The Great Dismal Swamp
During late 1964, while I was assigned to HMM-263, a Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron based out of Marine Corps Air Facility New River, in North Carolina, I was able to cross train from my regular MOS as an Aviation Electronics Technician To Recp. Mechanic (Helicopter). This was rare, and in fact I was told, then shown Marine Corps regulations that prevented me from obtaining this new MOS. As a hard charging Cpl. I would not let Marine Regulations slow me down. Over the period of several months I worked all my off time with the mechanics, learning how to repair the H-34Ds our squadron had assigned to it.
At first everyone thought it was a joke, and that the novelty would quickly wear off. Plus the lifestyles were a lot different. I went from a clean air conditioned van out to the messy, sometimes cold, sometimes wet, sometimes hot, flight line, with all the gas, oils, and fluids staining my fatigues. Within a day or two my spit shinned boots lost their luster, and so did i. The mechanics treated me with disdain, for I was not one of them, I was on of the "prima donnas" from the avionics shop. My fellow twiggets thought I was nuts, and because of my extra hours I no longer went on liberty with them. So, the flight line NCO, an old Gruff Gunny Sergeant, gave me the shit details for several weeks, just to break me and send me back to the avionics van, with my tail between my legs.
After a month or so, everyone realized that this was no joke for me. I was reading all the manuals I could get, asking questions, and volunteering to help with engine, transmission, and rotor blade changes. Many a night I worked until two or three AM, then reported to the avionics shop at 0600 for my regular job. Finely, the line NCO called me in, and told me that he was going to put me on a specific aircraft, who's crew chief was going to get discharged within the year. The problem with the crew chief as no one like him. He was from South Philly, and a stocky Italian who's aircraft was always up and ready and who's aircraft, tools and appearance were immaculate to say the least. I walked out to report to the crew chief, and tell him I was going to be his 1st mechanic. The seasoned Cpl. Never looked at me, never responded to reporting, just went about his business of wiping the oil off the large engine. It took several days before the Cpl. Even made eye contact with me. All during this time I never did anything but stand around.
relationship grew, though very slowly. This Cpl. was not
a social one. He went out to the bars by himself, and
when he wasn't flying he was always working on his
aircraft, if nothing else, wiping it clean or waxing it.
In time he gave me permission to hand him tools as he
needed them, then from then I went to waxing the
aircraft, though to this day I am sure it was never to
his satisfaction. I still remember the first day e let me
safety wire a main transmission plug. Because of it's
location the only way I had ever seen it done was with
safety wire pliers. His tool box didn't contain any. He
went on to explain to me that NO safety wire would be
twisted with pliers on his aircraft. Only twisted by hand
on his aircraft. After I had completed the safety wiring
he inspected my job, found fault, cut it in half, and
told me to do it again. I spent over four hours doing a
job that should have taken no more than fifteen minutes,
ten with pliers. Each inspection caused a run of
profanity, and then the cutters snipping the
To me. This was the big step in my military career. Not only was I now assigned to the flight line, and of course away from the avionics shop, but I was slowly getting accepted by the other mechanics, even Staff NCOs would acknowledge me. I still carried the aviation electronics tech MOS and all my promotions would be decided by the avionics shop NCOIC, which meant for now I was at a dead end. I was however happy, and a happy Marine is a good Marine, or at least this is what someone in charge once said.
One beautiful day in the spring as I was preparing the for a flight my old salty Cpl. Told me to report to the flight line NCO right away. Without any idea of what was going on, I headed to he little shack. I enter and the Gunny who still treated me, and everyone else who did not have 25 years in the Marine Corps, like a dog, told me to go draw a set of light gear form the Para-loft as I was on the flight pay. Well I flew out of he shack, and had drawn my gear and was back to the aircraft before anyone could change their minds, or understand they had made a mistake. My crew chief then started teaching me, in his very deliberate and at times almost painful way, on how to be a flight crew member.
Now I flew every flight with this beloved old 34, who's engine belched smoke, and noise that would deafen. The exhaust during night operations were a blue flame out the left side of the clamshell doors. I loved it , I was an avionics tech that was flying every day as a 1st mechanic on a H-34 in a Marine Corps operational squadron, what more could a young man want, plus the y gave you flight pay.
In May, my crew chief was taking three weeks leave, and I was told by the grumpy Gunny that I would by the acting crew chief in his absence, however I had to get NATOPS OIC and NCOIC. I was very worried as I knew that everyone would be watching me to see if I really knew what I was doing. My crew chief never put me though a pre test, he just acted his normal way to me. Whenever I did anything on the plane he would ask why, and what would happen if I had not done this or that, and what did that part do and how it was related to the other parts. In the time I had been with him, I had thought these questions were to make me quit, and to get tired of playing mechanic. They were a form of school, which was great for me, having not gone to any formal training.
I took my NATOPS written exam, and upon returning from the two hour flight, I completed the normal after flight procedures, including the refueling. Then the dreaded walk to the flight line shack to report in. I felt I had done well, but, you never know on exams. I knew I had maxed the written , but the oral is combined with the pre flight , in flight , and post flight parts, and while doing your regular job, you are asked questions. It gets confusing quickly. I walked into the crowed shack, everyone staring at me, for they all knew what I had been up to. On the flight status board, next to our aircraft's tail number was written in large letters NATOPS FLIGHT CHECK. The Gunny stared at me , saying nothing, for what seemed forever, than he said, "White will be crewing #16 for the next few weeks." what a relief to say the least , I had passed.
Number 16 was due to go into it's annual within a month, I knew that the last week or so they would fly the aircraft every chance they could get, as the flight time on the airframe would not matter with it going into inspection. I flew every flight that went out for several weeks. Sitting back in the belly of the H-34 was something to be very proud of. Though my name was not on the side of the aircraft, when we landed, people only saw aMarine Cpl. with his helmet on helping them in or out, or hooking up sling loads. For those few weeks it was my aircraft. The night before my crew chief left, he told me over one of the few beers we had together, that he didn't want a scratch on his plane while he was gone and did I understand this. I was very careful those few weeks.
The Friday before the aircraft went into the hanger for it's inspection, which would last several weeks, I was called into the line shack and told to go get my gear as I would be taking the aircraft on a cross country flight up to Washington DC for the weekend, and would be returning Monday morning. The Gunny, though not smiling , told me I had been doing a good job and this was a thank you from him.
The Marine Major and his copilot arrived and after an extended pre flight we took off and headed North to the District of Columbia. I was so excited, this was my first cross country alone.
During the fight up, I noticed a change in the sound of the old reciprocating radial engine in the nose of the 34. No longer had it's smooth guttural roar, there was something new to the sound. Any helicopter mechanic will tell you, helicopters have a sound that is theirs alone, and you know when something just does not sound right. When we landed at NAS Norfolk to refuel I told the Major about the change in the engine's sound and that I thought something was amiss. He assured me that the instruments had shown nothing but he would keep an eye out anyway. From my seat in the belly, I could look up between the pilots legs and see the instruments, so I already knew nothing was showing on the gauges yet, I was still worried. After arriving at Marine Corps Air Station Quantico with no problems, I did a very detailed post flight , and when I had the large clamshell doors open, nothing looked amiss.
After a weekend in DC, hitting all the hot spots I arrived on the Quantico flight line, early Monday morning with a slight hangover, but still ready to bring the bird back to New River. The Major and his co-pilot arrived a couple hours late, they too had hangovers though they did not want me to know it. We departed Quantico headed for Norfolk to refuel and grab a lunch. The flight was uneventful, other than the gnawing inside of me that said something was not right.
We lifted off NAS Norfolk and started our climb to altitude on course to New River. I was just about over my apprehensions of problems because I was within a couple hours of bringing #16 into the hanger for inspection. We hit 6500 feet and leveled off, I sat back and relaxed, looking below at the Great Dismal Swamp. Then it happened. The engine coughed, not once but three of four times. I knew right away it was a sucked #7 intake valve, a common occurrence with these engines. After the fourth cough, it got very quiet, the engine had totally failed. The pilot entered autorotation and I heard over the intercom the pilot calling Mayday.
before we hit the ground, landing in a couple feet of
water and marsh in the swamp, I heard the Elisabeth City
Coast Guard Station answering our Mayday. They advised us
they were lunching aircraft at that time. Within
Late in the day I was buzzed by two of our squadrons aircraft who had brought up a maintenance crew. They had to hover in order to let out the Marines, no landing zones in the area just swamp. The Staff Sergeant, my section leader told me I could go back if I wanted, but I elected to stay. We then started to drop the engine. We worked until it was too dark, then all crowded into the belly for a good nights sleep. The section leader had brought a case of beer and it was very well appreciated that night. Early the next morning , an H-37 arrived, along with several more of our H-34's. Our maintenance officer head the procession and we lifted the spent engine out, and in the afternoon a new engine arrived. The hardest part for me was changing the oil cooler it was resting at the edge of the water, which really made a mess of things. When we were finished, the maintenance officer fired the new engine up, and the section leader climbed on board. I too climbed into the belly, after all, #16 was my responsibility.
We headed back to New River, and for me a warm welcome by everyone. The Major had told them all, I had heard a something and felt something was amiss. It was the start of my days as a helicopter crew chief.
©1997 - James "Sneaky" White
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