Dad then noticed what the others had missed. Years later, he told me he shouted to Simpson, “Set your rotor brake!” and as the blades slowed to a halt, he had him look back at his tail rotor. “Simpson’s eyes got as big as saucers,” he recalled. Six inches from the tip of one of the two tail rotor blades, a 9.5- by 4-inch piece had been gouged out. Simpson’s helicopter was the other collider in the mid-air strike.
A main rotor blade and a tail rotor blade were dispatched from Santa Ana by truck—mechanics replaced both on site—and both aircraft continued to San Diego, landing aboard Valley Forge later that afternoon.
The eight Marines aboard the two helicopters knew just how close they had come to tragedy. Mere inches separated them from death or serious injury. In the accident report that followed, Mitchener accepted “full responsibility for leading the flight into the [clouds]. Had I elected to descend rather than climb, I feel sure the accident would not have occurred.” The accident board agreed, concluding that the primary cause of the accident was the flight leader’s deviation from his visual clearance. However, it added that “[w]hen [Mitchener] announced his intention to climb on a heading of 200 degrees, had the wingman (Major Simpson) adjusted his course accordingly, this accident probably would have been avoided.”
Eleven months later, in front of a Dayton, Ohio airshow crowd of 100,000 and under a clear sky, a formation of HRS helicopters had just made a simulated troop drop when the main rotor blade of one collided with the tail rotor blade of the HRS in front of it. Both plummeted to the ground. The two pilots survived; one helicopter was destroyed by fire, and the other was heavily damaged. The next morning, the Associated Press described the helicopter midair as “possibly the first in history.”
I think Dad beat them to the punch.
Craig Thorson has amassed some 17,000 hours in everything from Cessna 150s to Boeing 767s. He has flown in a helicopter but is sorry to say he has never piloted one.