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
IT IS LATE AFTERNOON SOMEWHERE IN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, but it doesn’t really matter what time or day it is. Time on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has little to do with the sun or the moon or the hands of a clock, and everything to do with the launch and recovery of aircraft from a ship plowing through the sea at 30 knots. Airplanes come and go 24 hours a day; on the Roosevelt they are the sun and moon. The helicopters hovering just off the Roosevelt’s starboard side? “We are pilgrims in an unholy land,” says Lieutenant Matt Persiani, “the booger on the air boss’ flight deck that he just wants to flick off so his jets can fly.”
Persiani is one of 23 Navy helicopter aviators in the Roosevelt’s HS-3 squadron, which flies six helicopters, Sikorsky SH-60 and HH-60 Seahawks. No jet launch or recovery takes place on the carrier unless one of those six are flying. In every flight cycle, helicopters are the first to take off and the last to land, ready to pluck an unfortunate jet driver or seaman from the drink. “The jet guys think they’re badass, but they fly an hour and a half and all they do is fight and bomb,” says Persiani, 26. “We fly four hours straight. When the jet guys go to sleep we’re on alert all night”—24 hours a day, a helicopter and crew can be in the air within 30 minutes.
The helo pilots never know what their flights will bring. In the past two days of training, Persiani has blown up a mine, hunted submarines, flown a night rescue, and patrolled the waters around the carrier for such terrorist threats as small boats, ready to blow them out of the water. One day he might be flying passengers from ship to ship, another ferrying bombs and garbage, another inserting SEALs deep into hostile territory. “We’re the ship’s jack of all trades,” he says.
The Roosevelt and its carrier air group are undergoing sea trials before deploying (exactly where and when is classified), and airplanes are flying in two-hour cycles, each broken by a half-hour pause. The helicopters never rest, however, landing just long enough to take on fuel or a fresh crew.
Whenever a carrier’s airplanes are airborne, one helo is always up and poised for rescue, flying within 20 miles of the carrier during the day, 10 miles at night. Every flight carries a diver ready to leap from the helicopter to rescue a downed aviator. The other primary mission is killing submarines—perhaps a carrier’s greatest threat, especially now, with the proliferation of cheap diesel subs operated by countries like Iran and North Korea. “There are a lot of them, and they’re hard to detect,” says Commander Tom Fitzgerald, HS-3’s skipper. “Especially in local waters where they know all the tricks. One of them could sink a carrier easily, and they cause a lot of anxiety.”
In this afternoon’s exercises, the carrier air group’s destroyer, 20 miles away from the carrier, has made contact with a U.S. sub pretending to be a bad guy somewhere below. Persiani’s job is to find it, and, if he can, kill it—“put ball to bat,” in anti-submarine warfare lingo. The SH-60F helicopter employs the AN/AQS-13F dipping sonar, which is lowered and retrieved via a 1,575-foot cable. The sub hunt starts after the battle group’s destroyer or a Navy P-3 Orion turboprop provides a coordinate. Once the helo is there, hovering 60 feet above the water, the sensor operator in back “dips the dome”—lowers the sonar, a three-foot-long black tube, through a hole in the helo’s floor and into the sea. The operator submerges the device to a depth of up to 1,500 feet, depending on intelligence and sea conditions, activates it, and waits for data to display on a small screen. The AN/AQS-13F is a long-range omnidirectional active sonar that works by transmitting and receiving sound waves: Objects within range of the sonar will reflect a transmitted sound wave back to the receiver, and the object’s distance is determined by the time it takes the transmitted sound wave to return. The AN/AQS-13F can also determine an underwater target’s bearing, as well as the rate at which it is traveling toward or away from the helicopter.
After the initial dip, the SH-60F goes “dip to dip,” with the sensor operator repeating the process of lowering the sonar, activating it, retracting it, and dunking it into another spot, trying to close on the submarine based on the sonar returns. The pilot and sensor operator work in tandem to dip as quickly as possible to home in on a prey that might be traveling at about 35 mph. If Persiani wanted to attack an enemy sub, he could launch the SH-60F’s two sonar-guided MK-50 torpedoes.
“Okay,” Persiani says, leaning over the back of one of the pilot’s leather chairs and facing his copilot, Lieutenant (junior grade) Kevin Chambley, and two other air crewmen in the squadron’s ready room. “We’ll be on a dedicated [anti-submarine warfare] mission today. There are two Kilos [super-quiet diesel-powered Russian attack submarines] out there. Are you guys ready to go kill ’em? Don’t know exactly what our tasking is, but we’ll be doing dip-to-dip so the flight maneuvers will be abrupt. Don’t know if they’ll use countermeasures. We’re not dedicated SAR [search and rescue], but the chance always exists; the swimmer deployment will be ten-ten”—with another helo assigned to guard airplanes, Persiani will be called for SAR only if necessary, and will be ready to put a diver in the water at an altitude of 10 feet and a speed of 10 knots.
After the brief, the crew heads up to the searing hot flight deck, crowded with airplanes and dozens of helmeted, goggled figures engaged in the complex symphony of launching and recovering supersonic jets. As soon as the last jet is recovered, a helo lands and Persiani and crew head to the gray aircraft. Its rotors are still turning even as it gets refueled. “No reason to shut down a perfectly working helicopter,” shouts Persiani. Often the machines go 14 or more hours without shutting down. As the previous crew exits, Persiani and Chambley climb in front, the two air crewmen in the back, one of them bearing a rucksack containing wetsuit, snorkel, mask, and fins. The two deck crew unfasten the chains securing the helo, pull the chocks from its landing gear, and run to the front of the helicopter, holding them up for Persiani. “I see two chocks and chains,” he says, and up we pop.
Moments later we fly 150 feet above royal blue water at 90 knots, hot humid air pouring through the open door. After 30 miles, we see the destroyer. Persiani tries to call it on the radio, but he doesn’t get an answer; the destroyer is mute. “I don’t know what’s going on—maybe they’re dead or something as part of the scenario,” he says. This is a war game, after all. The carrier, known as “Mom,” instructs Persiani to head 40 miles south to a missile-equipped cruiser. We bank hard and blast off again. The cruiser tells him to stand off to port—it’s about to shoot something. But before we do, the carrier radio tells Persiani to go identify another target, but stand off as soon as he does so he doesn’t get shot. Off we go again, another 20 miles. Persiani sees it’s another cruiser and reports his finding; wary of getting hit, he does not go closer. Get the hull number to be sure, the carrier tells him.
“Roger that,” says Persiani. Avoiding the cruiser’s weapons, he drops to 70 feet and comes in with the sun at his back. Nine miles is close enough: He IDs the ship and we turn around. Suddenly the destroyer is talking, giving us a coordinate for the sub, another 30 miles to the north. We scream to the spot, Persiani drops low and hovers, and the sonar operator deploys the sonar. The listening device has descended only 30 feet deep when Persiani is told a new coordinate. We reel in the sonar and scream away again. Four miles from the new coordinate, Persiani is told to come back to the carrier. Almost four hours have passed, and the sun is low on the horizon. Persiani is running low on fuel, and after dark he’ll need night-vision goggles.
“Crazy out there today,” he says in the ready room a few minutes later. “But normal. People know we’re available. No one ever tells the jet guys to change their mission from bombing. But we’re ready to do anything.”
The carrier is a warren of never-ending passageways and small rooms behind closed doors, each one a world unto itself. HS-3’s world is the ready room, 23 reclining leather seats lined up in rows by seniority (most senior to the front), each bearing an aviator’s name. Two video monitors show the action on the flight deck. White boards displaying the day’s mission schedule and weather line the walls. The smell of coffee is omnipresent. Any hour of the day, the ready room is full of pilots talking, studying, and checking e-mail on the room’s three computers, helmets and life vests of the crew on alert draped over their chairs. “Way to go Tomcat!” shouts someone, watching the video monitor as an F-14 fishtails and snags in the trap. “Way to foul the flight deck!” It’s a young crowd; nearly all but Fitzgerald, the grand old man at 42, are in their 20s.
There are four other rooms just like this one for the fixed-wing pilots; the two worlds rarely interact, except sometimes in the wardroom when jet and helicopter aviators share a meal or game of cards. The helicopter squadron is smaller in every way. There are, after all, just six helos on board and 23 helicopter aviators, versus 22 F-14s and 22 F/A-18s and 65 fighter jocks, each with attendant maintenance and logistics needs. Indeed, there are 1,700 fixed-wing personnel compared to 195 working rotary wing.
Truth be told, most Navy pilots enter training with dreams of catching tailhooks, not flying helicopters. “Seventy five percent of guys in flight school want to fly jets,” says Lieutenant Kevin Colon, 28, cradling a mug of coffee. “But every jet has one pilot and every helicopter two. There are a lot more helicopters in the Navy than jets, and not a lot of people recognize that.” Like all Navy pilots, they enter flight school and amass 120 hours in fixed-wing aircraft—T-34s—including aerobatics and formation flying. And then the moment comes. Where they end up is largely dependent on their grades, with higher-graded students getting first dibs on the fewer fighter slots. “You sit at a big round table with an officer, and he opens a file and proclaims your future,” says Persiani. “I wanted to fly jets, of course.”
Lieutenant Dan Boutros, 26, is unusual: He wanted helicopters from the beginning. “I never liked jets,” he says. “In school, I’d spent a month with a carrier helicopter squadron and thought they were the sexiest thing on earth.”
“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.
“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.”