Coral Sea Crash final



Coral Sea Crash final
by Commander Jim Waldron USNR (Retired)
When I first reported to Helicopter Utility Squadron Two
(HU-2) I learned that new pilots were expected to make one or two
short training cruises
aboard ships operating
off the coast of the
Eastern United States
before making a long
cruise to the
Mediterranean Ocean.
For my introduction to
helicopter rescue
operations I made a two
week cruise aboard the
U.S.S. Siboney, a small
aircraft carrier that
rolled and pitched at
every wave that passed
under its bow. On the
day I made my first
helicopter landing
aboard a ship the
weather consisted of high winds and high seas. The Siboney met
the challenge of the weather head on and the after portion of the
flight deck where I was scheduled to land pitched badly. I found it
next to impossible to find a moment when the deck wasn’t falling
away from my hovering helicopter only to be followed by the deck
rushing up intending to crash into the underside of my helicopter.
Try as I might I could not synchronize my helicopter positioning
with that of the heaving flight deck. I had been told that in rough
weather and a badly pitching deck you should wait and in time the
ship would stabilize for a moment or two at which time a smooth
landing would become possible. Unfortunately that moment never
seemed to arrive. At that time I recalled the joke I had heard back
in the squadron ready room that if you had trouble landing aboard
a ship in rough weather that a Marine assigned to the ship would
come out on to the flight deck and shoot you down. I knew this
was just another sick joke but I also realized that had the story
been true I had just arrived at the time when a shoot down was
the next option for the officer in charge of air operations. Finally I
started feeling very tired at my efforts to get the helicopter firmly
on the deck so I grabbed a brief moment when the ship was
changing direction from dropping away to rushing upward and I
firmly put my helicopter down. My flight deck crew rushed to get
the tie downs hooked to my wheels and at last I was firmly
attached to the ship. I later flew off several dozen ships, under
varied weather conditions but landing was never again as difficult
as my first flight deck landing on the Siboney.
After my return to my squadron at N,A.S. Lakehurst, N.J. I
discovered I had been scheduled to make a six month
Mediterranean cruise aboard the U. S.S. Coral Sea (CVB-43).
Lieutenant Ray Rice was assigned as the Officer-in-Charge of our
shipboard detachment. During our six months tour of the
Mediterranean Ocean aboard the USS Coral Sea (CVB-43) with it’s
contingent of over 1,000 military men there were only one
helicopter and two helicopter pilots assigned to the ship. Our flight
operations started each day at sunup and ceased at sundown. Ray
Rice and I split the day in halves so we each accumulated
approximately the same amount of flight time. After each two
weeks of flight operations the ship would cease operations for a
few days so the ship’s crew could rest and take liberty in one of
the exotic cities which surrounded the Mediterranean. Over our
six months Mediterranean cruise we visited Gibraltar; Sicily;
Cannes, France; Naples, Italy; Genoa, Italy; Athens, Greece;
Caglieri, Sardinia; Oran, Algeria; and Taranto, Italy all of which
contained a lot interesting places to be visited and restaurants
where exotic meals could be consumed. Since we had only one
helicopter aboard the ship and just two pilots, one pilot had to be
on board always t take care of emergencies that might arise. That
meant that Ray Rice and I could not go on liberty together and
since we went at different times we each returned to the ship with
different impressions of what we had observed. Both of us realized
that we would have enjoyed our visit to Mediterranean ports a lot
more had we been able to travel together and share our
experiences together.
Early during our cruise the ship made a scheduled stop at the
Port of Genoa, Italy. Just before we anchored off Genoa the ship
launched its single engine SNJ Texan aircraft which then flew to
Genoa’s inland airfield. This is where shipboard aviators who held
full time jobs that required them to remain on board during flight
operations got a chance to fly and maintain their flight efficiency.
The pilots who took off from the ship would fly all morning,
while a contingent group boarded a bus which drove them over the
mountains to that inland airfield where they would fly the aircraft
and maintain their proficiency during the rest of the daylight
Ray Rice, as Officer-in-Charge of our detachment, opted to
take the first day’s liberty period, leaving me on board to handle
any emergency flight operations that might arise. Sometime
around noon I was scheduled to fly our helicopter from the ship to
Genoa’s inland airfield to pick up the group of pilots who had
flown the Texan aircraft during the morning hours. Since there
were four pilots to be picked up and I had seats for only four
passengers I did not take an air crew member with me. After
takeoff I flew over the coastal mountains where the four pilots had
been waiting for me to arrive. I was quite surprised to then see Ray
Rice climb into the helicopter telling me that he wanted to fly back
to the ship with me as well as the four aviators I already had
aboard. I had no seat for Ray Rice and told him so. He insisted he
could sit on the floor of the helicopter. He was my Officer in
Charge so I told him he could come along even though he had no
restraints should a crash landing take place during the return to
the ship.
It was a beautiful afternoon, with a cloudless sky and little
wind, so the helicopter handled well, however, it took more engine
power to get off the ground because of the extra load I was
carrying. In heading back to the ship I had to climb high enough
to clear the steep mountains that surrounded the city of Genoa.
Just as I reached the peak of the mountain range my engine quit
suddenly. I immediately reduced the pitch on my rotor blades to
place the helicopter into autorotation and thus be able to make a
crash landing ahead. Unfortunately there were no areas ahead of
me where I could safely put down the aircraft; the mountains were
too steep and no level space was in sight.
Just as the situation looked hopeless the engine roared back
to life and it gave me the power to clear the steep sides of the
mountains. Unfortunately when I applied climb power the engine
again quit. I again reduced the pitch of my rotors which was
followed by the engine coming back to life again. So I made several
rotor pitch adjustment and I learned I could hold enough lift in my
rotor blades to extend my downward glide thus giving me a chance
to land somewhere clear of those deadly mountain peaks.
I might mention that Ray Rice, who was seated on the floor
next to me had on the air crew member's radio headset and he
was constantly telling me what he thought I should be doing.
Since he could be of no help to me because I had the flight
controls an the feel of the aircraft I ignored all he was telling me.
We were over a very heavy industrialized section of Genoa and
high tension wires went in all directions. I must admit, however,
that I have no recall of seeing any of them. I did see a semi-dry
riverbed just ahead of me and since it was the only clear space
available I headed for it. Just ahead of me a large stone bridge
crossed the river telling me that I would have to touch down before
I reached it because the little bit of engine power I was having
wouldn’t get me over that looming stone structure.
In my mind I picked out a spot of dry ground where I intended
to land. Ray Rice, who was still on the inter-phone had picked up
another dry spot where he wanted me to land. Again I ignored
what he was telling and continued to flare over my chosen landing
Normally I would have touched down with a rolling landing
however I could see that the sandy bottom of the riverbed was too
soft for such a landing so I did a nose high flare and once my
forward motion stopped I used my rotors in an attempt to soften
my landing. The helicopter touched down quite hard but the
landing gear did not collapse. All of us emerged from the aircraft
thankful that we all survived and that the aircraft had sustained
no damage.
Ray Rice and I got together and decided what we should do
next. Ray decided that I should remain with the downed aircraft
and he should return to the ship to coordinate getting a
replacement engine to the site so the helicopter could be again
made flyable. It took a while to obtain transportation back to the
ship but once things were arranged it all took place rather easily.
One of the things that amazed me was how soon the crash
scene filled with onlookers. People poured out of buildings and
others raced down the streets since most of the Italians of that
date (1952) had
never seen a
helicopter and here
in their
neighborhood sat
one that fell out of
the sky. For a good
while I was quite
busy circling the
aircraft to keep the
populace clear of
the airframe
because everyone
wanted to touch
this machine that
Crash Site
had fallen from the
sky. As I asked the
curious folks on one side of the helicopter to move away from one
side of the aircraft others seemed to encroach on the other side. I
went from one side to the other side of the aircraft and it seemed I
was loosing the fight to keep curious folk from damaging the
outside of the aircraft. I feared that it would not be long before one
or more of the mob would enter the cabin and do damage to the
vital control parts of the aircraft. After all I was one person with no
authority and there were fifty or more of them.
I never found out how it came about but suddenly a group of
city police officers turned up and following my use of many hand
signals, and some English words which they didn’t seem to
understand, the police went to work and soon drove the excited
populace away from the aircraft and up on to a hill clear of the
crash site. This left me and my helicopter free of curiosity seekers
allowrd my repair crew, when they arrived from the ship, to make
the needed engine replacement. It was a constant worry for me
that someone would pilfer a small but vital part of the aircraft
which would keep us from taking off once the new engine was
installed. I was very grateful to the city of Genoa, Italy for
providing us with 24 hour per day police coverage so the security
of our helicopter was no longer a problem for me.
Meanwhile Ray Rice, who had returned to the ship, arranged
to have our spare aircraft engine sent out to us, also arranged that
our maintenance crew be offloaded to do the engine installation.
They showed up at the crash site before dark and immediately
went to work getting the helicopter ready for an engine change.
They carefully removed the rotor blades and then removed the
replacement engine from its container.
They worked continuously until late in the evening, at which
time I thought they should quit for the night and get some rest. I
arranged for hotel rooms for everyone and got transportation to
and from the center of town where they would stay. Next I loaded
the whole crew into vehicles provided by the ship and took them
individually to their hotels and saw that they checked it to their
hotel rooms. Once this was done I went to my hotel where I took
my rest from a traumatic day, a day of stressful activity that I had
never expected to see.
I placed an early morning call at my hotel desk so we could
have a full day replacing our helicopter engine. I ate a good
breakfast and then I boarded our ship provided vehicles to round
up my maintenance crew.
Much to my surprise none of my maintenance crew had slept
in the rooms I had obtained for them. Following suggestions given
to me by desk clerks from the hotels where my crew was supposed
to have spent the night, I cruised through town, visited various
bars and nightclubs and soon I had my entire crew in hand. None
of them seemed to have slept, however, they were all energized and
seemed ready to get to work on making the engine change.
As my second day at the crash site went forward I found
myself highly pleased at the enthusiasm shown by my repair crew
as they tackled the difficult job of changing engines with a
minimum of equipment. The river bed, as it gave up its moisture
became quite dusty so extreme care had to be taken to keep the
river bed dust from entering into the engine and its parts. I
worried, too, about my six rotor blades spread out on the river
sand, thinking that someone might trip over them and damage
them leaving me with a working engine but unable to fly. This
worry proved unnecessary because the Genoa police kept
onlookers well clear of the equipment spread out on the sand.
As mentioned before we were constantly under surveillance of
an interested group of Italians who spent hours observing the
repair work being accomplished. They never seemed to tire and
our entire period
in the river bed
was never
without a large
group of
On my
second day at
the crash site an
gentleman, who
spoke English
with a British
accent, joined us
in the river bed
and acted as our
interpreter. I
don’t know if he
was sent to help
us or if he did it
on his own, but
he made things a
lot easier and
reduced the expected confusion. He told me that he had spent
World War II in England and learned to speak English as a
temporary resident. He told me that the crash site, which was a
highly industrialized area of Genoa here many of the communist
fold lived. Looking back on what he told me about his life and his
training I concluded that he, too, was a Communist. In spite of
this he seemed eager to help me in any way that he could.
After a full day of replacing the engine I again suggested that
we quit for the day and take our needed rest in the center of
Genoa. We had been given a deadline for meeting the ship within a
week in the harbor of Taranto, Italy which was on the lower end of
the Italian Peninsular. The crew knew that if they completed the
engine change quickly that they would have a bit of free time
available to them while they awaited the return of the ship.
The following morning, when I gathered them all with my
assigned vehicles, they seemed rested and ready to complete the
job ahead. Around noon my crew chief told me the helicopter was
ready to be test flown. As usual
there was a large crowd of
onlookers on the hill next to the
riverbed where I had made the
emergency landing. Once I had
the engine warmed and ready
for takeoff I started to come to a
hover. Immediately the dried
sand was blown by the rotor
blades forming a large cloud.
Instead of hovering at around
ten feet above the surface I had
to climb to around 50 feet of
height above the river bed so I
could see clearly. The dust my
rotors had kicked up covered
my view of the spectators
gathered on the hill and I was
unable to see them because the
dust I had blown over them had
hidden them from my sight. I
presume they all needed a fresh
bath when they reached home.
Following my thirty minute
hover over the river bed I flew to
the nearby Italian base I had been instructed to fly to for refueling
the helicopter. After shutting down my engine I found the
helicopter to look a mess and needed a good wash. I didn’t want to
stop to do that because I wanted to put some miles on the aircraft
before quitting for the night. I decided to take my crew chief with
me in the helicopter and have the rest of my repair crew travel by
road in the ship’s motor vehicles. Our detachment tools and the
failed engine were loaded on one of the trucks which had been left
behind by the Coral Sea for the long trip southward.
So after receiving a full load of fuel at the Italian base where I
had landed I took off headed southward. South of Genoa the
mountains moved to the shoreline forcing me to fly over the open
water for some fifty miles with just open water below me. Open
water alone didn’t bother me so much, but, flying with a new and
untested engine was an immediate concern of mine. I have to
admit that the possibility that I might have to crash land in open
water when my flight was not being monitored by anyone was a
real concern of mine.
After about forty-five minutes I arrived at a point on the map
where the mountain range ended and I could then continue my
flight over land. Before takeoff I had studied my maps and I noted
that I would pass over the city of Pisa. I wanted to have a
photograph of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and since I could not take
my hands off the flight controls long enough to take a picture with
my camera, I asked my crew chief to use my camera to obtain the
shot. I flew down quite low and made a complete 360 degree circle
of that beautiful building and once I completed the turn I resumed
my heading southward. I asked my crew chief if he had taken the
picture I had requested. He assured me that he did, but later the
picture came back from development showing the tower very
clearly, however, he took the picture when the tower was leaning
toward the helicopter and it appeared to be straight up vertical.
The poor fellow must have felt insecure leaning out the window of
the helicopter with my camera in his hands hat his only thoughts
must have been to get the job done and get it done fast.
After departing the Pisa area I headed outhward towards a
landing at a military base just outside of Grosseto. As I continued
southeastward I passed numerous towns, cities and villages.
People gathered on the roads and streets stopped whatever the
might have been doing and either waved or stared since
helicopters were rare sight throughout Italy. I flew close to one
walled city which was built on a small but steep hill. I could
understand how such a town, with its surrounding walls and
steep sides, was able to defend itself better during the Middle
Ages, however, the difficulties met with getting in and out of the
town would have been a daily chore. The streets were very narrow
also and traffic jambs must have been a daily problem.
As my helicopter and I approached the army base at Grosseto
I was amused to see a soldier standing close by the place he
wanted me to land. What amused me was that he held a lit smoke
flare in his hand, something that I considered unnecessary, but in
the least accommodating. My helicopter was able to land headed
in any direction when the wind force was not excessive. For
instance the wind on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Coral Sea might
be coming from any direction when we were told to land and
except for some rare situation we were expected to land without
undue delay.
Once on the makeshift helicopter landing pad we were greeted
by a friendly group of military men and although our language
problems hindered complete understanding we managed well
enough to get the helicopter refueled and a flight plan filed. The
flight to Rome was much like the earlier flight with low level
glimpses of Italian towns and much enthusiastic greetings from
the amazed folks we overflew.
When we approached the airport near Rome I received
instructions from the control tower telling me I was cleared to land
on the active runway, just as if I was an airline aircraft. I advised
the tower that this wasn’t necessary, that I could make my
approach to a taxiway and then air taxi to the parking area. We
received excellent post-flight assistance once we had secured the
aircraft for the night. Since it was late in the day I decided we
would spend the night in Rome. After I had my flight chief and
myself quartered for the night I went out for a fine meal and an
evening touring the streets of Rome as a first time visitor might
well be expected to do. In later years I had several opportunities to
visit and study Rome in depth but none stands out as much as
this first visit.
The next morning I gathered up my crew chief, who professed
that he had had a great time the previous night, however, he did
so never moving from the hotel bar the whole evening. Our liberty
likes and dislikes would always be at odds I would guess.
After our drive to the airport where I would file a flight plan to
Naples, I met two pilots from the Coral Sea who were ferrying two
AD Skyraider aircraft southward. From Naples they were to
contact the Coral Sea and arrange to land on board the ship
somewhere at sea.
Once I had completed arrangements for my flight I took off
heading toward Naples. Once I had settled on course I had the sun
in my eyes and the sun shone directly on my body. I became so
warm that I found myself half dozing off to sleep.
It was at this time that one of the Skyraider pilots, who had
taken off from the Rome airport some time after I had departed,
decided to pull a bit of a trick on me. Unknown to me he
approached my helicopter from the rear and at the last moment he
dove his aircraft so as to fly under me and once he cleared my
helicopter he went into a steep climb just missing my turning
rotor blades by a few feet. The loud noise of his engine and the
suddenness of his appearance completely unhinged me for a few
moments. I might have been in a half state of awareness before the
trick was pulled on me, but for the rest of the flight I never so
much as blinked one time.
As I neared Naples I noted that there were dense clouds ahead
which appeared to be thunderstorm clouds. It was obvious to me
that I could go no further on my planned route southward to
Taranto until the weather improved, so I decided to remain in
Naples for the night and I would attempt to cross the mountains
early the next morning when I expected the thunderstorms and
low clouds would have moved on.
After my landing at the Naples Airport, and after securing the
helicopter for the night we took a taxi to a hotel where American
military personnel were given good rates. My crew chief, not
surprisingly, decided he would go out on the town alone. His idea
of having a good time did not correspond with what I might want
to do.
Checking with the local military services recreation facility I
found several attractions in the downtown area of Naples that
interested me. Finally, after due consideration, I decided I would
attend a presentation of he opera Madam Butterfly. At that time in
my life I was not enthusiastic about opera, but I was familiar with
the arias from Madam Butterfly and I decided that listening to
good music after a day in the air listening to my helicopter engine
and transmission noises would be a real auditory relief for my
As I had hoped the music from the opera was very pleasant. I
was reminded that the opera Madam Butterfly was about a love
affair that an American naval officer had with a Japanese woman,
had been written by an Italian so I was not surprised that some of
the audience seemed to anticipate what was going to happen next.
The mostly Italian audience that attended the performance that
evening was very enthusiastic.
During the intermission that followed the first half of the opera
I joined the audience who moved to a small anteroom where
refreshments were served. Shortly after entering the room I
recognized a man whose face was very familiar to me. He was
engaged in conversation with some acquaintances so I waited for a
moment when it seemed appropriate to
introduce myself. As I approached this
familiar face I said, “Hello. I am Jim
Waldron and I am sure I know you. Are you
from New Orleans and have we met there?
He looked at me with amusement
and said, “I am afraid we have never met. I
am Charles Lane and I am frequently seen
in the movies. Perhaps that is how you
recognize me.”
This was so unexpected that I
became completely flustered so I quickly
excused myself and repaired to a far corner of the room.
Recently I looked up Mr. Charles Lane on Google. I was
interested to learn that he died in 2007, at the age of 102 years
after having appeared in over 150 movies. As in this case he was
often recognized, but not as a movie actor but as a person known
out of one’s personal experiences.
Wikipedia states this about him:
You'd know his face in an instant, but probably not his name.
In dozens of movies and countless television roles, Charles
Lane made his series of brief moments on the screen shine.
Following this faux pas of mine I retired to the theater for the
remainder of the opera, and following that I returned to my hotel
room to rest up for the final leg of my aerial adventure.
I received a wake up call early the next morning from the hotel
front desk and without further delay my crew chief and I hurried
our dressing in order to get ourselves and our helicopter airborne
as early as possible. I hadn’t given it much thought ahead of time
but I presumed the hotel restaurant would be open when we were
dressed and ready for travel. It turned out the restaurant and
adjacent kitchen were both closed so there was no chance that we
would have breakfast unless there was a restaurant at the airfield.
Unfortunately, the airport passenger support facilities were closed
when we got to the airfield, so there would be be no breakfast for
the two of us that morning.
While my crew chief readied the helicopter I went to the
Operations Desk and filed a flight plan to fly to the Bari, Italy
airport, about two hours away. In looking at my navigational map
of the region I noted that there was an Italian military base about
halfway between Naples and Bari. I came up with the idea of
making an unauthorized landing at this small base, near the town
of Foggia and, perhaps get to eat breakfast there.
So I started up the helicopter and when ready for my takeoff I
called the tower. I did not tell the tower of my plan to land at
Foggia since it might lead to misinterpretation due to language
I recalled that on the previous afternoon the hills directly in
front of my flight path were covered with menacing hunderstorm
clouds which would have sucked up my tiny helicopter and
scattered us in many parts over the Italian landscape. Once I got
airborne I noted that the mountains directly ahead of my flight
path were free of clouds. This was a great relief for me.
Clearing the mountains directly in front of my helicopter was
easily done but I couldn’t cross them without some concern for the
possibility of having another engine failure. Our squadron had lost
several helicopters over the preceding year when engines failed
over water. Fortunately the engine that quit on me occurred over
land and I was fortunate to have landed without damaging the
aircraft. These failures which occurred over water resulted in the
aircraft sinking after the crews had evacuated the aircraft. My
engine failure took place over land and was the single exception to
sinking at sea.
As I approached the Italian Army base adjacent to Foggia I was
able to see that the soccer field provided the best area for my
landing. I presumed that once I had turned off my engine and
rotor blades that we would be inundated with on-lookers as
happened when landing in areas where helicopters had not been
seen before. It came as a real surprise that our only greeter was a
single Italian enlisted man who showed up alone in a Jeep. He
said that reveille had not been sounded on the base and the rest of
the base personnel were still asleep.
I told him that when we left Naples it was too early to get
breakfast so we hoped that we might get fed at the base in Foggia.
The soldier told us that the cooks were still in bed, however, if we
went with him to the mess hall we might find something to eat
from the refrigerator, So the three of us got in the Jeep and drove
away to the mess hall. Unfortunately all the food containers at the
mess hall were locked up so it was obvious we were not going to
have our hunger satisfied in Foggia.
Our soldier greeter was quite concerned that he couldn’t
satisfy our needs so he decided to drive us to the Officers Club
where we might find something to tide us over until we would land
at the airport in Bari. This stop was also unproductive for all the
food was locked up as it had been at the mess hall. The soldier
was so distraught that he went into the officer’s bar and returned
with a gift of two stolen bottles of beer. So my crew chief and I
consumed the two bottles of beer to show our appreciation of the
good will shown by our lone soldier but it did little to assuage our
After takeoff we headed on our next leg of our Italian journey.
Most of this area that we overflew enroute to Bari was field after
field of large olive trees, most of which had been surgically
trimmed as to produce a maximum of olives to fill the world-wide
demand for this delicious fruit.
Bari Airport was a very active base with heavy commercial
traffic. Our landing was accepted in a most routine fashion so we
were refueled moments after we had landed. A full-service
restaurant was nearby so my chief and I were finally able to quell
that hunger that had pestered us since we had left Naples.
After an hour or so on the ground we departed for Taranto in
the heel of Italy. The flight was a short 45 minutes in length and I
had no difficulty locating the naval base where we were expected
to land and remain until our ship, the Coral Sea, was expected to
anchor in the harbor.
The wait for the U.S.S. Coral Sea was only one day in length
and it proved to be a rather dull time for the both of us since
Taranto was a very small town with little avenues for
entertainment. So when our ship showed up in the harbor we
eagerly got permission to take off and flew aboard our home away
from home. We were pleased to discover that our absence was
sorely felt and that little time was lost in placing us back on the
flight schedule.