Steve Shields IG Report
Redder than a Baboon’s Ass by Steve Shields
So here we were flying rescue missions all over the island, but still our IG Team from the states (Inspector General) had to come up and give us a "white glove" inspection. They come up with their briefcases and attitude to put us through our "paces" with aircrew testing (written and practical), facilities inspections, and review all our operating documentation and other paper work plus aircraft logs.
I drew the short straw and was designated to be the co-pilot on the rescue crew for our faux rescue. The way they did it was like a sort of "Hide & Seek." A crew earlier in the morning flew out our IG team member "survivors" and put them somewhere on the island. Sometime after they returned a "rescue alert" is generated and the Alert Crew scrambles in response to go out and find then rescue these “downed crewmen.”
We took off to a starting point…the last known position (LKP) of the troubled aircraft. There are several types of search patterns you can set up depending on the terrain. We arrived at the LKP and set up an "Expanding Square" search pattern in our effort to try and locate the survivors.
So we are the "rescue crew" trying to find these faux-survivors from the IG team. Our crew consisted of Dave Wetleson (pilot), Me (co-pilot), Pete Thomas (flight engineer--crusty big war-torn veteran from the Vietnam War. Note: Pete was the engineer with Jim Fleming in Vietnam when they picked up a Delta Team under fire and Jim Fleming was awarded the Medal of Honor. Note: Colonel Jim Fleming was my boss when I was a flight commander at Squadron Officer School), and two PJs (Para Jump rescue specialists...I can't remember their names). Ironically, Dave, Pete and I flew a real mission after this one that turned out to be the 200th life saved in the history of the unit. We had a sort of celebration after that real mission, but that will be a different story. Now back to this IG test mission.
So we are doing our expanding square and, sure enough, find the survivors. They pop a "smoke" to give us their location and the wind direction and we make our approach and landing on the lava flow beneath the big glacier called Thorisjokull (Thor’s Glacier).
The PJs jump out and start doing their medical assessment, treatment, and preparation for transporting the “victims” back to the NATO base at Keflavik. Once everyone is on board and ready to go we fire back up the engines and get the rotor engaged and spinning up so we can "turn and burn" back home. As we are running our before departure checklist, we get a "Blade Pressure" warning light.
Now I have to take a little aside to describe some technical aspects of the rotor blades on an H3 Jolly Green Giant. The H3 has five rotor blades as opposed to the H1 Huey that only had two. The "spar" of an H3 blade (the leading edge) is a hollow tube that is pressurized to hold its shape and yield to the pressures of the air during flight. If that pressurization goes away, the blade will collapse or disintegrate under the forces of the air and wind. To monitor the internal blade spare pressure we have two indicators; one electronic, and one more visual. The visual you can see on the ground when the blades are stopped. It is something you routinely check on your preflight inspection. It is a small glass tube that shows either a green or red stripe. (Obviously green is good and red is bad.) However when the blades are turning you can't see that visual indicator so the designers developed a warning sensor. They put a small amount of radioactive material (strontium 90) on the end of each rotor blade near the mast. Then it is covered with a lead shield. The lead shield is held into place by the internal pressure of the blade spar. If the pressure decreases, the lead shield springs open exposing the strontium 90. There is a sensor on the skin of the helicopter that reacts to radiation which then causes a warning light to illuminate in the cockpit.
So when we got the warning light just as we were about to take off, we had to stop and shut down. The flight manual says you must, if in flight, make a precautionary landing, shut down, and perform a visual check of the other indicator. This is in case the light came on in error. For instance some H3s flying around Harrisburg, PA after the "Three Mile Island" incident got blade pressure lights just from the residual radiation in the airspace surrounding core meltdown at that site creating a major nuclear incident in 1979.
So we shut down and Pete went out to check the visual indicator. Pete (the old Vietnam veteran flight engineer a bit rough around the edges) goes out on a long cord to check the visual indicator. (At night he was the manager of the NCO club and he used to let me sneak in--Officers aren't normally allowed in the NCO Club-- but Pete knew I was prior enlisted and he’d let me in to “party” with the troops). In a few minutes Pete comes on over the intercom and announces: "Yep, it's redder than a baboon's ass!"
The flight manual says we can reset the visual indicator one time and do a 15 minute ground run with the rotors turning so check for a potential faulty indication. So we cranked up the engines, engaged the rotors and started the count down. Thirteen minutes into the ground run the light comes on again. “Crap!” We shut down and verify the red indicator is again displayed...it was. So it was confirmed--We had a leak in one of our rotor blades and were not going anywhere.
Now we are out in the middle of nowhere at the bottom of Thorisjokull with no known civilization within a 100 miles. The middle of Iceland is not exactly a high traffic area for airlines or even private aircraft so we were in a bit of a quandary.
We made several blind radio calls over the "Guard" frequency. Guard is a standard radio frequency that all pilots and ground controllers monitor constantly for emergency traffic. But we were transmitting in the blind without really expecting anyone to hear us as we were on the ground surrounded my mountains and glaciers.
It’s odd that you don't really get nervous or scared during emergencies or situations like this. I suppose the training really does kick in and you get in a "troubleshooting" mode trying to determine what to do next. Now, there are some emergencies that require immediate actions that you must memorize. In the flight checklist these critical items are in BOLD print. So these memory items are referred to as our emergency "Bold Face." On a checkride you can get some questions wrong and survive, but you cannot have a single mistake when asked for a "Bold Face" response. Your answer must be immediate and 100% accurate or you are "busted." But in a precautionary situation like this, you have time to think even if you don’t feel you have many options.
So after a few "Blind" radio calls for help and no answer, we needed to shut down the radio for awhile and start preparations for the night--we planed to check the radio periodically; in those days, cell phones were a thing of the distant future. So now we knew we were going to be here for awhile.
The PJs switch into "survival mode" and immediately jump out of the helicopter and strip naked. Even though it wasn't the dead of winter, it was still pretty cold and the wind ripping off of Thorisjokull was building steam. And here are the PJs getting naked. Then I saw what they were doing, getting out their Gortex Thermal long underwear and putting it on under their flight suits. We, the flight crew, didn't have Gortex long underwear! But the PJs are an extension of the aircrew that frequently must go out and brave the elements during a rescue so they have top of the line equipment. While the PJs are pretty well equipped, they are gung-ho idiots in other ways. That is what makes them good and valuable, I suppose.
Once we came to the reality we would be stuck there for an unknown amount of time, it was time to prepare for the looming nightfall, colder weather, and not many options. So we broke out the Red Sled. The Red Sled always went with us on every mission. It could serve multiple purposes. It is a sled, of course, and can be used as such. I can also be a "hard board" for someone to lay on who is immobilized due to injuries. But it is also a survival kit. Inside the sled are C-Rations, medical supplies, drinking water in cans, flashlight, compass, matches, guns, knife, hand axe, mirror, candles, fishing kit, flares, sea markers, and instant disposable sleeping bags.
MREs were not really out yet so we had the older more traditional rations that included a couple of canned protein things, stale crackers, a John Wayne bar (chocolate candy bar), and some dried and compressed cereal bars.
We had cereal bars when I went to Survival School in Spokane, Washington. When you are real hungry they sound good and you start chowing down on the very hard dry and tasteless things. But most people after eating one could not stomach another. We had one guy in our group at survival school who liked them. So everyone gave him their extras and he probably gained weight on our "trek." He was a skinny little guy anyway. He was one of the few enlisted crewmembers at the school. He was a language specialist and would fly on super secret spy planes to eavesdrop on foreign radio traffic.
Anyway, back to the cereal bars, when we broke them out of the Red Sled, Dave and I both turned our noses up and agreed how disgusting they were at survival school. Then old Master Sergeant Pete Thomas, the crusty old flight engineer with so much field time in Vietnam, stepped in. He told us we were idiots in survival school. Also in the rations are sugar and other condiments. He said you don't eat the dang things dry and hard. He showed us how they would break them up, put them in a cup, pour hot water over them and add sugar! Amazing how much better that little bit of preparation made them taste!
While every one else was taking inventory of our survival supplies, Dave and I went back to the cockpit to try the radio again. The H3 has an APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) that also runs on JP4 (Jet fuel) to give us power to the electronics. The APU is also used when starting the engines. While it uses JP4, we were not worried about running out of fuel. The rescue H-3s we flew in Iceland had, in addition to the main fuel tank, external "tip tanks" on the end of the sponsons located on each side of the aircraft. The amount of fuel in the tip tanks is about 3,000 lbs so we knew we were good for quite a while.
So Dave and I get on the horn with more "Mayday" calls. This time we get a response from a Navy crew aboard a P3 Orion submarine hunter. The P3s drop sonar buoys out in the Atlantic then monitor them to try and detect foreign submarine traffic. There is a P3 unit assigned to the NATO base at Keflavik as well as Fighters, AWACS, and our Rescue Squadron. I've gone to the P3 unit’s own little private Officer's Club before. It is a rowdy place they call "The Brass Nut!" All the flying units at Keflavik had their own private bar except for us helicopter weenies. So we would just bust in on the Orion "Squids" or the Strike Eagle "fighter jocks" and take all their abuse for being "Rotor Heads" to get some free drinks!
Any way the P3 Orion "Squids" are pretty good guys and they answered our radio call, got a fix on our position, and linked us up with our Mission Control Officer back at Chopper Ops. We told them the situation and the decision was made to do a "Field" maintenance swap out of that bad rotor blade. Turns our there was a tiny gravel road not far from our landing site and they figured they could truck out a blade on a "long bed" and get us going again. They estimated the loading and driving time to get there to be about 12 hours + or - a couple hours. So for sure we were spending the night among the glaciers.
The idiot PJs decided they wanted to throw up a poncho tarp against the side of the aircraft and sleep outside on the hardened lava rock. They couldn't drive any stakes into the hard lava so they found some big rocks to hold down the edges of the poncho. I told them they were "crazier than shit-house rats" (excuse the French) because the wind off the glaciers was already registering 70 knots on our airspeed indicator and it would only get worse during the night. But they insisted they would be fine.
About this time we hear an engine noise off to our East. Wouldn't you know it but a couple of adventurous Brits come driving up in a Land Rover. We spoke with them for a bit and discovered there was a couple of Icelandic cottages about 90 minutes back to the East of our position. Dave asked them if they could drive us there and they said "sure." Dave then tried to decree that the crew split up: pilots should go with the Brits back to that cottage so they could get proper comfortable "crew rest" for the evening while everyone else stayed at the aircraft. Dave was the Aircraft Commander and technically over me, but I didn't think that was a good idea. I did not want to separate the crew and abandon the aircraft. Who knows what might happen and what if we could not make it back in the morning for some reason. Besides, Icelanders are not the most friendly people and for the brash Americans to barge in asking for a room was not likely to be a comfortable situation. So I refused. I told him to go if he wants to but I'm staying with the crew and the aircraft.
I think Dave saw some of the logic and the possible issues with dividing the crew...so he decided to stay as well. At that point I didn't think much of Dave's leadership skills and he didn't garner much respect from the enlisted crew. With my seven years prior enlisted time, I seemed to fit with and get more respect from the enlisted folks rather than "90-Day Wonders" like Dave. (90-Day Wonder is what they call someone coming right out of college, with no prior military service, to Officer Training School and in 90 days later they are an Air Force Officer commanding troops with many years of experience.)
So we continue our preparations for the night. These IG team member "survivors" are about to get much more than the bargained for! So into the Red Sled we go to distribute the "instant sleeping bags." The are shrink sealed in tiny little 8-inch squares about 1 1/2 inches thick. You pull the release string and "pop" out jumps a Down-filled sleeping bag. I think we threw a couple out to the brainless PJs too. The sleeping bags were nice and cozy. (I kept my sleeping bag after this was all over, but they are really meant to be “disposable” and begin to come apart at the seams with subsequent use.)
I picked out a spot on the web crew seating in the back and was down for the night. I didn't have any trouble getting to sleep. However, about 3 AM the idiot PJs are pounding at the main cabin door to get in. The wind had gotten so strong in blew the rocks away that were holding their poncho liner in place and they were cold and miserable out there.
The next day the maintenance crew showed up with the new blade. They didn't have too much trouble replacing the bad one and we were soon on our way back to Keflavik. The poor maintenance guys still had an 11 - 12 hour drive to get back home!
So that was one little adventure. And we passed the IG inspection.