Bermuda Seaplane Ops - 1958



By AL PERKINS (Bermudian Magazine Oct 58)

On a hot Tuesday morning last June, a secretary placed an urgent message on the desk of Captain Harry P. Badger, commanding officer of the U. S. Naval Station, Southampton, Bermuda. The message had come in by phone from Mrs. Rosemary Divall, whose husband Richard had just built for his wife and baby an attractive hilltop house overlooking Somerset Bridge. Rosemary was hopping mad, she said, because in her considered opinion and in that of her husband (a meteorologist who holds a Bermuda pilot’s license) the American seaplanes based at the Station were flying dangerously low over her new home. As she looked out her view-window toward the Great Sound, she reported, all she could see were "big, black monsters" surging up heavily from the water and heading straight for her. The roar of their motors just over her roof shook her windows, she said, it rattled her dishes, and regularly awakened her year-old daughter Kirrell.

This was far from the first complaint ever made about the American planes. Ever since the then-called N.O.B. (Naval Operations Base) was begun in 1941, when the land was leased by the U. S. A. from Great Britain, it has been critically discussed by Bermudians. In recent years and months, the continuous day and night maneuverings of the patrol planes had done little to improve the relationship.

Numerous complaints have reached the American Consul General in Bermuda, Mr. Sidney K. Lafoon. One or two well-heeled U. S. residents of the western end of the Island have tried to "get something done" about the planes through influential contacts in Washington. There have been letters pro and con (mostly con) in the daily press, and serious suggestions that the entire matter be taken up in the House of Assembly. Sporadically, the film-makers occupying Darrell’s Island have maintained that the noise interrupts and spoil their sound-recordings. John Young, impresario of the swank new Lantana Colony Club, has reported ruefully that several parties of paying guests checked out and sought other quarters because the ubiquitous planes made rest and sleep impossible.

Although Captain Badger took command of the Station less than a year before this was written (he arrived in August, 1957), he proved himself from the start a man of action who never pigeon-holes matters of importance. Since part of his job is to make friends rather than enemies for the United States Navy, and since he has two daughters of his own, now grown up, the complaint fell on receptive ears. When a second phone-call came in from another young Somerset Bridge mother, Mrs. Michael Misick of Lagoona Cottage, Captain Badger jumped into his car and drove over to investigate in person.

By coincidence, on the very same Tuesday morning when the Captain was on the ground, squinting critically skyward at the controversial aircraft, I was airborne in one of them, directly overhead. My "mission" was a special flight arranged for me with his customary courtesy by Captain Badger, at my request. While his planes seldom pass at low levels directly over my Somerset home, The Cork Tree, I can hear them growling in the distance, and they sometimes make right turns after take-off and glide northward past my beach or blink their lights outside my bedroom at night. I was aware that there had been complaints, and felt that if I could find out just why the planes are based on Bermuda, and why they must make their seemingly endless and, to the layman, meaningless hops around, across, and over the Islands, I might gather sufficient material for a clarifying article. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating assignments I have ever undertaken.

Although I am aware that there is nothing worse than introducing a "happy ending" at the start of a story, I must state at the outset that this one does end happily—at least, it has for the Divalls and their neighbors. After observing and listening to the offending planes from Rosemary’s terrace, Captain Badger found she was not exaggerating, and that her proposal to put a warning sign-light on her rooftop was not the impulsive whim of a hysterical woman. In addition to the "revved-up" roar of the twin-motored planes on takeoff, the Captain could also hear the whine of the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit)—arid when you can hear that sound from a private home, it means the climbing aircraft is too low and too close.

Minutes later, Captain Badger was back at the Naval Station (still referred to inaccurately as N.O.B.) and in conference with his top brass. Bending over the big table-chart which shows the three alternate "sea lanes" or water runways used for take-offs and landings, the officers found it possible to make certain directional adjustments which changed the pattern of Lane Two Three. This begins near H.M. Dockyard and stretches toward Somerset Bridge. Orders were immediately issued to all pilots and to the control tower, to route the planes over portions of the Naval Station itself and then across the water of Port Royal, instead of over the hilltop homes in the Somerset Bridge area, to the great relief of their occupants. As Rosemary put it with understandable enthusiasm a few days later; "Captain Badger was just wonderful, and everything is simply peachy now."

While some complaints, from householders near Watford Bridge and other settled areas that must be flown over, will probably continue to come in as long as the planes are based at Bermuda (just as they continue at St. David’s Island and St. George’s in connection with flights at Kindley Field), there is no question that Captain Badger and his fliers are doing everything in their power to carry on their vital patrol, rescue, and training operations with as little annoyance to the people of the Islands as possible.

During my own take-off, for instance, following the former pattern along Sea Lane Two Three, I heard in my earphones a voice from the Navy control tower instructing our pilot to "make a left turn over the (Naval Station) Causeway, climb to 500 feet, and then ask permission before turning right, because of complaints of noise from residents of the area." I suspected at first that this comment might have been ad-libbed purely for my benefit, but found later, on checking with the pilots, that similar instructions are being given and followed on every take-off in which the planes must fly over private houses—another innovation of
Captain Badger’s to establish friendlier relations with the community.

"Since we fly seaplanes," the Captain explained, "our men naturally would much prefer to fly exclusively over water, and not over land. And they do so whenever they can. But seaplanes are exceptionally vulnerable to crosswinds, and when there is a crosswind of twelve knots or more, we must head into it, rather than accept the risk of having a wing or pontoon dip into the water and flip the aircraft over to destruction."

To take advantage of winds from every direction, there are three alternate sea lanes laid out roughly in the shape of a huge triangle on the waters of the Great Sound, for take-offs and landings in either direction. They are marked off by buoys in the daytime, lines of green lights at night. One is the above-mentioned Two Three. Another is Two Eight, from the direction of Darrell’s Island toward the Naval Station. The third is Three Five, on a line between Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse and Watford Bridge. If used in the opposite direction, each lane takes on a different number: from Port Royal toward Darrell’s Island becomes One Oh; Naval Station to H.M. Dockyard, Oh Five; Watford Bridge to Gibb’s Hill, One Seven.

"Why do they have to use lanes at all?" one Mangrove Bay householder asked. "Why don’t they just go out in the ocean and take off from there?"

To this, Captain Badger replies that seaplanes require the most sheltered water for landing and taking off. Even more important is the fact that, by using marked lanes, it is possible for the NAVSTA’ s (Naval Station’s) crash boats to "sweep" the landing and take-off areas and clear them of logs and other floating debris which might otherwise do serious damage to the aircraft’s thin aluminum hull.

In emergency, the NAVSTA seaplanes can and do land in the open ocean, but it is an extremely tricky and hazardous operation even with only a light sea running. For rescue operations, the planes ordinarily stand by in the air above a vessel which has called for help, radio its position to shore, and lead the Coast Guard cutter from St. George’s to the scene. In cases of life and death—where, for instance, a ship’s doctor has radioed that a man will die unless taken immediately to a hospital ashore—the plane will attempt a landing in the ocean. But usually there is ample time for the cutter to be summoned without risking the lives of the plane’s crew.

FROM the standpoint of Bermudians, the most valuable service performed by the Navy planes are their rescues at sea. Most of these are performed by the three Coast Guard planes at the Station, which can be distinguished from the dark blue Naval planes by their distinctive colors—light gray with markings of gold. All the planes are otherwise the same: Martin Marlins, known technically as P5M-l’s and P5M-2’s, which means Patrol seaplane Fifth model made by Martin, versions 1 and 2. The three Coast Guard planes are "stripped down" and carry less of the heavy, complex electronic submarine-detection equipment than do the Navy ships, since the primary job of the Coast Guard is air rescue at sea.

In emergencies, however, the Navy planes work with the Coast Guard in rescue work, as they did in the spectacular first rescue of Melville West, the young man who attempted to reach Bermuda from the American coast in a small outboard motorboat. Commander Ira H. McMullan, 41, from Meridian, Mississippi, who commands the local ADCG (Air Detachment Coast Guard) was at the controls on October 27, 1957 when West was seven days out on his first trip, and in trouble. Commander McMullan’s co-pilot, Lieutenant Commander Clarence R. Easter (whose nickname inevitably is "Hap") actually spotted West’s final flare—a blob of orange smoke on the water—and sent the location to the cutter Rockaway, then stationed at St. George’s. Commander McMulLin stayed over West’s little boat until relieved by another aircraft, after dropping a radio, food, water, and additional flares. So that he wouldn’t be lost again, a plane stayed above West until the Rockaway arrived and picked him up at midnight on October 28. On his second attempt, in a slightly larger outboard craft, West apparently overshot the Islands completely in stormy weather, and despite intensive search by the Navy and Coast Guard planes from Bermuda, was never found.

More in the daily line of duty are the less spectacular, and ‘hence less publicized, rescues of Bermuda fishing vessels. On April 17, 1958, for example, the Sea Venture, skippered by Bill Burrows of Southampton, was reported missing when she had not returned to port by four p.m. The Coast Guard planes could not communicate with Sea Venture, since she carried no radio. But they searched the area around the Islands methodically and finally spotted the vessel out of fuel and wallowing near the reefs 50 miles northeast of Bermuda, just at dawn the following morning. By agreement with the Rescue Control Center, fishing vessels tow each other in whenever possible, so another fisherman came out for Burrows and hove him a line.

In the year and a half that Commander McMullan has been at the Naval Station, his three planes have participated in more than 100 "intercepts"—missions launched when incoming aircraft, both military and civilian, report to Kindley that they are in some sort of trouble, usually mechanical —a motor has conked out, or some other difficulty developed. "When we get the flash, we go out and fly in with them," says Commander McMullan. "We stand by in case they have to ditch in the open sea. So far during my hitch here," and he knocks wood on a carved nameplate on his desk which he picked up in the Philippines, "we’ve brought ‘em all in safely, with no ditchings".

My own flight, with the Navy, involved not only an actual patrol but a search for an unidentified submarine which had been spotted and reported by an incoming commercial airliner at 32 degrees 30 minutes north, 65 degrees 20 minutes west—about 30 miles from the Island. I reported at nine a.m. in the "ready room" of the big South Hangar at the base, and sat down with pilots and crew around a green covered table as we got our briefing for the mission. The position of the submarine was indicated by a mark on a wall- chart. In charge was Commander E. D. Anderson from Ellensburg, Washington, who commands the twelve seaplanes of Squadron 49. A crack meteorologist as well as pilot, Andy first called for a weather report, provided by a young officer who came up with charts of the latest readings. He gave us a picture of the weather for 200 miles around Bermuda, and said it would stay the same—warm, sunny, with a west wind of about 20 knots—for the next couple of days, a prediction which turned out to be 100% accurate. Next, the crew listened intently to an intelligence briefing by the squadron’s Intelligence Officer, Lieut. (jg) Ed Young, USNR. He was followed by Andy himself, who stressed the necessity for immediately reporting any contact with an unidentified submarine. This is done to preclude the remote peacetime possibility that aircraft and crew could be attacked without warning, shot down and put out of action without any knowledge of the circumstances reaching the authorities on shore. The dead seriousness of the occasion was heightened by a brilliant wall poster depicting in color all the known Soviet naval flags. At 9.30, we trooped out to the plane itself, waiting on the concrete.

IF you think the planes look huge in the air, you should see them on the ramp. Our ship, bearing the inscription NAVY VP-49 (the squadron number) and LP-1 (which is always the number of the squadron commander’s plane) towered over our heads like a huge flying pterodactyl from prehistoric times. She had a wing-spread of 128 feet, measured 111 feet from bow to stern (the Navy uses nautical parlance aboard its planes just as on shipboard) and her characteristic T-shaped tail stretched 35 feet two inches into the air, so lofty that a section of equipment at its tip must be removed by technicians on a grid before the big ship can be rolled into her hangar. For long overwater patrols, such aircraft often take off with a gross weight of 78,000 pounds, nearly 23,000 pounds of which (3,800 gallons) is high-test gasoline. On a 3,000 miles flight, the two 3,150 H.P. engines gulp fuel at the rate of 200 gallons an hour while cruising at a modest 150 knots (about 170 miles per hour).

Our pilot was a hulking six-footer from Chicago, Bill Lange, 24, who’s been flying 3 1/2 years, has logged 1500 hours in the air, and has been a PPC (patrol plane commander) since April, ‘58. He helped me scramble up an eight-rung ladder and crowd through a hatch into the "waist" of the airplane—a dark, cavernous compartment full of everything from electronic gear and life-rafts to sleeping bunks and a tiny galley for cooking.

The seriousness of our mission deepened as Bill strapped me first into a "Mae West" (inflatable life belt) and a bulky parachute harness. "If you have to jump," he told me solemnly, "try to go out head first, then count three—not one, two, three but one hundred and one, one hundred and two, and one hundred and three—and then pull your ripcord." I gulped, and assured him I’d try to remember.

Another companionway rook me up to the flight deck, where I buckled myself into an orange-covered seat just forward of the radioman, and put on the heavy set of earphones he handed me. Through a porthole labeled "Ditching Board," I could see Navy frogmen, some in rubber suits and flippers, others in bathing shorts, getting ready to remove our wheels in the water once we had been pulled down the ramp. "Those guys have got the world’s best duty in summer and the worst in winter," someone commented.

The seaplane, unlike the amphibian, has no wheels in its fuselage; they are floated out on ingeniously built-in buoys and attached to the undercarriage by the crew so that the ship can be rolled up the ramp when her tour of duty for the day is ended. Similarly, when she is preparing to take off, the wheels are floated off and brought ashore.

Under our own power, we taxied slowly to the end of Sea Lane Two Three. Here I learned why the planes so often seem to be making meaningless circles on the water. Unlike a land plane, they cannot be "locked" on the runway while the engines are warmed up in turn. When Bill gave his port motor full throttle, we turned in the opposite direction, and swung back only when he gave the same treatment to the starboard four-bladed propeller. There was a chattering in my earphones as the tower cleared "One Woodpecker" (our voice call) for take-off. As we began our roaring run down Sea Lane Two Three, I could understand why landings and take-offs in the open ocean can be so hazardous. Even in the comparatively calm waters of the Great Sound, our hull jounced and banged on the waves as though it were being repeatedly pounded from below by a giant sledgehammer. Faster and faster we bounced along, the whole plane drenched in spray, and shaking as if she were about to come apart. After about 5,000 feet of this, in a take-off which we made successfully despite damage to the port hydro flap, a steering fin, we were suddenly "up on the step" and then airborne.

Unlike commercial airliners, there are no pressure cabins or air conditioners aboard these rugged, workhorse Navy planes. The sun beating down outside, combined with the heat given out by the radar, loran, and other electronic detection devices, soon made the flight deck almost unbearably hot. In minutes, 1 was soaked to the skin, even though, unlike the crew, I was in shirt and shorts, unencumbered by the heavy anti-fire flying suits they had each climbed into. But rivulets from under my rubber earphones trickled down my face and back as I heard the Kindley control tower take over from the Navy and instruct us to "stay over the water."

Presently, Andy came below and aft from the co-pilot’s seat and explained to me for the first time that our mission was a "simulated" one—a training exercise, rather than a hunt for an actual submarine. "Here’s how it works," he told me, "within the next quarter hour, I’ll have the ordnance man drop a smoke bomb. Bill Lange knows it’s going to be done, but he won’t know when it happens. Then on command it will be his job, and his crew’s, to search the area until they spot it."

I went up to the control cabin as the search began. Hunched over his wheel, and coming down to about 800 feet from the ocean, Bill flew his ship in "legs"—first in five mile squares, then four miles, then one. Keen eyes searched the sea, "The electronic gear is a big help," Bill murmured, "but we’ve found there’s nothing as good as the human eye. Every sub comes up for air now and then—and that’s when we spot ‘em." There came a sudden hail from our port lookout, aft in the waist: "Port look- out to pilot, possible target at eight o’clock." Bill put the ship into a steep climbing turn, doubling back, and in a moment we all saw it—a faint, trailing wisp of white smoke on the water that looked for all the world like spray stirred up by the periscope of a submarine.

A sense of urgency and excitement swept our plane as we went down for the simulated "kill." Navy regulations normally forbid civilians to fly in armed planes, so we were carrying neither bombs nor rockets. Bill pulled down from over his head an elaborate aiming-sight and peered through it at the submarine’s "wake." Then he pointed our nose downward and put us into a screaming dive, straight at the target.

"You’ll think we’re going right into the water, but we won’t," Andy reassured me. Then he began calling out our height. "Twelve hundred, eleven hundred, ten, nine, eight, seven , six. . ." At 800 feet above the "sub," Bill squeezed the triggers that would have fired a rocket-salvo had we been armed. Then he pulled up out of the dive and wheeled around for a second attempt.

To show me how a real "kill" looks, Andy radioed for a second plane to join the chase, while we stood by as observers. It roared out from the Naval Station and first made a bombing-run over the target, dropping sand-and-water bombs which straddled the "sub" perfectly, sending up geysers of water, "You’ve hurt him," Andy radioed. "Now go in and finish him off."

This time the plane nosed seaward as we had done, in an almost vertical dive. At 800 feet, a bright orange flash exploded under the wings and two rockets shot down, to smack the "sub" squarely amidships in the brilliant explosions of a perfect hit. Three times the maneuver was repeated, until there was no further doubt that the two planes had "sighted sub, sank same." After this exploit, during which I was amazed by the maneuverability of the heavy-looking planes, we headed south from the target-area and climbed gently to 10,000 feet.

I felt suddenly sleepy, and went below to stretch out for a moment on one of the bunks, and get acquainted with our crew. Lieutenant Alexander ("Ski") Stromski, 30, from Yonkers, New York, who ordinarily serves as navigator, took over the pilot’s seat from Bill Lange, who followed me below and broke out a simple but nutritious box-lunch. He looked sleepy himself, and told me: "It’s the effect of the altitude in a non-pressurized cabin. That’s the hardest part of learning to be a flier; you’ve got to train yourself to carry on efficiently under conditions that slow your reflexes and dull your perceptions."

There was nothing slow or dull about Ski as Andy put him through an instrument flying check-out. Because of recent crashes between military and commercial airplanes in the States, the practice of drawing a black curtain across the pilot’s windscreen when he’s flying "blind," on instruments only, has been prohibited. So Commander Anderson could only have Ski lower his seat so that he could not see out. Thus he was compelled to fly the plane by reference to instruments alone. Then Andy would put the big plane into a near stall, or other unorthodox position, and let Ski work back to normal flying level solely by instruments.

In a stall, the ship’s nose is pointed steeply skyward and held there until the motors can no longer lift her, when she falls away in a sharp drop that can become a spin if not corrected, At the moment of stall, sitting by now on the navigator’s desk on the flight deck, I experienced the sensation of "weightlessness" which will be commonplace in space-travel. The table fell gently away below me: I remained suspended comfortably in mid-air for a few seconds until the falling motion ended, and the table replaced itself beneath me. After several repetitions, the sense of floating on air becomes extremely pleasant: I was sorry when Ski satisfactorily completed his checkout and we headed back to Bermuda.

We hit bumpy weather as we descended, and the plane bucketed wildly. "Don’t give it a thought," electrician Keith Dvorak, 20, from North Bend. Nebraska, told me. "Commander Anderson’s been flying for 25 years; there’s nothing to worry about with him up there." For our landing, Radarman Jim Novick, 23, from Chicago let me have his seat facing the radar screen on which I watched a perfect map of Bermuda, black against an orange background, grow larger and larger as we approached the Islands. Kindley Field (which supervises all incoming aircraft, including those from the Naval Station) picked us up as we came down to 2000 feet. "This is Five Five Zero Eight requesting permission to land," our pilot radioed, and was told: "Make a right turn and proceed for further identification." With war news from the Middle East already in the headlines, Kindley was taking no chances. We flew north, high over Ely’s Harbour, until the Kindley radar picked us up and made sure we were the plane we said we were. Then they "talked us in"— Base leg to sealane Two Three; your height should be 300 feet at the present time.’

Suddenly the pilot’s voice cut in: "My starboard engine is bad!" I glanced out the porthole: it did indeed look bad; the propeller, not feathered, was turning, but slowly. Instructions poured in from Kindley, from the Navy Tower, and from copilot Anderson: "Your air speed is one two zero ..." "Go to rated power on your good engine…" "That’s a pretty hairy turn for a single engine…" And then, as smoothly as if we were flying under full power, we settled on the water. There were far fewer bumps than at the take-off, and the big ship, unlike incoming land-planes which roll for miles along their runways after touch-down, was braked to an almost immediate halt by the friction of the water. "Not bad," said Ed Walters, 36, from Roswell, New Mexico, our flight crew chief. "Now we get a cruise around the bay, at 40 knots."

And we did: with the Wright turbo compound engines idling, we opened portholes, drank in the refreshing breeze, and became almost a sightseeing craft moving toward the Station. Then, I learned, I’d been "simulated" again: there was nothing actually wrong with the starboard engine, which had been deliberately cut back by Commander Anderson to test Ski’s ability to land under reduced power.

Pilot-training plays a big pare in the operations of the Station. and accounts for the almost-continual round-the-clock flights and such maneuvers as the "touch-and-go," where a ship comes in apparently for a landing, sits down briefly on the water, and at once goes aloft again.

Young airmen coming to Bermuda for further training are known as "nuggets"— fresh out of Pensacola, Florida, or Corpus Christi, Texas, with perhaps 200 flying hours to their credit. They’re assigned to the big Navy planes first as navigators, like Alec Stromski; then become PP-3’s (co— pilots) and finally PPC’s—plane commanders. After a hitch in Bermuda which usually runs two years, they are dispatched to duty elsewhere—which may mean flying with similar squadrons on the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, or desk jobs anywhere from Washington, D. C., to Brunswick, Maine.

The continued vigilance of the Naval Station is reassuring in a troubled world—a world which, in the event of war, would find Bermuda as strategically important as it was in the last conflict, when the N.O.B. worked a seven-day week, surfaced the Island’s roads in co-operation with the U. S. Air Force, assembled convoys for the perilous Atlantic run, and prepared ships for the African landings.

It is every bit as vigilant today. Around the clock, a full crew and a ready plane stand on the ramp alert for any emergency from mine laying to repelling enemy submarines. How many Soviet undersea craft they have actually spotted and photographed within 500 miles of Bermuda they will not, of course, tell an outsider. But since photos of trespassing Red subs have been released and published in the U. S. press, it can be assumed that they are sighted, followed, and position reported with considerable frequency in these waters.

After seeing at first hand how the patrols operate, and how keenly the young eyes of the pilots and lookouts sweep the seas, I must confess to a changed feeling about the occasional racket the motors make as the planes skim past my house. Instead of feeling annoyed, I look skyward in admiration, knowing that in those big, dark planes a dozen youngsters, highly skilled and expensively trained, are at their posts, sweating out arduous missions that at any time might end in death or injury. I think of the time, during the Suez crisis, when the planes flew constantly by night sweeping down with powerful searchlights to make positive identification of all shipping near Bermuda. One of the planes never returned; it disappeared with no trace of its dedicated crew, who were destroyed, the Navy guesses, when a wingtip brushed the water and the plane exploded in a somersaulting crash. I think of the pilot who rents a house near mine, and who came home sad- faced one evening to report that he’d just flown his radarman to a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia: the radar screen had exploded in his face, and the surgeons had been able to save his life but not his eyesight. I think of young Bill Lange, squinting through his bomb-sight; and Harry Welch, 22, from Cookesville, Tennessee, stern-lookout who would become tailgunner in the event of war, and Dick Johnson, 19, another lookout who also serves as metalsmith, and Paul Hess, 22, in charge of mines, torpedoes, rockets —and of Lieutenant Stromski, bringing us in safely on a simulated single engine. I think of them all—and I for one am more than happy to have them up there, holding a perpetual protective screen around these lovely, peaceful Islands of Bermuda.

WebMaster Note: This article actually invloved our Jax sister squadron VP-49 but provides some interesting insight into P-5 Marlin seaplane ops out of Bermuda.

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