2016 04 29 Friday
It was day three of the Pacific Area Deck Landing Qualification roundup, PACAREA DLQs for short. We had less polite euphemisms to employ when the officers weren’t in earshot. PACAREA command decided to fly in six helicopter crews and four additional aircraft from all around the West Coast to certify them for cutter operations. For some of these crews, it was their first time landing on the postage stamp that is a 210 cutter’s flight deck. For others, was their first time landing on a boat, period. Every day from 1400 to around 0100 in the morning, we’d been launching and recovering aircraft. There were short breaks now and then while the crews switched out at the air station or shut down on deck for a meal aboard the cutter. Within an hour, we were back at it.
Despite the oncoming spring, it was cold out on deck. At those latitudes, the sun provides little heat out in the Straight of Juan de Fuca. The west wind broke on our superstructure and curled in eddies around the cutter. It didn’t leave anyone a place to stand in the sun and out of the blowing chill. Our tie-down members resembled the little brother from “A Christmas Story.” They were all wearing multiple layers under their long-sleeved blue jerseys and non-regulation ski caps under their flight cranials (a “cranial” is a sort of helmet worn by flight deck members). The LSO (landing safety officers) weren’t in much better shape. They were bundled up to the point that they appeared completely androgynous. I didn’t have a clue which one was which out there. I could have almost envied them in their cold.
For my part, I’d been wearing my proxyman gear for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch. It is identical to a shoreside firefighter’s bunker coat and pants, with one exception. The outermost “puncture-proof” layer is covered in a paper-thin sheet of aluminum fabric. I couldn’t tell if it was woven in or glued on, but either way, it was so shiny that I resembled an extra from a ‘60s-era science fiction movie. Under the coat, I wore an inflatable fire-retardant vest that would supposedly float me and all this bunker gear should I go over the side. There were two pairs of gloves, one under the other, and a Nomex hood on under the helmet. A cowling draped down from the helmet’s rim to cover my shoulders.
All of this layering meant two things. One, I could walk up to an aircraft spewing burning jet fuel and pull someone out of the wreckage with little chance of self-harm. Two, none of my body’s heat could escape when I had it buttoned up. I’d lost 10 pounds from sweating over the previous three days. I was allowed to relax the suit a little between refueling evolutions, remove the helmet and outer gloves, pull back the Nomex hood, and unbutton the coat. However, I had to keep everything close at hand in case the worst happened and that infernal machine plowed into the deck at 100+ knots.
It was 2245 and the last hot gas exercise of the night, the last one of the DLQ roundup. Once that bird took off, we'd be done with helicopter operations for the next week or so. I was kneeling by the superstructure with my PKP (purple potassium powder) extinguisher in hand. The LSO gave me the signal, and I ran forward hunching my shoulders and leaning over my knees as I crossed under the rotor arc. The rapid popopopopopopopopop of the blade tips went from noise to a physical sensation against my skin. I could feel it through the insulation and padding of the proxy suit.
As I came even with the flight mechanic standing against the skin of the helicopter, I slowed and knelt, then turned to the right to face the aircraft and ready the extinguisher. I flashed the LSO a thumbs-up, and she (he? They’re all built like eighth graders, so who knows?) sent the fueling team out. Three men in purple vests and jerseys grabbed the arm-thick jet fuel hose and dragged it over to the flight mechanic, who then readied the fuel port. They connected, the hose jerked, and we started pumping JP-5 into the still-running helicopter. The engine’s jet wash mixed with the cold night air as it slipped under my helmet’s cowling. It played across my sweat-slicked face, almost like a hand brushing me.
There was some confusion between the fueling team, the LSO, and the flight mechanic. I pulled the pin on the extinguisher just in case I was about to be covered in fuel while standing under a running gas turbine. The furious squabble carried out silently in hand gestures in the thundering roar of a running helicopter was almost comical. Eventually, they figured it out and disconnected the hose. We lined up at the edge of the flight deck, kneeling at the inside edge of the rotor arc. The LSO gave the signal, and we ran to the superstructure’s relative safety. Moments later, the aircraft roared into the sky, beating the air into submission as it fought for every inch of altitude. Before it was even out of earshot, I peeled out of my helmet and let the frigid air run icy fingers through my sodden hair.
We headed below.
On the mess deck, I shed the cumbersome, heavy proxy suit. Pulled my combat boots on, bloused my pants, tucked in my shirt, and headed back up. For some reason that simple ritual acted as a mental reset from the non-routine of flight quarters. It was time to shift gears and get ready for the next evolution.
As I climbed the ladder from the fantail to the flight deck, the wind ripped the heat from my now-exposed torso like sand from a dune as it cut through my thick t-shirt like knives through silk. I was so grateful to be free of the oppressive heat of the suit; I welcomed the uncontrollable shivers the cold brought on. Word was passed that we were in for rough seas that night when we cleared the straight and turned south. The fight deck needed to be secured. One of the LSOs handed me a gaff (a long pole with a blunted fire poker on one end, also called a boat hook).
We started pulling up flight deck nets and locking them in place one by one. It was a four-person job in the daylight, in calm waters. At that late hour, with the sea and wind building, we took all the help we could get. Two people with gaffs hooked the nets, with another person behind each of them gripping their vests or belts to keep them from being pulled overboard. Two more, one on each side, stood by to lock the nets in place as they came up to their vertical position. Each net was framed by a three-inch-diameter steel pipe, making their weight considerable. The cutter’s ever-increasing roll made pulling the nets up a dicey prospect.
As a team, we lined up and hooked in. “Ready?” shouted the LSO.
“Ready!” we chorused back.
“Heave!” and we hauled up and back. The nets clanged into place, the two men on each side stomped down on the locks and then jammed the pins in place. We moved down the line and repeated the process. The wind had built and was whipping our clothing. I never got a chance to feel comfortable as I cooled off. My hands quickly went numb, and my skin tightened as I shed the excess heat. I was well and truly cold by then, and it didn’t matter. We were all freezing and exhausted.
The cold, the nonstop heightened state of awareness of helicopter operations, and the constant confusion and frustration of an ever-shifting schedule had bared all our last nerves to the scouring weather, and it didn’t matter. We either secured the nets right then or would have to get up at 0400 and do it in 16-foot seas and 40-knot winds. The patrol didn’t even start until that last helicopter took off. Five minutes down, 50-fifty-some-odd days to go …
“Ready?” “ Ready!” “ Heave!” CLANG! Another net slammed into place.
The lights of the American coast slid by in the dark. Pinpoints of orange like a hundred tiny campfires on the hills and cliffs scattered across miles. One of those points of light might have been my home. The wind bit hard, and I shivered. My wife and dogs were probably curled up in bed; she was likely reading, as they snored softly against her.
“Ready?” “Ready!” “Heave!” CLANG! Another net is up. Despite the cold wind, I can still feel and smell the greasy texture of jet exhaust and diesel, always diesel.
“Ready?” “Ready!” “Heave!” CLANG! The last net slams home.
Someone clapped a hand on my back in thanks. With that hand came the weight of duty and obligation. I rolled my shoulders and settled it into place like comfortable armor I was long used to wearing.
I'll take it off someday, but today isn’t it.
This article was originally published in The Havok Journal.