This reflection comes from Stephan, a Naval aviation vet who previously wrote about heroism aboard the USS Lexington.
In May of 1982, I was attached to a Helicopter Support/Search and Rescue Squadron in Pensacola. We provided schooling and qualification training for up-and-coming pilots and search and rescue swimmers. At the time I served as an Aviation Storekeeper, and my job was to maintain supplies, parts, and other equipment to keep our birds in the air.
Something seemed a bit off when I arrived at work one day. It was a sunny spring day in Pensacola, and after I parked, I headed upstairs to the Admin Department and the first person I saw was Seaman Bellamy in tears. I looked around the room and the XO and the Command Master Chief had looks of confusion and disbelief on their faces. Bellamy said "Buck's gone …" and I grew nauseated. It couldn’t be true. Buck couldn't be gone.
The day before, Lt. Harry "Buck" Crouthhamel was piloting an HH-46 with a co-pilot and a crewchief, an SAR swimmer on board. They were on test hop for a blade track adjustment, taking off from the South pad of the squadron aircraft parking line and headed down the beach. They verified the blade track was good and turned back around toward Fort Pickens. Buck wanted to use the time to run more checks.
Buck turned the aircraft toward open water and climbed to altitude and entered autorotation at a 120-degree heading, twelve miles out. At approximately 500 feet, he flared the nose to recover from the autorotation maneuver. As he pulled power on the collective stick, an engine flamed out with the aircraft in a downward descent.
The aircraft impacted the water and bounced back up, about thirty feet off the surface. He nosed the aircraft over to gain speed and altitude, arming the #2 engine's emergency throttle.
Engine #2 caught fire and flamed out. The helicopter impacted the surface, nose down. Though the co-pilot and the SAR swimmer were rescued from the water, my friend Buck was killed in the crash. 28 years old.
Buck always had a big, beaming smile on his face. You could tell his soul was full of joy by his eyes. They seemed to radiate joy and peace. In the time I served with him, I never saw him in a bad mood. It was as if that boyish smile was permanently plastered to his face. This man could be counted on for a wisecrack or if need be, a pat on the back. He was an extremely dedicated pilot and was proud to serve his country. He was married and he loved his wife deeply. Tragically, Buck would never meet his only child. Just one short month after the incident, his wife delivered their child, a son.
I’ve known commissioned officers who give off a sense of elite status as Naval Flight Officers. Not Buck. In the time that I knew him, not once did he ever portray a sense of entitlement. He could be more open and candid with the enlisted members of the command than many of the officers he worked with. He had a fine relationship with the other officers, but he was just more down to earth than your average commissioned officer.
Without a doubt, Buck’s loss rocked all the communities he was a part of: His squadron, the entire air station, and of course his immediate family. Shipmates I’ve spoken with since I decided to write this tribute tell me of the deep emotion that still clings tightly to their memories years later. Men like him are rare and come into your life only once or maybe twice in a lifetime if you’re lucky.
Naval aviation is inherently dangerous. You hear about the loss of life much too often. But it’s men like Lt. Harry “Buck” Crouthamel who are willing to take the chance with their lives, to defend the country they love so much, that make it an honor to serve alongside men of such character, valor and courage. Many have gone before us and many will indeed continue to fall, but as long as there are men like Buck, Naval Aviation will continue its reputation for professionalism and commitment to the nation's defense.
Fair winds and following seas, Buck.