During the most intense of the Vietnam War years I had a strong sense that I was the luckiest young sailor in the Navy, as an Air Rescue Swimmer and H-34 Crew Chief stationed in Hawaii, operating Sikorsky S-58s out of Pearl Harbor and NAS Barbers Point across a variety of mission profiles supporting CINCPAC’s Fleet Composite Squadron One. Each Tuesday we were treated to the additional privilege of a 100-mile trip to Kauai, to work with the Barking Sands Pacific Navy Missile Test Range. On one of those mornings I had no idea that I was about to learn a critically valuable aviation lesson.
In those days the Pacific Missile Test Range stayed busy conducting analysis of surface to surface weapons systems, and command activities included test firing missiles and analyzing their performance using physically jettisoned “capsule” flight data recorder packages, which were parachuted to the water just before the conclusion of each given shot. Our job was to spot these floating capsules, marked by self-contained smoke flares, and recover them. We had worked out a system of approaching the smoke signature during a final descending upwind pattern leg, and then having the swimmer deploy by stepping out of the cargo door as the aircraft established a hover over the capsule.
On this morning, we arrived at Barking Sands exactly on time with a comfortable fuel load remaining, so we reported on station and began to loiter, awaiting the first shot. When radio traffic indicated that the shot conclusion had been confirmed, we proceeded toward the target datum. I hadn’t been in the water yet that day, and was anxious to get wet as we overflew the capsule smoke flare on the initial upwind reconnaissance overflight leg. As the pilots turned downwind, I moved into the cargo doorway, noticing that the water was so calm and clear that I could see many feet into its blue depths. The hoist operator, maintaining ICS communication with the aircraft commander up in the cockpit, was at my shoulder, ready to give a tap signal to jump, and I moved my hand to the gunner’s belt release, watching our progress upwind. I could tell we were slowing through translational lift, getting very close to the now irresistibly inviting clear blue surface, nearing the capsule smoke flare, and I was sure the hoist operator was about to tap my arm, so I stepped out.
My next impression was that I needed to stabilize body position, so I extended my arms and glanced up at the helicopter, expecting to feel a splash. I could see the hoist operator, now framed in the cargo door, looking down at me, and I waited one more moment to hit the water. When I didn’t feel impact, I looked down, completely confident that the welcoming embrace of the warm water was only an instant away. When it wasn’t, I looked back up at the helicopter again, keeping attitude orientation by making tight circles with outstretched arms, and took an oddly curious moment to note that I’d never seen an H-34 getting smaller like that. My now very rapid scan returned to the blue vista below, and I realized that I couldn’t really tell how far away it was. I don’t remember seeing the flare smoke any more, and I glanced back upward once again, this time noting that the big Sikorsky was now very small indeed.About that time I hit the water.
I recall the swim back to the surface for a breath of air taking a little longer than usual, but not frighteningly so. After regaining respiratory function I took a quick physical inventory, while watching the H-34 climb away in the distance. When the rumbling Sikorsky finally began to hover overhead, I could see veins in the pilot’s neck, straining under his helmet. The hoist operator was still at his station in the door, so I signaled for a pick up, capsule and all.
When back aboard I found pilots and crew in full chaos mode. After lots of confused exclamatory ICS chatter—most of it berating me with great energy—the aircraft commander struggled through something like a cross between a lecture and an apology for having taken so long making his second approach. He said that he had been taking some time to begin composing a letter to Admiral McCain explaining why Swimmer Terrell had been lost at sea. He also mentioned that when the hoist operator had declared “Swimmer Away”, cockpit radar altimeters had been reporting something in conspicuous excess of 200 feet. To this day I have no idea how such a drop was possible without injuries. Many bridge suicides are accomplished from lesser heights. I must have pulled my arms into a tuck at the last possible instant before impact as a subconscious action of some kind. I will be forever thankful that on this first drop of the day I had not yet bothered to strap on my flippers. Inadvertently I had learned a lesson that would serve me well on countless occasions over later years, as I digested for the first time the invaluable wisdom of adhering to procedures and always trusting your instruments over your gut.
This is an abridged version of a column that was originally published in Flying Magazine in 2010.