Lt John Abbott was still over North Korea when he reported himself in trouble. In a smoke-filled cockpit, he nursed his crippled Cosair out to sea before abandoning it. Two minutes and fifteen seconds after flight quarters sounded, Crawford and I were airborne. That fifteen second margin (shorter than our previous best time) probably spelled the difference between life and death for John Abbott.
CIC gave us the vector as we lifted off. We were well on the way when Abbott's wingman (Lt Laney) reported the bailout, splashdown, and that Abbott had inflated and boarded his raft. Within but a few minutes after he had entered the water we were over him. But he had been unable to release his parachute and so, acting as a sea anchor, it had dragged him from the raft. He looked quite comfortable, floating on his back, and greeted us with a smile.
Crawford, sling in hand ready to lower it, was concerned about the still-attached chute. "If he can get in it," I told him, "we can pull him up high enough for you to cut the shrouds."
Ernie lowered the sling down gently onto the man's chest. Abbott looped one arm into it but then just lay quietly with a pleasant smile on his face. No matter that his body was encased and dry in his regulation, Mk IV anti-exposure suit, the frigid water against his exposed neck and vital base of the brain had already disrupted his normal senses and body functions. Not only was he unable to put himself in the sling; unless he could be gotten out of the water and treatment begun within 15 or 20 minutes, he would be dead.
I glanced back at Crawford. He had already pulled the hood of his frogman suit over his head and was fitting the adjustable survivor strap onto his wrist. When he nodded "ready," I eased the machine down closer. Ernie stepped out of the helicopter into Abbott's raft. I moved away far enough that the rotorwash would not interfere as he worked.
From the vantage of the raft, Crawford easily hooked the survivor sling around Abbott and drew it tight. He drew his knife then, and reached beneath Abbott to gather the shroud lines and cut them. Momentarily, however, his right hand came back in view, empty. His hands were so benumbed by the cold water he had not even felt the knife slip away..
An oversight in equippage; we should have had a lanyard on his knife so he could retrieve it in such case. There was no way now, with benumbed hands and other handicaps, that he could expect to remove Abbott's parachute.
According to the "book," the HO3S lacked the power to lift a man from the water with parachute still attached, especially open as it was and in the water. With no crewman aboard, it did have that much more lifting ability. But the weight of the water in that open chute would far exceed the weight of a crewman. The hole in the center of the chute canopy would allow the water to drain out, but slowly. And the length of a streamed parachute was greater than the height at which effective ground cushion effect could be maintained.
Had there been little or no wind, it remains questionable if that HO3S could have lifted Abbott and his parachute from the water. I frankly think it could have, and would certainly have tried if necessary. But I didn't have to make that decision. For while holding alongside as Crawford worked, our sweet old HO3S wasn't hovering. She was riding the wind above the waves like an albatross; twenty or more knots of wind. We had more than hovering power, we had translational lift. The same force which had dragged Abbott from his raft and rendered him helpless, would now help us for certain pull him out.
Now Crawford, aware that we were supposedly not able to pick up a man in that condition, was waving the snaphook of the sling he'd attached to Abbott in manner questioning if he should hook it on. I nodded "yes" and moved to bring the cable within his reach. To do that it was necessary to move directly over Ernie to a point where he disappeared from view. Then drifting back brought him again into view with the hoist cable reaving through the hook. Ernie, still on the raft, was now giving a thumb-up signal.
The raft was still attached to Abbott. Crawford had overlooked that little detail. Probably his numb fingers could not have unhooked it anyway. And any signal trying to get him to unhook the raft he might interpret as signal to unhook Abbott from the cable, instead. So the process was begun to bring up the unconscious man.
Holding just six or eight feet above the water, cable was retrieved until it became taut. From that point the hoist must remain static until both Abbott and his parachute were clear of the water. To activate the hoist mechanism before that would either rupture its fluid lines or pull the helicopter down to the water.
While the chute was still in the water, full power of the rotor could not be used. Because the hoist boom projected far out to the left, there was not enough "right stick" to counter that much leverage. Still, with only the maximum of power which could be used and yet keep the machine level, we were lifting somewhat faster than expected. An upward surge as the chute came free of the water was so sudden as to cause worry that the man had been pulled out of the sling.
A quick leftward tilt revealed that he was still there. It also revealed that the "tug-of-war" between the helicopter and the sea must have been a bit rough on the body which was caught between them. The draft of the chute against the lift of the helicopter had brought one of Abbott's arms up to parallel with his shoulder and the other nearly so.
Moments later there was another upward surge, and lessening of pressure on the right stick, sufficient to again cause worry that he had slipped out of the sling. But this time it was caused by the very last of the water draining out of the chute. The trapped water we had brought up initially must have weighed several times as much as a man.
Now it was safe to use the hoist. I triggered to its very top and reached to hang Abbott on the hook which was there for that purpose. After that cable could be lowered again to pick up Crawford. But the streamed chute began to billow. It could possibly foul the tail rotor. The man had to be lowered to eliminate that danger.
Crawford would have to wait. We had discussed such a possibility. We had placed an extra seatpack raft within my reach to be dropped to him in such event. I called the stillcircling wingman (Laney) and told him I had his man clear of the water and would depart with him after dropping a raft to my crewman. Laney responded that he could deliver a raft to my crewman, so that I could depart at once. I headed seaward and called Rochester for a vector. The full-blossomed chute acting as an airbrake held the helicopter to maximum speed of about 40 knots.
The Rochester and her accompanying destroyer, Collett had been following me at flank speed. The cruiser had to lay off pursuit because of shallowing waters. But Capt Smith, realizing the importance of time, had ordered Collett to continue. She was shortly in view. The inflated raft whipped around the shrouds and streamed the parachute. The helicopter's airspeed increased then to 60 knots.
There were several things Collett needed to know. First, the man's condition: Unconscious apparently due entirely to the exposure, no other injuries apparent. Disruption of pulse and respiration could be expected, and probably considerable loss of body temperature. Secondly, with no crewman aboard, delivery of the man might not be very precise. Some extra hands aft to receive him should enable that someone could grab hold and detach him wherever he might first be within reach. Finally, I asked that someone be sent up on Colletts superstructure to indicate when the "cargo" was in position to be lowered to men on her stern.
Capt Smith, monitoring my conversations with Collett, noted something which hadn't been mentioned. On his command frequency he instructed Collett to be sure someone on the stern had a sharp knife at ready to cut Abbott free. He knew from the initial description to him of our equipment and procedures that the sling would be drawn tight and might be difficult to unhook.
Moments after asking Collett to send a man topside, I was close enough to see someone was already there. But that turned out to be an off-duty, engineman CPO who had gone there on his own and was filming the event with a small, hand-held movie camera. As I moved in over the ship, a sailor scurried up the rigging and told that chief of my need. The chief looked at Abbott and at once signalled for lowering. Moments later he signalled me up and away. Somehow I had managed to gauge my position well enough for that immediate lowering. And in view of the speed with which they detached Abbott, there must have been some very sharp sailors on the fantail along with a sharp knife.
The raft that was to be dropped to Crawford had fouled on the tail of the aircraft, and consequently, Crawford was left without the extra protection of it. The raft-pack fouled the controls of the airplane, and it was forced to make an emergency landing in enemy territory. The pilot eluded the enemy on foot, and ran out into the water, where he could be rescued by helicopter.
Thorin was required to retrieve Crawford, pick up a doctor from the Rochester, deliver him to the destroyer to tend Abbott, and then return for Laney (the pilot). Laney was rescued without any problems, but did proclaim that he had forgotten his camera in the airplane, and lamented the loss of it and the pictures of the rescue he had taken.
Abbott did suffer from severe hyper-thermia, but recovered sufficiently to return flying and was later killed in action.)
© 2000 by Duane Thorin
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