B Swopes

Remembering “Swiss Ladder 566" at the Pacific Missile Test Center, Point Mugu

by Bryan Swopes

The last time I saw the Stoddard was winter 1991. I saw her from the deck of an Exxon oil platform, being towed westbound up the Santa Barbara Channel toward Point Conception. A fleet tug had her in tow, and behind her was PTF-26, a Viet Nam-era 95' fast patrol boat, which was often employed as range security at the Pacific Missile Test Center, NAS Point Mugu, another classic put out to pasture. I knew she was going away to Mare Island, but thought she would be stored at Bremerton, WA. I flew out and circled her a few times with my helicopter, just to say good bye.

I’ve always had a soft spot for destroyers (even though I was Air Force, myself), my Dad was an officer aboard U.S.S. Eversole (DD-789), Gearing-class, and we would visit aboard whenever we could. I remember the Destroyer Bar at the O-Club at the Long Beach Naval Station, behind the bar was a huge oil painting of a destroyer at speed in heavy seas. Very exciting stuff!

I worked with ex-Stoddard from 1984 to 1990. Aspen Helicopters, Inc. had contracts with PMTC and a separate contract with General Dynamics. I was hired by Aspen specifically for this assignment, due to my experience at shipboard operations. My first landing aboard ex-Stoddard was 02-21-84. GD personnel from Pomona, CA would fly to OLF San Nicolas Island (SNI), where I stayed most of winter and spring 1984, by fixed wing aircraft: Lear Jet, Aero Commander or King Air. I stood by at "Nick" with one of Aspen's Bell 206B-3 JetRanger III helicopters, or sometimes a Bell 206L LongRanger or 206L-1 LongRanger II. My job was to transport GD engineers and technicians, their equipment, 20mm depleted-uranium ammunition, etc., to "Swiss Ladder 5-6-6" (as she was affectionately known) under tow, usually 15-25 miles west-northwest of SNI. They were preparing the ship and the 20mm "Phalanx" CIWS gun system for the upcoming tests. A typical day involved 6-8 trips to the ship, and bringing the GD personnel back to the island at the end of the day. Because of the separate contracts, GD personnel and PMTC personnel were mostly kept on separate flights.

The ship was actually run by civilian workers from "Surface Targets Directorate" at Port Hueneme, CA. (That's WY-NEE-MEE, by the way...) I remember one (Herb Pero) of them was reportedly the highest paid civilian employee of the U.S. Government, because of all the overtime he accumulated aboard the ship while out of the harbor. At the time, they were paid hourly, 24 hours a day!

Most of the time a tug pulled the ship around its station, or moored at the "Bravo Buoy," which was about three miles west of Begg Rock, named for Captain Begg, who discovered the rock by sinking his ship on it. When tests were all set, the outdrives would be lowered, all personnel removed from the ship, either by helicopter or the tug, then she would be on her own. Remote control, you know. Tests were run 35-40 miles west of the island, usually. On test days, we would fly three helicopters, in order to evacuate the ship as quickly as possible. We'd all stand by at SNI. They'd run the test, then we'd take the crew back. E.O.D. personnel first, of course.

We had quite a bit of trouble with Russian AGIs (Code name: "Beeper Bell"). Often they would pull out in front, then turn across the bow of the tug and go dead in the water, hoisting the signal for DIW, engine problems. They caused considerable delay in the program doing things like that. Sometimes, test would have a second Fletcher-class DD, ex-Higbee, towed around as a decoy to try to lure the AGI away. Weather was rough out there. BIG waves. Lots of wind. On several occasions, the tow wire separated. I can tell you, landing aboard a drifting target ship, cross-swell in 40 + knot winds really tested my skills as a pilot. Later in the test program, ex-Stoddard would tow a radar-reflector sled a short distance behind during the tests. The thinking was that the "threat" would go after the sled rather than the ship. A lot of times I'd come back to the ship and find shrapnel all over her decks.

After General Dynamics finished testing the various versions of their "Phalanx" CIWS system, Signal/General Electric got to use the ship to test their "Goal Keeper" 30mm system. After a test, we'd fly back to the ship, and that gun would swing around and point right at us! We'd always try to approach from ahead, so that it wouldn't target us. (The helicopter's blade-tip speed is in the same ball park as some surface skimmers....)

Probably the most exciting time I had was when the ship broke loose from the tug in very high winds. Laguna Peak, which is immediately east of NAS Point Mugu, was registering winds of 95 knots out of the northeast, what we call a "Santa Ana," but this one was a record-breaker! The ex-Stoddard was adrift, between San Nicolas Island and Santa Rosa Island, with approximately 15 technicians aboard. Navy H-46s had been grounded for transmission troubles, as I recall, and are too big, anyway, and the U.S. Coast Guard was involved in a rescue operation in the same area. Other Aspen pilots, Jim McCrory, Ken Host and I had to get those people off the ship! We took turns, landing on the fantail. On one occasion, while McCrory was on deck, a huge wave passed under the ship. The bow came up so far that the keel was out of the water as far back as the forward stack! Then she went down. I yelled at Jim to get off the deck. She went under like a submarine on a crash dive!! I am not exaggerating...well, you know: you've been aboard her in rough weather.... We flew back to the mainland with our passengers, into the teeth of that 95-knot wind. We tried to stop for fuel at the radar site on top of Santa Cruz Island, but, would you believe, the top of the island was socked in! We continued inbound to NAS Point Mugu, and when I shut down there, I had only 4 gallons of Jet-A remaining. A pretty exciting morning...


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