Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Lebanon, Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan

Low Flight

Low Flight
by Jim Dishon

In 1972 the Corps had purchased its first AV-8 Harriers and had decided the first Harrier pilots would be men who had been trained in both jets and helicopters. So, a group of helicopter pilots was selected to cross-train in jets, and a group of jet pilots was selected to cross-train in Hueys as part of the operation aptly named Project Transition. At that time I was a Huey IP with HML-367 at Camp Pendleton.

The jet jocks were only slightly more arrogant than the rest of us, but sufficiently so that letting them try to hover at the end of their first hop was pure joy. After five minutes of trying to keep it inside a 1-acre parcel of land, it was fun to terminate the hop and watch the starched wingers drag themselves back to the ready room with their despondent chins drooping onto their chests. They were, of course, good pilots and got the hang of swinging wings in short order after the initial shock.

Part of the training included confined area landings and take-offs, including normal take-offs and obstacle-clearance take-offs. There was one rather large CAL zone near the airfield that worked well for the landings and both kinds of take-offs. It was somewhat oval shaped with tall trees all around — eucalyptus I think. Obstacle-clearance take-offs were accomplished from the center of the zone, but to do a normal take-off, it was necessary to back up to the trees at one end of the zone for sufficient room. Since snuggling up to trees is not a natural maneuver for stove-pipe drivers, part of the training was to have them hover as close to a tree as they could. Then the IP would take the controls and move a foot or two closer to the tree to help the transition pilot become more comfortable with close quarters.

On one hop with a transition pilot (I can’t remember who it was), I had done the tree-snuggle training and had demonstrated both a normal and an obstacle-clearance take-off from this zone. I then parked in the middle of the zone and told the TP to do a normal take-off from the zone. He picked the bird up into a high hover (about 10 feet) and then lowered the nose and started creeping forward. I assumed he misunderstood my direction and was going to do an obstacle-clearance take-off, but was doing it badly. Then he picked up airspeed and continued climbing at a steep angle. By the time I realized this was his version of a normal take-off from the zone, the trees in front of us were looming large and we were well out of the safe autorotation envelope.

At this point, I calmly said, “I’ve got it,” (okay, maybe I didn’t say it REAL calmly), and proceeded to fill my armpit with collective and slam the cyclic into my gut. There were flashing lights and horns everywhere as the blades coned and the skids dragged through the tops of the trees. I simultaneously slammed down the collective and banged the cyclic full forward. The close-up view of trees followed by sky was suddenly replaced with grass as we dived for the deck. Another abrupt pull on the collective and aft jerk on the cyclic got the lights and horn going again as the skids brushed the grass and we wobbled over the fence into the back yard of the Ranch House — the residence of the Camp Pendleton Commanding General. Thankfully, the yard was big enough that we almost regained flying speed by the time we did a lumbering jump over the fence at the far end of the yard and headed for home.

I don’t remember the debrief, but I’m sure it was fun. Within a week, the CG declared that particular CAL zone off limits for future training.


Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And hovered out of ground effect on semi-rigid blades;
Earthward I’ve auto’ed,
and met the rising brush
Of non-paved terrain – and done a thousand things
You would never care to –
skidded and drooped and flared
Low in the heat-soaked roar.
Confined there,
I’ve chased the earthbound traffic, and lost
The race to insignificant headwinds.
Forward, and a little up, in ground effect
I’ve topped the General’s hedge with drooping turns
Where never Skyhawk, or even Phantom flew.
And, shaking and pulling collective, I’ve lumbered
The low trespassed halls of Victor Airways,
Put out my hand, and touched a tree.

Paraphrased by the chosen few of .Project Transition. circa 1972 with inspiration provided by HQMC Code (DFA).