Helo Pilot 1964


My original orders were to Guantanamo Bay Cuba, to be the SAR (search and rescue) pilot. I was to go to HU-4 in Lakehurst, NJ to re-qualify in helicopters. The folks at HU54 decided I would be a bit rusty to go straight to independent duty like that, so they pulled some strings and had me assigned to HU4 *(Helicopter Utility Squadron 4) and sent a pilot with more recent experience to GITMO.

We bought a house in Toms Ricer, NJ, a short distance from Lakehurst. We had been in the house for about a month, and had not even closed the loan, when I was ordered to our detachment on the USS Altair in the Mediterranean Sea and home ported in Naples, Italy for a 6 month tour of duty. Sue and the kids drove home to Mississippi and I caught a plane to Naples. Shortly after I arrived in Naples, I got new orders to HU4 Detachment 1 in Norfolk, VA. This meant we’d be moving to Norfolk as soon as my Med tour was done. I called Sue and told her the Situation, that we were going to sea and would be back in Naples in 2 weeks, and made this suggestion: ‘Go back to New Jersey, get rid of the house we just bought, pick up a set of my orders, put the furniture and car in storage, get passports for you and the kids, get your shots up to date and book a flight to get you and the kids to Naples in 2 weeks. She did it! For the details of HOW she did it, you’ll have to read her version of family history. Anyway, I met her and the kids at the airport in Naples and we got a apartment for them near the NATO facility here.

My schedule was 10 days to 2 weeks in Naples and 2-3 weeks at sea. Our detachment consisted of a H34 helicopter, 2 pilots and 6 crewmen/mechanics. I was flying as second pilot on the job and LCDR Billy Meadows was A.C commander and Officer in charge of the detachment. Our job was VERTREP the acronym for ‘Vertical Replenishment’. Our ship, the USS Altair AKS31, was a dry stores ship. We carried everything from electronics to razor blades and were part of the re-supply task group. The other ships with us were the USS Neosho, a fuel tanker, which had another HU4 copter and crew on board and a refrigerator ship which brought frozen food over from the US and was different ship every month. When at sea, we would rendezvous with all the task groups of the Sixth Fleet, during our 2-3 weeks out. The tanker would cruise alongside each ship in the group and refuel them. Other ships would cruise alongside Altair and the “reefer” and transfer nets of supplies by crane, while we picked up pallets of supplies in nets off our heliport and off the “reefer”,. flew over and deposited them on other ships. We usually flew all the supplies to the carrier which would steam along about 800 yards ahead and to the right of us. When things were working right, we would pick up a net from out ship, fly over and drop it on the deck of the carrier, and return for another net, every 90 seconds. The helo off the Tanker would be picking up while we were dropping and vice versa so we were moving a pallet (depending on our fuel load) of 600-2000 pounds every 45 seconds. It was fun to watch and fun to fly. I really enjoyed my time in the Med.

When we were respelling the Amphibious fleet, the Marines had a helicopter detachment with about 10 helos on the one of the ships. The CO of the helo detachment, believing, as all Marines do, that anything the Navy could do, Marines could do better, sent 5 of his helos over to “help:” us with the VERTREP. With our 2 helos in sync, it looked like a ballet, but with 5 more, it looked more like a mob and we sort of swung wide to keep from tangling with the 5 Marine helos who were hovering in a line behind our ship. The marines saw no point in talking to us via our ship, so were on their own tactical frequency. We had been flying for over an hour and were getting fairly low on fuel, so were taking 2000 pound nets. The ship called us and said, “we can’t contact that first marine. They just hooked him up to a 2000 lb net and we don’t think he knows how much weight he has.” Just then, the marine lifted the load and disappeared off the other side of the ship, as Billy replied, :”He knows now!”. the expected splash didn’t come and he struggled out from behind the ship, went over and dropped it on the carrier, then went back to his ship. Our crew quickly adjusted the loads to 600 lbs for the other 4 marines so they had no problem. After a couple of nets each, the marines had a sudden attack of common sense and returned to their ship so we could get on with our business and not have to worry about a mid-air.

We (the pilots) didn’t do much while in port at Naples, except go out on the town and the helicopter and our crew stayed at the Naples airport while in port. Once my family was there, he told me to just stay home and if he needed me for anything he’d come and get me. I don’t think I ever had to go to work while in port the whole time we were there. We went to Mt. Vesuvius, to Pompeii, took a boat to Capri one day, went to Rome for a few days on another occasion and saw all the sights around Naples. We got a used car the second month there so Sue could get around and go shopping while I was not there. While at sea, we usually made 1 or 2 other ports for 1 or 2 days at a time.; We got to Athens and the island of Corfu, in Greece, Malta, Sicily, Palma Di Majorca, an island off the Spanish coast, and a couple of other Italian ports. It was a most enjoyable tour of duty. We lived upstairs in an apartment building and had two other American couples as neighbors, Rickey (Navy) and Geneva Ewing and Jimmy.