Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Our Pedros, rotors of wood, men of steel


The fire suppression and local base recovery mission

February 1, 2005


This is what a fire, and the firefighting crew look like, when viewed from the cockpit of a HH-43. Photo courtesy of Stephen P. Mock, MSgt, USAF (Ret.)

This is the mission for which the HH-43 aircraft was designed, one that demanded rapid response and an in-depth knowledge of a wide variety of aircraft carrying a wide variety of munitions. When the SAR mission was added, the Pedro air crews and their mighty machines were truly jacks of all trades, and they had to be exceedingly good at each one.

We have covered a lot of ground regarding the HH-43, concentrating on its SAR role. A discussion of the Pedros cannot be concluded without addressing the missions for which this aircraft was originally designed, and its crews originally trained: fire suppression and local base recovery.

This next series of photos shows the crash of a B-58A "Hustler", nicknamed "Firefly II - Rigley's Baby", at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, July 16, 1968. The aircraft was assigned to the 43rd Bomb Wing. The last of the three, which is not a good copy, shows a Pedro holding steady near the crash site, ready to work. The main photos were provided by Ray Walters, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.), navigator/bombadier of AC 59-2437 (AKA Firefly II-Rigley's Baby), who was aboard. I extracted the first three photos from the one Ray sent.

As an aside, AC 592437 is on static display at the former administration building at the former Kelly AFB, San Antonio, Texas.


Ray Walters has been kind enough to send a brief recap of what happened. Firefly II's right main landing gear strut was damaged during takeoff. However, some determined that the aircraft would be able to takeoff and land okay, in retrospect, a bad decision. Firefly got airborne and dumped her fuel around the area of the base. She came in in final approach and crossed the fence at about 200 knots, a normal speed.She touched down at 185 knots. George Tate handled the landing and when he rolled the aircraft to the right to touch the right main gear down, the gear collapsed and she landed on the left main gear and the #3 and #4 engines.


The aircraft skidded down the runway for about 6,000 ft when she exited the runway to the right, forcing the gun turret to fly off. Both George and Ray blew their canopies just prior to exiting the runway, but the Defensive Systems Officer, Frank Mossen, did not. There was no fire, so Mossen exited around his canopy onto the wing root, ran to the rear of the aircraft and jumped off. So Mossen is out, and Tate and Walters were still sitting in their cockpits.


Unfortunately, fuel had spilled out from the ruptured centerline pod. That fuel then ignited and flames virtually engulfed the aircraft, past Tate's and Walters' windows and above the aircraft. Both men determined their only recourse was to get out by going through the flames.


Right then, Pedro arrived, flown by Walters' back-door neighbor, Ken Ernest. I've highlighted her with the yellow arrow. Ernest set down his fire bottle on the ground, and his silver suited firefighters came in closer and asked Pedro to rotate a bit to create a backwash for the flames. That enabled Walters to go over the side on his inertial reel escape rope. Tate crawled out the pilot boom on the nose and dropped to the ground. Walters would say, "Succinctly stated, Pedro saved our bacon." Both Tate and Walters are certain they would have been burned to death had Pedro not arrived and done his thing.

This next photo shows a HH-43 along with firefighters reacting to a B-58A "Hustler"following a crash landing due to a landing strut failure. Photo provided by Steve Mock, MSgt, USAF (Ret.). I had originally thought this was the Firefly crash, but it is not.


The opening photo underscores the importance of the Pedros in the fire suppression and local base recovery mission, which we will call the "LBR" for ease of writing purposes. The B-58 "Hustler" you see crashed in the opening photo was designed to be a supersonic nuclear weapons delivery system, part of the triad of manned strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and sea launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The HH-43 detachment at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, was brought there as the B-58 moved from Carswell AFB, Texas to Little Rock. The HH-43 mission was to provide LBR coverage of B-58 exercise scrambles, which tested the B-58 crews from scramble to just short of take-off. That meant that the aircraft went screaming down the runway and then deliberately aborted its takeoff before rotation. This procedure increased the likelihood of hot brake fires, and the HH-43s were to stand by on alert, ready to put those out. It was, of course, important to save the crew and the aircraft, but it was also important to assure any fire that might start during these exercise scrambles did not get out of control and threaten the nearby line of B-58s loaded with whatever they were loaded with.

It turns out that the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the parent command for these aircraft, held their weapons and armaments configurations very close to the chest. As a result, the HH-43 crews did not know what they might be up against when responding to a problem with one or more of these aircraft. We'll come back to the B-58 in a moment. Let's first look at some of the HH-43's LBR equipment.


HH-43 firefighting helicopter carries fire suppression foam as it escorts a disabled EC-47 limping in to Pleiku AB, Vietnam. Presented by 6994th Security Squadron.


This is a HH-43 carrying its fires suppression kit (FSK), we think at RAF Upper Heyford, England. Photo courtesy of: "Barry Hickman Collection."

Here is a closer look at that FSK.


This 1,000-pound kit was developed at Wright-Patterson AFB to provide quick aid in fighting aircraft crash fires. The tank contained 83 gals. of water and foam. When this mixture reached the air at the nozzle, it expanded to more than eight times its volume to produce about 690 gallons of fire-fighting foam. The kit could be picked up from its trailer in a cargo sling by an HH-43 crash-rescue helicopter and could be lifted to the fire site. A heater was mounted on the trailer to prevent the tank contents from freezing when on "ready alert" status at an airbase in cold weather. This particular kit is one of two such units assigned to Detachment 6 of the 44th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS), Andrews AFB, Md. from Apr. 1962 to Mar. 1973. In addition to their use in responding to declared airborne aircraft emergencies, these kits at Andrews were carried by HH-43 helicopters providing airborne precautionary protection for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon on all helicopter flights between the White House and Andrews AFB and on "Air Force One" presidential aircraft flights into and out of Andrews. Photo courtesy of Wright Patterson AFB.


In March 1965, an HH-43 F from Det 4, PARC scrambled in response to a crippled A-1E (troubles with the left main gear). Photo credit: A1C Chester A. Duprey, presented by Kaman HH-43 Huskie

In the previous section, we introduced you to the "positioner" used to center the FSK for attaching it to the aircraft. Here is another shot, taken at Bien Hoa, RVN. You can see the positioner to the front of the aircraft. The hookup positioner consists of a slender metal pole mounted on a heavy base. The uppermost portion of the pole is approximately two feet of rubber. The white horizontal stripe, approximately three inches in width, is located on the upper section of the pole as a reference indicator. A "Y" configuration lateral position indicator extends from below the rubber section of the positioner. The positioner is used to assist the pilot in hovering the helicopter into the proper position over the FSK so that the ground crewman can hook the kit attaching ring to the external cargo hook.

Here's a nice photo of a Bien Hoa Pedro, FSK attached, being directed by the ground crewman for liftoff and mission execution.


In March 1965, an HH-43 F from Det 4, PARC scrambled in response to a crippled A-1E (troubles with the left main gear). Photo credit: A1C Chester A. Duprey, presented by Kaman HH-43 Huskie

It is arguable whether the HH-43 and its FSK, as good as they were, would be of much value if a B-58 test scramble went badly and a fire spread to the line of Hustlers waiting for the call on the red phone. That is indeed why the Pedros at Little Rock were confined to working just the test scrambles. In the end, the Pedros were moved out of Little Rock to an overseas base where they could be more helpful.

Nonetheless, the B-58 example is most instructive. Let's start with this photo.


43rd BW crew posing in their B-58, left to right, Charles B. Curtis, pilot, John D. Fisher, navigator, and James E. Niemeyer, defensive system operator. Photo courtesy of B-58 People, Planes and Things.

Right away you see the B-58 had a crew of three, one behind the other. We have seen photos of their ejection systems and they are far different than one would find in other aircraft. They were like capsules.

The point is that during the 50s and 60s, the US was churning out military aircraft at the speed of light, in all kinds of configurations, able to carry wide varieties of different armaments, each carrying different kinds of crews with different ejection or escape systems, and in some instances, using different kinds of fuels. Then you add the older, WWII and Korean War vintage aircraft that were still in use, some carrying munitions from that era, others modified to carry new munitions, and then you add all the different kinds of transport aircraft used by Air America and the other services, and you have almost an incalculable number of crash scenarios that can play out. The HH-43 crews had to be prepared for each. They never could be certain what might limp into their base in trouble.

For example, let's leave the high-tech nuclear bombing force of the B-58 and go to the other end of the spectrum, the WWII vintage A-1E "Skyraider," a hot and extraordinarily useful fighter in the Vietnam-Laos wars.


Crash A-1E Danang AB, RVN 1966, photo courtesy of Stephen P. Mock, MSgt, USAF (Ret.), presented by Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Association. Photo taken by unknown AF photographer of the 600th Photo Squadron. Photo is from the collection of Roger Youngblood and is also presented by pedrorescuechopper.net

This A-1 has landed and it looks like the landing gear collapsed. Just because she's smaller and older than the B-58, it doesn't mean she didn't carry a load. The reality is that the A-1 was used for a variety of missions and could carry any number of a range of weapons. Here's a photo of one of these "bad boys" at Pleiku in 1969, assigned to the 6th Special Operations Squadron (SOS). You can see she's packed with goodies for the enemy to taste.


A-1H, 6th SOS, Pleiku AB, RVN, Oct 1969. Photo by S. Pargeter, presented by The Official A-1 Skyraider site.

We'll emphasize yet again that the Pedro LBR crews quite often never knew what kind of aircraft with what kind of crew with what kind of armament and in what kind of trouble they would have to handle.

The crew of Pedro 70 at Utapao Royal Thai Naval Airfield most certainly experienced the complexities of what might happen during a crash.


B-52 "Stratofortress" landing at Utapao with a KC-135 tanker in the foreground. Photo courtesy of B-52D "Buff."

Utapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield (later named Utapao Royal Thai Air Force Base) was a forward operating base for B-52 Stratofortresses and KC-135 Stratotankers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The B-52s were used for massive and strategic bombing in both North and South Vietnam, and Laos. The 307th Strategic Wing was the largest unit on base, but not the only one. The Navy Det. VP-46 flew the EP3 "Orion" reconnaissance aircraft, which carried a good sized crew and was a turboprop. There was a Fleet Air Support Unit there which might employ any variety of aircraft to ferry people and supplies back and forth.

Well, July 19, 1969 began as a dreary overcast day with scattered showers at Utapao. Members of Det 12, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) were going about their normal day to day duties.

The Alert Crew that day was Major Warren K. Davis, pilot, John B. Gent, flight engineer and Tom Miles and Harry Cohen, both firefighters and pararescuemen. At about 1300 hours, B-52s could be heard starting their engines for preflight checks in preparation for their afternoon launch. Within the hour, with worsening weather the "Buffs," as they were called, were roaring down the 13,000 foot runway.

The crash phone rang announcing that a B-52 had run off the departure end of the runway and was on fire. Running from the detachment, Maj Davis started the cocked Huskie, Tom Miles and Harry Cohen donned their aluminized crash turn-outs and John Gent connected the sling loaded FSK, getting the H-43 airborne in under a minute.

Pedro 70 headed through the rain towards the burning B-52. At the same time, the B-52 crew was escaping from the fully loaded aircraft (300,000 lbs of fuel and 108 Mk82 500 lb bombs). Five crewmembers were picked up by a Maintenance Van, but the van notified Utapao tower that the tail gunner was unaccounted for.

Tom Miles related the following:

"We launched quickly and were on-scene pronto. Major Davis after talking to the tower stated, 'I can see his escape rope,' and then pulled up and away from the inferno. I got one short look at the Buff burning...then all I remember was a bright flash and waking up in Wilford Hall Hospital (Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas) 22 weeks later."


Remnants of Pedro 70. Photo provided by Steve Mock, MSgt, USAF (Ret.)

The B-52 blew up and Pedro 70 was blown from the sky with only one survivor, Tom Miles.

There is a
video you can watch that shows a B-52 crashing at an air show at Fairchild AFB, Spokane Washington, in the summer of 1994. When you see that fireball, you can imagine what happened to Pedro 70, which faced a B-52 loaded for war, not one showing off at an airshow.

In order to give you a sense for the firefighting experience, we will close this report with a series of photos.


Det 1, 38th ARRS Phan Rang AB, RVN, photo courtesy of Steve Mock, MSgt, USAF (Ret.), presented by Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Association


Det 5, 38 ARRS Udorn RTAFB Jan 1968. That looks like a F-105 "Thud" on a crash landing. photo courtesy of Steve Mock, MSgt, USAF (Ret.), presented by Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Association


This shows firefighting training at Chanute AFB, Illinois, circa 1970. Fighting a fire with a helicopter was somewhat different from fighting fire with trucks. The prop wash from the helicopter was used to push the fire back away from the cockpit. This eliminated the heat, fire, etc. as a hazard to the aircrew in the cockpit of the aircraft. This photograph contains a very good view of an Fire Suppression Kit (FSK). It is the cylindrical apparatus in the forefront of the photograph. Photo presented by The Unofficial U.S. Air Force HH-43 "PEDRO" Crash Rescue - Air Rescue Web Site. There is a two minute video presented by pedrorescuechopper.net. on a typical HH-43 Pedro firefighting scramble. We recommend you watch it. Go to the thumbnail photo at the bottom of their page.


HH-43 at Danang conducting night fire fighting training. Photo courtesy of pjsinnam.com


This photo shows good coordination that existed between the Pedro units and the host base fire departments. Conceptually, the Pedro is usually the first responder, with the fire trucks coming in next. The Pedro had a limited amount of fire retardant, but could get to the scene very quickly. The fire trucks take a little longer to get there but have far more "ammo" with which to douse the fire if it were still a problem. Photo provided by Stephen P. Mock, MSgt., USAF (Ret.)


The Takhli Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, base fire department and Det. 2 of the USAF's 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Sq. practice their firefighting technique far into the night. Presented by pedrorescuechopper.net


Firefighting training at Stead AFB, Nevada. Photo contributed by Kyron (KV) Hall and presented by the USAF Helicopter Pilot Association.


This is a photo of Donald George Higley in a pit fire at Mather AFB, Sacramento, CA, 1961 taken by the noted photographer Glen Fishback. Higley was an Air Force firefighter who was trained to fly aboard the HH-43 at Korat RTAFB, but worked instead in the firehouse because it was shorthanded. It is worth noting that the HH-43 was used to be the first responder at the scene. Quite clearly the base fire department would be there right behind them, able to fight the fire for a longer time if required. Photo courtesy of Leon Higley, Donald's proud son.