In the populous acreage of an aircraft carrier, the corner occupied by helo pilots is small, scrappy, and loud.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
(Page 3 of 4)
“I’d never even set foot in a helicopter,” says Persiani, “and three weeks after flying the T-34, I’m flying one. But I have no regrets. None. I’d pick ’em now.”
After six levels of rotary-wing training, helo pilots become qualified to fly their most dangerous missions: strike-rescue flights deep into enemy territory, at night, flying the HH-60H version of the Seahawk, which is equipped with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, chaff dispensers, and machine guns. Carrier pilots are the only ones in the Navy to fly the HH-60H, and Persiani spent a month in Fallon, Nevada, and a week in Norfolk, Virginia, training with F-14 Tomcats, F/A-18 Super Hornets, and SEALs and honing his low-altitude skills. “You’re flying at night in goggles in hostile territory and it’s intense and difficult,” he says. “You’re right over the trees, almost dragging your wheels on the ground, rotor tip to rotor tip, with the jet guys in F-18s guarding you and F-14s controlling you, and the [need to maintain] situational awareness is almost overwhelming. We don’t have a single light on and our goal is to land on a survivor within the arc of our rotors and be gone within one minute. That’s strike warfare and only carrier helicopters can do it.”
It’s just after noon the next day when Kevin Colon and his copilot take off for another flight. We hover off the side of Mom for a few minutes, then dart away, eye a nearby freighter, then check a Perry-class frigate against a reconnaissance information card all helicopter pilots carry. “See any other surface contacts out there?” says Colon.
“I don’t see jack!” says the copilot.
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.