“Hey Rotorhead! Go over to a corner and hover!” How many times had I shouted that at the Club with my fighter pilot buddies? Now, me a rotorhead? Not on your life! Well maybe....looks like the orders are official. There it was, “Report to HMT-301 for transition training in the CH-46 Helicopter.” It must be a mistake, after all, I had 5000 flight hours in single-pilot fixed wing/jet aircraft. Besides, I was a very senior major due for lieutenant colonel within the next year. Maybe the Marine Corps in all its wisdom decided to prevent me from collecting any retirement. Sure, that was it! Transition me to helicopters, send me back to Vietnam to be killed in helicopters. I would fool them! I could stay alive by becoming the best helicopter pilot in the Orient. I was going to enjoy flying formation on the big ball---the planet Earth.
I reported to MCAS Santa Ana, California in January 1971 to start my training in the “shuddering shithouse” as I called it. The experienced pilots referred to the Sea Knight as a “flying coffin.” The CH-46 had killed many pilots. Not just in combat. But, in operational training as well. The helicopter was limited to 140 knots because of the many airframes that had disintegrated in flight. Safety investigators blamed the maximum speed for creating fatigue failures which caused numerous fatal accidents. My good buddy Larry Bagwell was killed in the 46 only a year earlier. The Sea Knight was a mainstay for support of the ground Marines. It could insert a platoon of troops with fighting gear into combat landing zones and extract them in a highly successful manner. My big concern at first was, “What the hell are those huge hangars used for?” That was the question I put to the squadron operations officer when I checked-in to my new squadron. “The hangars are old blimp hangars from World War two. We use them for helicopter maintenance.” He continued, “The hangars are scheduled to be National Monuments in a year or two. They will be here forever.” The Ops Officer didn’t seem impressed with all my jet hours and my total flight time.
I quickly discovered that my old fighter pilot routine of “kick the tire and light the fire” wasn’t going to work any more. There must have been over five thousand cotter pins in the flight controls accessory section which required individual confirmation of proper security. One senior helo pilot seemed a little goofy to me and I questioned my flight instructor one day, “What is the matter with Fred?” The instructor replied, “Fred, fell off the aft rotor too many times while conducting the pre-flight.” It was a long drop from the rotors to the ground, but a thorough inspection of all important nuts and bolts was imperative--if a helicopter pilot wanted to stay alive.
Taxiing a helicopter requires much more control finesse and manipulation than any airborne maneuver in any other type of flying machine. It was much easier to hover the helicopter than to taxi it. Procedures required use of taxiways going to and from the runways for takeoff and after landing. Hovering or air taxiing caused too much dust and created excessive rotor wash around other helicopters, buildings, and pedestrians. The most difficult part of my transition from fixed winged to rotary winged aircraft was learning to taxi. That was because in order to taxi successfully, coordinated use of all flight controls was required. Who in hell would expect a helicopter to taxi? The first attempt I made at taxiing through the fuel pits resulted in nearly tipping over during an attempt to turn the CH-46. Naturally I over controlled my correction and pulled up the collective to keep the rotors from beating the helicopter to pieces. The resultant rotor wash blew the refuelers Porta Potty inverted into a ten foot deep ditch that ran through the base. Luckily no one was in the porta crapper when I launched it. I caught a lot of flak over that incident.
My first flight was out to an outlying field called Mile Square. I was going to learn to hover. We crossed over two freeways and several large developments before I caught sight of the triangle of runways set in the center of an entire section of land. I saw the greens, traps, fairways and tees of golf links nestled into the open areas adjacent to the three runways on the south side of the military property. The instructor was a Marine Captain who talked throughout the flight. The rotating blades gave his voice a high pitched buzz. Like he had a vibrator in his mouth. I felt as though my butt was doing circular movements in the pilot seat. Sort of like doing the Hula-Hoop dance while sitting down. The pilot commenced descending as we approached the nearest runway. We were passing through about 50 feet of altitude when I noticed golfers on the green directly below us were throwing their hats, jumping up and down, and shaking their fists and index fingers at us. “What the hell is wrong with those guys?” I asked. “Are they anti-Vietnam?” The instructor answered, “They’re a bunch of ingrates! The Marine Corps allowed civilians to put a golf course on government property and then they hate our guts for interfering with their putts and tee shots. Piss on them,. I say!” That figures, I thought. Everyone is owed the pleasures and advantages they enjoy. As we passed over a golf foursome, a golfer flung his club up in our direction as though to knock us out of the air and thereby remove his torment. He lacked accuracy and distance which was probably why his game was not up to par.
The instructor took me down to ten feet and demonstrated how to hover using a square box painted on the approach end of the runway. After a few demonstrations., he said, “You have it!” I took over and commenced to overpower and overcorrect the flight control movements necessary to hover the helicopter. After about ten minutes, I was able to fly formation on the “Big Ball” with some confidence. Then it was practice going sideways, going backwards, and turning on a dime. It was a great deal of fun and I suddenly knew that flying my new machine was going to be an experience which I was going to thoroughly enjoy. While returning to home base on my first flight, I found myself wishing that we could stay out longer and continue practicing hovering and performing new maneuvers.
I caught on to CH-46 flying in a hurry. Soon we were landing in all the many zones in the mountains and at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. We went aboard Jeep Carriers and Cruisers--Landing ships and Destroyers. Every new phase was eagerly learned and mastered. New and more difficult operations were looked forward to each day. When the weather was poor, the helicopters were flown Special VFR (visual flight rules) instead of flying IFR (instrument flight rules). I mentioned that it was strange to me to fly so close to the ground dodging power lines, trees, and other obstruction instead of filing an IFR clearance request and climbing above the fog and adverse weather. The Operations Officer said, “We fly IFR. IFR means ‘I fly roads!’”
One day I was told to take a cadaver down to the Naval Hospital in San Diego. The Station Corpsmen loaded the body on the plane and we departed for Balboa Naval Hospital. We flew down at fifteen hundred feet above the beach. Halfway to Camp Pendleton was a Tourist Vista along the San Diego freeway. The cliffs along the shoreline were about sixty feet high. The vista was a one hundred feet high mound about 200 yards in diameter. An eight foot fence surrounded the mound and kept sightseers from going forward across about 100 feet of cleared level terrain to the cliffs. I made a mental note of a bench marker triangular device at the edge of the cliff right in front of the view point. I told the safety pilot with me, “We will visit the view point on our way back.” The aircraft commander was a young nugget assigned to fly with me as a safety pilot since I had just received my H2P helicopter copilot designation. I was flying the right seat in preparation for being designated HAC, Helicopter Aircraft Commander. One crew chief was assigned. We dropped the body bag off at Balboa and started back up the coast.
We passed the entry to Camp Pendleton and checked in with their tower operators. I took the helicopter down to within ten feet of the water and proceeded up the coast staying close to the cliffs. Soon, the white bench mark was visible ahead. I set the collective to maintain the maximum allowable speed of 140 knots. The bench mark rapidly neared until we were directly abeam and fifty feet below the device. I pulled back on the stick sharply while pulling the nose to the right for 90 degrees of turn. I pushed the stick left , taking the 90 degrees of bank out and commenced zooming up the face of the cliff to cross the cliffs 90 degrees to the coastline. As we popped above the cliff, I pumped the stick forward and then back as I bottomed the collective to idle power and then held the stick back to stop the helicopter short of the fence. ”Whop! Whop! Whop!” The huge blades beat the air straining to arrest the forward movement. The beating blades created such a forward force of wind that paper, trash, and brush were blown against the fence. Thirty feet from the fence the helicopter slowed and finally reached zero speed. I noticed two teen aged girls standing at the fence looking out to the Pacific Ocean. They turned and started clawing and climbing their way up the mound in efforts to get away from the flailing helicopter. The wind force from the blades blew their full dresses and slips up over their heads. There they were bent over holding onto the ice plant indecently mooning the helicopter crew. The crew chief started yelling, “Look at that! Look at that!” as we entered a smooth hover. With the force from the high angle of attack off the blades, the helicopter whirred quietly and smoothly. The young ladies were able to stand erect and with some difficulty and after several adjustments they were able to bring their slips and dresses back down to a decent position. They scrambled up the hill as dozens of viewers gathered at the edge of the parking lot nearest to our hovering helicopter. I held a steady hover for about five minutes. “Time to go!” I said. I didn’t want my side number to be visible as I departed since many viewers had their cameras out shooting pictures. I feared we could be put on report for public endangerment or some other asinine gripe. So I started backing slowly away from the crowd and backwards towards the edge of the cliffs. Soon the sharp edge of the cliff passed under our feet and then our rotor path cleared the vertical wall. With that, I dropped the collective and descended to beach level. We turned left and I pulled in full power to leave the area. We were quickly at 140 knots and turned northwest toward Tustin and away from the coast.
We landed at Santa Ana and refueled at the isolated fuel pits before going to the squadron parking ramp. At the flight line after shutdown, we did a walk around safety inspection. I noticed the crew chief go over to a group of other crew chiefs and do much gesturing and animating as though explaining something important to the others. It was just another routine flight as far as I was concerned. However, the next morning when my co-pilot and I walked up to the line shack to sign out a CH-46, I noticed three extra crew chiefs with sack lunches manifested to fly with us even though it was their day off. They were laughing and scratching like they anticipated some special event to occur. I decided not to disappoint them.
The mission for the day was to check all twelve of the practice mountain landing zones which were scattered up the north and west slopes of Saddleback Mountain. Old Saddleback was shaped like a double humped camel and rose over six thousand feet above the remnants of the Irvine Ranch and Orange County. I enjoyed making approaches and landings to all the landing sites. Hunters, campers and hikers sometimes were found on the sites and had to be chased away. The sites were posted with hazard signs and no trespassing notices.
We were approaching site eleven when I noticed a car parked on the dirt road about fifty yards from the landing zone. We could see something behind the car. From five hundred feet away, it looked like a square blanket. I started auto-rotating down toward the car. When we were about fifty feet away we could see there was a mattress on the road behind the car. And, a nude couple were fornicating on the mattress. I entered a hover about ten feet above and twenty feet away from the mattress. The girl kicked the young man off her and ran into some manzanita bushes beside the road. The four crew chiefs were cheering, laughing and shouting all manner of insults at the hapless couple. The young man pulled up his trousers looking like someone jumping up and down while riding a broom. The man shook his fist at us and then picked up the mattress. He folded it over once and with the trunk open, shoved and pushed until the mattress would let the trunk door lock. The nude girl cowered in the manzanita. I climbed the helicopter up about thirty feet and started a turn as though departing the area. The girl ran out of the manzanita and headed for the car. I quickly dropped the collective and turned back to the car. The girl again scurried into the manzanita. We went through that routine about four times while the young man got into the car and kept gesturing to the girl to get in the car. The crew chiefs were hooting and shouting at the couple. The girl's modesty was humorous considering what we had observed her doing in her birthday suit only minutes before. Feeling sorry for her we quit the harassment and progressed on to site twelve. The crew chiefs were not happy with the termination of their fun. After our return to base, we refueled and shut down. Once again, there was a gathering of crew chiefs. I could tell that our day’s escapade was being passed on to tomorrows extra crew members.
The training missions sent our helicopters to all military bases in Southern California. Several trips were made to Marine Base Twenty Nine Palms which we referred to as “Twenty-nine Stumps”. That is how I discovered Giant Rock Celestial Airport. Giant Rock sat on the edge of the Marine Base east of Yucca Valley, California. The airport consisted of a sand runway cut out of the cactus and rocks of the Mojave Desert. The rock itself was a huge marble shaped chunk of granite about 200 feet in diameter. A basement type living area was carved out under the rock . The abode was about the size of a two bedroom cottage. A lot of history was written and drawn on the walls of the cave home. Mr. George W. Van Tassel owned the property. He moved there in 1947 and started operating the Giant Rock Airport. Van Tassel opened a restaurant beside the runway which his wife Eva ran. She was famous for the delicious home-made pies she always had for airport visitors. The Marine helicopter pilots learned of Eva’s pies and made Giant Rock a regular stopping place. During the many lunch breaks we took at Eva’s restaurant, we learned much about George and the events that had occurred at Giant Rock. George hosted the first Mojave Desert Flying Saucer Fly-in at Giant rock. During the early 1950’s flying saucers were said to have appeared at Giant Rock on several occasions. One of the flying saucer visits created a tale that defied belief.
As the story goes, a flying saucer landed at Giant Rock when only George, Eva and one of his three daughters were there. The aliens reportedly invited George aboard the saucer for a ride. The captain left one of his crew at Giant Rock to make room on the ship for George. He was whisked about at blazing speeds and impossible high G darting type maneuvers. George asked the saucer commander how old he was. The alien told him in English that he was 700 years old. The alien also told George that his planet had a secret for longevity which permitted them to live 10 times longer than humans on Earth. The story is that the alien gave George the secret to such longevity. That is how George Van Tassel got the plans for his rejuvenation machine, the Integratron.
A complicated adjunct to the Integratron tale was the rumor that his daughter had been taken advantage of by the alien at Giant Rock while George was up in the Space Ship. Legend has it that the daughter became pregnant from her encounter and that the baby would take nine years to be born rather than the usual nine months on earth. People reported that for several years George’s daughter appeared pregnant but no word of the actual birth of the alien-human child has ever been reported. In 1953 George Van Tassel founded a science/religious philosophy called, “The Ministry of Universal Wisdom.” George pursued his rejuvenation efforts through donations from elderly people hoping to extend their lives. The dome-shaped Integratron was erected and stood out starkly against the desert landscape. The complicated anti-magnetic central mechanism of the rejuvenator was always close to being completed. It is not known how successful George was at extending his life. Eva passed away from cancer in the mid 1970’s and we ceased stopping at Giant Rock Celestial Airport for pie.
A lot of crazy things were done during the transition training. Most odd activities happened while trying to build the flight time necessary to obtain the HAC designation and thereby qualify for overseas helicopter replacement pilot orders. We sometimes carried bicycles up to the landing sites. When starting down Saddleback from site twelve, we would shoot an approach into each site. The crew chiefs would try to race the bikes down to the next site to try and arrive ahead of the helicopter. They usually won. By the time we climbed out turned down the road and tried to follow the tight turns and elevation changes, the crew chiefs would be at the next zone ready for pick up.
A particularly hazardous practice which gave me great pleasure was flying out to the desert and landing on the pinnacles that towered thousands of feet straight up from the desert floor. These were the places that rock climbers spent days trying to scale and usually didn’t succeed. Some were so pointed on top and so small that only one wheel would fit on the peak. We always carried a spray can of paint. The crew chief would take the spray can and paint the date and our initials on the top of the pinnacle. We often opined how the rock climbers would feel after their terrifying climb to find someone else had already been there. What a letdown for those dare-devils. One day we conquered three very sheer and narrow spires that were nearly two thousand feet high.
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.