September 26, 2005
Desert Duck Airlines calls it quits after 3 decades
By Andrew Scutro
Times staff writer
The Desert Ducks are done.
On Sept. 13, Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 2, Detachment 2, also known as the world-famous Desert Duck Airlines, went out of business.
And the next day the mission of helicopter-borne logistics support out of Bahrain became the purview of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26, Det. 1, the Desert Hawks.
For more than 30 years, the venerable, distinctive and very reliable UH-3H Sea Kings of the Ducks have kept a supply lifeline running to the “small boys” of the fleet — frigates, destroyers and cruisers — in the Persian Gulf.
Now the same ships will rely on the new MH-60S helicopters of the Desert Hawks for their mail, light cargo resupply and passenger transport.
“We could not do our mission here without these guys. They’re our friends,” said Capt. Tom Goodwin, commodore of Task Force 53, the logistics element in U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, during an interview in Bahrain.
The Ducks were important, but they were getting old. Brought into the fleet during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, each of the three birds in the detachment had racked up an average of 15,899 flying hours since the early to mid-1960s.
And as part of a plan to streamline its aircraft inventory, the Navy has been transitioning most of its helicopter fleet from a wide array of aircraft down to variants of the H-60 for different missions.
The Ducks’ H-3s were among the few left in the fleet. Two from HC-2 will go to the desert boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., where 4,300 military aircraft, including 1,820 of the Navy’s, are stored. One H-3 will keep flying: It was sold to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where it will be used for search and rescue, patrol and other uses.
Their birds put out to pasture, pilots and crews will remember the H-3 fondly.
The final officer in charge of the Ducks, Lt. Cmdr. Johnny Compton, has already transitioned to fly the H-60, but he trusted the H-3.
“I’m sorry to see it go because it’s a great aircraft. It’s like a ’57 Chevy pickup. It’s a workhorse,” he said.
The old saying that you don’t have to worry about oil leaks on old helicopters unless they’re not leaking holds true for the H-3. Few passengers would take a ride without getting dripped on, but that was no indication of the helos’ lack of safety.
HC-2’s safety record was good, with only three Class A mishaps — incidents that result in $1 million damage or loss of life — in 33 years.
For the pilots, the H-3 had what Compton described as the “muscle memory” of a broken-in car. “You know which vibrations are good and which are bad,” he said.
As for the new helo, it’s more powerful but has less endurance. Unlike the H-3, it has air conditioning and the ability to fly with night vision. The H-60, Compton said, “It’s the 2006 Cadillac.”
Like Compton, Lt. Cmdr. Chad Jungbluth enjoyed flying the H-3. A former H-46 pilot, he was the officer in charge of the Ducks from May to October 2003.
“It was a smooth flyer. It wasn’t fast or glamorous, as far as maneuvering, but we were able to load it up,” he said in an interview.
Load it up is right. The last three helos had been with the Ducks since 1976 and the Navy got its money’s worth. Records show they delivered 5.7 million pounds of cargo, 5.6 million pounds of mail and 48,282 passengers in the last nine years.
Maintaining the H-3s took a lot of work under less-than-ideal conditions, mostly out on the tarmac in a corner of the Bahrain airport, where the Middle Eastern heat is merciless.
Aviation Mechanic 2nd Class Benjamin “Sancho” Ramos, 22, of Redondo Beach, Calif., recalls how he used to go through a dozen CamelBak hydration units in a day without having to make a head call.
“The heat is just something you’ve got to deal with,” he said. “There’s a point where you let the sweat run and let the flies land on your head.”
Leaving a mark
Besides delivering mail and sailors returning from leave, the Ducks also delivered plenty of yellow paint.
To the chagrin of many humorless skippers, there are scores of ships in the fleet with the yellow outlines of man-sized duck feet tattooed into their flight decks. The Desert Ducks had a tradition of tagging the flight decks of each ship visited, each visit.
The bright yellow patterns may have been painted over since, but they’re there, forever part of the nonskid surface.
Aviation Mechanic 1st Class Fred Rush, 36, from Casper, Wyo., said aircrews often got creative when stamping flight decks, resorting at times to lowering a crewman by a hoist just as the helicopter pulled away so he can hit the deck with a last-minute duck print.
“Some ships get really mad about it,” said Rush. “We use a special paint that is extremely hard to get off.”
Thankfully, the last ship the Desert Ducks visited, on the last flight Sept. 13, was the Australian frigate Newcastle. Unlike some uptight American ships, the Aussies love the back and forth of stamping and tagging.
In the final days of the Ducks, one Australian ship crewman snuck up to an H-3 while it was on the helo deck and spray-painted it with a custom stencil of a dingo and duck in bed together, smoking cigarettes, with the inscription, “Thanks for the memories.”
The Desert Hawks have no plans for a hawk stamp.