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Rotary Club

In the populous acreage of an aircraft carrier, the corner occupied by helo pilots is small, scrappy, and loud.

We ascend to 2,000 feet, flying beneath some diaphanous clouds, then drop to 150 feet.

“Let’s go do some SAR!” Colon barks.

The crewman in back grabs a smoke flare, perches at the door’s edge, and the helo rears up, slowing to 50 knots. “Cleared to deploy smoke,” the crewman says.

“Now, now, now,” he says, popping the cap and throwing the flare out. With the crewman in back directing him, Colon drops to 10 feet. Stirred up by the rotor wash, the water is roiling. “Jump, jump, jump!” yells the crewman, simulating the drop of a rescue swimmer. Colon flies to 70 feet, hovers, and drops down to make the rescue.

“The crewman in back runs the rescue,” says Colon as we tool back and forth over the blue sea. “If it is night, we overfly, pick a spot, and put the flare in the water to see the downed man and which way the wind is blowing. We’re on goggles. The pilot flies and the copilot engages the helicopter’s automatic approach system to zero airspeed at 70 feet. Once we’re stabilized, we hand over control to the guy in back, who can move the helicopter left or right or forward and backward.”

We fly for hours, the pilots chitchatting, the sonar man snoozing, coming close to Mom and flying away again. It is all endless practice, endless waiting. If things go right, they will never do anything real at all, save the occasional hauling of people or cargo. The jet guys may never go to war, of course, but over the last few years they have, in the Middle East and the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. But jets don’t go splash in the water or get shot down very often, and a Navy helicopter has never, ever actually attacked an enemy submarine. Says Tom Fitzgerald: “The day we start killing someone else’s subs for real is a very bad day.”

“Look,” says Persiani later, downing a Coke and dinner in the wardroom, “we may never hunt a real sub, but it’s cool and we have to be ready. We have to be true to our roots, but in a lowly lieutenant’s opinion we’re going to be doing more and more strike warfare.” Indeed, as special operations has increased in importance, the Navy is gearing up for carrier helicopter pilots to play a more aggressive role, and the squadron is hoping for an additional HH-60H. Persiani has high hopes that in the Gulf he’ll be able to fly from a land base somewhere into hostile territory to insert and remove Navy SEALs, a job that is always done with jets flying support. Despite the ribbing between tailhookers and helo pilots, it’s a job that brings the two camps closer together. “We’re the only helicopter pilots in the Navy who train with the rest of the jet guys, and we live in their environment and we understand them,” says Persiani. “Even if it’s hard sometimes, as the S-3 guys say, to look cool in an aircraft with windshield wipers.” 

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