Returning from SEA in 1968 I was assigned to the 21st Ops Sqdn at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. The Ops Sqdn was kind of "Base Flight" outfit with H-21, C-118 and T-29 aircraft and naturally our CO was a stiff- winger. He was a nice enough guy except he referred to us as "heela-copter" pilots. I don't know about you but that is like calling me a bastard. I don't know if he was just joshing us or was too stupid to say "hell" but it didnt matter. And of course you were expected to go to the O'club Friday happy hour and tell him how good he was. But I ramble...
We had seven H-21 pilots, which kept us pretty busy. One pilot TDY Alert to King Salmon for a week, one on Alert at EDF, one flying supplies to Fire Island, one or two at Ops, one on crew rest and one with a day off, pretty much took our roster.
Fire Island was a radar site a couple miles out in Cook Inlet near Anchorage. We made almost daily cargo runs and joked that the island was sinking from all the trash we hauled out there.
We would pull rescue alert at King Salmon AFS for the F-106's that were on standby there for "top cover" against possible Russian encroachment. We would usually fly the 3-hour leg to King Salmon with one pilot and a couple of crew chiefs. To allow for a little "break" during the trip, we had most of the crewchiefs checked out to fly straight and level. The weeklong TDY was spent watching 3-4 movies a day with the fighter jocks. In the summer, after normal duty hours we would go from immediate response to a one-hour recall so off to the camp boat docks for salmon fishing in the Naknek River. After a few days the BOQ room smelled like fish with all the salmon roe drying for bait.
We would also have to a certain amount of training flights, which might entail an hour of autorotations on the runway. Or sightseeing around Naknek Lake and the Katmai National Monument. One of the favorites was beach combing for the glass balls used on the Japanese fishing nets. Most of the blue/green glass balls were 4" in diameter but occasionally you find a bonanza 12-18" beauty. And of course looking for brown bear, moose or caribou. There were always fishing poles on board in case you got to Ugashik Lakes or other fishing spots.
Sometimes on the King Salmon turnaround, the pilot there would leave before we arrived and make radio contact to transfer the "duty" on his way home. One day I was near Lake Illiamna (about half way) and I heard Larry make a position report west of the lake. I had difficulty contacting him because of the low clouds and snow kept us close to the ground. We got into very low ceilings and were flying from tree to tree, then bush to bush when we ran out of bushes and it was all white. I climbed up a few hundred feet through the clouds and broke out on top. As I got radio contact with King Salmon I received word that they also had low clouds and, naturally, the GCA was inoperative. I also found out that Larry had hit the weather I was in and had returned to the base. I hoped to find some kind of hole but to no avail. I was not about to try an RDF (didn't have ADF) instrument approach since I had on one drop tank which narrowed my "null' capability to about 10 degrees. I elected to fly back toward Iliamna until I found a hole and wait out the weather. It seemed like an hour till I finally saw the ground and with trees nearby for visual reference and possible RON. After landing I tried to check the weather but couldn't contact King Salmon radio. I could only reach Yakatat by HF radio and the weather was 2 hours old. Darkness was approaching and I didn't have enough fuel to diddle around so it looked like a camp out. We got out the sleeping bags etc for our RON. The next morning the clouds had lifted enough to sneak under and with daylight I tried for the King. Still had to go in with ceilings so low I didn't get radio contact until about 5 miles out. So it goes with "helicopter VFR".
Our rescues included many "lost" hunters, campers or sick Natives (usually around payday for a free trip to Anchorage). ARS had a Rescue Control Center in the Wing Command Post that launched most of our rescues. One night about midnight I was called to go to an airplane crash site to look for survivors. The plane has crashed while encountering severe turbulence near Rainy Pass. The accompanying aircraft had reported it and said that the downed aircraft had burst in to flames on impact. The Pass was very narrow and makes a 90 degree+ turn through the mountains, which can create severe winds. I asked the RCC controller if he wanted me to go out in an uninhabited (no lights) area, at night, in severe turbulence, to look for survivors in a crashed and burned airplane?? Are you out of your mind? I will wait for first light and re-access.
One thing nice about assigned to AAC and our group, was that you had final say on accepting or refusing a mission. If you didn't feel it was safe or was beyond your capabilities, that was it. No one criticized or second-guessed you for your decision.
Orbie's comments on regular H-21 engine failures were right on. Those old engines had been overhauled so many times that the pistons didn't know which hole to go in. I had 3 engine failures in six months and the wheel-skis worked well to land in the boonies.
The most memorable experience was in 1969, I had the dubious honor of "rechecking" Stu Silver in the H-21 upon his return from SEA. He had left Alaska to go to SEA so it was matter of who was leading whom. It was a cool overcast day with clouds over the mountaintops as we flew up over the Eagle glacier area. We were BS'ing and enjoying the scenery when suddenly the engine backfired rapidly several times. Two hands were as one as the Carburetor heat lever was slammed forward. A good day for carb ice. We decided it was a good time to get out of the mountains and headed west over the Eagle River. As we observed the engine instruments, and although it appeared to be running smoothly, we noticed the cylinder temperature slowly decreasing. Since the temp gauge is connected to the #1 cylinder we figured it was gone and looked earnestly for forced landing spots since it was probably a matter of time before the engine quit. There were a few open sandbars along the river but not a good place to land or repair so we continued on. Then there appeared the end of the road to the town of Eagle River. Ah ha. Now maybe we could put it down. Suddenly the decision was made for us as the engine popped a few times and quit. As we autorotated toward the road it looked good. At about 50 feet in the air, as I began to flare for landing, we saw the wires across the road at the same time. They would hit just below the nose so they wouldn't get the rotors but I then pushed the cyclic hard forward to break the wires as they pushed the nose up. After landing and saying "Shucks" or words to that effect, we then noticed a narrow road through the trees where the wires went. We also noticed a pole back in the trees that was broken in half and further back another pole, ditto. Jeez, there must be a house back in there somewhere. About that time a guy came running down the road toward us, hollering, "What happened, what happened"? We figured we were sunk so tried to explain in an apologetic way that we had an engine failure and had to land on the road. The guy kept asking if we were all right and we kept trying to reassure him and apologize for breaking the wires to his house. He said, "Yeh, I was up doing some work on the side of the house and, Bam, the wires suddenly jerked out of the side of the wall!" Oh man, did we really feel bad than. But all he was concerned about was our well being. The bird was towed down the road a ways to a wide spot and the engine was replaced and later flown back home. I'm sure the AF fixed the guys wires and poles up OK. We sent him a bottle of Jim Beam, just in case.
I flew HH-3E’s with the 5040th Helicopter Squadron, Elmendorf, Alaska from 1970-72. We were assigned to the newly formed 5040th Helicopter Squadron and fulfilled a rescue mission covering the major part of Alaska as well as support missions for the Alaskan Air Command. In 1970, the squadron’s aging H-21B’s were replace with 13 brand new HH-3E’s, 69-5800 through 69-5812, that we picked up direct from the Sikorsky factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut and flew them to Alaska. These aircraft greatly enhanced our capabilities with their water landing ability, twin engine reliability, increased payloads and extended range. We also went TDY for rescue cover for the F-4’s on alert at Galena and King Salmon as well as Eielson AFB.
On February 18, 1971, I was giving our new Ops Officer, Lt. Col. Bleier, an orientation flight of the area. Major Emmett Hatch was flying the alert helicopter on local training. Suddenly we heard a “Mayday” from a flight of F-4’s making an instrument approach to Elmendorf. A formation of two F-4’s were on final when one aircraft experienced a “split flap” condition which caused the aircraft to roll sharply. They were in the clouds at low altitude, which necessitated an immediate bailout. Major Hatch immediately turned to the scene. The other F-4 had broken clear of the clouds and began circling over the descending parachutes. This was February and the pilots were over the Cook Inlet filled with icy tidal waters. Since there were two crewmembers going down I asked Emmett if he would like some backup and he told me to come on out. I put the power to the max and at 140 knots we raced to the scene. As we arrived, Major Hatch’s helicopter was in the process of hoisting up one of the survivors when he slipped out of the “horse collar” and plunged back into the icy waters. The 28-degree sub-freezing salt water had already began to induce hypothermia. My flight mechanic had rigged our hoist for pickup but upon seeing Hatch’s predicament I told him to forget the hoist and ready the door basket and that I was going to land on the water. The helicopter was restricted from water landings with the drop tanks on, which we had, but I figured if I just touched the water it wouldn’t over stress the mounts and we had a better chance to pickup the downed pilot. Upon touching down next to the survivor, the flight mechanic was able to grab him and with some difficulty dragged the survivor on board. We learned later that the silt and icy water had penetrated the pilot’s flight clothing and added significantly to their weight. With the heaters going full blast and blankets wrapping the survivor, we raced back to the base hospital heli-pad to discharge our cold, wet pilots. Seven and one half minutes after the F-4 pilots had punched out, they were in the hospital. We then continued with our training flights. (It took longer for me to type this than it did to fly it.)
On July 25, 1971, I was called by the Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Grady Fisher, to be the aircraft commander to attempt the rescue of a Korean seaman with acute appendicitis on a merchant ship at sea 600 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska. The time required to fly the mission would require three pilots and Majors William Dodd and Robert Robinson were selected as the other pilots. We left Elmendorf AFB early in the morning to rendezvous with an ARRS C-130 that would provide air refueling and navigational assistance. We tried to fly VFR under the low clouds. The weather enroute to Kodiak Island deteriorated to a point that we couldn't stay VFR so I climbed up into the clouds. We made an instrument approach into Kodiak NAS and waited for a couple of hours for the weather to improve. We took off later and with two air-refuelings enroute, reached the Korean ship 450 miles at sea. Hovering over the fantail of the ship, a doctor and para-rescueman were lowered to the deck to check the seaman. The seriously ill seaman along with our crewmen were then hoisted back on board and the return flight to Kodiak, with another enroute refueling, was completed. This was the longest over-water rescue mission accomplished by a land based helicopter. (Entered in the Congressional Record by Alaska Congressman Nick Begich) We were in the air for 10 hours and 45 minutes.