|At more than 54 feet in length with a 62-foot rotor diameter, the mighty SH-3A Sea King helicopter sits in its final spot at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. Designed as an anti-submarine warfare helicopter, the aircraft holds a number of aviation firsts, including the first twin-turbine helicopter and the first all-weather helicopter. (U.S. Navy photo)|
NAS Patuxent River May 29, 2015 - After five years of effort, the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum added a new display helicopter to its fleet.
A retired SH-3A Sea King helicopter landed at its final resting place May 15 at the museum and its legacy was celebrated at a ceremony hosted by the American Helicopter Society (AHS) on May 21.
“This kind of event is rare in its frequency and priceless in the kind stories that will be shared here today,” said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Robert Pridgen, the program manager of the Presidential Helicopters program office (PMA-274), during the ceremony. “It took a number of folks to get the aircraft where it is today, and what a tribute to the support of all the individuals who had their hands in this.” PMA-274 was instrumental in coordinating the helicopter’s passage to the museum.
The story of the aircraft’s journey to the museum began in 2009 at the retirement ceremony for the last H-3 helicopter in the U.S. Navy fleet. At that time, there was no H-3 in the museum, and the audience collectively vowed to obtain one for the museum. The Patuxent River Chapter of the AHS took on the task.
Designed as an anti-submarine warfare helicopter, Sikorsky developed and introduced H-3 Sea King in 1961. Beyond its submarine mission, the aircraft had other roles, including combat search and rescue, executive transport, mine countermeasures, external cargo lift, over-the-horizon targeting and station search and rescue — an assignment the last H-3 completed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland.
Nine unused and unwanted H-3 helicopters sitting at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, North Carolina, and at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department represented perfect opportunities for a museum aircraft. The aircraft were out of the fleet’s inventory, but remained under the control of the Naval Inventory Control Point, now known as the Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP).
Deemed a potential safety hazard, base officials wanted to dispose of the aircraft, but there was no funding. They would remain at MCAS Cherry Point subject to deterioration and vandalism.
Although in poor shape, the aircraft still contained serviceable parts, which could be used to rebuild other H-3s, or they could be combined into one helicopter for the museum. Refurbishing and transporting them to Patuxent River remained the challenge.
Clayton International, a Georgia company specializing in H-3 product support, offered another solution. It agreed to provide Marine Helicopter Squadron (HMX) 1 a VH-3 maintenance trainer, and would also restore and give NAVAIR an historical H-3 for the museum it had purchased from another company, Croman Corp., in exchange for two of the unused helicopters, plus one more that was with Helicopter Combat Squadron (HC) 85.
A long naval history
Manufactured by Sikorsky Helicopters and originally designated as an HSS-2, Clayton’s H-3 began its career with the Navy on May 24, 1960, and was registered as 148038.
“If this aircraft could talk, it would tell us about harrowing days and nights at sea, grand rescues and images that will forever be etched in the minds of those who had been plucked from the sea or lifted from a bad situation,” Pridgen said.
In May 1961, the helicopter conducted carrier-suitability trials aboard the now-decommissioned USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39).
It was redesignated as an SH-3A on Sept. 18, 1962, and delivered to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 1 in Key West, Florida. Four years later, in November 1965, it was converted to an RH-3A to conduct mine-sweeping flight testing out of Panama City, Florida, followed by an assignment doing drone recovery at NAS Point Mugu, California, beginning in June 1971.
Redesignated as a UH-3A, the helicopter eventually ended up in Hawaii for missile range support and was expected to retire from service in 1994 at the Pacific Missile Range Facility. However, its service life was extended until it was sold to Croman Corp., in 1996. Finally, in 2011 it was sold to Clayton.
The SH-3A is one of few Sea King helicopters manufactured with a cargo door on both sides, which made this variant ideal to use for two missions: mine sweeping because of the ease in attaching and deploying towing sleds, and combat search and rescue because of the ability to mount machine guns in both doors.
It’s all in the details
Fortunately, a provision in U.S. Code and financial management regulations allows for the exchange of similar items of government property for commercial property. With guidance from the General Services Administration (GSA), and NAVSUP concurrence, PMA-274 coordinated an exchange/sale agreement with Clayton. The agreement provided HMX-1 with a one-of-a-kind aircraft maintenance trainer, or simulator, and the museum with a suitable H-3 helicopter.
The effort required extensive coordination between PMA-274, HMX-1, NAVSUP, Clayton, Defense Contract Management Agency, GSA and many others before the deal was finalized.
Once approved and under contract, Clayton worked for nearly a year restoring the helicopter to its original glory, in its distinctive grey, red and yellow color scheme that represents the paint of the era.
The names of test pilots and aircrew who have flown the Sea King helicopters at NAS Patuxent River and have contributed significantly to the flight-test legacy are stenciled on the sides of the aircraft. They are: retired U.S. Navy Capt. Bob Parkinson, retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Scott Bruce, retired U.S. Navy AFCM Frank McCauliff and retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Michael McGlinchey.
And for one H-3 veteran, the display will offer a glimpse of the past, present and future of naval aviation.
“The Sea King helicopter serves as a fitting tribute to the traditional mission of flight test here at Pax River,” said retired Rear Adm. Steven Tomaszeski, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, who flew more than 3,600 hours in the H-3. “It will continue to inspire people — young and old.”