Dash Helicopter Caper by ENS John T. Boyd

 

Note: Originally published in “To Be Someone Special – The Story of UDTra Class 29” by RD Russell

 

BACKGROUND:  By springtime, 1965, Naval Air forces were conducting daily raids over North Vietnam from Yankee Station. Planes were being shot down by NVA forces. When the planes could make it to sea, they could be rescued by ships or helicopters of USN. When aviators were down on the ground in North Vietnam, no method of rescue was sufficiently satisfactory. For example, to rescue a downed pilot by helo might well resort in the downing of the helo so rather than one or two men on the ground in enemy territory, we now had five or six making the rescue problem that much bigger. Someone (I believe it was someone in the Naval Air Forces, Pacific) suggested that perhaps the best way to solve the problem was to rescue the downed aviator(s) by using a DASH helicopter from a Destroyer so equipped, on station near the North Vietnam coast.

 

My recollection (vague) is that the idea came from the Admiral who was, at the time, COMASWFORPAC. It was decided by someone that the idea was worth testing. Accordingly, COMASWFORPAC assigned, or made arrangements, for a DASH helicopter and a DASH operator (an officer who flew the drone remotely using a joy stick not unlike today’s computer games employ). COMPHIBPAC was tasked or requested to provide a live subject to be used in some trial efforts. The tasking eventually went down the Chain of Command from COMPHIBPAC to SEAL Team ONE. LTJG John T. Boyd was assigned.

 

TEST SETUP: (There may have been other preliminary tests but I was unaware of them.) San Clemente Island, specifically the airfield as a base for the helo, was selected. UDTRA from the NAVPHIBSCOL, Coronado, was tasked to provide the safety boat. The scenario was that the ‘downed aviator’ would be in the surf zone about 200 yards east of Northwest Harbor. The ‘Downed Aviator’ using only the ‘survival’ radio all pilots were equipped with, would call the ‘rescue’ people and then direct the DASH Operator (who could see neither the helo nor the ‘Downed Aviator’) to fly the drone to a position overhead that was close enough so the aviator had to simulate an injured leg (a real fun aspect in the surf zone). The theory behind the simulated injury was to require the ‘Downed Aviator’ and the DASH Operator to bring the DASH directly overhead before pick up. The safety boat, from UDTRA, was standing by about 200 yards offshore (with BMC Al Huey, a UDTRA Instructor at the time, as the Boat Officer).

 

The test was apparently rather informal and, I believe, did not involve OPNAV because there was not much paperwork (only a few messages) and no proliferation of ‘strap hangers’ and other superfluous onlookers and ‘test verifiers’ or other assorted high ranking luminaries.

 

EQUIPMENT:

One DASH Helicopter

One standard helo pick-up ‘horse collar’

One 50 foot length of 21 thread or similar size nylon

Two shackles – one to bend the line to the horse collar, one to bend the line onto the helo weapons station

 

NOTE: It is important to realize that missing from the equipment list was any sort of swivel.

 

THE TEST:

  1. The ‘Downed Aviator’ positioned himself in the surf zone, commenced simulation of the injured leg. The Safety Boat was on station.
  2. The ‘Downed Aviator’ commenced radio calls to the simulated DASH-equipped Destroyer. Communications are established and the ‘Downed Aviator’ started speaking directly with the DASH Operator.
  3. The DASH was in the vicinity rather quickly (10 minutes).
  4. It took about 30 minutes to position the DASH close enough for pick-up because directions could only be given to the DASH Operator relative to the heading of the drone, and the Operator’s reluctance to place the DASH directly overhead. (The DASH was equipped only with an aneroid altimeter, not a radar altimeter so the Operator did not want to trust flying the DASH close to the surface which was not the area the DASH was normally flown in except in take-off and landing on a Destroyer where, of course, the operator could ‘fly’ the DASH visually.
  5. Finally, the DASH was directly overhead, hovering and close enough to the ground that the ‘Downed Aviator’ with the injured leg could get into the horse collar.
  6. The ‘rescuee’ radioed “Go!” The first order of business now was for the DASH to climb to get the aviator clear of the water. When a strain was taken, the stretchability of the line was immediately brought to mind.
  7. When the ‘Downed Aviator’ was finally lifted clear of the water, his altitude was ‘instantly’ about 50-75 feet. The exact elevation was difficult to determine because as soon as the aviator was suspended in the air, the absence of any swivel on the equipment list became instantly apparent. The DASH had been airborne now for about 40 minutes. During that time, the horse collar had rotated (twisted) several dozen turns in the same direction. The aviator hanging free caused all those twists in the line to start untwisting. In perhaps 5 seconds the aviator was spinning so fast that dizziness came early, nausea shortly thereafter.
  8. To try stopping the spin I kicked my legs the same you would in parachuting right after canopy opening to get twists out of the risers. This was minimally successful but did allow momentary stability sufficient to determine DASH heading & transmit directions to the DASH operator.
  9. Finally we maneuvered the DASH a few hundred yards offshore, talked the operator into hovering with me hanging about 30 feet from the surface of the ocean so I could slip the horse collar and drop into the ocean. Al Huey and his crew picked me up in the UDTRA LCPR. Al, who had seen me spinning like a gyro, knew I was really dizzy (and still was when he lowered the bow ramp to pick me up. Al, my old rugby buddy – he was the scrum half, I was the #8 quarterback and center, if you will), was laughing so hard he could not even help me crawl up the ramp.
  10. A couple test observers from COMNAVAWAC or ASWFORPAC on the beach were highly enthusiastic. Obviously this method could be used for rescue without putting other lives in harm’s way. All we needed was a swivel of some sort. They immediately started chattering enthusiastically about getting a swivel and testing again (I was still trying to remove last night’s supper from my stomach). While they were being excited the operator was ‘flying’ the DASH back to the San Clemente airfield. He, of course, was only used to flying the DASH over the flat ocean surface & was not aware of something. Namely, the rather abrupt elevation change from sea level to that of the airfield. Now the DASH was designed only for use over the ocean, was not designed to allow rapid elevation gains. In its primary role there was no reason for it. While returning to the airfield on a track somewhere South of Northwest Harbor the DASH operator put the drone into ‘Max Climb’ but did not reduce or stop forward speed. Result: one DASH helo flew straight into a San Clemente Island hillside. Bang! Flash! Loud Noise! Result of the first result? One very nervous Test Subject when they talked of further tests to carry the Downed Aviator in the horse collar for a ‘realistic’ distance back to the DASH’s mother ship. While these aviator types were chattering about how quickly they could whistle up another DASH for more tests, all I could think was, “This thing just flew into the hill and went bang. Let’s talk about this for a minute.”

 

I returned to Coronado and wrote up my report. I never heard anything else about this idea, which actually was fundamentally a good one. I have a vague recollection of some Naval Air types deciding that a downed aviator would not be able to operate his survival radio to give directions to the DASH operator while hanging in the horse collar. Certainly, if they had known the length of time and conditions to which our POWs were to be subjected, I think they might have thought the aviator could figure it out rather than take up residence in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ or one of the other North Vietnamese luxury resorts.

 

(Note: Illustration by Barney Steel, Class 29 wc)

 

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