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Milk Run

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Milk Run

by Chris McKenna


The Captain of a Navy ship at sea is perhaps the closest thing to an

absolute dictator left on Earth. While this is certainly true of most

ships, it is not quite the whole truth aboard an aircraft carrier. The

Captain rules the ship absolutely, but he leaves the Air Boss to run the

flight deck. As a Naval Aviator, I saw the Air Boss as larger than life.

He was the voice of authority crackling in my headset, a tyrant with a

hair trigger who lashed out at anyone foolhardy enough to disregard him.

He used strong language and demanded immediate compliance. He was a man

with immense responsibility and an ego to match. And he was addressed by

everyone aboard, including the Captain, simply as "Boss."


I flew the CH-46 Sea Knight, a tandem rotor helicopter typically deployed

on supply ships within the battle group. It was our job to deliver "beans

and bullets" to the fleet. While not actually stationed on the carrier

itself, we "hit" it at least every other day, restocking everything needed

to keep a small "city at sea" running. It was exciting, challenging

flying, requiring great precision and skill, and I loved it. I was in my

early twenties and in command of a four-man crew and a multimillion dollar

aircraft. But always there, just below the surface, was the aura of the

Air Boss. It would lead me to one of the biggest blunders I have ever made

in my flying career. But for a matter of a few feet, excellent training,

and some dumb luck, it could well have claimed the lives of my crew.


It was a day like most others for a Sea Knight pilot. We launched before

dawn on a vertrep mission, the vertical replenishment of ships at sea that

was our specialty. In a synchronized aerial ballet, we flew maneuvers

called side-flairs and button-hooks, moving tons of cargo, attached

externally to a heavy gauge steel hook beneath the helicopter. Whether it

was ammunition, food, machinery, or mail - referred to as "pony" - the

ships in the Battle Group depended on us for sustenance. Vertrep allowed

the Battle Group to disperse over more than a hundred miles of ocean, and

still receive the daily supplies necessary to operate.


By noon we had completed the vertrep, and only had a load of internal

cargo left for the carrier. At ten miles out, I keyed the microphone and

called the Air Boss for clearance into his domain.


"Boss, Knightrider zero-six, ten miles out for landing."


"Negative Knightrider, recoveries in progress. Take starboard delta," he

mono toned, referring to the holding pattern designated for helicopters.


Sometimes I thought he put us there just to show his disdain, as there

often seemed to be no reason for it. But today he actually was recovering

jets, and we took our interval in the delta pattern with the carrier's Sea

King helicopter already orbiting. I watched as the jets made their

approaches and either "trapped" - caught one of the four arresting cables

on the flight deck, or "boltered" - missed the wires and went around. As

many times as I saw it, I never lost my fascination for carrier

operations, and my admiration for those guys. With all the jets aboard, I

anxiously awaited our landing clearance. We hadn't eaten since around 3am,

and wanted to get back to our ship for chow. But the voice of authority

had other plans.


"Knightrider, I've got another cycle fifteen minutes out. I'm going to

recover them first before I bring you aboard," he said matter-of-fact-ly.


"I haven't got the fuel for that Boss," I shot back.


"Then you'll have to bingo," he replied, without a hint of sympathy in his



"That cocky so and so," I thought. I could land, offload, and be airborne

again in less than five minutes, and he knew it. But he was the Air Boss

and his word was law, so I shut my mouth and turned for home. But then I

remembered those big orange bags on the cabin floor behind me - the ones

with "U. S. Mail" stenciled on them - and realized that they represented

my landing clearance. As any sailor knows, "mail-call" ranks just below

"liberty-call" in a mariner's heart. Not even the Air Boss could resist

the powerful lure of his mail. I keyed the mike, and played my trump card.


"Be advised Boss, we have pony aboard."


I knew that everyone in the tower was staring at him right then, silently

willing him to reverse himself. And if he didn't, word would spread like

wild fire to each of the six thousand sailors on that ship that he had

denied them a mail-call. He couldn't say no.


"Ok Knightrider, you're clear to land, spot three," he spat, specifying

the area all the way forward on the angled deck.


He was obviously annoyed, but what did I care? In minutes we would be out

of his airspace and on our way back home for chow. I flew a slow, shallow

approach, careful not to let my rotor wash disrupt the activity on the

flight deck. As soon as I touched down, my aircrewmen lowered the aft deck

and began pushing pallets down the rollers to the waiting forklifts. It

was like clockwork. Only minutes after receiving his grudging clearance,

we were empty and buttoned up.


"Boss, Knightrider zero six is ready to lift, spot three," I transmitted.


"Hold on Knightrider," he ordered. "I just got a call from supply. They

want you to move a load of milk back to home plate for dispersal. How many

gallons can we load max?"


It was a question I had never gotten before. I knew we could lift about

seven thousand pounds with our current fuel load, but I hadn't a clue how

many gallons of milk that equated to. I looked over at Dave, my copilot,

and wondered if he had any more insight on the nature of milk than I did.


"Got any idea what a gallon of milk weighs?" I asked.


He just looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and turned his palms upward

in what is commonly referred to as the Ensign's salute.


"Come on Knightrider, I need a number. I've got Tacair inbound," the voice

of authority growled.


I could feel my palms starting to sweat as the forklifts came off the

elevators with pallets of milk.


"Come on Knightrider!" he snarled.


I pulled the calculator out of my helmet bag and input 7000. Now I just

needed to know what to divide it by. The supply officer usually did all

this for us. But here on the carrier I was on my own, and for some reason

it was important to me to impress the Air Boss. I was determined to take

the biggest load we could.


"Hey Knightrider!" he barked. "I need a number and I need it now. How many



"I guess milk weighs about the same as fuel, right Dave?"


He rendered another Ensign's salute.


I knew that jet fuel weighed 6.5 pounds per gallon. We used that figure

all the time. Even though that voice in my head told me it was a mistake,

I convinced myself that a liquid was a liquid, and milk must weigh about

the same as jet fuel. I plugged it into my calculator and, just as the Air

Boss started to growl again, closed my eyes and gave him his number.


"One zero five zero gallons Boss," I transmitted with far more confidence

than I actually felt. It was meager comfort that I had actually left a

twenty-seven-gallon "cushion," just in case milk was a little heavier than

fuel. How much heavier could it be?


"Ok Knightrider. Here it comes. Be ready to go as soon as we button you

up," he ordered. "I have Tacair inbound."


The forklifts dropped the pallets on the ramp, and our aircrewmen pushed

them up the rollers and secured them to the deck. In minutes the cabin was

filled with enough milk for the entire Battle Group, the ramp was closed,

and I was ready to lift.


"Boss, Sabre Seven, five miles out for the break."


"Cleared for the left break Saber Seven. Caution for a Helo lifting spot

three. Break, Knightrider you are cleared for immediate takeoff."


That was it. My welcome, as tepid as it was, was officially worn out now

that the fighters were on station.


I had hoped to do a thorough power check while hovering in the ground

effect cushion of the flight-deck before transitioning over the deck edge.


Ground effect, or the extra lift derived from operating close to the

ground, can be a blessing or a curse. Given a long hover run, a pilot

could accelerate in ground effect until reaching flying speed, thereby

lifting far more weight than would be possible from a standard climbing

transition. The carrier however, presented the opposite situation. From

our position forward on the angle, I would take off into a ground effect

hover, and then transition over the deck edge ninety feet above the water,

to an immediate and complete loss of ground effect. It would require

tremendous power at max weight . . . every ounce the aircraft had. The

little voice inside my head kept telling me about it as I slowly raised

the collective to hover, but the big voice in my headset kept drowning him



"Come on Knightrider, I need my deck!" he bellowed.


I stabilized in a ten-foot hover and glanced down at the torque gauges to

evaluate the power required. Back on my ship, I would have taken thirty or

forty seconds in the hover to evaluate a takeoff this critical. But this

wasn't my home deck. It was the Air Bosses deck, and he wanted it back.


"I want that **** Helo off my deck Knightrider, and I mean now!" he

screamed. So without ever getting a stabilized torque reading, and against

all my better judgment, I eased the stick forward and the aircraft

lumbered across the deck edge.


As soon as I saw blue water through the chin bubble, I knew we were in

trouble. The aircraft immediately settled, and I instinctively countered

by raising the collective to add power. But instead of checking the sink

rate, the helicopter only settled faster. The steady whirring noise of the

rotor blades changed to a distinct "whump, whump, whump," and the familiar

peripheral blur slowed to the point where I could clearly see each

individual rotor blade. A quick glance at the gauges confirmed that both

engines were working normally. I was simply demanding more power than they

could produce, and the rotor speed was decaying under the strain.


I should have predicted what would happen next. With a perceptible jolt,

both electrical generators "kicked" off. Powered by the rotor system

itself, they had been designed to "shed" at 88% of optimum rotor speed.

Thankfully it was daylight, so lighting wasn't an issue, but the jolt I

felt was the loss of the flight control stability system. The helicopter

was still controllable, but it was far more work without the stab system.

Things were starting to go very badly.


As the rotor speed continued to audibly and visibly decay, I realized the

only chance we had was to somehow get back into ground effect. If I

continued to "wallow" like this, the helicopter would eventually "run out

of turns" and crash, or simply settle into the ocean and sink. Neither of

those appealed to me, so I determined to try a maneuver the "Old Salts"

called "scooping it out."


Any pilot will understand when I say it is counterintuitive, when faced

with an undesirable sink rate, to decrease either power or pitch. But

"scooping it out" required both. In order to dive back into ground effect,

I lowered the nose and the windscreen filled with the sight of blue water

and white foam. To preserve some of the rapidly deteriorating rotor speed,

I lowered the collective and descended. The ocean rose fast. Remembering

my crewmen, I managed to blurt out "Brace for impact!" over the intercom.

Dave immediately sensed what I was attempting, and began a running

commentary of altitudes and rotor speeds.


"Fifteen feet, 84% "


I needed forward airspeed and knew I had to trade some more altitude to

get it, so I eased the stick forward a little more.


"Five feet, 85% "


I stopped descending and stabilized in the ground effect run.


"Three feet, 85%."


"Ok," I thought. "We're not settling anymore, and the rotor speed has at

least stopped decaying." But I couldn't seem to coax any acceleration out

of it, and this close to the water, even a rogue wave could bring us down.

That's when I decided that I really hated milk.


"Three feet, 86 %."


With just the pitiful speed I had brought from the dive, and no sign of

any acceleration, I began to despair. What else could I do? I thought

about asking Dave, but didn't think I could bear another Ensign's salute.

Then I remembered those Old Salts in the ready room again. "Remember, this

aircraft has no tail rotor. If you ever need just a little something

extra, try a fifteen-degree right yaw. The increase in drag is negligible,

but it feeds undisturbed air to your aft rotors."


Well, what did I have to lose at this point? I gently pushed on the right

pedal and the helicopter yawed. Again, it seemed counterintuitive. If I

was trying to accelerate, shouldn't I streamline the aircraft? But I was

out of options.


"Two feet, 85%."


I began running through the ditching procedures in my mind. But then I

noticed that the waves were gliding by slightly faster than they had been

only seconds before. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we were accelerating.


"Three feet, 88%."


I glanced down at the airspeed indicator and my heart leaped; it had moved

off the peg and was passing through forty knots. The next thing I felt was

that beautiful shudder every helicopter pilot knows as translational lift

- the point where the aircraft is flying more like an airplane than

hovering like a helicopter.


"Five feet, 92%."


Then I felt another jolt, and knew the generators had come back on the

line, bringing the stab system with them. We were a fully functioning

aircraft again. I accelerated through our normal climb speed, remembering

those Old Salts once again. "Speed is life."


"Ten feet, 100%."


At ninety knots and all our turns back, I finally felt confident enough to

climb. Passing through one hundred feet, and over a mile from the carrier,

the voice of authority spoke.


"It's great to see you flying again Knightrider. We were all holding our

breath up here. I hope I didn't talk you into doing something ugly."


Well what do you know. The guy was human after all. Who knew?


Turning for home, I passed the controls to Dave, and sat back. For the

first time, I took a deep breath and noticed that my hands were shaking. I

had made a rookie mistake, and very nearly paid for it with four lives and

a helicopter. I had allowed myself to be intimidated by the Air Boss, and

sacrificed my judgment as a result.


I did some checking the next day, and found that the weight of a gallon of

milk is 8.7 pounds, a far cry from the 6.5 I had estimated. So even with

my little "pad," we took off from that carrier more than 2,100 pounds

overweight. And that doesn't even consider the weight of the pallets and

packaging. All in all, I was very lucky to get away with it.


That was almost twenty years ago, and I guess I'm the Old Salt now. I've

accumulated thousands of flight hours and more than a few gray hairs since

then, but I try never to forget the lessons I learned that day. Besides a

life-long loathing for milk, I came away from that episode with two rules.


First, never allow external pressures to force a rush to judgment on any

matter of safety. There's simply too much at stake. If I ever feel rushed,

I make a conscious effort to step back, slow down, and think the matter



And second, I never, ever ignore that voice in my head when he tells me

something just isn't right. I've learned over the years that he is

frequently the only one in the conversation making any sense.


Oh yeah, and when the guy at the supermarket asks me if I want my milk in

a bag, I always ask him if he would mind double bagging it for me - just

in case.

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That is truly an inspirational story and a stark reminder of the importance of your two rules that we should all adhere to.


Thanks for sharing, Rumrunner! :)


I agree Rumrunner, neat story, thanks.


I would like to add that if you are ever in doubt about judging a payload, always go to the maximum, i.e. use water when calculating liquids.


For the new guys use the "Air Boss" as the Customer, they are like "Drillers", they always misrepresent the truth.


Torque and TOT are the final answers, remember what is required to move forward from ground effect.


IMHO, as happens often in the military, the PIC was not qualified.


The old adage, the PIC exceeded his or the helicopters capabilities and was put in that position by his superiors.


It is still a great story and amazing how he got out of it, hats off.


Cheers, Don

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IMHO, as happens often in the military, the PIC was not qualified - blackmac



Not qualified??? After all the training he would have received you don't think he was qualified to deliver groceries and mail from one platform to the next?


He simply @#*&^# up and had enough luck and skill left in his bag to recover. I could see this story relating to many different pilots of varying experience levels...military or civilian trained.

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It really is a good telling. You just don't hear much of heli activity on aircraft carriers; it's usually all about the jets. Good read! Now I'm wondering if my coffee weighs more than my beer. :huh::D


What is rather ironic and unfair is that your coffee(black) will weigh more than your beer but your beer will make you weigh more than your coffee. :shock:

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