HISTORY OF HELICOPTER OPS AREA 51, SEPT '62 - JUNE '67
Det 1 1129th USAF Special Activities Squadron
By Charlie Trapp, Jr.
Chief of Rescue and Survival Branch
There I was sitting in the office of a helicopter rescue detachment in Charleston AFB SC when I got a call from Rescue HQs. "Do you want a job flying an H-43 helo at a classified location somewhere in the USA?" OK, I was looking for some new thing to do so I said yes. I asked our H-43 factory tech rep if he knew where an extra H-43 was located and he told me there was one at Nellis AFB NV .in care of the local rescue unit. My "yes" was a good one. I packed up my family--wife and two kids--and headed out west.
I stopped by the helicopter rescue outfit at Nellis and looked at my H-43. The Nellis folks couldn't get it in good flying condition. So, I flew it and confirmed it needed help. I called the Area 51 Command Post to advise that I was in Las Vegas and had a problem. Col. Holbury got on the phone and asked what I needed and why. He said we would be supporting a high altitude construction project and conducting rescue support operations. I recommended that factory maintenance folks and a test pilot come to Nellis and they flew in two days later from the Kaman factory in Connecticut. I was impressed with the level of pull this place had wherever it is!!! I worked with factory reps and our crew chiefs who fixed the helicopter and I flew with the test pilot who gave us info and adjustments we could make to accommodate high altitude ops. The H-43 was previously used to snag in flight parachute payloads, which probably caused the chopper to be out of whack!
I called the command post and told Col Holbury the H-43 was okay. He came to Nellis and we flew the H-43 to the Area. My first landing was on top of Mt. Baldy at 9,000 feet. After he showed me where we were going to do the construction project, we headed to the base and were greeted by the guys when we landed.
It seemed like everyone was in a hurry to get us going. So we hurried. We trained fire fighters as aircrew members on how to fight fires with the 1,000-pound fire bottles carried to the fire by the helicopter dropping off the fire bottle and two firemen close to the fire. The helicopter would then hover over the firefighters, cooling the area, and clearing the smoke away while they laid a foam trail to the simulated airframe for the purpose of extracting pilots and crew members from crash sites. Also, we checked them out on hoist operations and other crew duties.
We trained our Pararescue jumpers (PJs) as crewmembers and provided a platform to practice parachute jumps. Capt Keith Spencer, Crew Chief, MSgt Walters, and I worked with contractors to plan our Mt. Baldy construction project. The helicopter was the only way to get equipment and people to the mountain top construction site.
We set up airborne alert procedures for the first few take-offs and landings of the A-12. Normally, we would be ground alert for A-12 ops and airborne for declared emergency landings.
Our rescue and survival branch included pilots, crew chiefs, fire fighters, maintenance folks, and PJs. Our branch ran a survival school for the A-12 pilots and others, which included desert, jungle, seacoasts, and mountain training sites, parasail training at Lake Mead, water survival, and a pistol firing range.
We worked with L. A. contractors, PJs and Capt Cravatta's folks on the contents of the A-12 seat survival kit.
Capt Cravatta, MSgt Casto, and myself helped a Boulder CO contractor put together a walk-around sleeping bag with overlapping pockets to retain heat. The completed bags were pressure packed to fit in the A-12 survival kit.
We flew security checks around the perimeter of the Area.
We flew photo and security missions for the Atomic Energy Commission's underground testing events. The Indian Springs helicopters normally supported these tests, but when they were out of commission or transitioning to the new H-43s they asked us to fill in. When the bomb would go off, the ground would rise and then sink in the shape of a large saucer. On one test event, they blew up our access road, which caused us to detour to get to and from work. We also helped check out Indian Springs crews when they received their new H-43s and flew airborne alert for President Kennedy's Air Force One landing in Indian Springs.
We provided occasional rescue recovery operations for the Nellis Range aircraft accidents and bailouts.
One of our missions was to hover at 13,000 feet with 3 thousand feet of cable holding a metal ball. Guess they wanted a good separation between the helicopter and the ball so they wouldn't cook the crew! It was interesting lowering this ball to a safe landing with help from ground observers 3,000 feet below.
The ground folks had trouble seeing the chopper at altitude so I asked "Flash" (MSgt Walters) to make something happen so they could see us. The next day he fixed it. He pressurized a large handheld fire bottle containing oil--ran a tube from it through the clamshell doors and up to the engine tail pipe. We demonstrated it by asking "twice" for a JATO assisted take-off using the taxiway in front of the tower. The tower answered with a questionable "OK, cleared.!!" We flew a few feet above the taxi way to our max speed (a scary 115 knots), hit the fire bottle release, pulled to a steep climb, and voila, thunder birds--a nice smoke trail. No problem seeing us on the next mission.
We also picked up 1,000 lb drone pods dropped by parachutes all over the desert valleys and mountains. We picked up the pods with the cargo hook and flew them back to base. After the hook-up, the crew chief climbed up the side of the helicopter to fly back with us. We had to fly back with the smooth side of the pod facing forward. We moved it around while in a hover using the mirror mounted on the nose of the helicopter allowing us to see the hook and position the pod so we wouldn't wobble all over the place during flight.
Our crews would train at Lake Mead doing water hoist pick-ups and PJ water jumps.
MSgt Casto jumped out of a C-130 at a high altitude to test the A-12 pilots' pressure suit and was awarded a medal for his efforts.
Our construction project on Mr. Baldy was a big one. All personnel, equipment, food, water, parts, tower sections, wet cement, conex box, welding equipment, generators, etc., had to be flown to the site by our helicopter.
The contractor dug three holes which we filled with 30,000 pounds of wet cement transported by helicopter 1K at a time. The cement was embedded with four good-sized rods used to attach each pole base plate with matching holes.
Because of the heavy weight of each of the poles and the high altitude, we had to reduce the fuel load with only the pilot on board. We used a hundred feet of intercom cable so the crew chief could direct the pilot from the ground to raise the poles from the horizontal to the vertical position to place the poles on the concrete bases. Hovering was made difficult with the high-density altitude, winds and poor visual reference to the ground because of the steep sides of mountaintop. Four ground people tethered the pole with ropes until the bolts could be secured to the base. We were pretty much at the red line for power during the lift. Col Holbury was there to observe the first operation and he was very pleased at what he saw.
We replaced the H-43 with a UH-1 Huey because it was faster and we were able to load and unload people and cargo from both sides of the cabin which made our job easier and safer. We maintained both helicopters until the crews were checked out in the UH-1. Both helicopters were used to support many other construction projects throughout the area. Flash and I picked up the UH-1 from the Bell plant in Texas and flew it back to the area.
I was in Las Vegas with the UH-1 when I got a call that Walt was missing. I gathered our crew and a Nellis flight surgeon and started the search. Dark mountain terrain and high winds made it difficult. The H-43 searched from the Area. We called off search because the H-43 was low on fuel and there was no sign of a fire nor were emergency radio signals heard. We rescheduled a first light ops for the next day. We took an F-105 pilot and flight surgeon with us. The F-105 pilot thought he knew the approximate crash location.
We flew the UH-1 to the area and found the A-12 very soon after arriving. The drag chute was deployed. The PJs were deployed to search the area and the aircraft, and discovered that the ejection seat and Walt were missing.
We searched the rest of the day without success. We planned the next day's search with several agencies. We started at the point of impact and searched back along the flight path. My UH-1 crew flew past Walt that morning and did not see him due to shadows caused by the low sun angle. Later in the day, the C-47 guys saw a sun reflection from his suit or visor and they directed us to the site where we landed and picked up Walt. He was still in his ejection seat. We took him to Nellis and to his family. It was an honor to find and take Walt home to his family. Closure is so important to the families. Not finding him would not have been a good thing.
We later returned to search for the canopy and camera--it took 15 days to find them. I don't remember who recovered them. We re-supplied search parties with food, drinks, and equipment. There were horses involved in the search as well. Our crews and searchers put in long days supporting a very important effort.
A month or two before all this happened, the PJs and I took Walt and other pilots to Fort Myers FL for jungle and sea coast survival training. The only transport to the training site was by boat. The guys had to survive on land vegetation, fish, and turtles for several days. I provided the psychological stress by announcing at the end of each day that I was leaving for the night for a shower, a few drinks, and a steak dinner and they weren't. I had to run to the boat to avoid harm. All was forgotten when we brought a case of cold beer for the last night!
Our guys spent a lot of time in the Area pool testing equipment pressure suits, floatation devices and survival procedures with the pilots. Someone suggested parasail training so Charlie Cravatta, Earl Casto, and I went to Randolph AFB TX for ground parasail training and on to Pensacola for water training with the Navy. We learned how to run parasail ops. We got the equipment and arranged with the Coast Guard at Lake Mead to use their boat. If the winds were less then five knots, the boat's slow acceleration made the launch difficult. Okay, so we dragged a few guys in the water before getting airborne. A five to ten knot wind was perfect. We didn't hurt or lose anyone, but we may have scared a few guys. Our first few launches, we used staff pilots as test dummies before launching the A-12 pilots. Just prior to the first ride while hooking up the pilots, we saw a lot of deer-in-the-headlight looks!!! I had left the area prior to all the fun with the pressure suits and the new boat.
When we first arrived at Area 51, we were asked to be airborne for A-12 take-offs and landings. After a while it was decided that the A-12 was reliable enough so we could stand on ground alert. Although a couple of years later, one A-12 crashed on take-off and another crashed on final. Both pilots survived. Bill Park pulled off a low altitude ejection seldom seen!!
We had only two helicopter pilots for a while so we didn't always get home every weekend and very few times during the week. We wouldn't know until late Friday if we had to stick around for a Saturday A-12 flight. We did however get three more pilots, Angle, Pinaud, and Scamardo. Spencer left after three years, became a Continental airline captain, and then retired. Ted Angle left the Area sometime after June '67 and became a test pilot at Edwards where he flew the U-2 and several other aircraft. Joe Pinaud became a logistician and retired from Warner Robbins AFB (deceased 2009). Don't know what happened to Sam Scamardo.
The extra pilots made more time to work on all the projects, fly VIPs and emergency missions in the U-3B, C-180, and C-210. For example, I flew Kelly Johnson, Jim Irwin (Moon guy), and many other VIPs to Burbank, Van Nuys, LAX, Edwards AFB, and Las Vegas.
We all kept in shape by using the sports facility, which included a basketball court, squash courts, bowling alley, swimming pool, and a hand made three-hole golf course. We ate very well in our mess hall. Our great cook, Murphy Green, had steak night, Mexican night, etc. We enjoyed outstanding cheeseburgers during our poker games. The first guy to fold in the "cheeseburger game" had to pick-up and deliver them. Big pots formed--nobody wanted to fold and have to pick-up the burgers. I got called out of these games several times at 10 or 11 p.m. to fly folks with emergency problems to L.A. Seems nobody above the rank of captain could make the trip! I really didn't mind because it was a good thing to do.
Some of us were lucky enough to officiate at the PGA Tournament of Champions hosted by The Desert Inn. We took turns escorting golfers from tee to green. I walked with Nicholas, Palmer, Casper, Rodriquez, Snead, and others. I was within a few feet of them for every shot and comment. It was pretty special. We were able to play free golf anytime at The Desert Inn, Tropicana, and Sahara courses. Denny Sullivan and I had many very competitive rounds of golf together (squash court also). I tried to find something he didn't excel at and couldn't!! Sgt. Lin Kelly (great guy) set all this up with a colonel that worked at the Atomic Test Site.
I was a check pilot in the H-43, UH-1, U-3B, C-180, C-210, and co-pilot on the C-130. Other helicopter pilots flew some of these missions. When the Cessna Company delivered a new C-210 to Las Vegas, LtC (Black Bart) Barrett asked me to pick it up, fly it to the Area, and checkout other pilots. I picked up the keys, found the new airplane, and checked myself out on the way back to the ranch. I got some stick time in the A-12 trainer with Burgie who wouldn't let me refuel or land. After all, I let him land my H-43 with very close supervision.
The C-130 guys needed a co-pilot so I got a local check out and flew a lot of missions with them. They were a fun and generous crew. I was able to fly pilot seat on most flights, which was helpful years later when I had a local check out in the HC-130 rescue tanker.
I was very proud of our outstanding rescue folks--pilots, firefighters, PJs, crew chiefs, and maintenance guys. We were asked to do a lot of varied projects, some of which took a lot of effort and skill to pull off. The pilots had to be very skilled at landing, hovering, and balancing the helicopter while loading and off loading sometimes while one skid or wheel was on the ground or a rock while the other skid or wheel was in the air. Our aircrews were awarded ten Air Medals and several Air Force Commendation Medals for meritorious achievements while participating in aerial flights at the ranch.
The maintenance guys and crew chiefs kept these aircraft in great shape and maintained a very high in commission rate. The aircraft were kept in alert status so we could readily respond to any contingency in minimum of time.
The personnel at Area 51 were exceptional. They all worked hard to make the A-12 project successful. They also supported our branch and were very responsive to our needs and requests and did not get in the way and try to micro manage our projects.Our two bosses, Colonels Slip Slater and Bob Holbury did a great job of keeping all of us in check. Colonel Slater always displayed an exceptional sense of humor.
Finally, don't forget our families. Their support and understanding that we were doing something very important even though we couldn't tell them what it was some how justified our being away from home so much and helped us do our job and deal with the separation. We were lucky to be home most weekends. In my case, during my five-year assignment I was home on most weekends and was able to take a rare week or two of leave at a time because I couldn't be away from the ranch too long--there was too much going on. My wife (at the time) did an outstanding job maintaining our home fires and raising three young children (one being born in 1964).
Rescue and survival branch members:
I arrived as a Captain in September 1962, promoted to Major in April 1967, and departed Area 51 in June of 1967. I went on to become commander of seven Air Force units. I was the 3rd Air Rescue Group Commander and on the staff of USSAG/7th AF staff in SEA 1975 at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base where we planned and participated in the evacuation of 287 non-combatants from the embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the Ambassador and 6,000 non-combatants from Saigon. Two Air Force helicopter units, four of my staff, and myself were deployed out of Thailand to the Aircraft Carrier Midway where we helped plan and execute the evacuation of the non-combatants. Our helicopters also participated in the recovery of the United States civilian container ship Mayaquez from the Cambodians. I commanded two flying squadrons, the 41st ARRSq (HH-53s and HC-130s) and the 37th ARRSq (52 UH-1Fs, 105 pilots, and 275 enlisted); the 450 man 11th ARRS Consolidated Maintenance Squadron; and three HH-43 local base rescue units (two in SEA and one in the conus).
Sorry that I could not remember some of the names of our crew members or if I missed some names. Hey, it was 43 years ago. If someone knows who is missing, let me or T.D. Barnes know and we'll add the missing names. If anyone can add to this history, especially after I left Area 51 in 1967, please send it to T. D. Barnes and info me.
Charles E. Trapp, Jr.
Colonel, USAF Retired (1982)
Photos provided by Colonel Charlie Trapp
Note: on the Mt. Baldy construction project all equipment, generators, people, food, gas welding equipment, hardware, 30K lbs wet cement (1 K at a time for foundation base for poles) were delivered by the H-43B helicopter
A-12 Project Pilot
Frank Murray adds:
Once upon a time the powers that be in Ops at the Area decided that they ought to let our lead helicopter pilot check out in the T Bird (T-33) Not only that, they picked Frankie to be Charlie's Instructor Pilot. So I schooled Charlie on the airplane systems of the T Bird from the pilots manual. Then we went down to the ramp and stuffed Charlie in the back seat for a familiarization ride. He did well handling the airplane so the next ride was to be in the front seat. Boy, we had to grease his hips to get him into the front of this little airplane. I supervised his start and climbed in the back for his first front seat ride. All went fairly well with him doing all the flying, but when we got to looking at him in that seat it was apparent that on an ejection he would probably leave his knees and elbows in the cockpit. Just way too much man in the little T Bird front cockpit. So we gave up that effort on the spot. He probably would have fit OK in the F-101, but no one pursued that. If they had I bet I would have been his Instructor there too. This guy has great hands but ya gotta have the right size airplane for him to fly!! He would have had a size problem in the A-12, it was made for much smaller build guys. Size limit for flying the A-12 was 6' and 170#. Just thought some of the people might like to know that we did try to let him fly other things up there.
Frank, remember we talked about all this in flight after about an hour. We called ahead to have Cravottas's folks meet us when we landed. They did some measurements and calculations and we all agreed I should get out of the T- 33 while it was still on the ground!!! Charlie.