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Above & Beyond: Milk Run

How a milk run from an aircraft carrier nearly killed me

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For any Navy pilot flying aircraft carrier operations, the voice of the air boss, the officer in charge of all air operations on deck, is the sound of absolute authority. For this Navy helicopter pilot, the air boss represented trouble. He was a tyrant with a hair trigger.

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In 1988 I was flying the Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight, a tandem-rotor helicopter deployed on the USS Niagara Falls, a support ship in the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Battle Group. My crew and I delivered “beans and bullets” to the fleet. We hit the Ike every other day, restocking whatever was needed to keep a city at sea afloat. Ammunition, food, machinery, mail—referred to as “pony”—the ships in the battle group relied on us for everything except fuel. It was exciting, challenging flying, and I loved it. But always, just below the surface, was the fear of raising the ire of the air boss.

One morning, flying as Knightrider zero six, we launched before dawn on a replenishing mission. We moved tons of cargo attached as sling loads beneath the helicopter.

By noon we had only a load of internal cargo left to deliver. I radioed the carrier. “Boss, Knightrider zero six, 10 miles out for landing.”
“Recoveries in progress. Take Starboard Delta,” he replied, directing us into an established holding pattern.

We watched as jets made approaches and “trapped” (caught one of the arresting cables) or “boltered” (missed the wires and went around for another try). We should be next, I thought, once all the jets were aboard. But the voice of authority had other plans. “I’ve got another cycle 15 minutes out, Knightrider. I’ll recover them first, then bring you aboard.”
“Haven’t got fuel for that, Boss,” I said.

“Then go get some,” he snapped.

He knew we could get in and out in five minutes, but he was the air boss, so I bit my tongue and turned for the Falls. Then I remembered those orange bags marked U.S. Mail. In a mariner’s heart, mail call ranks just below liberty call. Not even an air boss can resist mail call. I keyed the microphone. “We have pony aboard, Boss.”
Everyone in the control tower would be staring at him. If he didn’t land us, all 6,000 sailors aboard would soon know he had denied them a mail call.

“Knightrider, you’re clear to land, spot three,” he relented, specifying the forward spot on the angled flight deck.

I flew a shallow approach, careful not to let my rotor wash disrupt his flight deck. As soon as I touched down, my aircrew lowered the ramp and began pushing pallets down the rollers to the forklifts. Minutes after receiving the air boss’ grudging clearance, we were empty and ready to go.

“Knightrider zero six, ready to lift, spot three,” I transmitted.

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