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#228 Midair

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I don’t know if it’s still there, but there was a time when, I’m told that if you wandered into the bachelor officers’ quarters at Coast Guard Air Station, San Francisco and then into the lounge there, you’d see a stuffed seagull behind the bar.  Seems appropriate.  After all, it’s the Coast Guard and we ARE on the coast.  Perhaps you’d like to know how that moth-eaten stuffed gull got there. These are the events as I remember them:

He was a helicopter SAR (Search and Rescue) crewman when I was stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, San Francisco in the late sixties.

It was a time when there seemed to be a shortage of copilots. Normally there would be a crew of three in the
HH52A helicopter:  A pilot, co-pilot and hoist operator, or SAR crewman.  With no Co-Pilot aboard, the hoist operator would often sit in the copilot’s seat on the left side of the helicopter.  We all enjoyed it.  The pilots would often let us fly and it was a treat to be able to pilot the big turbine helicopter.  If we got diverted from a patrol to an actual case, the hoist operator would scamper back to his usual spot in the doorway and lower the rescue basket.  For most cases the abbreviated crew worked pretty well (see “Dog Day in the Coast Guard” in the Tailwheeler’s Journal).

It was a lovely day in San Francisco and the young petty officer was perched in the left seat of the helicopter.  I can’t remember who the pilot was.  Perhaps it was Lt Bobby Long.  I just don’t remember.  The two men were cruising along and enjoying the flight. Unbeknownst to them, another aviator was also enjoying a flight that day.  The large white sea gull was flapping along, watching the bay waters below in case he should spot something tasty to gulp down.  Perhaps that’s why the normally sharp-eyed bird didn’t spot the Coast Guard helicopter bearing down on him.

I’ll bet that he noticed the helicopter about the same time that the helicopter crew noticed him.  It was too late for any of the participants to avoid the coming collision.  And collide they did.  The Gull shattered the Plexiglas of the helicopter’s right front windshield.  His suddenly lifeless body had not only left a gull-shaped hole in the windshield of the helicopter, but his next target was the face of the helicopter’s pilot.

“Smack!” the gull and the young Coast Guard officer’s face momentarily occupied the same space.  The gull was dead.  The pilot was rendered unconscious.

There was only one sentient being left at the scene of the collision. The young Petty Officer was suddenly promoted from hoist operator to aircraft commander.

I’m a big fan of the importance of training.  Training is what so often enables us to do the right thing because someone else dreamed up all the things that could go wrong and drummed it into our heads to take a specific action at a specific time.

The Petty Officer was well-trained.

“Coast Guard Air Station, San Fran, this is Helo one three eight six. Mayday, mayday, mayday.  We’ve had a bird strike.  The pilot is unconscious.  I’m the hoist operator.  I’m changing course for Air Station San Fran”.

In the blood-spattered cockpit, he did what he’d been trained to do. He could fly the helicopter.  He could adjust its course back toward the air station.  The landing, however, would be a real rodeo!

In the meantime, helicopter pilots crowded into the ops center at the air station and he was now advised by experts on how to pilot his now-drafty steed. He approached the air station, which occupied a small corner of the San Francisco International airport.

I wasn’t there, but I’ll bet that young man was sweating bullets as he prepared to land the big Sikorsky for the first time in his life.  And I’ll just bet that to this day, he’s never heard a more beautiful sentence than that which came across his helmet’s earcups as he approached the air station.  “uh, okay, uh… I’ve got it!”

The words came from the young lieutenant, who wiped the gull blood off his face, caged his eyeballs and resumed control of the crippled helicopter.

The helicopter swooped in for a somewhat normal landing in front of the air station and taxied into its parking place.  Medics and Coasties with nothing better to do swarmed the helicopter as it shut down and the pilot applied the rotor brake.  They oohed and ahhed over the large hole in the windshield. They patted the Lieutenant and the Petty Officer on the back.  At some point, someone gathered up the limp carcass of the former Seagull.

The last I heard was that the gull was taken to a taxidermist and then back to the Air Station.  So when you wander into the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters at Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco, take a look in the bar.  There, keeping a silent watch over years of flying stories and other lies is that large stuffed seagull.  And now you know how he got there.

Happy Swooping!