Above & Beyond: Milk Run

How a milk run from an aircraft carrier nearly killed me

(David Clark)
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(Continued from page 2)

“Fifteen feet, 84 percent.”
I needed airspeed. I had to trade more altitude to get it, so I eased the cyclic forward a little more.

“Five feet, 84 percent.”
I checked the descent and stabilized in the ground effect run.

“Three feet, 83 percent.”
We were flying, and the rotor speed had stabilized, but I couldn’t seem to coax any acceleration out of it. This low, even a rogue wave could bring us down. Milk, I thought. Evil stuff.

With only the speed I had bought with the dive and no sign of acceleration, I despaired. Then the old salts spoke to me again. If you ever need a little something extra, try a 15-degree right yaw. The drag is negligible, but your aft rotors get undisturbed air.

What did I have to lose? I tapped the right pedal and the helicopter yawed.

“Two feet, 84 percent.”
Running through ditching procedures in my mind, I suddenly noticed the waves gliding by faster than they had only seconds before. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we were accelerating.

I glanced at the airspeed indicator and my heart leaped: It was passing 40 knots. Then I felt that beautiful shudder every helicopter pilot knows as translational lift, the point where the aircraft is flying like an airplane more than hovering like a helicopter.

“Five feet, 90 percent.”
Then another jolt—the generators were back, bringing the stability system with them. I accelerated through normal climb speed. At 90 knots and with rotor speed back, I finally had the confidence to leave the ground cushion that had saved us. Climbing through 100 feet, and over a mile from the carrier, the voice of authority once more rang in my headphones. “Great to see you flying, Knightrider. We were all holding our breath up here.”
So, the air boss had a heart after all.

Turning for home, I passed the controls to Dave, took a deep breath, and noticed that my hands were shaking. I’d made a rookie mistake, and very nearly paid for it with four lives and a helicopter.

I later learned that milk weighs 8.7 pounds per gallon, a far cry from the 6.5 I had estimated. I had taken off from the carrier more than 2,100 pounds overweight, not counting the weight of pallets and packaging.

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