Fun and Games At Miami Air
By Ptero Steve Goldhammer, Aviator 1207
I was stationed at Air Station Miami, what was then and probably still is, ‘The Busiest Air/Sea Rescue Unit in the World,’ as a third-tour Lieutenant from January 1971 to December 1975. During that time, I had some of the most humorous and incredible experiences that you could imagine. They’re what made Miami the most enjoyable tour of my twenty year flying career.
We had HH-52A’s, HU-16E’s (‘Goat’s), and C-123’s at that time. Most of us were FW and RW dual qualified. I was an HH-52 AC and a ‘Goat’ FP. We stood straight one in four duty and our duty sections were pretty stable. We had sliding weekends, but no afternoon off after the duty night. Our duty nights began at 0800 with a normal work day and finished at 1630 the next afternoon. It’s amazing that we didn’t bend very many airplanes with that schedule! We often launched the ready HH-52 single piloted on SAR during daylight hours of the duty day to conserve crew mission time. If everything went right, we could be airborne in an HH-52 within three minutes of running out of the hangar and in an HU-16 within seven minutes. Our AOR was the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the entire Caribbean from Mexico to Barbados, north to St. Augustine and south to Swan Island (15oN). It was really cool that, when we came to work, we didn’t know where our next meal would be.
We had many First Light searches and multiple-day ‘Goat’ SAR cases with RON’s all over the Caribbean. AM3 Ken Brown was a bachelor ‘Goat’ crewman who volunteered for any extended SAR case whenever he was available. When one came up, the first thing we would do is page Ken to see if he was available. Then we’d send him to the Exchange to buy a couple cases of sodas since they cost two or three times as much in the islands. We enjoyed these SAR cases because we got lots of flight time and we got a flat-rate daily per diem (about $40 per day). We usually came out with a good chunk of spare change from our travel claims. When we went to Puerto Rico, we stayed at a hotel in Old San Juan that charged $16 per night, for two people!
On one case, we were looking for an overdue boat and spent the night in St. Maarten. I was the HU-16 CP. After dinner at a nice hotel, we went to the casino. The Aircraft Commander started playing Keno and I watched him for a while before hitting the rack. He would order a drink once in a while and give the waiter a dollar or two for each drink. It wasn’t until later that he found out the drinks were free when you were gambling. That was his downfall.
On another SAR case in 1973, I flew as the copilot with Lt Jim Leskinovitch as the AC and we spent two nights in Grand Cayman. We stayed at the Holiday Inn which was then the only hotel on the beach. The rate on the back of the door of our room was $38.00 per night. On the morning of the third day, we sent the crew out ahead to get the ‘Goat’ ready for departure to fly back home. When Jim and I arrived at the airplane, the Plane Captain announced that we had a major hydraulic leak in the right wheel well. We took a look and there was hydraulic fluid all over the wheel well. Jim pondered the situation and declared that we’d take the airplane once around the pattern, check it out on the ground, and, if all was well, proceed back home. We did that and, amazingly, there was no leak! Nothing was said, but we suspected that the Plane Captain had played some tricks with a ‘B’ nut to let some fluid out so we’d be forced to spend at least one more night in Grand Cayman.
One Friday afternoon, I came home from work to spend the weekend with my family and in-laws at a condo on Sanibel Island that some friends from our church had lent to us. My family was out doing some last minute shopping and I was packing when the phone rang. The first thing I heard when I answered was ‘We gotcha! You’re going to Puerto Rico.’ I left my family a note telling them to have a great weekend and I’d see them when I returned. They did. We flew a ‘Goat’ to San Juan and spent the night. The next day we were searching south of Puerto Rico and were making plans to spend the night in Martinique when we got a call that somebody had found the damn boat. Instead of Martinique, we went back to another night in San Juan and then back to Miami.
I was flying with Lt Bill McPherson on another ‘Goat’ SAR case in the Gulf of Mexico off central Florida. We were assigned a north-south Creeping Line search creeping westbound in the westernmost search area. We had almost completed our search and were headed northbound when I saw another ‘Goat’ headed southbound to the west of us. We got on 123.1 and hooked up with them. They were from Mobile and had been assigned to a search area east of ours. We asked them to recalculate their position since it looked like they were slightly off course. The next transmission we heard on 123.1 was ‘Charlie four has a red face!’ Nothing further was said and the Mobile ‘Goat’ never reported to the On Scene Commander that they had failed to cover their search area!
We had Happy Hour in the ‘O’ Club every Thursday afternoon. This was back in the day when attendance at Happy Hour, with spouses if they were available, was expected. On one Thursday, we had a pretty large crowd there and I had two beers before heading home. The phone rang when I walked in the door and the duty officer said a big SAR case had just come up and they were launching all five HH-52’s. I told him that I had just had two beers. He said ‘You’re the soberest guy we can find, so get back here!’ I agreed but told him I would only go as the copilot. I did, and I survived.
I got a Unit Commendation Ribbon at Miami for being on annual leave (that’s not allowed anymore). The Eastern Airlines L-1011 crashed in the Everglades at 2342 on 29 December 1972 on the 234o radial 9.5 miles from Miami VORTAC. The pilots were distracted by a faulty nose gear warning light and didn’t notice while one of them was down below the flight deck inspecting the nose gear that the autopilot was disengaged. I was on leave in New York and saw it on the news. Lt Mike McCormack and Lcdr Al Pell were in the first HH-52 on scene. There were 158 people on board and, amazingly, 100 survived because the plane flew into the swampy water; that cushioned their landing. Also, they landed right next to a berm that was wide enough for one-way ambulance traffic. I returned from leave a few days later and flew out several body bags.
Once in a while we had to do an HH-52 medevac from Bimini. It was a little tricky at night since we had to land in a baseball field that was lit by car headlights. Once you cleared the powerlines, you were okay.
Our C-123’s were used to re-supply the Caribbean LORAN stations weekly. We really liked the run to South Caicos because, as a diversion, the CG crew there would catch ‘Longusta,’ giant lobsters. They sold the tails for $1 per pound, and each tail weighed about one pound. It was hard for two people to eat one of them at a meal. They were great. Before the flight left each week, we placed our order with the flight crew. Another time, we sent a C-123 on a ‘training’ flight to Mobile. The crew borrowed a pickup truck from the air station and drove down to the Mobile shipyard where they purchase ten ‘hatchcovers’ from WWII Liberty Ships for $5 each. I got one of them, sanded it down, stained it, had legs made, and still have it.
We still had a telephone switchboard at the air station in the ’70’s and the Goddess of the switchboard was Norma Goman. She was a very unique elderly individual who had complete control of the telephone system and had you at her mercy. It wasn’t a good move to get on Norma’s bad side. Lt Bill Griswold, longtime Communications Officer, had many interesting encounters with her.
One of our pilots was a member of the Seminole Health Club, a nudist colony. The health club was in the woods west of Ft. Lauderdale airport and the outer marker for the ILS runway 9 approach was very close by. As you can surmise, we shot many practice ILS approaches to Ft. Lauderdale, and glanced down as we passed over the outer marker. The club members staged a play one summer called ‘Barely Proper.’ Our pilot was the leading man and his leading lady was a teenage club member. Some of the other pilots and their significant others attended the play and gave it rave reviews. My wife and I passed on it.
We had a team in the local recreational softball league at Opa Locka. Lt Donnie Polk was our leader and AE2 Bob Segovia played next to me in center field. We were pretty good, and won more games than we lost. You had to be really careful in the outfield because the poles for the light stanchions were in the field of play. You had to always remember where you were in relation to them, especially when running laterally.
There was a ping pong room in our BOQ where we had many intense doubles matches at lunch and on duty nights. Lt Pete Heins was the wildest player, but I did break a window there once with my shoulder while playing. We also played poker once in a while on duty nights. If we had to launch on a case in the middle of a game, we’d just put our cards down and resume the hand when we returned. One of the games we played was ‘727.’ It was a ‘High-Low’ game with two winners. You were dealt two cards, one face down and one face up. Aces counted for one or 11. Face cards were half a point. You had to get the closest to 7 or 27 to win. You could ‘swing’ but had to win both ends to win anything. Once I was dealt a five and an ace. I took another card and got another ace! I swung and won both ends. My opponents were in awe!
One of my four CO’s during my time at Miami decided to impose his own weight limits on the wardroom. He directed our resident flight surgeon to evaluate each pilot individually and decide what should be his optimum weight, regardless of the published CG height and weight standards! If the pilot was ‘overweight,’ he became a member of the ‘Fat Boys Club’ with mandatory weigh-in’s and a mandatory exercise program. The flight surgeon decided that I was two pounds overweight and that he had to put me on the program. I told him I could lose two pounds overnight in my sleep. That didn’t sway him. I went to lunch and only had one hamburger instead of two. Later that day, he called me and said he had re-considered and decided not to put me on the program, but I still had to lose two pounds! Some other pilots weren’t so lucky. Morale during that part of my tour wasn’t very good.
In March of 1989, when I was CO at AirSta Houston, I flew HH-52 1416 from Houston to Miami with Lt Mike Houtz so that it could become a monument by the front gate. Miami’s CO had written a letter to HQ several years before requesting one of the retiring HH-52’s for that purpose. So, when the time came in 1989, HQ called the CO, Capt Ken Ballantyne, to tell him his HH-52 was coming. Of course, he didn’t know anything about the previous arrangement. He agreed to take 1416 and it wound up being donated to a trade school in Broward County to be used as a training aid.
My dad, Cdr Walt Goldhammer, retired at AirSta Brooklyn in June 1975 and moved to Lighthouse Point, FL. On 17 June 1975, I had the privilege of taking him on an HH-52 ‘training’ flight around Miami. He really appreciated that. It was our last opportunity to fly together (we had flown together eight times previously at AirSta Brooklyn in 1967 and ’68) and his last flight in a CG aircraft after a 36 year career.
All things considered, my tour at AirSta Miami was filled with many great times and fabulous memories!