Sea King Precision
By Paul Dixon
More than 40 years ago the (then) Royal Canadian Navy pioneered the art of flying large helicopters off small ships in the middle of the deep blue sea, much to the amazement of its NATO allies.
By Paul Dixon
More than 40 years ago the (then) Royal Canadian Navy pioneered the art of flying large helicopters off small ships in the middle of the deep blue sea, much to the amazement of its NATO allies. While the ships of that era are long gone to the breakers yard and artificial reefs, the same CH-124 Sea Kings soldier on, operated in some cases by personnel who could legitimately be grandchildren of original crew members.
|HMCS Calgary HELAIRDET|
When the helicopter is embarked on a ship, its primary mission is extending the reach of the ship it operates from, whatever role the ship may be fulfilling. Capt. Bassam Mnaymneh, Flight Safety Officer with 443 Squadron, underscores the relationship between the helicopter and the ship: “the helicopter is there to support the ship and its mission. It is always a navy mission and never an air force mission.”
|Cpl. Chris MacDonald in the senior firefighter's position in FLYCO.|
|Sea Kings fly off moving warships in heavy seas, up to 25 degrees of roll and four degrees of pitch, day or night.|
|HMCS Regina, sister ship of HMCS Calgary.|
Today, Sea Kings are deployed on Canada’s frigates, destroyers and supply ships. Helicopter air detachments, or HELAIRDETS, are embarked on board ships when their respective ships are deployed on active duty missions away from Halifax or Esquimalt. Under 12 Wing, 423 Squadron at CFB Shearwater provides helicopters for Maritime Forces Atlantic and 443 Squadron at Victoria’s Pat Bay airport provides helicopters for Maritime Forces Pacific. The helicopter crew and support personnel are air force members within the Canadian Forces and retain their rank structure and insignia when on board ship.
In today’s Canadian Forces, personnel are either actively engaged on specific assignments or missions, or training for missions, such as deployments to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf or preparing for operations in support of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In May of 2009, Operation Trident Fury was conducted off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Trident Fury involved ships of the Canadian and American navies, as well as a wide range of aircraft from both countries. For the HELAIRDET attached to the patrol frigate HMCS Calgary, it was a training opportunity on a wide front. The helicopter was able to support the ship, both as a projection of force and in a defensive capacity and it was also an opportunity for a number of personnel to experience life on board a warship for the first time.
Major Kyle Rosenlund is the commanding officer of the HMCS Calgary HELAIRDET. He points out there are a number of differences in the missions that Sea Kings fly from those in the civilian world. “We fly off moving warships in heavy seas, up to 25 degrees of roll and 4 degrees of pitch, day or night. Our missions range from ASW (anti-submarine) through ASuW (anti-surface), SAR, Anti-Piracy, Disaster Relief, assistance to law enforcement and many more. We also carry weapons such as torpedoes and door guns.” Operating on ship exposes the aircraft and especially the turbines to salt water, necessitating very strict maintenance protocols to prevent damage. As well, on HMCS Calgary’s last deployment to the Persian Gulf, temperatures approached 50 C on station, followed by temperatures of minus 26 C in Dutch Harbour, Alaska, on its return voyage to Esquimalt, and an encounter with the outer edges of a typhoon in the South China Sea that saw the ship rolling up to 43 degrees.
For Captain Kristian Provan, Trident Fury would be his first opportunity to land a Sea King on board a ship at sea. The final step in his pursuit of flying as a career. “It’s a cliché, but flying is my dream. I started flying at Victoria Flying Club in 2002 while working as a manager for a bank. It took me a year and a half working at two jobs to attain my commercial licence. Then the realization that job prospects for low hour pilots were pretty much nil. That’s when I decided to join the military and I was accepted in September, 2004.”
After Basic Officer Training, then 2nd Lieut. Provan moved on to pilot training, broken into three phases. Phase one is an introduction to military flying and basic procedures, while flying the Grob 120. Phase two is the Basic Flying Training (BFT) Course conducted at 15 Wing, CFB Moose Jaw. This course is eight months long and consists of classroom, simulator and in-flight instruction on the Harvard 2. Near the end of the BFT course, candidates are selected for one of three advanced training paths: rotary wing, multi-engine or fast jet.
Provan was chosen for rotary wing and was sent back to 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School (3 FFTS), south of Portage La Prairie, to receive his helicopter training, the third phase of his pilot training. “I was on one of the last “legacy” courses which flew the Bell 206 Jet Ranger. The 90 hours I spent learning to fly a helicopter was the most challenging thing I had ever done.”
Upon leaving 3 FFTS, Provan was awarded his pilot’s wings and promoted to Captain. Then he was off to the Occupational Training Unit, where he was introduced to the CH-124 Sea King. In April of 2009, he was posted to 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron outside Victoria, B.C. in time to prepare for Trident Fury. “My experience flying off a ship is very limited, less than 15 hours. I do know the theory behind what we are supposed to do, however doing it and doing it well is a whole different story. On the ship, the only thing that you can look at is the hangar which is about 12 feet in front of the rotor arc. It is very, very close. After getting clearance from the required sources, instead of gently pulling the collective to get to the hover, you pull the collective in a very positive manner in order to get to the hover as quickly and in as much control as possible. It feels like you are going up in a very quick elevator. Then you level out, again very quickly, when you parallel the top of the hangar. When in the hover, every single tiny error is easily seen and felt because of the proximity of the hangar. At that point I really got the sense of how tricky this whole ship idea was going to be. Then we simply slide over, raise the gear and get on with the mission.”
Then it was time for Provan’s first landing on a moving ship many miles out to sea. “We complete our pre-landing checks, but keep the gear raised. I was very surprised at how small the ship really is. It seems so insignificant compared to the mass of blue water around it and we have to land on a ship that is swaying in all different directions. We were going to execute a free-deck landing. This requires us to deploy the main probe which, after we land, will get trapped in the Bear trap in order to stabilize the helicopter on the deck. After coming into the ‘delta hover astern’ position, you line yourself up with the ‘bum line.’ Basically there is a small line on the flight deck where you want your bum to line up with. In theory, this will give you adequate space to land without coming into contact with the hangar. Since I was in the left seat and we were approaching from the left side, I couldn’t see this line. So, my Captain had to verbally ‘con’ me to the correct position. Then we quickly move over to hover above the flight deck and put the gear down. All you see from this position is a mass of equipment on top of the ship. I looked past all this ‘stuff’ and concentrated on the horizon beyond. I stabilized as best as I could and at that point was told to come down into a hover only five feet off the deck. Holy smokes, to see the hangar door come up into my face was a little disconcerting. I tried to remain calm but above all, smooth on the controls. Tightening up on the controls at this point would have required my Captain to ‘take control’ which is embarrassing to say the least. So, I found a nice little dot on the hangar door and tried my best to maintain a good hover. With my peripheral vision I could tell that the ship was moving side to side. When I felt comfortable enough, I transmitted ‘ready to land.’ This is when the person in the LSO shack takes over and ‘cons’ you to where the main probe will get trapped in the trap. I heard ‘back, steady, forward steady, right steady.’ Then, when it seems that time has stood still and hours have gone by (in reality it was only 5-10 seconds) the LSO person says, ‘land now, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!!!’
The collective gets dropped and you slam into the deck. The LSO will tell you if the main probe is trapped or not. If not, you go up and try again but, if you are successful, you have a big grin on your face and life is good. I didn’t realize until I took off my flying suit that I had been working really hard. I was drenched in sweat and my right arm was sore.”
HMCS Calgary is currently on extended cruise down the west coast of Central and South America with its HELAIRDET
|Sea King coming in for landing.|
|Bear Trap with Haul Down Line neatly coiled for the next arrival.|
|HMCS Calgary flight deck. Saddledome, home of Landing Control Officer (a.k.a. “Paddles”) on the lower right of hangar door. CIWS 20-millimetre cannon mounted on top of hangar.|
|Captain Kristian Provan in Saddledome.|