On Flying, and Who We Lost.

“They will speak of things that are spiritual and beautiful and of things that are practical and utilitarian; they will mix up angels and engines, sunsets and spark plugs, fraternity and frequencies in one all-encompassing comradeship of interests that makes for the best and most lasting kind of friendship any man can have.”

— Percy Knauth, describing those who fly

There is a moment in flight school, on your first flight in the helicopter, when the instructor hands you the controls for the first time.

“I will buy you a case of beer if you can keep the helicopter in the boundaries of the square,” says the instructor. “But if you can’t, you owe me a six-pack.”

The square, painted on the ground of the airfield, is enormous– at least 50 yards in each direction. This, you think, is a no-brainer. “I’ll take that bet,” you say.

“You have the controls,” says the instructor.

“I have the controls,” you respond, just as they teach you during your time in the simulator.

You proceed to pull power on the collective. The helicopter shoots up like a rocket, forty or fifty feet. The sudden increase in torque jerks the nose to the right, so you adjust by stomping on the left pedal. The helicopter leans heavy left, so you throw the collective to the right. You are completely out of control, and now the ground is rushing up at you.

The instructor takes the controls from you. “I have the controls back.”

You are so focused on the effort to keep the aircraft level that you can’t even respond. The instructor makes a few smooth inputs, and the helicopter returns to a level attitude before the instructor gently puts the skids on the ground.

“I guess you owe me a six-pack,” says the instructor.

With a few exceptions, that’s pretty much the experience of every budding helicopter pilot in the naval services. On my first flight, I remember thinking that there was no way that a human being could possibly control this thing. I wondered what kind of evil mind designed something so difficult to handle.

And then something happens in the first couple flights—suddenly it clicks, the coordination comes along, and you are controlling the airframe. By the third flight, you are hover taxiing within feet of other spinning helicopters. Every step of the way, you are made to do things that go against every survival instinct in your body. As if flying the helicopter wasn’t hard enough, now they throw in things like, “Hey, why don’t we try autorotations, where we practice landing without engine power?”

A few flights later, “Why don’t we try formation flying, where we fly within a rotor’s distance of another helicopter?”

Just a few flights later, “Now let’s try night flying, where we take your normal 180’ degree field of vision and reduce it to 40 degrees on night vision goggles?”

Not scary enough? “Let’s try night formation!”

From my first days as a flight student, I was always amazed at how close to the envelope we flew our aircraft. Even with a few hundred flight hours under my belt, there was always something new that I could not believe we could do with our helicopters. We conducted externals, precision hovering at 10-15 feet while personnel under the aircraft hooked us up to multi-ton payloads. We landed on boats, squeezing a hundred-foot helicopter into a parking spot on a moving ship with multiple aircraft spinning just feet away in either direction. We flew hard hit raids on the darkest nights, flying into enemy territory and landing in zones that kicked up so much dust that visibility came down to zero. We had troops fast rope from the back of the aircraft, did air-to-air refueling from the back of a C-130 tanker, flew terrain flights through the canyons, and even conducted fire-bucket missions dumping seawater on wildfires threatening local homes and supply storehouses.

When put in those terms, it is perhaps miraculous that serious mishaps do not happen more than they do. Unfortunately, they still happen from time to time. There is a familiar routine among the aircrew when news of a CH-53 crash hits the press; a group text message goes out among the pilots, those who have details fill in what they can, and slowly the names come out. It has struck closely to home a few times, but I have always been on the periphery, knowing the names of the crews but never close enough to them to claim the grief that their close friends and families must know.

On Friday afternoon, as we closed up our books for Constitutional Law, I checked my phone to see the familiar group texts I have seen a half-dozen times. Two 53s down in Hawaii. I didn’t really think much of it, to be honest. I figured two helicopters must have made an emergency landing and someone would have an interesting story to tell.

Then I checked my email. A forwarded news story—two 53s collided off the coast of Oahu with no signs of survivors and 30-foot seas. They had been flying a low-light level training mission, and contact was lost sometime around 11:40 pm the night before.

Details were sparse.

I sat through my writing seminar, in another world, thinking of that place where the search was ongoing. I had flown it more times than I can count, “Police beach for Kahuku point,” was the radio call, the turn you make at the end of a night of training before heading home. It’s the strip of North Shore that includes the most famous surf spots in the world, including Pipeline and Waimea Bay. At night in the winter, when the surf is at its highest, it is spectacular to see on NVGs—the violent churning of the waves kicks the sea spray up high enough to coat the cockpit glass at the altitude of 300 feet. It is hard to explain the thrill of flying at a moment like that.

Shortly after the seminar, I started to hear about the crews on the aircraft.

There were twelve names in all. Kevin “Redtime” Roche, Steve “Hangman” Torbert, and Brian “Kenny” Kennedy were my peers in the ready room. I worked with Major Campbell over at headquarters for a while shortly before I moved on from the Marine Corps. Of the aircrew in the back, not one was over the age of 25, but every one of them I knew to be a hard-working professional; the job demands it. I had the chance to fly with most of them, and I can honestly say I loved seeing their names on the flight schedule whenever we had the chance to conduct a training mission. Sergeant Semolina, Sergeant Sempler, Sergeant Schoeller, Sergeant Turner, Corporal Jardas, Corporal Drown, Corporal Orlando, and Lance Corporal Hart leave an absence on the Pegasus flightline that is hard to fathom.

When I started writing this post, I did so with the intention of sharing some anecdotes about the guys I knew, and how they impacted me. I have written the stories out a dozen times, just to delete them and start over. I could never do them justice. I guess I will leave the memories to be kept among those who knew them best, but I will share a note Kevin left me when I transferred out of the squadron in 2014. “We will drink scotch one day on a Scottish estate reflecting on Afghanistan, RIMPAC, and Australia,” he wrote, referencing a vision for retirement we often talked about, “Thanks for the memories.”

385943_816636137481_714190691_n

Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, September 11, 2011, after a 9/11 memorial run. Kevin is on the left.

 

The CH-53, it is often joked, does not fly, but rather beats the air into submission. As I think of my friends and peers, of their empty desks and lockers, and of the hushed tones spoken in the ready room and along the flightline, I cannot help but think of that first time I was handed the controls, and how absolutely improbable it seemed that a helicopter could take to the air. These twelve men, now lost at sea, were operating at the envelope of what seems possible. Beyond serving their country, they were fulfilling the dream of every person who has stood with their feet on the ground and looked up at the sky.

It occurs to me that there is little that can be said to fill in the giant void left by these Marines; not for the families, the loved ones, or the squadron that feels their loss so intimately. I guess, after writing all of this, I could have just summed it up in a sentence; I’m going to miss my friends.

Semper Fidelis, gentlemen. Fair winds, following seas, and most of all, thanks for the memories.

hmh-463-2-squadron-patch

50 Comments

Bill Heiken posted on January 19, 2016 at 1:57 am

Very nice piece brother, thanks for taking the time to reflect on our brothers. Semper Fi, all the best, Bill

Christopher A Lynam posted on January 19, 2016 at 2:59 am

It was a shock to me when I woke up the next morning receiving a text message with the news story. Just before I left, everyone one of those Marines shook my hand and said good luck. Cpl Jardas gave me a hug after finally finding out I was leaving for medical retirement after so many months on hold. LCpl Hart having duty with giving him my insight on the Marine Corps, and giving me his story on how Survival School was. Cpl Drown giving me his last can a dip on the range because I was stress out about my current situation, then I gave him a can back after I quit. Sgt Turner was on duty my last day there, help him cleaned the barracks up before I left. Captain Roche, gave me advise about some personal problems I had. I checked in Captain Kennedy when I was working in the S-2. Help Captain Torbert help every way I could when asking about WTI. Sgt Semolina was getting ready for MARSOC, trying to help him as well because I knew the process. Prayers goes to the family and friends and Pegasus

Shane blanton posted on January 19, 2016 at 3:32 am

Very nicely worded sir! Rah!

Jay Farmer posted on January 19, 2016 at 4:32 am

Extremely touching. Well said sir. Semper fi to our fallen brethren.

Chad Bignell posted on January 19, 2016 at 6:54 am

Well said. Truly a heartbreaking event…

Debbie Crocker posted on January 19, 2016 at 8:41 am

It is heartbreaking to know that these young men are gone. I feel for each of you very much. My son, Lance Corporal Crocker is part of this squadron and I know exactly how it is touching them. Our thoughts and prayers are with each and everyone of you and the families of the fallen Marines.

Patty posted on January 19, 2016 at 8:47 am

Such a very well written piece. As a mother former of 2 marines i have truly been blessed that they have come back home and reentered into civilian life. They say once a marine always a marine and that is so very very true. That becomes very obvious when a tragedy such as this occurs. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain thhat their families and marine corps brothers and sisters feel. All i can do is keep them in my thoughts and prayers. God bless each and every one of our military personnel all over the world. You truly are special

Patty Blanton posted on January 19, 2016 at 9:15 am

Please forgive me for this 2nd comment but it was very important to me to say this especially because my oldest son commented on here earlier. Both of my sons were stationed in Hawaii for the entire time they were in. I was lucky enough to be able to visit them 3 years in a row. I had the pleasure and honor of meeting some of their fellow marines. No matter what people say about pur military i am and always will be proud and say i have 2 sons that served in the marines

Patrick George posted on January 19, 2016 at 10:04 am

Captain Wilson,
I wasn’t aware you were in school in Boston (I’m at the MA state house). Captain Roche was the first name that came to mind when I had heard what happened. I remember calling him Kevin one day right in front of Maj Sampson when we got back from deploying. I had seen him in town that weekend and he did not take kindly to being called Sir at Kelly’s.

-Patrick George
HMH-463 S-6 Closeout

Beverly Faircloth posted on January 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

Thank you for this article. My heart breaks for each and every person, spouse, parent, sibling and friend. HMH-463 was our home ’92-’96. Very fond memories of our time there. God Bless you all

Ray L'Heureux posted on January 19, 2016 at 11:10 am

Nicely stated and Mahalo. Good luck in your endeavors S/F Frenchy (Pegasus 96-98)

Raymond E. Drozd posted on January 19, 2016 at 11:27 am

Beautifully written. Beyond beautiful. As a Vietnam Veteran I can only say that ” We will meet these gentle heroes again one day. In the meantime, they shall be terribly missed. “

Maureen Larson posted on January 19, 2016 at 11:44 am

Thank you for the amazing insight of a helicopter pilot, the beautiful tribute to your fellow comrades and for your service and sacrifice for our country. My son in law is a Marine F18 pilot and also a friend of Kevin Roche. My prayers, thanks and heartfelt condolences to you, family, friends and entire Navy/Marine Corp.

Jonathan Morton posted on January 19, 2016 at 11:49 am

Thank you for taking the time to write this, all will miss them, none will forget. All of us from HMH-465 in the early 80’s will tell you we still feel it. Our hearts are broken, as we pray for the families.

Susi Haugh posted on January 19, 2016 at 12:17 pm

What a beautiful tribute, and you did your friends justice. I am the mother of a helicopter pilot (Conor Goodman-flies the MH-60 here in North Island, San Diego). I’m lucky enough to have him close to home for now, and will always value my time with him. I pray every day for his safety. And I will continue to do so, for all of you out there. Thank you for all you do for our country.

Christy Kaiser posted on January 19, 2016 at 12:24 pm

So well said! Thank you so much for writing this! Oohrah

jeanne posted on January 19, 2016 at 1:28 pm

This is my son’s unit. HMH 463 KBay. This is very close to my heart. So beautifully written, as I sit thousands of miles from him, imagining what he and his brothers are going through. When this happened, there was confusion and for 40 minutes I did not know if my son was dead or alive. God bless these twelve, their families, God bless you.

Bonnie Lowery posted on January 19, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Sad but true! Take care.

Keith Herring ng posted on January 19, 2016 at 5:12 pm

Thank you for a very heartfelt and genuine peek into the hearts, minds and souls of our Marine aviators. Yes, they are a special breed that I have fathomless respect and admiration for – not only as a former Marine but also as the proud father of our Super Stallion pilot son in the 466 (currently detached with the 166, soon to deploy). He doesn’t talk much about the inherent dangers of flight, but he gushes with excitement about the joys and comradery he shares with these brave men and women. These 12 souls will be greatly missed and forever remembered. Prayers for them and all of their hurting family and friends. They truly have taken flight with wings.
Semper Fi, Gentlemen!!

Terry Bollman posted on January 19, 2016 at 6:10 pm

Even though I never had the honor of serving with any of the missing crews, I was lucky enough to be the Quality Assurance Chief for Pegasus from 2005-2010. The Delta was sent to Iraq to prove to the powers-that-be that the airframe was too old and couldn’t handle the workload. The planes and the crews (both flight and maintenance) proved everyone wrong. HMH-463 was my last squadron before I retired and will always hold a special place in my heart. Semper Fi

MSgt Terry Bollman (USMC-Retired)

Kathy posted on January 19, 2016 at 7:54 pm

Thank you for a beautiful article for these brave and courageous Marines.My son was also a part of the unit for 5 years and so proud of the Marines he served with.I’m forever grateful to the pilots that brought him back safely after many,many flights and deployments. My heart goes out to his friends and their families and we await word. I pray that somehow ,they could still come back home to their families. I know that my son’s love is with the Marines I know these men were no doubt doing what they loved..Scott served with some of them and our heats are heavy as we wait.God Speed Marines..Thank You for your service.

D.W. Sampson posted on January 19, 2016 at 9:07 pm

Nicely stated! Thoughts and prayers with our Pegasus ohana.
Semper Fi- Dolf (Pegasus ’10-’12)

Linda Smith posted on January 19, 2016 at 9:26 pm

What a precious heartfelt tribute. May the families and friends of these men find comfort knowing how we have been blessed by the sacrifice of these 12 men doing what they loved. We owe them more. Than we can repay. My deceased husband served Navy in Guam early 70’s, all my fathers, in-laws and Grandfathers served our country. I am praying our country returns soon to a USA where our military is treated with the upmost in both respect and love. Honoring those missing men I remain prayerful for their loved ones. Thank you for sharing in words that place us in their seats.

Maxine posted on January 19, 2016 at 9:38 pm

Very well written – My heart breaks for these Marines and their loved ones. My grandson Is a Marine crew chief and I Pray for his safety every day and for all serving our country. God bless and protect them.

Scott Pierson posted on January 19, 2016 at 10:21 pm

Well written – nailed the experience of growing up “rotor trash” and loving it. We share experiences that others cannot imagine, and grieve for the loss of those cut from the same cloth. Semper Fi and Fair Winds, Pegasus brothers.

-Disco (Pegasus’95-’99)

Capt Michael Kelly posted on January 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm

Very well said. Thank you.

Ninaolmita@yahoo.com posted on January 19, 2016 at 11:25 pm

What an awesome tribute.
I am at a loss for words. My son is A Marine
Veteran I am so lucky to say we keep each and everyone in our prayers! Thank you so much for the ultimate sacrifice.
Amen

Mitch Cassell posted on January 19, 2016 at 11:36 pm

Powerful tribute. I didn’t know any of these lost heroes, but knew plenty like them who perished in other CH-53E tragedies – ’92 x 2, ’99, ’05, ’07, ’11. One mishap buried airframe and 4 of 5 crew at the bottom of the Atlantic in 3000 feet of water (#5 didn’t survive). Each tragedy is agonizing, but tributes like this help immensely. Fair winds and following seas Pegasus 12.
– Suspect

Neal Jacob posted on January 20, 2016 at 12:04 am

Very eloquent memorial and tribute to Marine Aviation… Six years flying the ’53 in a Hawaiian paradise makes one sometimes forget about the inherent risks that we routinely accepted. I only flew with Pegasus a handful of times, but the bond of brotherhood and depth of friendships that squadron life fosters is both boundless and unforgettably precious. You captured it well. The loss of a single Marine can be heartbreaking, I can not imagine the pain of losing/missing twelve. Thoughts and prayers for you all. Semper Fidelis

William Willard posted on January 20, 2016 at 6:22 am

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories of our fallen brothers. I am heartbroken for these Marines, their brothers and sisters, and most especially their families. I can only offer my thoughts and prayers for this horrific loss. Fair winds and following seas. Semper Fidelis.
Capt Bill “RAT” Willard
MAG-24 S-2
’06 – ’12

Susan Della-Corte posted on January 20, 2016 at 8:46 am

Thank you for sharing your personal feelings and perspective on the tragic loss of these good men. Your sentiments are reflective of so many and eloquently stated. Our hearts and prayers are with these men, their families, friends and colleagues. Semper Fidelis.

Randy Garrison posted on January 20, 2016 at 9:13 am

What a beautifully written tribute. Thanks for your eloquence. Our hearts go out to all the Marine families that risk their lives everyday for us. It might have started as a love of flying but transformed into something much more important, love of service. The Marine Corp has meant much to my family and my heart is heavy. These losses come very close and personal to me.

Jonathan posted on January 20, 2016 at 9:44 am

Thanks Half-mile. Our memories are never lost. Pegasus forever.
-Whiskers (Pegasus ’08-’13)

Peg Garrison posted on January 20, 2016 at 9:45 am

Thank you for this loving and beautiful tribute to your comrades and friends and fellow Marines. You wrote with so much love-it comforts all of us who are aching for the loss and for the families who are missing these fine and wonderful men. You have written a love letter for everyone to treasure. Our son is a Marine and was an instructor in Hawaii. This is the first comforting thing that I have read and if these guys were here they would also say ” thanks for the memories”. Thank you.

David Hill posted on January 20, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Thank you for putting that together Half-Mile. It captures the sentiments of a community struggling to deal with such a devastating loss. Semper Fidelis

SamBam

Yonel Dorelis posted on January 20, 2016 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for that post and great tribute to your fellow Marines. I just buried one my brothers from combat who lost his battle with his demons, so I understand the loss, brother, I do. Although, I retired from the Air Force, I am a former Naval Aviator and after reading the post, I could not help but smile when I thought about that day in 1986 when my instructor told me “just keep it in Florida”.

Linda Flannery posted on January 20, 2016 at 8:21 pm

Thank you for your post. As an Army brat and mother of two sons who serve our country, one navy and one Marine, I thank all of you for your service. My heart goes out to the families. God bless.

CDR Patrick "Roxy" Snow posted on January 20, 2016 at 10:31 pm

Great post. I was transported back to flight school in an instant and reminded just how similar we all are no matter what the squadron. Fair winds shipmates. I don’t know any of you, but I feel like I know all of you. VR/

Dennis Melton posted on January 20, 2016 at 11:22 pm

Outstanding tribute !
Thank you Sir.

Ed Murphy posted on January 21, 2016 at 1:26 am

Well done to the author and all responders. May we all meet them, and others who have or will be gone on ahead, at that great Happy Hour with our maker. Semper Fidelis!

David lee coggins posted on January 21, 2016 at 6:54 am

There is a wider audience who may greatly benefit from this and perhaps help with the grieving process. I ask the author to consider publishing it via the MCB KBay and Oahu paper, The Marine Gazette and or Leatherneck. Semper Fidelis, DLC

Jack Haus posted on January 21, 2016 at 7:58 am

I was a C/C with 463 in 74-75. I share the loss of friends and fellow crewmen. The bond we share has no end. The times we have shared in life, we again will share at death. Stay on course. Semper Fi

Nicole posted on January 21, 2016 at 9:36 am

As the wife of a MH-53 crewman, your words are more telling of what it is that the crews (not just pilots) feel when they begin working on those mighty beasts. The loss of any crew on the ’53’ is felt community wide. Our thoughts, prayers and tears are with you all.

Josh Wort posted on January 21, 2016 at 10:10 pm

Billy, you are a master wordsmith. Thank you for using your gift to share a glimpse of what we’re all feeling.

Josh

Joe Rogish posted on January 21, 2016 at 11:42 pm

Well done Marine! While all glory is fleeting, the memories of our Brothers will live forever in our hearts and minds. MAG-24 OPS O and X.O. 1991-1994, Semper Fi.

Jonathan Morel posted on January 23, 2016 at 12:02 am

Thanks for sharing this, Billy. It was very moving and personal, especially for those of us that know exactly what you’re talking about and have shared those exact experiences. I, too, keep playing in my mind that exact flight path, coming out of the TFTA after a successful NVG flight, shooting out over Haleiwa, and banging a right out toward Kuhuku RTB. As many times as we’ve all been there, it just doesn’t seem right or even somehow possible. This is a very well written reflection that I’ll certainly keep as a beautiful reminder of the sacrifice of these Pegasus 12.

John Davis posted on January 23, 2016 at 11:14 am

“Where do we find such men?” – James Michener in his book, The Bridges of Toko-Ri.’

Randy Garrison posted on February 15, 2016 at 8:49 pm

Mr. Davis, my son’s Grandfather and great Uncle were such men. They lived near Pensacola in the ’30s and sat on the beach marveling at the planes that flew over their heads and homes and said “I want to do that”. They did. I remember Michener’s book and question. Meant less to me then than now, but my father’s grandson is a 53 pilot, my son’s grandfather was a member of the first Marine helicopter squadron in Korea. Long story, but we find such men and I am proud to part of such men.

Fritz posted on April 11, 2016 at 10:43 am

Amazing! you wrote this so beautifully. My dad fought in Vietnam and died in a copter crash. I recently started going to school to fly (http://www.flyhaa.com/en/page/helicopter_flight_training_courses), its been my dream to take to the air just like my dad. he was an amazing man. thanks for the post

złom warszawa posted on October 11, 2016 at 1:53 pm

BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE!!!!!

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