On March 14, 1964, The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became the number one song in America, “Bonanza” was the country’s top-rated primetime TV show, and Navy Lt. Dick Bradley was fighting for his life.
What started as a routine night training flight off the coast of Southern California, turned into an aviation nightmare in a matter of seconds.
Dick, an SH-34 Seabat pilot with Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 773 (HS-773) based at Naval Air Station Los Alamitos, had to summon all his skill, training and experience when his aircraft experienced a catastrophic flight-control failure.
“We were flying as the safety plane for another SH-34 that was practicing night sonar dipping about three miles off Huntington Beach,” said Dick, a St. Louis native. “We’d climbed to 500 feet and just as we reached that altitude, the helo jolted. There was a snapping sound, and the plane pitched and started skidding.”
From the helicopter’s contorted flight profile, Dick and his co-pilot, Lt. Jim Cuff, knew they had lost control of their tail rotor. As much as they tried, they were unable to regain complete control of the aircraft and knew they would never safely make it back to the airfield.
“The aircraft was shaking so much it was almost impossible to read the instruments,” recalled Dick, who has been a USS Midway Museum volunteer since 2001. “Things were going downhill fast. We knew we had to ditch in the ocean.”
Dick and Jim started implementing their emergency-response procedures, radioed a mayday call to let air controllers know their location, and continued to struggle to keep marginal control of the helicopter. It was a dark night with no moon and no visible horizon, which made attempting an emergency autorotation landing in the ocean very difficult.
“It was about as tough as it could get,” said Dick, a 1961 graduate of UCLA. “No horizon and no instruments, just built-in instincts and timing.”
An autorotation is an attempt to safely land a helicopter in the event of an engine failure or, as in Dick’s case, when the aircraft‘s tail-rotor fails.
Dick entered the autorotation by lowering his collective pitch control to reduce the angle on the main rotor blades of his helicopter. This started a rapid and steep rate of decent. His goal was to flare the helicopter by raising its nose and pulling up on the collective to arrest his decent rate and decrease his airspeed just before the aircraft hit the water.
“Without my training, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Dick, who made two naval deployments to the Western Pacific in the late 1950s. “We practiced full autorotations a number of times. I was mentally counting out 1,001, 1,002, 1,003 in order to time correctly pulling up the collective. We flared just in time to drag the tail.”
The helicopter’s tail hit first and drag along the surface of the ocean before breaking off. Then the fuselage slammed into the water.
“It felt like somebody kicked me in the ass real hard twice,” remembered Dick, a 10-year Navy veteran. “The H-34 floats like a 10-ton safe, so as soon as the rotors stopped splashing, we were sinking.”
Both Dick and Jim able to get out of the helicopter just as the cockpit went under water. One of his crewmen, Fred Esophi, surface a few seconds later, while the second crewman, William Grumer, who was initially caught in some cargo webbing, was last to emerge from the sinking wreckage.
“I was very happy we all made it out,” said Dick, who worked in the government and corporate sectors after leaving the Navy. “As the pilot, the final responsibility was mine.
Having survived the ditching, Dick and his crew now found themselves in frigid 55-degree water. It was 30 minutes before a search and rescue helicopter reached them. As the helicopter began hoisting Dick’s crew out the water, another swimmer appear on the scene. Dick initially thought it was a rescue swimmer from the helicopter, but to his surprised, it was a Huntington Beach lifeguard.
“The person I assumed to be a crewman swam over to Jim and me,” said Dick, who retired in 2001. “He told me he was a lifeguard and had swum out from the Huntington Beach Pier.”
John Freenor, a lifeguard for only six months, was parking his car on Huntington Beach Pier when he heard Dick’s mayday call over his radio. He grabbed his rescue buoy and jumped into the ocean from the pier and swam more than a mile to try to help.
“He wasn’t certain where we were when he left the pier, he just started swimming out to sea,” said Dick, who has more than 7,100 volunteer hours on Midway. “I thought he was very brave.”
Treated at the base medical clinic, neither Dick nor his crew sustained life-threatening injuries, mostly just cold and bruised.
“The Navy doc gave Jim and I a couple brandies, then it was off to the officer’s club for a few ‘warm-us-up-toddies,’” said Dick, with a smile. “We knew what to do and we did it. Fortunately, we made the right decisions that night.”