More Guts Than Glory

Sept. 1, 1958

Like a giant grasshopper, the H-21 helicopter danced clumsily in the gusty headwind. Inside the narrow cabin, nine airmen seated in their exposure suits and furtively glanced through the windows at the angry, winter Atlantic 700 feet below. They were the longed-for relief for nine other men, waiting to go ashore from Texas tower two, 100 miles out to sea from Cape Cod.

Animated by the bumps, the precious cargo of mail and radar parts jerked frantically at the tie-down straps. The engine roar filled the cabin, sending shivers through the fuselage.

Up front, in the fishbowl cockpit, the pilot anxiously eyed the engine gauged, peering ahead now and then. The copilot, balancing against the gusts, made a pencil dot on the fuel consumption chart. “Just passed the point of now return,” he said into the intercom.

“Where the hell is that tower?”

As though in answer, the radio crackled in the pilot’s headset: “Six miles due west from us. Steer one-one-zero and keep your eyes peeled — we’re losing you in the sea clutter on the scope. . . over.”

The copilot pointed. “There she is!” But there was no relaxing. The two pilots tensed, for beyond the radome bubbles a fog bank rolled on, reaching clammily for the spindle-legged tower.

The chopper bulged its Plexiglas eyes in an effort to beat the fog to the landing deck, but as the machine finally bucked into a hover, the thickening fog swallowed the flight deck, the radomes, and the lifeboat cranes.

The pilot cursed softly. Sweat ran from under his crash helmet as, ignoring the precession-crazed gyros, he slowly let the chopper sink into the fog by feel and prayer.

Below, the towermen craned their necks toward the engine roar and held their breath. Groping in the chilly whiteness, the machine materialized overhead. Its hind legs outstretched, the chopper touched the painted deck lines, then slumped on its nose wheel with a grunt of relief. Another Texas tower support flight had arrived at its destination.

The three Texas towers are a vital, multimillion-dollar investment in national security. Even when hurricane weather forces picket planes and ships off their stations, the towers go on swiveling their PPI (plan-position indicator) antennas-business as usual. That’s why the towers rank tops in the eastern early-warning chain.

It’s plain logic of logistics that this important link is only as good as its supply lines. Surface vessels deliver cargo ranging from diesel fuel for the power generators to toilet paper, but reliable as ocean-going ships are, often they can’t make it. As one skipper puts it, “I hate to admit it, but when it comes to landing something on the towers in rough seas, I either have to wait for better weather or let the flyboys carry the stuff for me.”

The “flyboys” are the fourteen pilots of the six H-21 helicopters stationed at Otis AFB, Mass. Apart from pitching in for the supply vessels with radar spare parts shipments, they shuttle the tower personnel to and from shore base, run as ambulance service, act as an airborne grocery, deliver movies, and boost the towermen’s morale by bringing the vital mail.

“I don’t know what we’d do without the helicopters,” says Lt. Robert Stetkiewicz, adjutant of the 4604th Support Squadron (Texas towers). “Most of the time, they’re the only link the towermen have with the outside world — a lifeline in more ways than one.”

One look at the statistics and you’ll understand why the helicopter pilots enjoy almost a pin-up popularity with the towermen. Their monthly average of priority cargo and mail carried per tower is 50,000 pounds, plus some 2,000 passengers flown to and fro. And although officially restricted from IFR (instrument flight rules) operation, one out of every three missions is flown in marginal weather and often in downright dirty soup. This, on one engine and over water that stays blood-freezing cold eight months a year.

If you didn’t see the H-21s beetling across the Cape Cod sky, you wouldn’t know there was a helicopter outfit at Otis. They are well camouflaged in the base phone directory — a sort of “Cinderella” of the 551st Operations Squadron. The choppers’ ops room is hidden, too. But let’s follow a couple of pilots just back from a support mission.

Through the wood-paneled splendor of the base ops, you come into the drabness of a temporary building. There is no sign on the door of the small room. Walls plastered with maps and charts, a file cabinet, two steel desks, telephones, and a model of the H-21 helicopter — that’s helicopter operations.

Unless the weather is so messy that even Cape cod’s hardy seagulls stay grounded, the chopper operations room is empty, for the outfit is among the busiest on the base. One helicopter always stays on fifteen-minute alert to help out in case of a rescue — a crash around the base or perhaps a Boy Scout lost on a camping trip. And the remaining helicopters in commission fly the tower support.

The most accessible tower is three — only thirty-four miles off Nantucket Island. Tower four is what the pilots call “marginal” — sixty miles over water from Suffolk AFB on Long Island. But tower two is different. It soaks its feet on Georges Bank, ninety-seven miles east of Cape Cod.

In order to get to tower two a support chopper must land at Chatham and refuel. But even with its tanks full, the H-21 might easily get in trouble over the capricious Atlantic. Should there be a thirty-mile headwind, the loaded chopper might not be able to get back to Chatham if the tower landing became impossible for some reason. And there are several such reasons.

Although the tower has a weather observer who checks in by marine phone with Otis every three hours, the sea fog might roll in faster than you can say “IFR.” If the pilot gets the fog warning before he hits the point of no return, he simply aborts. But if the warning comes too late, as it often does, there is no choice.

“It gets hairy at times,” says Lt. Edward “Sonny” Blondell, one youthful aircraft commander. “I’ve landed on the tower in the fog, but I wouldn’t like to make a habit of it — it wouldn’t help my longevity any.”

If you look at the handkerchief size of the tower’s flight deck, you’ll see what Sonny Blondell means. The landing area has 5,885 square feet. It seems like a lot until you realize that the fifty-two-foot-long chopper fuselage has only a few feet of deck space on each end. The rotor blades hang over the water, and it wouldn’t take much to miss the deck in bad visibility or in a gusty wind.

“Actually, it’s the gusts that bother us more than the fog,” explains Maj. Wilbur E. Parker, the skipper of the chopper detachment. “You see, all the towers point east and with a westerly wind, we get turbulence caused by the bubble radomes. You can come in and line u perfectly, then you start letting down and suddenly it’s ‘now you fly — now you don’t.’ The crosswind turbulence squashed you down hard.”

The tower landing even in perfect weather can be tricky because the small landing area eliminates the helpful ground effect that normally cushions the descent, so, as Major Parker says, “It’s got to be a precision landing every time, or you get wet.”

And getting wet on the ninety-seven-mile stretch over water is another possibility that doesn’t please Major Parker at all. “It’s a calculated risk we have to take,” he says, twirling the rotor of the H-21 model on his desk. “In plain language it means that you sweat all the time. Sure, after a while you get used to the water, but then you sweat again, because you figure maybe you’re relaxing too much.”

To make the chopper pilots more secure, the long missions to tower two are flown in pair — one helicopter covering the other. Should one be forced down, the other could at least pick up the downed crew and passengers before they got quick-frozen.

Following this prudent arrangement, until last July one bird always carried cargo only, while its rotary-wingman had passengers on board. In case of trouble, the cargo could be easily jettisoned to make room for the survivors. But lately, most of the bulk cargo has been relegated to the surface ships, leaving only mail and critical radar parts to the helicopters — and, of course, the passengers. Thus the original protection idea of the second machine has become merely an ambiguous morale booster. “Suppose both choppers are packed with troops,” says Sonny Blondell. “When one goes down, you can’t expect the other to dump its passengers and play air rescue, can you?”

If you have seen the New York Airways helicopters with the amphibious floats, you might wonder about the same deal for the tower H-21s. Well, they do have an emergency flotation gear. There is one permanently inflated bag in the fuselage and two outside bags, which could be blown up if the single, weary engine should quit over the sea. However, this emergency gear has a serious drawback.

Flying at the usual altitude of 700 feet, you’d only have some twenty seconds before plopping into the water with the dead engine and the 13,500 pounds’ gross weight. “That doesn’t give much time to start autorotation, says Major Parker, “and you still have to hit the flotation gear switch and give the bags time to inflate. And even if you had enough time for it all, you might easily misjudged altitude, land a little too hard, and perhaps tear off the inflated bags.”

Haven’t the flotation bas been stressed to allow for a hard landing

“I guess they have,” says Major Parker. He adds, however, “But they haven’t been tested. And I sure hope I’m not going to be the one to do it.”

Of course, the bags are periodically inflated on the ground. But, as Jacques Guequierre, the Vertol tech rep, confirms, how the emergency gear would behave in the water is only “an engineering guess.”

Another nightmare of the tower support flights is a situation where the two helicopters would have to land at tower two on the same mission and at the same time. Normally, one of them stooges around while the other unloads and refuels. But with a combination of a capacity load and headwind, the cover chopper might not have enough fuel to wait.

“Well, we figured the thing to do would be to take the blades off the first chopper, push it toward the radomes and make room for the second guy to land,” says Major Parker.

“It’s a good thing nobody has had to try this trick, because none of the three towers has the necessary blade-pulling tools. And, even if they did, it would take the towermen, unskilled in helicopter maintenance, about an hour and a half to do the job. That would be some thirty minutes too long for the waiting chopper’s gas reserve.

Mulling over this problem, Capt Kenneth D. Brooks, the mustached maintenance officer of the helicopter outfit, had brainstorm. The towers have lifeboat canes, sturdy enough to hoist a chopper and swing it over water and out of the way while the second machine lands, unloads, and refuels. The Vertol people make maintenance slings, which would be just fine for this emergency job.

Ken Brooks wrote up a request for three extra slings, but he hit a snag at the Middletown Prime Depot. When he explained what he needed the rigs for, the man at the other end blew his stack. “Swinging this expensive equipment eighty feet over the ocean? Too dangerous.” No slings were supplied.

Captain Brooks didn’t have time to elaborate on his personal feelings about the sling incident — he was ready to take off for tower two. But jest before he engaged the rotor clutch, he motioned to me to keep my fingers crossed. “It might help,” he called.

“Where is the other chopper — the ‘cover’?”

“Busy on another tower,” hollered Brooks. “I’ll go this one alone. What’s the difference, anyway?”

While Brooks goes on his crossed-fingers mission, let’s drop in at the 4604th Squadron for a chat with the towermen. Here, we meet a special breed of airmen. Some fifty of them are marooned on each steel island for thirty days at a stretch and sometimes longer. For this they pull overseas pay, but as one of them says, “I’d trade that pay for a more regular chopper service. You sure get claustrophobic out here when you’re due to go home and the chopper is late.”

M/Sgt. Robert J. Ayers, the NCOIC of tower three, elaborates on the helicopter situation. “Our chopper pilots are a damned fine bunch — they sure try hard. Why, last year one of them barely made it to the Nantucket beach on the way back from our tower. What they need is better equipment.”

Then Sergeant Ayers qualifies his statement. “I hold six jobs and keep too busy to sweat out the chopper service. Besides nothing bothers me — everything is just fine — no complaints — if you see what I mean,” he chuckles. “I’m a career man — seventeen years of service. Of course, it’s different with other mean.”

On of the towermen got so fed up with the irregular and late chopper flights that he wrote an anonymous letter to Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. The senator started an investigation, the air Force typists got writer’s cramp, and official correspondence channels became clogged. But when the paper storm abated, the H-21s went on as before and the towermen kept sweating out the erratic shuttle service.

This anonymous gripe was an isolated case — in general, the towermen sometimes grin, and always bear it. When the chopper is late, they crowd the tower lookouts — go “bird-watching” as Sergeant Ayers calls it. Most of them don’t mind waiting for the delayed trip ashore, but all agree that the irregular mail is tough on the nerves.

Take A/2C Donald J. Butler, a young radar maintenance man, for example. “I have a girl back in Charlotte, N.C.,” he says. “Being so far away, letters from her mean a lot to me. When I get no mail for a couple of weeks, naturally I start to worry. Then the chopper comes and instead of mail it brings spare parts — it’s a heartbreak.”

A heartbreak for one towerman can become a real headache for another. Once, the weather was so bad that tower two was without mail for three weeks. When the chopper finally brought it, S/Sgt. Lawrence L. Barto discovered that his liability insurance had lapsed and his wife was driving the uninsured car. “Thank God, nothing happened,” he says, “But it could have. And now when the mail is late, I can’t help sweating.”

The most common worry of the “bird-watching” towermen however is the dollars-and-cents side of the late mail. Living in our installment-pan society requires a good credit rating — something which the towermen find very hard to maintain. “Try to explain to the bank the reason for your late payment is that the helicopter was weathered in,” says M/Sgt. Bill Gross of tower three. “Why, it sounds like an airborne version of the old cock-and-bull story. And after a while, your credit isn’t worth a plugged nickel.”

Although they sweat out the weather that grounds their coppers, the towermen don’t seem to worry about flying over water. Says a tower scopeman, “If those pilots can take it, I can, too. Besides, when my tour is up, I’m ready to swim that 100 miles to shore.” Then he reflects, “Of course, coming to the tower is different. But then, we’ve all gone through the survival school and we wear exposure suits”

Lest you think that the towermen are a bunch of crybabies, listen again to Lieutenant Stetkiewicz: “Naturally, we first depend on the helicopters for critical radar parts which keep the towers from going ROCP (radar out of commission for parts). But just as important is the morale of the crews out there. They’re doing an exacting job. If they have to overstay their tour or worry about their families when the mail is late, they can’t do their jobs efficiently. And doing a good job on the towers is imperative.”

Already critical, the helicopter situation is aggravated by the growth of the Texas tower setup. “We certainly need better helicopters,” says Lieutenant Stetkiewicz. “We are rapidly outgrowing their present capability.”

There are two things that could be done to improve the tower helicopter support capability and, of course, their flying safety. The Vertol Aircraft Corporation has already proposed one, makers of the H-21. This equipment with two turbines. The modified chopper would also get metal blades, auto-stabilizer, and an improved instrument panel, all of which would make it into an all-weather bird.

This life-insurance retrofit would take eleven months from the go-ahead, and it would cost about $770,000 for the six birds. However, the H-21s are getting on in years, and the modifications would only be an expensive patch-up job.

“What we need is new equipment,” says Col. Richard DaVania, wing commander at Otis. “Sure, we’ve had a perfect safety record, but you can’t fly over water on one engine without getting wet sometime. The law of averages is bounds to catch up with us unless we get twin-engine helicopters.”

The only new helicopter that would fill the bill for a better and safer support mission is the Vertol 107. In fact, the V-107 could actually save Uncle Sam a dollar or two. While the operating cost of the H-21 is 279 cents per ton/mile, the new bird would do the same job at 13.8 cents.

The V-107 is a twin-turbine chopper, faster and capable of flying on instruments. In an emergency, it would take to the water like a duck — it’s been built for amphibious operations.

Mention this bird to the tower chopper pilots and they react like thirsty nomads at a desert oasis. And the bird-watching towermen? They don’t give a bent rotor whether it’s a V-107 or 701-V, so long as they get regular mail and get ashore on schedule, rain or shine.

Vertol test pilots are already putting the V-107 prototype through its paces, and apparently the super-chopper is every bolt as good as expected. The Army is negotiating for a quantity of the production model, and if the Air Force orders them too, the tower helicopter pilots would get break of their lives and the towermen — an unbreakable lifeline.

Meanwhile, the fourteen pilots fly their crossed-fingers missions. Maybe they don’t rate a listing in the base phone directory, but they certainly rate high with the marooned towermen. Say Sergeant Gross: “The chopper pilots? They don’t come any better. And the job they are doing — we all know it’s more guts than glory.”

About the Author

Air Force readers will find the name of Michael Gladych more than familiar. He is an aviation writer who, when he completes a story, has absorbed enough background too practically quality him for some of the jobs he describes. A veteran airman himself, he served in the air forces of no less than four nations — his native Poland, France, Britain, and the US. His credo as an aviation writer is: “I’m too old to be a jet jockey, so I try to do the next best thing — write about airpower.” Mike lives not far from the scene of this story—Hyannis Port, Mass.