Hand of God

By Paul H. Goodley M.D.

The alarm shattered the Sunday followed by my only time in the Coast Guard when my name was singled out for emergency duty, “Goodley, report to the helicopter pad on the double.” I’d been flat on my back in the Rec Room watching TV. When the order disallowed going in the opposite direction to get an emergency kit from the Sick Bay. Whatever it was, the rotors were already whirling and the Line Chief’s eyes were on me as I sprinted outside.

It was the first of our helicopters, a tandem two-seater only a little wider than the occupants, supposedly designed so that a wire stretcher could be pushed through the passenger’ side at a right angle mostly into a pod that projected from the other side.

Coast Guard R-5 H-5 helicopter

In theory it was fine. It was the only time I would ever use it, and this was the time we would learn there was a problem, but it wouldn’t have made a difference because there are no statistics to explain why we survived, and it was one of the times I would only learn about later.

Really, it was just a piece-of-cake-hop to break the quiet of a beautiful San Francisco Airport afternoon, and that was all it was as far as we were concerned while we were performing it. I learned about the mission as we crossed:

One of the Coast Guard’s two Boot Camps was across the Bay from us, on Government Island. A Boot had slipped and fallen in the shower splitting his head open and sustaining a concussion. He’d been bandaged and stabilized, and all we had to do was fly across, land on the parade field where they were waiting and fly him to the Marine Hospital at the tip of the SFO peninsula then back to base, an Isosceles triangle trip with magnificent panoramas all the way.

Any flight around the bay was a treat, and, at least then, we couldn’t fully predict all the weather we’d encounter. Its ecosystem may be unique, and I’ve been on patrols where in the time it took to circumvent its water we encountered sunshine, fog, hail, snow and rain, but that day is was a shirt sleeve CAVU day (Ceiling Above 30,000 ft., Visibility Unlimited), and almost as far as we were concerned everything went in order.

The pilot was a Lieutenant who we had nicknamed “Bugs” because his front teeth protruded. He made his approach and landed on the spot. The Corpsmen wheeled the stretcher over, and as I looked at the stretcher, I saw the obvious for the first time and was a bit befuddled that no one had apparently noticed it before.

I was the second Goodley to make such an observation on a military aircraft though my father’s had been from a final pre-production draft of the original plans. It was WWII, and at that time he was working as an inspector/writer at an aircraft plant, his job then to assure that the paperwork was complete.

My father was an attorney, and he was brilliant, but we had arrived in California during a decade when out-of-state attorneys weren’t allowed to pass the Bar, and so, as he continued to try, he applied for jobs that he had to chutzpah to learn as he went along.

The one that had really nearly did him in was when the conversation focused on a “LOX” problem, and for a Jew that can only mean one thing, which it couldn’t have, and only in a near-panicked, comic instant someone had incidentally salvaged him by remarking about “Liquid Oxygen.”

This time, however, was a time of well-reasoned befuddlement about the seemingly impossible. He kept going through the page again and again before taking them to his supervisor and asking him Wasn’t the plane supposed to have two wings?

After thousands of hours of work by near-countless engineers for the production of a major fighter, the plans had passed all specifications absent a wing! Only the human element. Science of the mind.

Admiral Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine, told the story how early in the development of its power plant, a metallic structure was needed that was so large, no one foundry could produce it. So two foundries were selected for the work that took well over a year, and, when they were ready, they were loaded onto special trains and transported to where they were to be assembled. Both foundries had forged the same half.

My problem was much, much simpler. The stretcher had to go where my legs had to. I looked, released my seat belt, sat Indian style and, as they shoved the stretcher in as I tried to refasten the belt, it was immediately clear that it wouldn’t happen. The straps were much too short. As I checked out the recruit and assured the I.V. was flowing, “Bugs” let it be known he wanted to fly, and all I could do was give him a thumbs up.

The parade ground had been loaded with people as we came in. Whether is was to watch us or for strolls with visitors didn’t interest me, but what happened next did. We were less than a few hundred feet in the air and turning Northwest when the now tiny figures were suddenly frantically running in all directions as if we’d kicked up their ant hill.

Bugs asked me what was going on. “Don’t know, Sir. They just went ape.”

We crossed the Bay, and I enjoyed every minute of it. My patient was quiet and no problem and all, and nothing eventful happened at all as we landed on the tip of the peninsula.

I love San Francisco. It was a sparkling night when I arrived for duty at the Air Station, the only city I had ever completely attached to from my first sight, a mini, Manhattan-like, sophisticated metropolis. Now we were flying over the top of the city as the sun was about to set, and then we did, as well.

the line chief was there waiting for us. He was a tall, lean, weathered and handsome man who could have been a Marlboro poster with his ubiquitous fifty-mission cap, leather jacket and cigarette hanging second-nature from his lips. He just stood there with his hands in his rear pockets, slightly stooped forward, looking at us intently through the earliest evening shadows that covered most of his face accentuating the steady glint in his eyes.

Bugs nodded to him and took off for the Pilot’s Room. I never heard a word of what happened there. The Chief looked at me for a quiet minute as I began to pass him to get some chow. He’d seen much, and his voice didn’t betray him when he stopped me with, “Anything happen when you took off, Doc?”

“Yeah. The base went ape.”
“Do you know why?”
I looked back blankly.
“Didn’t you feel anything?”
“Nothing, Chief. Why?”
“You didn’t feel anything at all?”
“No. Why?”
He paused before replying, “I think you’d better go back and take a look at that helicopter.”

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. We hadn’t felt anything. The entire flight had been smooth. Not even a ripple over the water. The first thing I noticed was that one of the vertical rotors (in the tail) was a bit bent. There was nothing else to talk about in the rest of the walk-around, so I climbed up the fuselage.

Each of the three horizontal rotors had thick, wide black streaks on them.

“What happened, Chief?”
Nothing much, Doc. When you took off, you severed the main power cable to the entire island.”

I never learned exactly how many thousands of volts were in it or how thick it was. The data is irrelevant. Horizontal rotors, at least then, were non-inertial. If (when) they hit something, they stop. Every statistical analysis proves we had to be scorched chips exploding into nothingness with or without a seat belt, and if the blades hadn’t stopped, so what? You can write books of conjecture and conjecture all you may wish. Official Coast Guard record. There is more. Much more. The one life essential is that no one escapes denying God.

See also
Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco

Helicopters for sale
Future helicopters
Flying a helicopter
Helicopter stories
TV and movies

Helicopter books
Helicopter patches
Helicopter model kits