Navy helicopter pilots see their profile rise


Senior Member
Oct 5, 2009
Navy helicopter pilots see their profile rise

Lt. Aric Edmondson (from left), Aviation Aircrewman Adam Avery and Lt. James Hunt of HSM-77 prepare for operations aboard the Abraham Lincoln.

A helicopter from the HSM-77 squadron prepares to lift off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

Their $33 million helicopters are new. There's an aircraft-carrier briefing room with their name on the door now. And they get extra parking spaces on the multimillion-dollar real estate of the carrier flight deck.

All the attention feels a little odd, Navy helicopter pilots say.

"We're not used to being the story," said Cmdr. Ken Strong, executive officer of HSM-77, a San Diego-based squadron of MH-60R Seahawks.

It's a good time to be flying helicopters for the Navy.

Long in the shadow of the jet jockeys — no one has ever made a movie about the rotor-blade community with Tom Cruise — naval helicopter pilots are playing a more central role on aircraft carriers. Because the nation's 11 flattops are the heartbeat of the sea service, the careers of helicopter pilots are on the rise.

Someday soon, the commander of Naval Air Forces has said, a helicopter pilot may land the job that represents one of the summits of Navy aviation: the CAG, or commander of all aircraft in a carrier strike group of nine ships.

"Back when I came through, you were not part of 'big Navy' aviation, and now you can be. That door was not open to you whether you wanted it or not," said HSM-77's commanding officer, Cmdr. Clay Michaels, who went through flight school 18 years ago.

"There's definitely increased pride in being a helicopter pilot," Michaels said aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, which was training off San Diego this week.

Rotor blades have had a place on carriers for decades. At first, helicopter pilots mostly ferried the mail and sailors on and off ships, but other missions have piled up as technology advanced.

In recent years, the Navy retired the S-3 anti-submarine plane, and its job and place on the carrier have been assumed by the newest versions of the MH-60 helicopter.

Take HSM-77, the Saberhawks, for example. The squadron, based at North Island Naval Air Station, used to dispatch its members with one or two helicopters on what sailors affectionately call the "small boys" — the destroyers, cruisers and frigates that travel with a carrier.

The pilots involved were disconnected from the squadron's leaders, who usually stayed behind at the air station, and didn't have much interaction with the carrier air wing's honchos.

These days, all the Saberhawks deploy together, including the commander and executive officer, and three of their eight helicopters reside on the Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln carved out three extra landing spaces on the deck for them.

The Saberhawks have a ready room — a classroom-size gathering space with upholstered chairs, computers, a tiny kitchen and TV screens for watching the flight-deck video feed.

On smaller ships, pilots work out of their staterooms, using a small, fold-out desk for planning.

Aboard the Lincoln, Saberhawk pilots flop down in the ready room during their off time, chat with their squadron mates, toss around a miniature football and crank up music.

"I've done both. Is this better? Absolutely," said Lt. Dan Brown, 36, a Saberhawks pilot.

The carrier has workout gyms, Brown pointed out, while one smaller vessel he served on had to squeeze its treadmill into the fan room.

It's more than just homey comforts. In the jet-centric Navy, these helicopter pilots now have a better chance to wear eagles or stars on their shoulders than ever before.

On the Lincoln, senior Saberhawks officers work closely with the CAG and the admiral who commands the carrier group. That means they rub elbows with the Navy's elite and gain more experience with the full spectrum of naval aviation.

"I think the future suggests the helo community will be more in the limelight," said retired Rear Adm. Ron Christenson, who flew Navy H-3 helicopters and went on to skipper an aircraft carrier before retiring in 2000.

"We've got a lot more senior officers. If you looked in the past, the truth was if you made captain as a helicopter pilot, you were a god," he said. "Will we get a CAG? Probably."

It also may mean job security, even as the United States looks increasingly to unmanned aerial vehicles to save money and lives.

Navy helicopter pilots made a name for themselves after the January earthquake in Haiti, when they worked nearly around the clock moving people and medical supplies from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

"The UAVs aren't going to go into a landing zone and pick up people," said Strong, the HSM-77 executive officer.

The carrier trend certainly means an extra gloss of prestige for helicopter pilots, who have the reputation of being the more laid-back siblings of the rock 'n' roll, "Top Gun" jet pilots.

Several Saberhawks pilots said they — like a lot of young, starry-eyed naval officers — went to flight school with the dream of flying fighter planes.

Some didn't get "jet grades." Some decided the helicopter life was better, in part because it comes with the strong likelihood of being stationed in San Diego or Jacksonville, Fla. Some just got the luck of the draw on job-assignment day.

"The carrier is the node of everything. It's where everything happens," said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Sherman, 36, another HSM-77 pilot. "I like being at the center of things."

The Saberhawks have gone for the past couple of years to the annual gathering of the Tailhook Association, a group of mostly carrier-based jet pilots known for its sometimes-raucous conventions. Sherman said the connection was made because the rotor-blade pilots were working alongside their jet brethren on the carrier.

"Don't discount the social aspect. Would a helicopter guy ever think of going to Tailhook? Naw. But we went, and we were widely accepted," he said. "And we had a great time."

Still, nobody is expecting Tom Cruise to come knocking on the Saberhawks' ready-room door.

"I don't know if we're ever going to be part of the glamorous, PR side of the Navy," said Michaels, the squadron commander. "But these guys are just as much professionals as any other pilot, no matter what he flies."

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