Helicopter Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King Serial 61-127 Register 149710 used by US Navy USN (United States Naval Aviation). Aircraft history and location
Written off 1981
Sikorsky SH-3G Sea King USN
HC-1 w/o 10apr81 HC-1
|my recall of the events |
It had not been two weeks into my tour as CO when we lost a helicopter on its way up to NAS Fallen, Nevada. Timing is everything in life; CDR Brown had skipped through his CO tour with only one minor incident and I hadn’t completed two weeks when this happened. What would the future hold? Ever since they lost the helicopter in Kwajalein, I had been monitoring the SH-3 accident reports. This accident had many of the same characteristics as the numerous SH-3’s that were lost throughout the fleet over the past three years. I was not about to have my men take the blame for something if it was not their fault. Although the majority of the helicopter burned to the ground we were able to recover what was left of the aircraft and stage it in the hangar for the accident investigation team. One of the first people at the crash site was the engineer from NAS Pensacola. It wasn’t surprising that the next day a message came out from the Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF), Pensacola, that it was a maintenance error that caused the failure and subsequent loss of aircraft. I was furious; they had no right to go out with that message without the results of the accident investigation. This flight crew had performed superbly. The crew chief dove through a wall of fire to get to the fire extinguisher to fight the raging fire. The pilot was able to keep the helicopter under control long enough to get the aircraft on the ground, saving his crew. I was determined to get to the bottom of it. On the third day a safety officer flew out from the aviation safety center on the East Coast to conduct the accident investigation. LCDR Robinson was a good man and wanted to cover every aspect of the accident. Several days went by and I was getting an update of their findings at the end of each day. With the message from NARF, Pensacola, the majority of the investigation focused on maintenance. It was a perfect setup, the message read: “The bolts on the high speed shaft were tightened in an over torque condition and they sheared under the high speeds, which caused the shaft to come off, cutting the fuel and hydraulic lines and setting the helicopter on fire.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from the accident board. It was a very touchy situation. The commanding officer was not supposed to interfere in an accident investigation of one of his own aircraft. I kept remembering what the previous CO told me. “Al, with your combat record and operational success, all you have to do is close your mouth for the next few years and you’ll make captain.” I always had a tendency to put the men before my career. I couldn’t look the other way; I needed to do what was right regardless of the consequences. I had been over the wreckage several times, talked with the maintenance personnel and knew what caused the accident. I was tired of the bullshit. I was not going to see another flight crew get hurt, or killed. I grabbed the maintenance control officer and we went back through the wreckage. After a few minutes we found the high speed shaft that failed; it was obvious to any layman it was a material failure and not a maintenance error. I grabbed the shaft and took it upstairs to where the accident board was meeting. I walked into the room and dropped the shaft in the middle of the table and said, “There is your cause of the accident. You’re not leaving here until you find out the truth.” I looked across the table at the safety officer sitting there and said, “I want you to take this shaft across the street and have NARF, North Island take a look at it.” NARF North Island was the rework facility for the F/A-18. The next day the safety officer came back with one of the engineers from NARF. Two of the F/A-18 engineers and one metallurgist were absolutely certain that it was a material failure and were willing to put it in writing. I asked them to put it out in message format to CO, HC-1 and info ASWWINGSPAC and NARF Pensacola. They agreed and the message came out the following day. The very next day I received a call from a CDR Rogers at the NARF facility in Pensacola. He was the department head that oversaw the rework of the SH-3G. The CDR was very friendly and spent a great deal of time explaining their position. They had many years of experience on these types of accidents and were sure they were correct. The CDR assured me that they knew what they were doing. He went on until I had heard enough of his bullshit. I tore into the him, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear. The Navy assured me I would never make it past lieutenant. I am already two ranks higher than they promised. If it is the last thing I ever do, I am going to see that you son's-of-a-bitch’s are held accountable for your actions. You have killed or injured flight crews and ruined careers over the last three or four years that I know of, all to cover up your own incompetence. I will not let this go on any longer.” I hung up the phone. At home that night I received a call from a friend. He was on the ASWINGSPAC staff and had helped me before. He told me I was not very popular over at the WING. They were referring to me as a “maverick” and a loose cannon. They received a call from a CDR Rogers from NARF, Pensacola. He was very concerned about the actions I was taking and wanted to know if I was as crazy as I sounded over the phone. Everyone at the WING was taking a political, wait and see attitude. They would not involve themselves and if it blew up, it’d be my ass. I said, “That’s fine. This has gone on too long. I cannot look the other way and see another crew lost or hurt.” I probably should have gone to the WING to ask permission, but I didn’t think I would have gotten an answer if they were taking the political route. They were right; I was dangerous. I did not put my career ahead of the welfare of the men. They knew I would not look the other way and I could not be pressured into changing my mind. When I returned to work the next morning one of the messages on the message board was from NARF, Pensacola. They withdrew their initial assessment, that it was a maintenance error, and declared that they were not sure what the cause was. They stated they may never know because of the lack of evidence at the crash site. I sat there contemplating my career. It was a cover up and they were not going to get away with it. They were attempting to confuse the issue so they could continue to operate. I got zero support from the WING; they kept themselves at a distance during the entire investigation. I went into the wardroom where the accident board was meeting and spoke to the safety officer. “This is what I want done. I want you to call NARF, Pensacola and tell them we have a strong suspicion that it was a material failure and we would like to run a test to destruct. Let’s see what their response is.” Later that day, the safety officer came into my office and told me that NARF, Pensacola wanted to conduct the tests in Pensacola since they had the capability in their facility. They also wanted to see the high speed shaft and do their own evaluation. I told the safety officer that was fine, but I did not want him to let that shaft out of his sight, even if he had to sleep with it. I didn’t trust them. They had finally been exposed, and may try anything to continue the cover up. I was totally disappointed in the WING. They were true politicians. I never heard a thing from them. It was their duty to ensure the safety of the pilots and aircrew that served in their AIRWING, yet they did nothing but wait and see. The risk was all mine. If I was wrong, it would be a squadron CO meddling in an accident investigation of his own aircraft. While we waited for the results of the testing, I put the pilot of the incident in for an air medal and the crew chief in for a commendation medal for their actions in getting the aircraft down safely and fighting the fire. It was worthy of some recognition. I didn’t know how much support I would get from the WING, but it was the right thing to do. It was a first; for over four years they had only gone after the careers of the men that were just doing their jobs, just to show the Admiral they could take charge and also protect their careers. I guess that’s why I was called a “maverick.” It took six months but they did get their medals. It was a couple of days before I got the results of the testing at NARF, Pensacola. They had put an engine on the test stand and were going to run it for 24 hours straight, to see what would happen to the high speed shaft. After a number of hours on the test stand they had to shut it down. The coating on the high speed shaft was breaking down. It seems the shafts used to be sent out for a carbon hardening treatment. Several years ago, the process was brought in house. NARF, Pensacola did not have the capability to do carbon hardening, so they changed the process to a plasma treatment. The new treatment was not standing up to the high temperatures created by the high speed shaft and engine. The coating broke down in less than 7 hours of testing. It was done; they couldn’t hide the problem any longer. I’m sure I made a few enemies but I felt I didn’t have a choice.