Navy to retire last of Sea Knight helicopters
11:43 AM EDT on Tuesday, September 21, 2004
The last of the Navy's Sea Knight helicopters will be retired Thursday.
Naval aviation will say goodbye to a legend and workhorse in the helicopter community when the H-46D “Sea Knight” makes its final flight Thursday at Norfolk Naval Station.
The last two Sea Knights in the Navy’s inventory will land at Helicopter Combat Support Squadron EIGHT (HC 8) in the afternoon and become officially retired in a short ceremony.
The "Dragon Whales" of HC-8 have flown the H-46 since 1984 and accumulated more than 110,000 flight hours. The squadron is now operating the Sea Knight’s replacement, the MH-60S “Knight Hawk.”
Development of the Sea Knight began in 1958 and the first UH-46 was delivered to the Navy in 1964. Since then the aircraft has seen service in Vietnam, Lebanon, the Gulf War, and Iraq, while undergoing several modifications.
Built by Boeing Vertol Company the Sea Knight’s mission has been to fulfill vital vertical replenishment at sea as well as delivery of passengers, mail, and cargo and performance of Search and Rescue (SAR) missions. The U.S. Marine Corps will continue to operate the CH-46E to provide assault combat troop support and delivery of supplies and equipment.
The retirement ceremony will feature remarks from Capt. K.J. Burker, Commander Helicopter Tactical Wing Atlantic, and Mr. John Morgenstern, a Boeing Company Technical Representative since 1964.
That is one great helicopter in my book.
2800 of those hours belong to me. I'll be there Thursday. Bittersweet day to be sure.
The Corps will have them for a few more years.
Issue Date: September 27, 2004
‘Changing horses’ bittersweet for helo squadron
Sea Knight takes last West Coast flight
By Gidget Fuentes
Times staff writer
SAN DIEGO — After three decades of honorable service, and with little fanfare, the CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter took its final military flight on the West Coast on July 29.
Its pilots and aircrews at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., are now flying the MH-60S Knighthawk, a single-rotor helicopter based on the Sikorsky-built H-60 airframe that is becoming the foundation of the Navy’s helicopter fleet.
It’s not the final Navy flight of the twin-rotor workhorse, however: The Vietnam-era helicopters will continue to buzz over Norfolk, Va., until later this year.
Navy Capt. Mitchell Swecker said the retirement was “bittersweet” but overdue.
“Eventually you have to change horses,” said Swecker, the commodore who commands Helicopter Tactical Wing-Pacific at North Island. He got the honor of piloting the final flight.
“It’s a wonderful old aircraft. It served its country well in a variety of theaters all over the world and multiple deployments,” Swecker said. “It was a nice last flight.”
For the final flight over San Diego, Swecker and co-pilot Lt. Kenny Kerr, one of the more junior H-46 pilots in Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 11, took the Sea Knight on a route that included a few “touch-and-go” landings, autorotation missions and practice on vertical replenishment missions — a mainstay role that had kept the twin-rotor fleet in high demand on the high seas.
“It was a pretty proud moment for me,” said Kerr, 28, of Philadelphia, who at flight school had picked the H-46 as his first choice to fly.
For Aviation Machinist Mate’s (AW/SW/AC) Alex Mendez, it was a bittersweet day.
Taking to the air that day as a senior crew chief, “you start reminiscing about everything that led up to it,” said Mendez, 32, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who’s spent 3,000 hours on the H-46 in his 14 years in the Navy. They were all warm memories, he said, ranging from fixing the aircraft and troubleshooting problems in midflight, to the friendships he forged over the years.
“You don’t recognize all of the bad stuff,” he said. “I can say I was part of something that nobody else will experience,” he said.
Mendez will still be able to see two of HC-11’s former Sea Knights soon. One will graze the flight line on the USS Midway Carrier Museum in San Diego and the other will be placed alongside retired aircraft on North Island’s Flag Circle. “We’ll finally get to see one of our birds ‘on a stick,’” he joked.
Not long after the flight landed, sailors removed the rotor blades from the Sea Knight, which had logged 8,800 hours in its 39-year career, and then parked it outside the office of Cmdr. John Bruening.
“I thought, ‘This is the saddest day in my life,’” said Bruening, of Cincinnati, who commands HC-11’s “Gunbearers” and has logged 3,000 hours flying the Sea Knight.
But like others, Bruening, 40, knew the day would come to move into the more modern, technically advanced helicopter.
On his own final flight, he took note of the Sea Knight’s dashboard, a collection of dials and knobs based on 1950s vacuum-tube technology and which “you’re not sure if the gauges work.”
“In the same breath, you say to yourself, ‘It’s time to retire it,’” he added.
In June, HC-11 also retired its last H-3 Seaking helicopter. The squadron only flies the MH-60S. It currently has 12 — and will eventually have 22 — to support the nine helicopter detachments it serves.
In recent years, as HC-11 sent its CH-46Ds to desert retirement at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Nev., the 420-member squadron transitioned to the new airframe, trained new crews and pilots and deployed and supported missions for 3rd Fleet.
They did it safely, reaching more than 100,000 mishap-free hours this year and earning the Navy secretary’s safety award for 2004. Bruening credits the crew, adding, “everyone had the big picture” of transitioning to the Knighthawk.
The Gunbearers are still adjusting. The MH-60S is more reliable and has fewer maintenance demands than the older Sea Knights. That translates into savings in money and time spent on repairs and inspections. It’s also lessened the workload for some maintainers.
With the Sea Knights, mechanics busied themselves during flights by fixing things and troubleshooting alarms or alerts that routinely popped up. Airframe technicians had the bulk of the workload. But with the Knighthawk, the modern engines “are so reliable,” Mendez said. “The mechanics really don’t have anything to do.”
The modern avionics will keep aviation electronics mates and aviation electronics technicians busy. Although most of the MH-60Ss in the squadron are basic models, Bruening said the “plug-and-play” upgrades and additions that will be installed in the helicopter will boost its capability and diversify missions beyond what the Sea Knight has been able to do.
To those who’ll fly it, the high-tech gadgetry will be a good thing.
Kerr, who soon leaves for Pensacola, Fla., to be a flight instructor, hasn’t logged his first flight in the MH-60S, but experienced pilots tell him “it almost flies itself.”
Unlike the tandem-rotor Sea Knight, which easily handled rough or changing winds, the Knighthawk has a tail rotor, which becomes a consideration both for wind direction and in landings.
“Not having a tail rotor used to be our pride and joy,” Bruening said.