigned ship, the USS Coontz (DLG-9), a guided missile frigate, on time and on schedule. He told me he did not care how I got it there even if I had to shit it, it would be there! I was able to get some help for Cubi Point maintenance, I then split my crew into two shifts and we worked around the clock. At around 3:30PM, on 28 May I took the helo out for a test flight and my ship was pulling into Subic Bay to refuel. I contacted them on the radio and they cleared the flight deck on the fan tail of the ship and I made my first landing on a light cruiser. They had a circle helo pad behind their missile launcher and that would become my new home for the next 30 days. The ship refueled, we brought our gear on board and departed that night at 10:00PM for the Tonkin Gulf.

Early the next morning when the ship held quarters, we were missing one enlisted man. He had last been seen around midnight and he could not be found after a full search of the ship. We reversed course, called general quarters and launched the helo for a search on our reversed course. We flew and searched all day looking for him but he was never found. This turned out to be very good for us as we were able to make some practice approaches and landings, plus it gave us a chance to see how well we had put the helo together.

July 1, 1966

Our 30 days on North SAR (Search and Rescue) station, a position we maintained where we could see the light house of Haiphong Harbor at our nearest point to Vietnam, had been exciting but no rescues were made. On our last day on station the USS King (DLG-10) (same class ship) arrived to take over our position. We had just brought the Commanding Officer and a couple of staff officers over to do a briefing for the turn over. Then all of a sudden, bells were ringing and the call for general quarters was blasting over the loud speaker including a call to standby to launch the helo. I ran up to OPS to see what was going on and they said there was a pilot shot down way north and he had parachuted into a waterway in a location just off the Gulf. A quick look at the map and I could see we would have to fly between two Islands to get to his location. It was also a longer distance than my fuel range. I told the C.O. I would launch and proceed to the site but he would have to close the distance in order for me to return without running out of fuel. It took almost an hour to reach the entrance point and as we approached the entrance we started to receive gun fire from a gun placement on one Island. I called in support from overhead fighter aircraft. They came down and completely wiped out the gun implacement. We proceeded in and searched the area where an overhead plane had marked the downed pilots position but we could not locate the pilot. We searched for 15 more minutes and I had to depart in order to meet the ship before I ran out of fuel. It was assumed the pilot had been injured when he ejected and was not able to release himself from his chute when he hit the water. If he was alive when he hit the water, he most likely drowned when his chute pulled him under the water. As we flew back between the two islands all was clear, the gun implacements had been destroyed and we were able to land back on board our ship with only minutes of fuel left.

We shut the helo down and my crew was busy refueling when we got another call over the loud speaker, "launch the helo immediately". We were lucky enough to have a full load of fuel and as I started the helo up and contacted control, they ordered me to fly out in front of the ship. I still did not know what was going on but finally they passed the word to me that we were under attack by 3 high speed Vietnamese Patrol Boats. Our ship was at full power doing about 33 knots and we were headed back out to sea to draw the boats away from the coastline. They had alerted the Aircraft Carrier and we had fighter jets coming in to assist us. When they arrived, they attacked the patrol boats with heavy gun fire and air to ground missiles. One boat was destroyed, one left disabled and soon become dead in the water and the other one was able to escape back to Vietnam. I made a survey of the destroyed boat and saw several bodies in the water, the other boat had been able to pick up a few survivors. It took us about two hours to get the crew to surrender in the boat that was dead in the water. We took 21 prisoners on board, the ship gunners sunk the boat and we departed south for Danang. This was now a really big issue because this was the first prisoners that had been taken by U.S. Forces form the beginning of the Vietnam conflict. It took us two days before the U.S. Forces could figure out what to do with them and we finally off loaded them on to a fleet troupe carrier ship, where they had a brig (jail) to house them in. We now were free to head back to Cubi Point in the Philippines for a little R & R.

Photo by Jim Sievers
Photo by Jim Sievers
USS Chicago CG-11
Photo by Chuck White
Open House
Cebu City, PI
Photo by Jim Sievers

Our R & R and maintenance repair time was to be for 30 days but we were cut short when the USS Chicago (CG-11) pulled in with a new developed battle staff on board. They were headed for the Tonkin Gulf and they had a large helo pad on the fan tail and they wanted a helicopter. We received orders to fly onboard and go with them. Their mission was to control the air battle group, so I was never in a position to support the rescue operations. In over two weeks I had not been able to get them to let me fly any more than about 5 launches. Finally my luck changed, the USS King was coming back out to the North SAR and their helo was hard down for lack of support parts at Cubi Point. They had received orders to come by our position and pick us up to be their rescue helicopter. We were now a happy crew, going back to what we came out to do, rescue pilots!

We had been on board the U.S. King for about 2 days when a A-4 pilot got hit over Hanoi and could not control level flight but could maintain some level of flight by keeping the aircraft in a roll. He basically rolled his plane all the way to the coast line and once out over the water he ejected. On board the ship we could listen to all of the conversations going on so we were on our way to intercept him when he landed in the water. This was a great day for us as it was our first at sea rescue.

August 11, 1966

Fortunately, the Captain (Capt. Tesh) and I had been discussing what would be the procedures and the responsibility of the ship in the event we were called on to make a night rescue. Several days later I was awaken by general quarters, being blasted over the intercom. By the time I was in my flight gear they were calling launch the helo. I ran to Ops and learned we had two Air Force pilots ejecting from an F-4 approximately 30 miles from our position. By the time I reached the helo, my co-pilot had it turning. The ship gave us clearance to launch and as we lifted off it was like flying into a black wall. There was no light in the sky, and it was like you had a blindfold on, no horizon what-so-ever!! We climbed out to a 1000 ft. and picked up our vector to the downed pilots. As we approached the area, we could see a flare go off. Now was the time to see if all of those night practice rescues were going to work. I flew over the flare at 500 feet, down wind, made a 30 degree left turn adjustment and timed myself out bound for 1 minute. Then I started a standard rate right turn, which lined me up on the flare and I began a decent, reaching a 20 foot hover prior to the flare and the pilot. As I tried to position myself over the downed pilot I could sense vertigo very bad. I told my co-pilot he had to do nothing but monitor my flight gages and controls and not attempt to look out side. It was his responsibility to ensure I did not fly the helo into the water. Now it was going to take both me and the rescue crewman’s guidance to get me over the downed pilot in order to pick him up. With me fighting off vertigo and the crewman’s directions, I was able to get over the pilot and the crewman hoisted him onboard. Once he was onboard I climbed back to 500 feet and began a search for the other pilot. I was receiving his emergency radio beep signal but there was no sign of a flare. In that it was so dark I had to navigate by my RMI (Radio Magnetic Indicator) needle which pointed to the pilot’s position from his emergency radio. I made several approaches over him with my landing light on trying to locate him and finally spotted the reflection off his reflective tape on his hard hat. We dropped a flare and commenced the same type approach to pick him up. Once again it was the same difficulties in making this rescue but luck was with us and we successfully made the rescues.

As we climbed out I picked up the ships navigational aides, they had close to with 15 miles of our position. As I approached the ship they set there course into the wind for me to make my approach. The only light on the ship was a red beacon on top of a high mast, making the approach was as difficult as the rescue approach. Plus this was my first night landing on this type ship, which had never been done before. By the time I saw the ship we were too fast and I had to wave off the approach and set up for another one. My second approach was successful and we landed onboard with the two rescued Air Force pilots. Later after we had let them take a shower and clean clothes I was questioning the second rescue pilot if he had a flare with him? He informed me, yes I had one, when I ask him why he did not light it off. His reply was I really do not like helicopters and would have preferred to have the ship pick me up. Hell was I mad. I told him next time he had to bail out and is on top of a mountain he can wait for the ship, I sure the hell wasn’t coming after him!! Note of interest: They were hit in the fuel tank by enemy fire over Hanoi and they were losing fuel. They had been given a vector to a standby refueling aircraft that was positioned out over the Gulf near us. As they were approaching the refueling probe, they were only about 6 feet from it when they ran out of fuel. That was the reason they had to bail out.

We had spent the required 30 days on station and returned to Cubi Point. The ship was going to stay there a few days and then proceed to Hong Kong for 5 days of R & R. Capt. Tesh asked me if any of us wanted to go with them. We had a required amount of maintenance work on the helo that must be done before next deployment, which meant some one had to stay to complete this. My co-pilot and 5 crewmen did not want to go so they stayed to take care of the maintenance. We took off and arrived in Hong Kong for some relaxation. We had been there two days when a typhoon approached the area and were ordered to clear out of Hong Kong harbor. We sailed right into that damn typhoon and rode it out for two days. That was a scary ride, we took on rolls up to 25 degrees and I spent most of my time strapped into my bunk. We returned back for one more day and left for Kaoshiung, Taiwan, where the ship would receive 7 days of maintenance up-keep. After this was completed we returned to Cubi Point, took on fuel, supplies, picked up my helo and crew and departed for the Tonkin Gulf.

We had been on station now for about a week, when there was a big Alpha Strike scheduled into Hanoi. During the afternoon attacks a Navy A-4 was hit over Hanoi and the pilot was having difficulties controlling his plane and headed for the Gulf. His calculated point of crossing the beach was about 45 miles from our position, so I launched and headed in that direction. We heard him call “May-Day, May-Day” as he punched out, which put him just off the beach. When we arrived we could see many small Vietnamese boats paddling out from the beach. We made a high speed run in the direction of the pilot’s radio beeper and could see him in the water about 1 mile off the beach. I needed to know which direction the wind was coming from in order to make an approach to pick him up. So, I flew parallel to the beach and over the downed pilot and dropped a smoke light about 300 yards from the pilot. The boats from the beach thought that was where the pilot was and they headed in that direction. Then we saw some mortar fire hitting the water. I alerted my crew to standby for a very fast pickup of the downed pilot. I came in over the pilot down wind (all most no wind) and did a maneuver I had developed that I called a rotor-over. It is pulling the aircraft into a steep climb, and before going into a full loop rolling and turning it in the opposite direction of flight. At the same time reducing power to bring the helo to a hover just above the pilot. However, as I started to pull power to recover I knew something was wrong as I did not have the required power I normally had. I waved off the approach, had the crew standby to make a firing run at the boats to drive them away from the downed pilot. We had two M-60 machine guns mounted in each door of the helo. As we made the firing runs the boats started to turn back but we were taking fire from the beach. I dumped all of my fuel from the aft tank to make us lighter and started another rapid approach but as I started to pull into a hover I began to lose power again. I rechecked all of my engine flight gages and everything was normal. We had no wind so I knew I had a problem because of the weight of the helo. I told the crew to start throwing every thing out of the helo, extra ammo, flack vests and anything that had weight to it. I told my crew chief we had one chance to pick this pilot up. I would have to fly the helo as close to the water as I could to use the rotor wash to help me maintain a hover. The other crewman was to keep firing at the boats and the beach. We would approached the downed pilot and the crew chief was to drop the rescue collar as close to the pilot as possible. As I started my approach and began to bring the power on, I began to lose some RPM’s, as I reached approximately 3 to 4 feet above the water the power held. As I eased over the downed pilot the crew chief put the rescue collar right over his head, he grabbed hold and the crew chief grabbed his arm. I could hear the chief yelling go, go, go, as I eased the helo forward we began to skip the nose off the water and gradually I gained flying speed. During all of this time the other crewman was blasting away with his M-60 and boats were scattering every direction. With one big sigh of relief, our adrenaline began to come down we were headed for home plate, our ship.

By the time we reached the ship we were low on fuel and the red warning light came on. With this fuel system it meant I might have 10 minutes of fuel left or maybe none. I told the ship to give me all the speed they could as I knew I would need all the wind they could make for me. As we crossed over the fan tail of the ship and set it down, the power had held okay. Once on deck we shut down and I told the maintenance crew to check the engine with a fine tooth comb. After debriefing the pilot, a shower and clean clothes we (the ship) headed south to take on fuel and supplies. This meant we would be very near the pilot’s carrier and I could fly him to his home plate. When we arrived I went to start the helo but the engine would not turn??? I ask the crew if they had checked everything and they said everything but trying to start it. They pulled the starter out to see if that was the problem and discovered a bearing behind the starter had completely disappeared. This particular bearing was on the main shaft to the accessory section that controlled the fuel pump drive shaft. Basically the fuel pump shaft was free to wobble all over and to this day I don’t know what kept it operating while we were flying!?!?! One helava lot of good luck!

This now caused a new problem we now had an inoperative helo and we could not leave station. After evaluating the situation, I decide we could change the engine onboard the ship. The big problem was how to get a new engine out to us?? We pulled the old engine out and made plans to get the new one flown onboard, some how!!! They had a new engine on the helo carrier and I talked to the pilot that was to fly it up to me, and discuss how to get it onboard. He was flying in a SH-3 which was much larger than our helo and he was going to lower it to me on a hoist. On the first try his crew could not get it out of the door while in flight. As he flew around we moved our helo as far forward as possible and beside the missile launcher. With it in this position he could land as far back as possible but his rotors would still over lap my helo. So the plan was to have him just touch down and still keep power on his rotors to keep them above my helo. This he did and as he touched down we rushed out, lifted the engine out and he departed. Two days later we were again flying with a new engine. “This was a first, an engine change at sea on a non-aviation ship”!!!

During this on line period we had another situation that we had thought about and actually tried it. The combat control staff would send up one of their SH-3 helicopters every day as a backup rescue vehicle and they would fly around the area. Sometimes they would be there 6 to 8 hours and they were approximately 100 miles from the carrier task force. During this time they would come along side our ship every two hours and we would pass them a fuel hose and they would in-flight refuel. I thought what if something happened to one of these flights and they had to make an emergency landing because of some malfunction. My helo pad was all that was available but where would I go?? If I departed immediately I could fly down to the carrier but if I was out flying I would not have enough fuel to get there. I did not have the in-flight refueling that the SH-3 had. So, I had my maintenance crew check where the fuel went into the helo and I came up with the idea that if I had a special spacer wrench my crewmen could open the fuel tank inside the helo. I could then hover along side the ship lower my hoist pick up the fuel hose, bring it up and pump fuel into my fuel tank. I tried it and it worked great. I sent out a message to the Fleet Commander telling everyone I had figured out a way to in-flight refuel my helo. Wrong thing to have done, they came back and blasted me it was a safety violation to do this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo taken by David Nesbitt, 1966

However, not more than a week after this the SH-3 in the area developed a major hydraulic leak and they had to land immediately before their transmission failed. We launched and they landed and once they checked the problem they would need a hydraulic line from their ship, which was located about 200 miles south of us. I took off for the nearest carrier, a CVA (the carrier with the fighter aircraft on board) about 100 miles south where I landed and refueled, then on to their carrier where I picked up the hydraulic line and refueled again. On the return flight I again stopped at the CVA refueled and flew back to my ship. I hovered along side dropped the line and they passed me up the fuel hose so I could take on more fuel. It took the crew about 2 hours to fix the SH-3 so if I had not been able to in-flight refuel I would have run out of fuel. My next message to the Fleet Commander on my in-flight refueling came back and gave me a well done for my ingenuity. What happened to the safety??? Hell, I saved the loss of a helicopter!!!!

We were lucky enough to make several more at sea rescues, 8 all total during my SAR operation on the North SAR station. In November that year we were relieved by another rescue detachment, from our home squadron and we returned to CONUS. I was very proud of my entire crew they had worked and performed above and beyond what anyone could have ever expected. We were given a hero’s welcome back home.

Webmaster's Note: The following page continues the Pilot's story but does not apply to the USS King (DLG-10) history.


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