ray trygstad:

Sea Stories


“Patsy, the hook!”
Background and Context: I flew the SH-2F Seasprite in the Navy. This is a small helicopter by Navy standards but a pretty big helicopter as helicopters go. Our main mission in the H-2 was Anti-submarine Warfare, but because the H-2 was designed from the ground up to operate from ships, and since this was one of our particular specialties as pilots as well, we were occassionally tapped for other missions. One of these, done on an ongoing basis over many years, was to support Navy hydrographic survey operations--the mapping of the ocean floor. This mission was carried out by a Naval Oceanographic Unit (OCUNIT) operating on a Military Sealift Command (MSC) ship. MSC ships are Navy ships operated by civilian mariners. We also had a contingent of civilian scientists onboard from the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO) (Did you never notice that almost everything in the service has to have a pronouncable abbreviation?). This certainly made for some interesting tensions, but those are for other sea stories. The ships were the USNS Chauvenet (T-AGS 29) (now the Texas Clipper II serving as the training ship for Texas A&M Maritime) and the USNS Harkness (T-AGS 32), and the aviation units were HSL-30 Detachment A (Det Alfa, out of Norfolk, VA) and HSL-31 Detachment B (Det Bravo, out of San Diego, CA).

Anyway, our job on Det Bravo was to support the three navigational aid stations placed ashore to allow the ship to precisely fix it's location as they surveyed. In those pre-GPS days, each site's mission was to erect and operate a 100-foot-tall antenna which produced a continuous navigational signal. We were surveying in Indonesia, and each site was manned by four sailors from a NAVOCEANO Navigational Aid Detachment with two Indonesian Navy guards to give them "political legitimacy" in the community. The sites had two LARGE wall tents with plywood floors and all the comforts of home, including a refrigerator, freezer, washer, and dryer. There were two diesel generators (one to run the transmitter and the other to run the refrigerator, freezer, washer, and dryer and serve as a backup for the transmitter). Getting the sites ashore and keeping them resupplied was our reason for being; it was a never ending task as everything they needed--food, water, diesel fuel--came to them on the cargo hook on the belly of our helo. We used to carry over the refrigerator, freezer, washer, and dryer in one load, and as we would get going they would fan out into a perfect four-abreast pattern at the end of their tethers under our cargo hook. One of our claims to fame on Det B (and on Det A as well, I'm sure) was that we were the only pilots in the world who could make four major appliances fly in formation.

The story: The SH-2F has a cargo hook which is pretty capable; it can be unlatched with an external lever, or by an internal manual handle in the cockpit, or electrically by a switch in the cockpit. Years of experience had led Det Bravo to NEVER rely on the electrical hook release, as it had an alarming tendency to trip on it's own, so we had a policy that the co-pilot (that being whoever in the cockpit that did not have physical control of the aircraft) would keep their hand immediately behind the cargo hook release handle on the center console, so if the load became unstable or developed other problems it could immediately be jettisoned. We were out doing a resupply and as the last evolution of the day before landing we would always pick up a load made up of all the wooden pallets, nets, and slings (the "retrograde") we had used to carry the resupply material over with and take it back to the ship. The retrograde was kind of a light load and it was not the most fun to fly with. My copilot for the flight was Patsy (Patricia Mary Catherine V-------) and our crewman in the back was J.B. J.B. had an interesting relationship with the pilots on the det, as he came out on this deployment as a First Class Petty Officer and while he was at sea he was selected for Chief Petty Officer and for a Ensign's commission as a Limited Duty Officer; consequently we were perhaps a little more casual and familiar with him than would normally be appropriate. Anyway, we were on our way back to the boat; I was at the controls and I just happened to look over at Patsy, and noticed she had both of her hands sitting in her lap. ONLY intending for her to put her hand back where our standard operating procedures said it out to be, I just sort of conversationally said to her, "Patsy, the hook." Patsy, thinking something was wrong and I was just maintaining my normally calm in-flight persona, reached down and pulled the emergency release lever, sending the retrograde plunging into the Banda Sea. J.B., who was on his belly in the cabin watching the load, said something to the effect that we had just lost the load. I was a little exasperated (to say the least) and told Patsy, who by this time had already pretty much figured out that she had overreacted a little, that all I wanted her to do was to put her hand where it ought to be. We turned around to look for it; fortunately, with all those wooden pallets it was floating just fine! I called they ship and told them what had happened.

J.B., seeing that the load was floating nicely, got very excited: "Mr. T, just do a 10-and-10 and I'll jump in after it!" (A 10-and-10 is an approach to the water flown at ten feet and ten knots for jumping rescue swimmers from the helo into the water.) "Right, J.B. and what are you going to do then?" I replied. "Well, I'll stand on the pallets, and you can bring it into a hover, and I'll just hook it up!" "Sure, J.B., and how are you going to get back to the boat?" I came back with. "Oh, sir, that's easy...I'll just ride the load!" J.B. replied. "Sure, J.B." I said.

Since the ship was at Flight Quarters, they had the lifeboat crew standing by; they were there to save our butts if the helo ever went into the water. Once we established with the ship that the load was floating nicely, they dropped the boat into the water to come fish it out. They had the boat in the water and were on the scene in five minutes! I was pretty impressed, especially since this was a Civil Service civilian crew (some crews were contractor crews) and the average age of Civil Service MSC mariners seemed to hover somewhere around 50. 

SO that's the story of Patsy and the hook. Nothing lost but a good story to tell.

Copyright 2001 Ray Trygstad, Naperville, Illinois
Email: trygstad@trygstad.org
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