It was zero dark thirty over Onslow Bay off Jacksonville [NC] on 15 October 1985. We were eight miles out as HMM-263 was doing a SOC Test (Special Operations-Capable), a qualification for operating in Indian Country using NVGs [night-vision goggles]. Our test, conducted in radio-silence, was the first of its kind. Now SOC Tests are standard, but it was a big deal then, conducted to prep us for the Libya Raids Med Float.
We only had two up gunners in the whole squadron at that time: Chris Weiss, Admin Chief; and me, Ops Chief. Chris is on Dash One for this two-planer op. Dash Two gets a mortarman with an extra base plate, so right before the attack I get bumped from my plane for the "stick switch" to the USS Ponce, a Landing Platform Deck (LPD) ship located a quarter mile away. Crews wearing NVGs, lights out on all boats. When they return I'll get back on my plane.
They make it over to the Ponce alright. Halfway back (total time elapsed since departure: 5 minutes) we hear the most dreaded sound in naval aviation: the plane-in-the-water siren.
The bird was doing about 80 knots and in it went. Gone. Captain Spillers was thrown, seat and all, through the dash and out the front as the chopper hit at a slightly down/left attitude. He was right seat, and that tiniest of moments allowed him wiggle room as the plane's left side stopped a fraction of a second before the right side did.
As he was ejected out the front, Captain Spillers was about 10 feet ahead of the bird as it hit, broke in half and sank. He was unconscious while descending 54 feet to the bay's bottom.
He woke up in cold, wet darkness—holding his breath. He unbuckled and went for the beads to pop his vest. His right thumb didn't work but his left side inflated and up he started. Then he remembered the wreck, sort of. He had heard the Air Boss yell "ALTITUDE!" three times and had been reaching for the stick when they hit. The impact tore his thumb back.
Captain Spillers got a little help from God as he held his breath for what seemed like a year-and-a-half to pop up—in the dark. He had survived. The co-pilot did not, the crew chief and first mech did not. Nor did the chaplain and a bunch of Grunts. But a total of five did survive.
Captain Spillers Awoke on the Ocean Floor. . .
"Stick switch"—A stick is a unit of cargo in people. A CH-46 SeaKnight helicpoter (known as the "Frog") can carry about 16 people, depending. So, in Combat Cargo (the part of the ship's flight deck that is covered at the back of the tower area) the people flying out are assigned stick numbers and then count off. If you were 6/8, you'd be in the 6th stick (plane load), number 8.
On the morning of the accident, the Grunts needed to place two sticks on the USS Ponce (LPD) as replacements, while the other sticks were designated as players in our SOC test. So, they went, wearing NVGs but using radios, which was one of the wreck's two determining factors.
HMM = Helicopter Marine Medium
A CH-46 Sea Knight
helicopter is readied
for a night-launch op
DOD photo by
LCpl. R.A. Phifer, USMC