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Retired Sea King pilots reminisce

Retired pilot Larry McWha remembers his days in the cockpit of Sea King helicopters during his years in the Royal Canadian Navy. McWha will be in Halifax Friday to watch as three Sea Kings fly for the last time as the 50-plus-year-old helicopters are retired.
ERIC WYNNE • THE CHRONICLE HERALD
Retired pilot Larry McWha remembers his days in the cockpit of Sea King helicopters during his years in the Royal Canadian Navy. McWha will be in Halifax Friday to watch as three Sea Kings fly for the last time as the 50-plus-year-old helicopters are retired. ERIC WYNNE • THE CHRONICLE HERALD - The Chronicle Herald

Who’s got better stories than old Sea King pilots?

Even when their helicopters functioned perfectly, these guys were doing things like landing on small ships in 10-metre seas, heavy rain and high winds. In the pitch dark.

And, of course, there were the all-too-frequent days when the Sea Kings, going into retirement Friday on the East Coast after more than five decades of service, didn’t function perfectly.

“We had smoke in the cabin one day, we were flying at about a thousand feet and we started losing altitude,” said Albert Bohemier, who retired as a major after more than 1,200 hours in command of a Sea King. “The other pilot, instead of flying, was trying to help me because we thought we were on fire. We were both pulling circuit-breakers, trying to figure out where the smoke was coming from, and thecrewman in the back tapped me on the shoulder and I looked at the altimeter, and it was winding down at great speed. We were

losing altitude pretty fast and probably would have impacted within 30 seconds, so I just pulled on the collective and went back up. I learned from that, that one 

of us always has to be watching the dials.”

Larry McWha flew Sea Kings from 1967 until 1994, logging more than 4,500 hours, and still has his log book in which he recorded details of each flight.

During his first flight as crew commander, “there was an incident” on a daytime training trip.

“We were about 30 miles out and all of sudden we could smell fuel, and the guys in the back said we were leaking fuel from the overhead, coming in very quickly,” said the former colonel. “We couldn’t tell which engine compartment it was coming from, so we immediately high-tailed it back to Shearwater and we got back and shut it down. What had happened was one of the main fuel lines had ruptured. In fact, it was the same type of failure which occurred years later near Saint John, New Brunswick and the aircraft caught fire in flight and was lost.”

McWha said the incident didn’t affect his confidence in the aircraft, though he admitted he might have felt differently had the helicopter ignited.

Bohemier made more than 300 night landings on ships and expects to shed a few tears on Friday. He credits his years in the military with giving him the skills and the toughness to later become a success in business.

“One night after I had landed and it was raining with fog and drizzle and there were 20- or 30-foot seas, the ship was heaving and it had taken a while to get it down, I remember thinking ‘In the last five minutes I’ve earned my month’s pay.’ It was a very challenging, exciting life, flying a Sea King. The Sea King had its problems but it was a great aircraft,” said Bohemier, who decided he wanted to become a pilot while plowing fields on the family farm in Manitoba.

“The heat from the tractor radiator would create an updraft and the seagulls know when you turn the ground, there are grubs. So they hover in this updraft, right above my head and wait until they saw a grub, and then they would dive down, grab it and come back up. Sometimes there were two or three of them, and I used to sit in the tractor and

look at their wings and think, ‘I want to fly so bad, I want to be a pilot, to be in the air and glide and turn and go up and down.’” Bohemier said the Sea Kings did great work in their search and rescue and anti-submarine roles, but that some of the criticism of them was fair.

“Well, there were always electronic issues with the Sea King. As an airframe, it was a good airframe, some of the avionics, well . . . if you bought a computer 10 years ago and tried to work with it today, it would drive you insane. The Sea King had old avionics,” he said. “When you were looking for submarines, you were supposed to hover at 40 feet but the sea underneath you, as you can imagine, is moving up and down. Well, the helicopter thinks it should stay at 40 feet, so as the wave comes up the helicopter thinks it’s too low, so it goes up. Then when the wave goes down, it thinks it’s too high and if you have a 10-ton helicopter going up and down, it overshoots, so a couple of times in high seas, we went quite low. We never got wet.”

When McWha joined the navy in 1965 at 18 he was already a pilot, having earned his wings and a commercial licence through the air cadets. He originally had plans to be a bush pilot but decided it was too dangerous.

Ironically, after finishing first in his qualifying course, he was soon a Sea King pilot.

“Prior to Sea Kings, helicopters didn’t fly much at night or in bad weather. So the tendency was to take the pilots who did not perform well in their wings training and send them to helicopters,” he said Thursday in the retirement home he built after coming home from the Gulf War. “When the Sea Kings came along, thatchanged.”

McWha said he never considered the Sea King unsafe. Extremely unreliable, yes, unsafe, no.

“About the only thing you could rely on was that something would go wrong, or something would break,” he said.

Bohemier, who looks military fit at the age of 67, sells crash simulators worldwide. While he was a Sea King pilot, he told his wife that if he died in a crash she should remember that he died happy, doing what he loved.

“It’s part of my fabric, I guess. It’s like a tattoo.”

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