Shine Angel – Rescue in Korea

On 26 October 1951 the two-man crew of the U.S. Navy HO3S-1 helicopter approaching the North Korean rice paddy in the fading light of late afternoon, looked down and saw tracers flying back and forth between two ditches, adjacent to a crash-landed plane, and heard the radio report of a RESCAP fighter, which was limping out of the fight with battle damage, having been shot up by the North Korean anti-aircraft guns at the scene.

The helicopter was there to go down and rescue the crew of the downed plane. They would have to brave the hostile fire which had just seen off a high-speed, agile, fighter, if they  were going to be able to rescue the two men whose location was marked by fluorescent bright signal panels on the ground next to one of the ditches.

Down in the dry rice paddy, were two Australian Navy airmen, the crew of a Fairey Firefly AS.6 reconnaissance strike fighter, of 817 squadron embarked in HMAS Sydney, a Majestic class light aircraft carrier.

How did the two Aussies find themselves in that North Korean ditch?  Their day had started well enough, launching with four other Fireflies for a strike designed to block a railroad tunnel between Chaeryong and Haeju, two villages near the city of Sariwon. At the target, Lieutenant Neil MacMillan, and Chief Petty Officer Phil Hancox, his radar operator, were rocked by a near-miss flak explosion.   MacMillan smelled something burning and his scan of the gauges, discovered his engine oil pressure rapidly dropping toward zero. Hancox reported fuel streaming from the port nacelle fuel tank.  A soon-to-be red-hot engine and streaming fuel were obviously the making of an explosion and MacMillan did the only thing he could: he switched off the fuel, shut down the engine, and informed his flight leader that they were going in.

Hancox jettisoned the canopies as MacMillan selected an open field, lined up on it, only to spy high-tension wires between him and it.   He switched fields and made a smooth wheels-up landing with the airplane fetching up at the intersection of two convenient ditches at the corner of the field.  They abandoned the plane, MacMillan carrying his parachute, Hancox carrying his nav bag, his maps, an Owen submachine gun, and their fluorescent signal panels.

Why Fluorescent Panels?

The fluorescent panels used by the aircrew to signal overhead aircraft were the inspiration of Captain David Harries, RAN, commanding officer of HMAS Sydney.  Harries had researched the question of rescue very carefully and took action himself to solve persistent communication problems. 

It was common knowledge that enemy troops targeted the cockpits of downed planes to prevent the use of the aircraft radio.   Portable, hand-held survival radios did not yet exist.  He developed a system of colored panels, Very pistol signals, and message containers to communicate two-way, carried by all Sydney aircrew. 

They chose a ditch about 50 yards from the wrecked plane, set out a yellow signal panel to mark their position, and slowed their breathing as they looked around.  They were one of 93 non-American United Nations aircraft shot down in the “police action.”  Neither the first nor the last.

How did the two U.S. Navy helicopter crewmen find themselves above that North Korean ditch?  Not like you might think.  They were not flying from a U.S. Navy shore base, nor a U.S. Navy ship, but were actually launched from HMAS Sydney herself.   HMS Triumph, the first Commonwealth aircraft carrier to see service in Korea had a Sea Otter amphibious fixed wing bi-plane for its air rescue.  When Triumph was relieved by HMS Theseus, the Royal Navy, not yet having their own naval helicopters, was assigned a USN plane guard helicopter from HU-1, just like the American carriers.   The rescue helicopter was passed down to each succeeding Commonwealth carrier.

HU-1’s first RN plane guard detachment consisted of one helicopter a few mechs, who doubled as aircrew, and one pilot, a Chief Petty Officer, Aviation Engine Mechanic Dan Fridley.  Fridley was called a naval aviation pilot, to distinguish him from a naval aviator. Naval Aviators were officers, and Naval Aviation Pilots were enlisted men.   ADC(AP) Fridley went the whole hog for Theseus, painting the Union Jack, “ROYAL NAVY” and “HMS THESEUS” on the side. The British tars, having no previous close-up experience with this new-fangled thing called a helicopter dubbed her “The Thing,” an appellation Fridley and his crew quickly embraced, going so far as to add that name to the rest of the whirlybird’s livery.

Glory relieved Theseus and HMAS Sydney relieved Glory, inheriting “The Thing.”  Lieutenant P. O’Mara, the O-in-C transferred to his third Commonwealth aircraft carrier, and he chose the occasion to upgrade from “the Thing” to “Shine Angel,” Shine was Sydney’s radio callsign.

In Shine Angel, above MacMillan and Hancox, were ADC(AP) Arlene K. “Dick” Babbitt and his crewman Airman Callis C. Gooding.

A USN HU-1 aboard HMS Theseus in the Korean campaign. Christened “The Thing” by RN sailors who had never seen such a contraption, the helicopter was on loan for SAR duties. Note the nickname painted on the side, and, further aft, the Union Jack and the words “HMS Theseus”. The helicopter transferred to HMAS Sydney when first Theseus and then Glory were relieved on Station.

When the word was passed that a plane was down, it was immediately apparent to all that a rescue would be extremely hazardous.   The downed crew was under fire, and the daylight was fading fast.  Not clear which was the worse thing.  The HO3S-1 was not designed to be flown at night – they had neither searchlights,  nor landing lights, nor external navigation lights, nor, more importantly, cockpit instrument lighting, nor an attitude gyro (nor a radar altimeter – a device not yet conceived) –   and the math was clear: they could not travel the 107 miles, make the pickup, and get back 50 more miles to friendly territory before dark.   Nevertheless, they went.

And they would have to try it in a Sikorsky Dragonfly, an HO3S-1 by Navy designation, and informally known as the “horse.”   The HO3S-1 was a big improvement over its older brother, the R-4, but it did have its limits.  Its empty weight was 3800 lbs and max gross weight was 4985.  Accounting for fuel and crew, it had a useful load of about 500 lbs on a cool day.  Warm weather, high humidity, and elevated terrain easily limited the useful lift to about half that or worse.  Its 450 horsepower engine just didn’t have the muscle to drive the less-than aerodynamically optimum rotors.

Fortunately, the rescue scene was near sea level, and it was October 26th, definitely cooling in North Korea: snow flurries were just around the corner.

That left one other constant consideration independent of power performance: center of gravity limits.  The horse had a notoriously sensitive center of gravity. A single-rotor helicopter hangs balanced under the attaching point of the rotors to the rotor mast running up from the main transmission. That balance must be carefully monitored and controlled.  Weight on one side of the balance point must be countered with weight on the other side; like kids on a teeter-totter.

When word of the rescue helicopter’s launch was passed to the circling Fireflies, one of them fired a green Very pistol cartridge to signal the downed men that help was on the way.  Four Sea Furies arrived to take over RESCAP duties and shortly after, a flight of Meteors from 77 RAAF Squadron joined the Sea Furies.  The RESCAP leader Lieutenant Commander Fell, Sydney’s Air Group Commander, flew low over the two men and dropped a message in a container.  He was hit by 40mm fire and was forced to divert to Kimpo, his ailerons damaged so they only moved about an eighth of an inch.) The note landed about 25 feet from the yellow panel, and informed the two downed airmen the helicopter was due at 5:30 p.m.  That would be 16 minutes before sunset.

A Delicate Balance

In the HO3S-1, the entire cabin was forward of the centre-of-gravity pivot point.  As weight was added forward of that pivot point, corresponding weight had to be added behind it to balance out the load and keep the centre of gravity within limits.
There was only a small range limit within which shifts in the centre of gravity could be compensated by using the pilot’s cyclic flight control (the stick) alone.  If the centre of gravity got beyond the limit, there might not be enough “throw” in the cyclic controls to compensate, and the helicopter would then pitch uncontrollably nose down or nose up.
When there was no load in the cabin, the crew had to position two iron bar weights, one of 25 lbs and the other of 50 lbs, beneath the pilot’s seat to allow the helicopter to be flown faster than about 25 knots without irretrievably losing stick authority. When there was a load, like a passenger, in the cabin, the weights had to be moved to the baggage compartment, aft of the engine, in what we would today call the transition section.  If the crew lost the weights, rocks would be collected and loaded to counterbalance the centre of gravity. 

Crossing the coast, Babbit and Gooding encountered 40mm anti-aircraft fire, but took no hits. The Meteors departed, low on fuel, as did two of the Sea Furies. Two Sea Furies (Lieutenants Cavanaugh and Salthouse) courageously held off departing for a few minutes longer. MacMillan and Hancox heard two bursts of automatic weapon fire nearby, and saw a Chinese soldier about 100 yards away. As they studied him, he immediately started to wave his arms and shout; no doubt calling for the Aussies to surrender. In the distance, Hancox saw the helicopter approaching, so MacMillan answered the Chinese surrender demand by opening fire with the Owen gun, causing the Chinese to dive into the ditch running at a right angle to theirs. Hancox placed a red panel next to the yellow one pointing at the Chinese soldier’s ditch, as this was the Air Group’s signal that they were being fired on from that direction, Cavanaugh and Salthouse, immediately dived in strafing the ditch and the area in that direction.

As Babbitt and Gooding approached the area, they heard Fell departing the area with battle damage, a disconcerting development for the slow HO3S-1 helicopter that had to land under the same fire which had nailed the Air Group Commander.  They were further alarmed to see the two downed airmen were exchanging fire with the enemy.

Airman Callis C. Gooding, the crewman of ‘Shine Angel’, and ADC(AP) Arlene K. ‘Dick’ Babbitt. Both were awarded the US Navy Cross. Babbitt was also awarded the RAN’s Distinguished Service Medal.

Without hesitation, Babbitt began a descent towards the two men, and, as a reward for his audacity, the enemy shifting their fire from the men on the ground to the men in the air.  Airman Gooding returned fire with his personal weapon as the helicopter decelerated and descended to the location of the two downed men. Hancox leapt from the ditch and sprinted to the helicopter as MacMillan delivered covering fire.  As Hancox dived through the door, MacMillan began his run.  As he climbed into the HO3S, Gooding brought down an enemy soldier and continued to fire, holding the North Koreans at bay.  As the helicopter lifted off, another Chinese stood up to get a better shot at the slowly accelerating and climbing bird, and Gooding shot him before he could open fire.

As the helicopter departed, the two remaining Sea Furies made a covering strafing pass and received the concentrated fire of the enemy who saw the helicopter going out of range.  One Sea Fury was hit and limped back to Sydney, while Babbitt, Gooding, MacMillan and Hancox, diverted to the much closer Kimpo Field, futilely racing the setting sun.  The last half of the return trip was made in darkness, and jeep lights were used to illuminate the landing area.  They landed safely.  No mention survives of any Centre of Gravity drama during the landing, but the weights were not moved or removed during the rescue – Gooding was rather busy – but perhaps the low fuel state at landing eased the problem.   Horses were damaged and totaled due to C of G problems on several occasions during the war.

MacMillan and Hancox had the dubious distinction of being in the only Firefly to be shot down during the entire Korean War service of HMAS Sydney.  But they were far from the only downed aircrew rescued in the “Forgotten War.”   We should not forget the numbers, and the heroism.

Babbitt was awarded the Royal Australian Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal (why Goodling was not is something of a mystery, because both airmen received the U.S. Navy Cross.  There is some information that Gooding was not always good and there was reason why he was still an airman).   But that didn’t prevent the lavish praise from the pilots and observers of the Sydney Air Group for their devotion to duty in attempting the rescue, knowing full well they could not possibly get back to a friendly base before nightfall. And that is what really counted.

In the Korean War, U.S. Navy airmen received two Medals of Honor (LTJG John Koelsch, of HU-2, and LT Tom Hudner of VF-32, and both were rescue related (another story another time, perhaps).  And, significantly, twelve Navy Crosses went to Navy airmen during the war.  Of those, fully half went to Navy helicopter men:

LTJG John Thornton (HU-1)
LTJG Harold McEachern (HU-1)
AMMC (NAP) Arlene Babbitt (HU-1)
AMM3 Callis Gooding (HU-1)
AMM2 Ernie Crawford (HU-1)
AMM3 George Neal (HU-2)

We should remember them for they represent all who flew rescue.  And we should NEVER forget the cost.  In machines, a cost sure, but especially in men, brave men who suffered and died for their fellow man.  Greater love hath no man.


Reproduced from the magazine Rotor Review of The Naval Helicopter Association, from original material from the book “Leave No Man Behind” by Tom Phillips and George Galdorisi.   The image of the painting at the top of the article is from the FAA Museum.  The article is reproduced with the blessing of Tom Phillips, to whom we extend our grateful thanks, and also to Fabio Pena, who put us on to it.