I glanced out the window at the dark shadows of sharks just under the surface of the sea. Shaking my head, I willed myself to focus on the task at hand as I continued running through the checklist: checking my equipment, reviewing where the emergency release was on the door, miming unbuckling the seat harness and unplugging my comm cord, checking to make sure that the tiny oxygen bottle on my vest was charged and on. The bottle would provide about thirty seconds of air if we found ourselves plummeting to the bottom of the ocean. I was well aware of what to expect if we should have to ditch, as I had attended the thorough “dunker” training in Alabama, where you were strapped into a mock helicopter, shaken, plummeted into a pool, and flipped upside down. But out here in the ocean, there were no instructors standing ready to save you if you went under. There were no sharks in dunker training.
My summer had been filled with exciting missions: putting out wildfires in California, marijuana eradication from the vast national forests out west, and deploying to Texas for hurricane support. But my least favorite kind of mission would be the grand finale to that exhausting summer: a long- range overwater rescue mission. A fisherman on a freighter way out in the middle of the Pacific had been injured, so my crew and I had been dispatched to go pick him up and bring him to safety.
Years earlier, during my first assignment in the Air Force, I remember clearly sitting in a movie theater watching The Perfect Storm
when the film came out. I had cringed, barely able to watch, as the crew on the rescue helicopter realized they were unable to refuel off of their airborne tanker to make it to dry land. When they ditched into the ocean, I thought to myself, Whew . . . I really want to be a pilot, but I’ll never put myself in that situation. You’d have to be crazy to fly a helicopter out into the middle of the ocean!
Yet eight years later, there I was. Flying the same exact helicopter I had seen in the movie, out over the open ocean, unable to refuel, and looking for a shark- free place to ditch. Just my luck.
* * *
We launched out of San Diego in the morning, but we packed our night- vision goggles for the trip home. According to our mission-planning session the night before, we knew that we’d be hitting the tanker for the fourth time after nightfall. We packed some sandwiches and water for the trip, but I wondered if I’d even be able to eat, given the situation. Plus, I knew I’d need to nearly dehydrate myself to avoid having to tackle the complicated dance of trying to urinate in the helicopter. The guys just needed to keep an empty bottle handy, but for me there would be a bit more work involved.
The blanket of clouds overhead kept our altitude to a few hundred feet above water, but the weather report assured us that the ceiling would break up as we got farther from land, which was good news. Clear skies would ensure that we would be able to climb up to refuel off of the back of the C-130 that would be accompanying us.
As we went “feet wet,” which means crossing the coastline for the open ocean and waving good bye to land, we stepped through our appropriate checklists. These checklists were innocuous enough, but they only added to my anxiety.
For whatever reason, having to ditch into the ocean, The Perfect Storm
– style, represented my greatest fear of all of the possible contingencies we could face as a combat search- and- rescue platform, and it was a fear I had to overcome each and every time I went feet wet. Whether it was a training mission over a lake or a real- world water rescue, I always had to make myself take a deep breath as I stepped through the motions of the overwater checklist. I knew I wasn’t alone in this fear, but the rest of my crew seemed much more unhappy about the four aerial refuels we had scheduled during this flight.
To tell you the truth, as nerve- racking as it could be, aerial refueling is my absolute favorite thing to do. The goal is to aim the tip of the refueling probe into the basket at the end of the C-130’s hose. The probe is a metal tube that extends out from the right lower front of the aircraft, about eight feet past the edge of the rotor disk. The hose looks like a fireman’s hose with a round metal cage about eighteen inches across that has a stabilizing sort of parachute attached around it.
When we practice refueling, we follow the same steps each and every time. First we hold a steady course while we talk to the C-130 on the radio. They would execute a rendezvous by slowing down and creeping up behind and above us. We would answer by increasing power to climb and speed up. This was usually relatively easy when we did it real world, as we’d be light due to being on empty. It was a little more difficult when we would practice it if we were already full of fuel. Practicing this “single engine” (meaning with the power limited, as if you had lost an engine) was also a lot of fun, though. You’d need the C-130 to fly beneath you instead of above, and you’d dive down to the hose, trying to aim your refueling probe directly into the basket on the hose. You’d only get one shot at this, because technically, in real-world situations, you wouldn’t ever have the power to catch up and try again. One and done, basically, so you tried pretty hard not to miss.
On our flight that day out to the boat’s location, we hit the tanker to refuel about three hours into the trip. Then three hours later I took the controls for the second rendezvous with the C-130. It can be physically and mentally taxing to constantly have to refuel the helicopter, so the pilots generally take turns. As I settled in with the controls, Finn, the other pilot, chatted with the tanker on the radio, and the Flight Engineer (or FE) called out that he had the C-130 in sight above and behind us.
“Start your climb,” he said.
I gently pulled up on the collective, giving the aircraft more power, and dipped the nose slightly forward to maintain our speed. As per my usual habit, I took a deep breath and wiggled my fingers and toes to release any tension. I’ve always found that the worst thing you can do on a finesse maneuver like this is to grip the controls too tightly.
As I climbed, I glanced over and above my shoulder every few seconds until the C-130 came into view.
“Okay, he’s coming up on your right,” the FE called out, tracking the tanker in tenth-of-a-mile increments. “Half mile out . . . point four . . . point three . . . point two . . . You should see him.”
I looked up through the greenhouse, our nickname for the window in the roof.
“Got him. Coming up and right,” I announced, my eyes glued to the tanker.
I took the formation position behind and to the left of the bird, and they extended their hose. We ran the refueling checklist, and I maneuvered into position directly behind the basket. At this point, you are flying in a tight formation very close to the other aircraft, so close that we sometimes signal with lights or use hand signals to communicate from our windows to theirs. This is the moment when, as a pilot, you feel very much in control. But the crew members in the back of the plane, the so-called backenders, tend to get pretty quiet at this point in the maneuver.
I settled in behind the hose and took another deep breath, singing quietly to myself off intercom, as I always did before I started to make a run. Slowly increasing power and pushing the nose over slightly, I hit the basket dead center with enough force to connect; then I continued up and to the left until I was in the refuel position and the fuel started flowing.
“Damn, MJ. I never want to refuel with another pilot again,” the Gunner said. I smiled a thank- you. It was always a relief to everyone when we got the refuel over with— we had another three hours of gas on board now and could relax for a bit.
Refueling was a harrowing experience for the crew members in the back, as they had no control over the sometimes- bumpy aircraft flailing about, trying to “plug” within two dozen or so feet from the tanker at about 120 miles per hour. Some pilots would try to force it, making jerky corrections at the last minute or overcorrecting. Singing quietly always kept me from overthinking things and putting too much pressure on myself. It worked like a charm every time.
Whenever we flew a rescue mission over open ocean, I’d be blown away when the boat we were looking for eventually materialized out of the vast blue expanse of the ocean. It took my breath away every time. Nothing but deep, dark ocean for hours upon hours, and then, suddenly, our target appeared out of nowhere. It somehow felt like dumb luck every time.
The C-130 we had refueled from was on scene to support us and was circling overhead. They had already dropped their pararescue jumpers—also known as PJs—who had to parachute down to the boat to stabilize the patient. We got on scene right after our sister ship had picked up the patient and two of the PJs. When they were clear, we hovered in close to the boat to pick up the remaining two PJs with our hoist for the long trip back to land.
Now all we had to do was fly home. With the end of this long mission in sight, we climbed up to execute our third refueling rendezvous. Out in the middle of the vast blue ocean, the sun was just starting to set. Pretty soon we’d be on night- vision goggles, which would make our fourth refueling a real challenge.
We executed the rendezvous and connected to the hose without a problem, but when we began the refuel checklist, the Flight Engineer noticed that the gas wasn’t transferring. No big deal. That could be any one of a million different issues. Finn, who was flying at the time, gently jiggled the controls, trying to get whatever valve was stuck to unstick. Nothing. I flipped some switches back and forth. Still nothing. Finn decided to disconnect and try again. Nada. We crossed over and tried the other hose. No gas. Not good.
We disconnected again, floated back to the observation position, and started to discuss our options. Finn ran through the checklists and some troubleshooting options with the FE, trying everything we could think of. Then we plugged again and still couldn’t get any gas. As our fuel gauge ticked down closer to zero, the cold reality began to sink in. My greatest fear was materializing before me. We were going to have to ditch the bird in the middle of the freezing ocean just before nightfall.
I kept my toughest poker face on, but all I could think about was the helicopter that had ditched during The Perfect Storm and the brave men on board, not all of whom survived that mission. I listened wordlessly, desperately hoping we could find another solution.
Finn, who was a more senior pilot than I, started talking about our strategy. We would try to get back closer to the boat, and he would hover over the water while we all jumped out. Finn also thought he could possibly lower us to the ship if we had time. He would then offset away from us and put the helicopter down in the water before egressing and trying to escape the sinking aircraft by himself. I started thanking the universe that we had PJs on board. We all checked our equipment and looked around at each other uneasily.
“Okay, so that’s the plan. Anyone have any better ideas before I brief the tanker on it?” Finn asked.
His question was met with silence for several seconds. None of us liked the plan, I can guarantee it, but we didn’t have any better suggestions. We glanced around nervously at one another, all of us racking our brains for any other ideas that might not be by the book. Then the FE piped up.
“Hey, why don’t you try going zero G for a sec? Maybe the gas we have left will hit the top of the tank and shake something loose.”
We looked around. It sounded a little crazy, but might it work? At this point we were ready to try anything, absolutely anything, to avoid ditching out in the dark, cold abyss below us. We nodded at one another, and Finn started a sharp climb. At the crest, he dumped the collective to reduce power significantly and nosed the bird over. We all floated, held down only by our seat harnesses, as unsecured gear flew everywhere. The recovery at the bottom of the maneuver made the pit of my already uneasy stomach drop, but we leveled out without incident.
The extra time we had taken pulling this maneuver would definitely put us in a bind if we ended up having to ditch, but we knew it was at least worth a shot. It was time to hit the tanker one more time to see if it had worked. I think we were all holding our breath.
We hit the basket on the first try and climbed up to the refueling position. The C-130 was already aware of the issues we were having, due to our multiple plugs, so there were a lot of eager faces looking at us from the window of the cargo door. I flipped the switch to begin the fuel transfer, and we all stared at the gauge. A quiet moment ticked by: nothing. Then the needle quivered and started to move.
“Fuel flow established!” I exclaimed to huge cheers. I keyed the mic and relayed the good news to the tanker. I could hear the relief in their voices as they went from possibly being our overhead search support back to just being our tanker. I drew a shaky breath and started to laugh, listening to my crew doing the same.
Maintenance would never figure out what had happened, but I knew I had my FE to thank for keeping us out of the drink. His suggestion to try the unorthodox maneuver was due to his deep knowledge of the system, not because he had read the suggestion in some checklist. That mission wouldn’t be the last time that a Flight Engineer’s vast systems knowledge would likely save my life.
We hit the tanker for the fourth time on night- vision goggles without any issues, and the mood on board lightened. As we came in to land at the airfield in San Diego that night, the runway and taxiway lights beneath us made it seem as if we were descending down upon a blanket of stars. We were all aware of what had nearly happened, and the jokes we were throwing back and forth as we approached the airfield were tinged with an undercurrent of almost wild relief.
As we descended, my happiness began to dissipate.
Man, I needed to pee.
Copyright © 2020 by Mary Jennings Hegar. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.