A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

Great Philly Bail Out

By Cathy Sivils
…daughter of Tal Sivils, CG Aviator 344

I grew up in the era of great tale tellers and as a small child was privileged to sit in many of their laps and be regaled by their stories and duck their “flying” hands while listening to them. They made it all so real and “now” to me. I learned from the Masters. Here is one I heard many times and have been now asked to relate. As with any story based in and on the truth of long-ago memories as told to a child, I reserve the right to claim, “But I was just a little kid and they were grown-ups! Of course I believed every word they told me!”

My Dad, Tal Sivils, CGAP 118/CGA 344, went to flight school with the legendary and last of the Coast Guard’s Aviation Pilots, John Greathouse. Among Master Chief Petty Officer Greenhouse’s many achievements over his long and distinguished career was that he and a crewmember were to become the first to bail out of a helicopter and live to tell the tale.

AP John Greathouse and his crewman, AP John Smith were assigned to test radar in a helicopter in ’45. They had put down at the Philadelphia Naval Yard (it is my recollection it was NAS Lakehurst) and were now preparing to take-off. Up in Operations, they were filing their flight plan when a Navy Lieutenant walking by and seeing what they were doing, realized that they didn’t have the required parachutes among their gear.

“Where are your parachutes?” he demanded.

“Oh, that’s OK, sir.” Greathouse respectfully responded. “We’re helicopter pilots.” He also had raised his hand and was twirling his forefinger to demonstrate the disastrous effects of whirling rotors on a deployed parachute. I was told by John that the Duty Officer would not sign their flight [plan unless they had parachutes for the flight. They were CG but they were getting cleared from a Naval Air Station.

Fine. They figured they would get the damn parachutes then ditch them as soon as they got to their helicopter. Wrong. The lieutenant followed Greathouse and Smith from Operations down to the Flight Line then stood there as they got into their aircraft!  With the parachutes on, they were barely able to stuff themselves in and lock their harnesses in place.  They could hardly breathe when they finally strapped in.

Once airborne, they were stuck in the parachutes; there was zero wiggle room. So, with great difficulty, they settled down to work. They were over Center City at about a couple of a thousand feet, pinging their radar, without warning, to their horror, Greathouse and Smith saw their main rotor go spinning off into the sunset in front of them! Without hesitation, out the door and forward window they went!

In a spectacular traffic-stopper, Greathouse landed on a busy street corner in front of the Jefferson Hospital in downtown Philly. There was no sign of Smith. As John was gathering up his ‘chute, a cab pulled up, the window rolled down and the cabbie hollered out,

“Hey, you OK?” John nodded in assent.  “You have a buddy with you?” The cabbie asked. John perked up and asked if he knew where he was.  He did. “Hop in and I’ll take you to him.” John grabbed his ‘chute and climbed into the cab. In a couple of blocks, they saw a crowd gathered on a sidewalk with John Smith lying on the sidewalk. Smith had gotten hung up on a two-story bank and when rescuers tried to free him, he had slipped and fallen to the sidewalk, breaking his leg. Other than that, he was unhurt. Smith was bundled into the cab and both men returned to the Naval Yard.

The helicopter came down in an empty bus stop in West Philadelphia; even the errant blades landed without harming anyone.

And all because of one rule-abiding Navy lieutenant, two Coast Guard aviators lived to fly again. It was the very first time any one had successfully bailed out of a helicopter.