A Phroggy Pharewell
On August 1, 2015 the United States Marine Corps will present a CH-46E Sea Knight to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA in one of many retirement ceremonies for the aircraft. The “Phrog,” as it is affectionately known by all that flew her, entered service with the Marine Corps in 1964. After five decades of service, and many modifications and upgrades, the Marines will finally retire the CH-46 from active service by the end of FY15. Guaranteed there will be several Phrog reunions this year and next commemorating this extraordinary aircraft, and her aircrew – which, in many cases, stretches over three generations of aviators. There are several prog pilots who are still on active duty (no longer flying the -46) whose fathers, and grandfathers flew their airplanes. An impressive testament to the bond that people share with their airplanes.
As a fixed-wing pilot, I consider myself lucky to have done a little bit of training in and around CH-46s throughout my career. What follows are a few fond (and 'other') memories of my experiences with the venerable Battle Phrog.
From my earliest days as a 'butter bar' lieutenant at The Basic School (with a CH-46 pilot as our CO), I recall my company of 300 second lieutenants probably flew around the training areas of Marine Corps Base Quantico, VA more than most classes. More often than not, CH-53s and CH-46s from HMX-1 served as our chariots. Of course, the problem with flying (as oppose to driving or walking) to the line of departure is that you get there faster and thus, have more time to “hump” (in infantry parlance) home with a backpack full of equipment, water, and a weapon. Also, “there” is usually much further away when you fly.
Progressing forward in my career as a military pilot, there are also night terror-inducing memories of the helicopter rollover trainers at Pensacola. It is in the “dunkers” where Naval aviators like me, and other military folks who routinely ride in helicopters learn how to survive our newest ‘worst day ever.’ In the real world of a fixed-wing pilot this experience would follow what would presumably be your worst day flying a jet fighter. (Why else would I be wearing a flight suit and sitting in a -46?) “So, I just gave my multi-million dollar airplane ‘back to the taxpayers’, op-checked all of the water survival gear on the fishing vest I have to wear every time I go flying… and now you’re saying my rescue helicopter is going to be my SECOND airplane crash of the today? WTF, over?! (militarese for: Why The Face?) Any chance I could just wait for the boat?”
I can’t say whether I prefer to have the dunker roll into me or away as I watch my buddy strapped in across from me begin his near-drowning experience a few seconds before I start filtering pool water through my eyes, ears, nose and throat. Also, I know I’m not the only guy who, with blackout goggles donned (simulating a water ‘landing’ at night), exited the device, and swam UP - to the bottom of the pool. No doubt there are few experiences that are as disorienting as the helo-dunker. Hats off to the sailors past and present that train knuckleheads like me to do the right thing when it counts the most.