Submarine Helicopter Carrier

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Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#1 Post by FD2 » Fri May 31, 2019 11:42 pm

Written in an over-excited style and inaccurate in places, like being able to manoeuvre a submarine accurately under a hovering helicopter, the basis of this story is true. The HSS-1 was basically a fore-runner to the turbine engined Sikorsky S58T, built under licence by Westland as the Wessex 1 initially. The HSS-1 was fitted with a large rotary Leonides-type piston engine and was used successfully by 25 armed forces around the world. The French Navy was still using them in 1973 and I was lucky enough to be taken on a local navigation exercise in one around the Toulon area. The pilot was a keen pipe smoker and when he had finished he banged the still smoking pipe on the window frame to empty it. Avgas? - pas de probleme!

On Thursday, 26 April 1956, off the southern coast of Florida about 20 miles from Key West, Cmdr. William F. Culley of Augusta, Georgia noticed a problem mid-flight. Culley, the pilot of Navy helicopter #51 on an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) training run as part of Squadron VX-1, realized that he was losing oil quickly from the main rotor assembly. He was too far from the coast to return for an emergency landing. Culley’s mind raced as he considered his options. Bailing was certainly possible, giving Culley and his three fellow crewmembers the best opportunity to survive the incident, although at the cost of a very expensive Navy helicopter—the Sikorsky HSS-1, known as the Seabat because of its ASW package. Finding a small cay in the vicinity to land on would be ideal, but a sweep of the ocean landscape failed to show any small land masses that might have provided such an opportunity. Crashing into the ocean was not a desirable option. Culley, his co-pilot Lt. J. K. Johnson, and two other crewmembers, G.A. DeChamp (SO3) and M.R. Dronz (AT2), realized that they had precious minutes to make a decision before mechanical failure required a costly abandonment. A “May-Day” call was sent from the helicopter in hopes that another Navy or even merchant vessel could lend a hand.
Meanwhile, not far from the distressed chopper, the USS Corporal (SS-346), assigned to the submarine base at Key West, was submerged, also participating in the ASW exercises as a designated opposing boat. The Corporal was a Balao-class submarine. She was built at the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut and commissioned shortly after the conclusion of World War II in November 1945. She carried a complement of 10 officers and about 70 enlisted men. The Corporal was 312 feet in length with a beam of 27 feet, 3 inches. As it turned out, she would need every inch of that beam for her next unscheduled assignment.
The radio shack of the Corporal intercepted the May-Day call from the disabled helicopter. This news was communicated immediately to the sub’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Erman O. Proctor in the Conn. He wasted little time.. “Emergency surface. Blow all main ballast.” The words reverberated over the sub’s 1-MC as the Corporal executed an emergency blow and came to the surface with a gargantuan splash. In contact with the helicopter, Proctor ascertained that the chopper could remain airborne for only a short time longer. Culley requested the Corporal to make heavy knots in his direction to pick up survivors should the need to ditch the helicopter arise.
The Corporal radioed that they were on their way to the scene directly and then proceeded at flank speed to the provided coordinates of the chopper. In just a few minutes, the Corporal made it first visual contact of the stationary chopper suspended only a short distance above the ocean surface. Moving in to the helicopter’s immediate vicinity, Proctor had an idea that he shared with Culley. “How about attempting an on-deck landing?” The reply from the chopper was emphatic: “Hell yes, let’s give it a go.” Absolutely no one wanted to see a valuable asset plunge needlessly to the ocean depths; the replacement price for the Sikorsky helicopter was about $250,000.
The Corporal carefully positioned itself directly under the still-hovering helicopter. Communications between chopper and submarine continued at a fast and furious pace. The mechanical issue with the helicopter prevented it from turning in any direction; hovering was still functional, but no adjustment in heading could be made from the cockpit. Once the Corporal understood this problem, the submarine maneuvered herself in the open seas such that her after deck was lined up with the landing wheels of the chopper. But did the helicopter have enough room to land on the deck? The answer wasn’t entirely clear from visual inspection by the submarine party standing topside and looking up at the spinning blades of helicopter #51.
There were two critical issues to ponder. First, was the beam of the submarine wide enough to accommodate the landing wheels of the helicopter? The answer to that question wasn’t immediately clear to those crewmembers of the Corporal who had gone topside to inspect the underside of the hovering helicopter. (The “recovery party” in this case consisted of volunteers headed up by the COB.) Second, assuming that there was enough room from side to side, could the pilot of the helicopter bring her down in the very tight window from fore to aft on the submarine deck without striking the sail with its main rotor or the fantail with its rear rotor? Since no one had ever seriously contemplated the answers to these questions, all the men could do was to look closely and guess. To all who were there, it seemed like a very tight proposition, but there seemed to be just enough room from fore to aft and from port to starboard along the after deck to give it a shot. Still, given the vagaries of the sea and wind conditions that could shift the relative positions of the submarine and helicopter, the whole idea was incredibly risky. However, short of dumping the chopper there seemed to be no other viable alternatives, so the submarine crew prepared for the surprise drop-in.
The COB and his topside men had no protocol manual to draw from. They simply relied on their instincts to mitigate the risks of the impending landing—such as taking down the long wire antenna to avoid an inadvertent snag. The men then grabbed mooring lines in preparation for the next step. The helicopter began its final descent as pilot Culley attempted to keep his bird directly over the centerline of the submarine hull. Except for one intrepid sailor, the members of the recovery party stayed crouched at a safe distance just forward of the sail during this time. The person who volunteered to remain in harm’s way was engineering officer LTJG George Ellis, who braced himself along the after edge of the sail and provided hand signals for the pilot to fine-tune his landing. Ellis’ role was critical as the margin for error was razor-thin. He risked serious injury or even death from any errant move during his makeshift role as a signal officer, as the main rotor blades of the descending helicopter spun very close to his head.
The radio shack of the sub sent the message, “Do you think you will make it?” Any response from the helicopter was delayed, since the message was received just as the three wheels of the chopper (2 front, 1 rear) made contact with the weather deck. The landing had to be absolutely perfect, and fortunately the seas had become mercifully calm during the attempt. With the precise teamwork between the hand signals of LTJG Ellis and the considerable skill of the chopper pilot, the bird miraculously touched down. Incredibly, a small part of each front wheel ended up overhanging the deck edge on each side, but there was just enough room for most of the rubber for the helicopter to remain stable topside. The men on board estimated that an inch or two longer span on the landing gear would have made the attempt a no-go.
“We’re on your deck and damn happy to be here!”, came the relieved reply from the helicopter. The pilot had stuck the landing on the very first try. The recovery party rushed over with their mooring lines to tie up the chopper to the submarine. It was the first time that a submarine had ever rescued a helicopter, and it was entirely coincidental (and fortuitous) that the width of the submarine deck was just enough to accommodate the chopper’s landing gear.
Once the blades of the helicopter had spun to a complete stop and the assembly was properly secured, the crew emerged onto the deck, where they were met by Lt Cmdr. Proctor. “Welcome aboard!”, offered the skipper, in perhaps one of the most unusual unplanned visits in submarine history. The guests were escorted down the hatch and offered food and drink, while the Corporal steamed back to the Naval Annex at Key West, arriving just before sunset around 1830 hours local time. Word had spread about the plight of the helicopter and the unconventional heroism aboard the Corporal that had saved her; as a result, a large crowd had gathered spontaneously at the pier to greet both submarine and helicopter. It must have been quite a curious sight to witness the sleek submarine heading into her berth with the most unlikely bounty lashed to her dorsal hull.
Navy mechanics made the necessary repairs to the helicopter rotor casing after a large crane lifted the bird from its precipitous perch on the Corporal. The broken oil casing was replaced, and the chopper again was ready for flight. Subsequently, the four-man crew climbed back into the cabin to depart, after grateful handshakes had been exchanged all around. Giving the thumbs up, Cmdr. Culley started the main engine, and those assembled at the pier to see the chopper off held onto their hats as the big bird took to the sky. In minutes, the helicopter was out of sight, and the men of the Corporal had themselves the yarn of a lifetime—about the big one that didn’t get away.

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#2 Post by Alisoncc » Sat Jun 01, 2019 1:24 am

Good one FD2. Most enjoyable read.

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#3 Post by Mrs Ex-Ascot » Sat Jun 01, 2019 6:35 am

FD2 thankyou for the interesting post, most enjoyable. :)
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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#4 Post by Boac » Sat Jun 01, 2019 7:34 am

Quite amazing. Another piece of fantastic military aviation history un-earthed. Thanks, FD

Presumably the idea in the head of 'Soapy' on the Alraigo in '83... :))

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#5 Post by FD2 » Sat Jun 01, 2019 8:03 am

Poor lad! If only he had remembered the brakes...

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#6 Post by G-CPTN » Sat Jun 01, 2019 8:18 am

Amazing story - good read!
Thanks - more like that?

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#7 Post by FD2 » Sat Jun 01, 2019 9:57 am

I'll have a scout around.

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#8 Post by ian16th » Sat Jun 01, 2019 10:50 am

The guests were escorted down the hatch and offered food and drink,
Being a USN boat, not of the alcoholic kind [-X

A great story, thanks.
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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#9 Post by CharlieOneSix » Sat Jun 01, 2019 11:17 am

FD2 wrote:
Fri May 31, 2019 11:42 pm
..... and inaccurate in places....
A good Boys Own story though.
......realized that he was losing oil quickly from the main rotor assembly......
How would he know it was from the main rotor - unless it started shuddering itself to bits. Damper assembly?
....The Corporal carefully positioned itself directly under the still-hovering helicopter......
Ha ha ha! :YMAPPLAUSE:
....The mechanical issue with the helicopter prevented it from turning in any direction; hovering was still functional, but no adjustment in heading could be made from the cockpit.......
Me no understand this. More likely was that he didn't want to disturb the status quo of being in the hover more than he had to and only manoeuvred sideways to land once the submarine was alongside.
......Navy mechanics made the necessary repairs to the helicopter rotor casing. ...The broken oil casing was replaced, and the chopper again was ready for flight.
Oil casing? Would make it appear to be the main gearbox? That wouldn't stop him turning. It must have been something to do with the main rotor damping.

A good bit of flying though - absolutely no room for error. No emergency flotation gear available on helicopters in the 50's, no wonder he didn't want to ditch unless he had to. At least those up front of RN Wessex in our time kept their feet dry in the event of a ditching - as long as the flotation gear worked!
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The helicopter pilots' mantra: If it hasn't gone wrong then it's just about to...

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#10 Post by Rwy in Sight » Sat Jun 01, 2019 6:28 pm

Nice pic C16, BOAC could you give us a lead about your story?

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#11 Post by G-CPTN » Sat Jun 01, 2019 6:51 pm

Rwy in Sight wrote:
Sat Jun 01, 2019 6:28 pm
BOAC could you give us a lead about your story?
Sea Harrier did an emergency landing on a Spanish Cargo ship: the Alraigo

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#12 Post by CharlieOneSix » Sat Jun 01, 2019 10:31 pm

....or if you don't want to know about G-CPTN's link to the new St Albans Post Office :D try here :

The Alraigo Incident
The helicopter pilots' mantra: If it hasn't gone wrong then it's just about to...

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#13 Post by G-CPTN » Sat Jun 01, 2019 10:34 pm

Oh dear - I normally check my links after I have p*sted them . . .

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Re: Submarine Helicopter Carrier

#14 Post by FD2 » Sun Jun 02, 2019 12:06 am

'Soapy' Watson showed good initiative for someone with so few hours under his belt. If the container hadn't been slippery, or he hadn't forgotten the brakes, or the captain hadn't altered course or speed, etc., he would have been feted, but it's good to see he wasn't put off and went on to get nearly 3,000 hours before leaving, including an exchange with the USN - great stuff. It would be interesting to know what was happening on the Alraigo's bridge - the noise must have been absolutely deafening!

The submarine helicopter carrier story was originally published in 'American Submariner' which accounts for its lack of anything but the most basic knowledge of helicopters.

An instructor from 706 Squadron down in Culdrose was seconded to 737 Squadron in Portland in 1972 to take all the Squadron Wessex pilots, plus those of the County Class ships' flights who happened to be disembarked, through a series of engine off landings. The Wessex 3 was not usually put through this manoeuvre as it had to have the heavy sonar removed to lighten it (a tedious task), and the little runway at Portland wasn't long enough for this sort of training, also having aircraft parked close by, so they had morning and evening sessions up at Lee-on-Solent for a week. By the end of the sessions the instructor, the late I.J. was very practised indeed.

He was made use of the next week doing QHI checks on some of the pilots at Portland and practising auto-rotations to the short runway, but to the hover or over-shoot only. He shut the throttle downwind on one pilot, who misjudged their position and so would have ended up short of the runway. Then they noticed that the engine was running down to stop and a ditching in the harbour was the only choice. I was pulling on my goonsuit to take the QHI's victim's place when the alarm klaxon went off right above my head and made me jump out of my skin. IJ did a perfect ditching in the harbour, all the flotation bags worked and the two pilots climbed into the seaboat, which had been dispatched from a nearby ship, without getting their feet wet. IJ lost his aircrew watch somehow...

The flotation gear in the various marks of Wessex gave precious time for aircrew to escape and saved many lives. The HSS-1 probably didn't have much of a power margin anyway and I don't know if it was ever fitted with floats, as I haven't found a photo showing them yet.

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