By Norm Urban
I had just returned from Viet Nam where I’d accumulated about 1000 hours in the UH-34D. The H-34 is made out of magnesium, so the worst emergency you can have is a fire in flight. They make flares out of magnesium! The manual said wear chutes over 3000’ above ground, because you couldn’t get it to the ground before it would burn up.
I was transitioning into the Kaman UH-2B Seasprite, the Search and Rescue helicopter at MCAS Cherry Point, NC. The Seasprite was a much more modern helo than the H-34. Big enunciator light array atop the instrument panel, retractable gear, turbine engine, made of aluminum and fiberglass, etc. We normally flew it with a non-pilot enlisted crewman observer in the left seat and the crew chief in the cabin. I had just completed my dual check ride and was about to launch on my first “Pilot In Command” solo. The last question the check pilot asked me before he exited the aircraft was, “What do you do if this lights?” pointing to the fire warning light. I replied, “Emergency fuel cut-off and initiate autorotation.” He said, “Right!”
I launched on my first solo in the Seasprite. I decided to leave the field confines, heading southeast over farmland. Accelerating, at 100%, I closed the doors and raised the retractable gear. As I reached about 300’ altitude, the suddenly GIGANTIC FIRE WARNING LIGHT glowed in my face.
So Joe Cool, one of the USMC’s finest rotorheads, hit the emergency fuel cut-off switch, lowered the collective to enter autorotation, slowed to autorotation speed, turned west into the wind, picked out a plowed field in which to land, opened the cabin door, and called Cherry Point tower on the radio to tell them where I was and my intentions.
As I reached about 100’, I noticed a power line across my intended landing field. Quickly, I turned right 90 degrees, choosing another plowed field. The ground came up pretty fast. Instead of the NATOPS autorotation procedure for the H-2, which called for a full stop in the air, then settle to the ground, I instinctively reverted to my H-34 Viet Nam combat landing experience and did a roll on landing, dragging the tail wheel on the ground until forward motion stopped, then letting the nose down. I quickly applied rotor brake, while the Crew Chief leapt from the aircraft with fire extinguisher in hand.
When I unbuckled to exit the aircraft, I noticed I didn’t have far to go to touch the ground. Joe Cool had neglected one important detail. The gear was still retracted in the wells!
I was VERY lucky. The combination of soft ground, a soft autorotation landing and the external fuel tanks on each side of the fuselage saved my butt. I didn’t even break off the antennae on the bottom of the fuselage. The aircraft was stable enough, that applying the rotor brake did no harm. My radio call to the tower was never heard. Apparently I pushed the wrong side of the rocker switch on the cyclic stick. There was no fire, just a short circuit in the switch, for which the aircraft was known. Which is why the first response to a fire warning light in this helo is, Lean out to see if the engine is on fire!