Monday, November 19, 2012

One Breath Away From Death

Working with Nuclear Weapons is actually a lot of fun.  At least most of the time. During my time at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana I had the pleasure of being volunteered to join our elite Convoy Team.  Several (not going to tell you how many) Fire Teams (people with guns) would escort particular parts  (normally the ones that go boom) to the missile sites, and provide security for a particular period of time.

I loved this job, but the one position in the job I really wanted was the Airborne Fire Team.  As soon as I made it on to the Convoy Team I volunteered to go Airborne.  As it turned out, not many people really wanted the job.  The Airborne Fire Team had to be there several hours ahead of everyone else, and normally did not get done until several hours after the convoy ended.

Our chariot was the UH-1 helicopter (if you ever saw a Vietnam War movie, you have seen the UH-1).

Many of our missions lasted from 6-9 hours, with the occasional 12 hour and sometimes overnight trips. When flying in the UH-1 during a convoy you should be ready for doing a lot of circles.  The Airborne team is the cavalry in case someone gets the bright idea to try and steal a nuke.  Should they get lucky enough to actually look like they might overrun the ground team...then we would come swooping in to mess up their day.  I have plenty of stories about this particular assignment, but this is my favorite.

The day started out as any other, I arrived at the hanger 2 hours prior to the mission start, picked up my weapon, checked the orders, and looked over who was on my team.  I was only a Senior Airman at the time, but because of my stellar performance (I had actually scored pretty good on my quality control assessments) I was the Fire Team Leader.  My Flight Sergeant ( I am not making this name up) Staff Sergeant Thomas Rock (seriously that was the man's name) called to make sure I had all of the gear I would need.  Soon the pilot arrived.  I wish I could remember his name...but I will never forget the tag on the back of his flight helmet.  It read "Death Before Dishonor".  Rumors were that he had been a pilot in Vietnam.  The man was not boring.  This has significance in this..and future stories.

The pilot gave us the safety briefing which included things like kept you from getting your head, face, and hands from being cut off, or you falling out of the helicopter. None of which would make for a great day.  We went through the normal..if we crash scenario...which is helpful in making you think you will survive a crash.

This particular mission would be about 8 hours, this meant the chopper would refuel twice. Once on the way out, and once on the way back. Our refueling stop was a small grass airport in who-knows-where Montana. The team I had on this mission were experienced so there was no messing around, or having to show someone how to close the door. 

The typical mission was actually mostly boring.  If you can imagine having someone constantly kicking your chair while tipping it from side to side and back and forth for about 4-6 hours, then taking a short 30 minute break, then doing it all over again.  It works on some people really quickly, they puke...and puke...and puke.  My problem worked on my bladder.  So, each team member carried an empty plastic bottle.  Imagine trying to pee in a bottle while standing on a takes skill. 

The flight out was really boring. The wind was constant but strong.  This meant the pilot had to tack the helicopter like it was a sail boat.  Halfway through the mission we landed for fuel.  The team quickly ran inside to refill on coffee and stretch our legs.  30 minutes later we are back in the chopper for the rest of the mission.

The engine began to start..then it stopped.  It began to start again...and then something I have never seen before or since happened...the pilot jumped out..and began yelling at us to get out.  So we did.  When I looked back smoke was pouring out of the battery compartment on the chopper.  We took the fire extinguishers and flooded the compartment with foam. 

If this had happened in the air...who knows what the result would have been. Helicopters do not glide all that well and need a bit of altitude to even attempt it.  It is a lesson that we are just one breath away from death.

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