Lost in Flight. 1959
Lts. Curtis Newhouse (AC) and Wayne Worrall (CP) were on a routine supply flight to Cartwright. As the flight proceeded on the way out, a vertical one-to-one vibration became increasingly noticeable. This vibration was not really too uncommon as the helicopter blades frequently got out of track because of moisture, time since last tracked, etc. But this one seemed to get more noticeable as the flight went on. Upon arriving at Cartwright, Lt. Newhouse took extra time to inspect the rotor heads to see if he could find anything out of place. After thoroughly checking it out he figured it was just the conditions or something and he would get the blades tracked when back at Goose.
They lifted off the helipad and proceeded to fly back to Goose. The vibration seemed to gradually worsen again as they were well into the flight. Newhouse asked the Flight Engineer (we called them crewchiefs) to go back and look out the main cabin door window at the rear rotor blades to see if he could notice anything wrong. Suddenly Curt could see the blade path on the forward rotor where one blade was going severely out of track and the vibration got more violent. He decided it was time to get this beast on the ground fast and immediately went into a minimum powered descent. There was a reasonable sized clearing in front of him with a small lake in the middle but plenty of unobstructed space to land the helicopter. When about 50 feet off the ground, Newhouse pulled the nose up to slow down and started to pull pitch to make a landing.
Suddenly the helicopter was violently slammed down and sideways into the edge of the lake. The severe G-forces that slammed the helicopter down were so strong that when the bird hit the ground it broke in half at the mid section. The pilot was rendered momentarily stunned by the force of impact and was unable to close the throttle. The rear end (rotor) was still operating at full speed and began to overfly the front half as the rotor blades began to slice their way thorough the fuselage like cutting salami. One of the first strikes went through the bulkhead immediately behind the pilots and splattered pieces of metal like shrapnel. The subsequent strikes proceeded aft but after a hit or two the blades were demolished and did not inflict any more damage. When the motion stopped, both ends of the H-21B lay side by side in the edge of the water. The cold water in his face immediately revived Lt. Worrall who looked to his right for Lt. Newhouse. All he saw was a white helmet in the water. He reached over and tugged at the helmet and there was Curt in it. Wayne possibly saved Curt from drowning. Curt had been stunned in the violent crash and it was later discovered that a piece of the “shrapnel” had went through his helmet and stuck in the back of his head.
The Flight Engineer had barely got strapped back in before the crash. When the aircraft broke in half, the front drive shaft was also broken and was flung around like a giant pendulum, whacking the FE's helmet and breaking it. He had a pretty good concussion but was otherwise OK. The helmet surely saved his life. Everyone was evacuated from the aircraft and Lt. Worrall made sure everyone was accounted for and broke out the survival gear. The radios were inoperable but when the flight became overdue a search was initiated. The personnel were subsequently recovered to Goose.
The Accident Investigation board was soon on scene to ascertain what had happened. You could literally reach out from the pilot’s seat and touch the rear rotor head. It appeared that one of the forward rotor blades was missing from the scene. This was puzzling but later the blade was found over a small knoll several hundred feet away. Apparently when Newhouse flared to land and increased power, the blade had separated from the helicopter and with a nose high attitude was thrown over the knoll.
Upon checking the aircraft records, it was determined that a set rotor blades probably had a defect from manufacturing. The leading edge spar is made from round tubelike metal and is heat-treated and pressed in a series of actions to gradually form a “D” shaped leading edge. This particular set of (6) blades had gone through the standard process and still just not quite right. So apparently they were pressed one more time without the heat annealing process. This had resulted in setting up possible stress fractures inside the main spar which would be undetectable from the outside. After a number of hours of flexing in use, the spar would fail, breaking from the inside out.
Lt. Newhouse undoubtedly saved the lives of all on board the helicopter that day by his quick decisions. He was later recognized for his actions by the Commander of Strategic Air Command.
Ironically, within a short time and maybe while this investigation was going on, an H-21 in Greenland or Iceland was flying a group of high ranking officials when a blade of that helicopter apparently failed. Unfortunately they were flying at about 1500 feet when it happened and all aboard were killed. There was an immediate grounding of all H-21's and a trace of this set of blades showed that at least one other H-21 in USAF had one of the blades installed. They were all found and removed from the inventory without further incident.