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Low Flying with the Swift Intruders

By Russ Albertson

Close pass by LCAC 33 (Mel Turner)

“Just because you don’t have wings, doesn’t mean you can’t fly.”  The US Navy’s hovercraft designated the LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion) is the perfect example of this.  This machine combines the qualities of a boat and a helicopter. It can hover on land or water, float or fly across the wave tops. 

The LCAC was built to fill the Navy’s need for rapid delivery of men and equipment from ships to shore. This craft can carry up to 75 tons of cargo or vehicles at 60 knots up to the beach and even further inland if needed.  It can fly over wet or marshy ground, and snow and ice or no barriers as long as the surface is fairly flat. 

The LCAC is 87 feet long, 47-feet wide and is powered by four, Avco-Lycoming TF-40B turbo-shaft engines, each producing 4,000 shaft horse power.  Cargo is carried on a wide center flat deck with bow and stern loading ramps. The engines and crew enclosures are housed along both sides of the vehicle. 

Two engines, one on each side, are connected with drive-shafts to large, shrouded, four-bladed propellers that are fully reversible and provide propulsion.  The other two engines, on each side, drive large double entry lift fans that provide the air cushion under the vehicle that lift it up about six feet over the land or water.     

The craft has a rubber skirt completely around the hull and just touches the top of the waves or sand and gives the LCAC its lift.  The LCAC has two rudder vanes mounted behind each propeller, used for yaw control just like airplanes.  In addition, the LCAC has two very large air thrusters mounted just behind the crew enclosures.  These thrusters use bleed air from the lift fans and can move 360 degrees, independently, to provide lateral bow control. 

LCAC 33 Pier 32, shrouded props and rear ramp. (Russ Albertson)

In the “cockpit” or right crew compartment, the craft master, referred to as “Con,” sits in the front right corner and controls the LCAC with a yoke, rudder pedals and prop controls.  Any pilot would recognize the yoke; it looks like it was taken right out of an airliner.  This yoke, however, is used to control the two bow thrusters instead of ailerons and does not have any pitch control.  Sitting in the center seat, next to the Con, is the craft’s Engineer who is responsible for engine control, starting, fuel, electrical and other systems.

A navigator sits in the front left seat and controls the navigation, radar and radios.

The LCAC, just like a large cargo plane, has a loadmaster who sits in the left crew compartment up in a glass enclosed cupola, and watches for traffic and obstacles not visible from the other compartment.  The loadmaster is responsible to position the cargo as necessary to maintain the proper balance “in-flight.”  One more crew member, the deck engineer, is there to assist in loading and unloading and sits in the jump seat or one of the passenger compartments behind both crew stations.

The home of the ACU-5, Swift Intruders, is located right on the beach on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base just north of San Diego.  My good friend, Mel Turner, a retired Marine LtCol. and A-4 pilot, and I were invited along for a “flight” in the LCAC.  Actually, I had no shortage of volunteers to ride along; all my pilot friends were very interested this craft. 

We arrived at the base a 0500 to attend the pre-mission brief.  The mission today was for two LCACs to travel from Pendleton to the 32nd Street Navy base in the San Diego harbor for some inter-Navy recruiting. Instead of a “flight of two,” our two LCACs would make of a “wave of two” as we traveled in loose formation to San Diego. 

Since the LCAC base is located far away from any other Navy units, very few Navy people get to see this remarkable craft up close and the Swift Intruders offer some amazing career opportunities.  Senior Chief Francisco Garcia, Craft Master of LCAC 33, would take me in his jump-seat and Mel would go with Senior Chief Rocky Francia on LCAC 62.  As we all walked out onto the ramp, I saw 20 or so LCACs lined up in front of three large hangars and it looked more like an airport than a surface craft base. 

Senior Chief Garcia at the controls of the LCAC 33. (Russ Albertson)Chief Garcia and I walked up the front-loading ramp of our LCAC and he explained the operation of all the equipment as he did his “pre-flight” inspection.  I followed him into the control cabin and up a short ladder to sit in the jump-seat behind the three crew members busy checking all systems before start.  Garcia said this LCAC had been upgraded with the latest avionics, computers and equipment and “glass” computer displays. 

Our navigator, OS2 Dela Torre, sitting in the front left seat, checked her radios, radar and Nav display, and I could see our route on the color display along with radar targets and coastline.  In the front middle position, MMC Kelly, our engineer scrolled through different computer displays on his screen and checked fuel quantity in four tanks.  I saw we had about 40,000 pounds of fuel on board.  Sitting next to me in the other jump seat, GSE1 Magner, an engineer instructor pointed out a few tips to MMC Kelly.  Looking across the center deck I saw our loadmaster, BMSN Buckner, up in his crew station. He sat in a raised, four-sided, glass enclosed bubble, and I heard him check in on the inter-com.  GsmFn Gemar, our deck engineer, sat down in the passenger seats below the cockpit.

As Chief Garcia, in the front right seat, called for start, the engineer changed to the engine display and reached up on the overhead panel to start the first engine.  I was told that this LCAC had FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) computer engine control just like modern airliners and soon all four engines, and two APUs, were up to speed. 

Garcia called for “low cushion” and the engineer dialed up the engine speed and the LCAC came alive.  I felt us rise straight up and then he called for “high cushion” and now we rose up to about six feet above our sitting position.  We “hovered” there for a moment and I saw the LCAC next to us begin to move.  It looked strange until I realized we were moving not it!  It was very smooth and Chief Garcia started to slide us back and sideways. 

He later explained that using right thruster, (right yoke), and left rudder, he could “fly” the LCAC sideways.  Garcia said he could control our speed and our forward or back movement with the prop levers. The propellers are fully reversible with these levers and by changing prop pitch he could increase or decrease speed.  The FADECs, through the fuel control unit, kept the engine RPM constant at cruise power and this allows the LCAC to have immediate control response.

Soon we were backing down; a rather long ramp I estimated to be about 1,200-feet long until we reached the beach where Garcia spun us around and headed for the waves. I was very impressed with his control!   I saw sand fly out to our sides and then sea spray as we passed over the waves breaking on the beach. 

The LCAC pitched and rolled a little as headed out to sea.  Garcia pushed our speed up about 40 knots and though we bounced around over the tops of the three-foot swells, it sure didn’t look like we going that fast. I heard our navigator call out radar targets and traffic calls from the loadmaster and when I looked back at the speed readout on Garcia’s screen, we were up to 60 knots! 

I could see where the ride could get pretty rough if the sea state got worse, but even so, I was amazed at how fast we overtook other boats in the area and I appreciated the crew discipline watching out for traffic. Occasionally we slowed for some bigger swells as we caught up to LCAC 62 waiting for us ahead. 

Soon, we made the turn at the outer buoy to San Diego harbor and slowed to about 20 knots as we made our way into the harbor.  There was a lot of traffic into and out of the harbor; pleasure boats, fishing boats and even a Nuclear Sub went by as we made our way to the 32nd Street Navy pier.  As we tied up, LCAC 62 pulled in behind us. Mel and I remained onshore as the two crews gave tours and rides to Navy personnel interested in joining the Swift Intruders.  These two craft sure turned the heads of all the boaters we passed and I’m sure it was a very unique sight for anyone in the harbor area.  With their mission accomplished at the pier, Mel and I rejoined our crews and our “wave” headed out of the harbor. 

I had asked the Senior Chief for a chance to take pictures and he arranged for LCAC 62 to make a few “fly-bys” on our way home.  We took the lead and a couple of miles off the beach; we came to a complete stop and shut down.  I followed the Chief to the bow and looked to see a cloud of spray coming up fast about a mile back and in no time LCAC 62 passed us doing 30 knots or so.  I snapped a few quick pictures and then ducked for cover as spray fell like rain. They made a few more passes as I tried to keep my camera dry and then they slowed and did a few “do-nuts” just ahead of us-beautiful!

We started up and followed them up to the beach and then up the ramp and stopped as they went through a large wash rack that sprayed them down completely.  We took our turn at the wash rack and then Chief Garcia parallel parked us right next to them in another outstanding display of seamanship (or airmanship) as we glided to a stop and then settled to rest on the ramp.  As we walked off the craft, both crews were still washing every inch of the hovercraft with hoses. 

Mel and I were totally impressed and thanked both our crews for a great ride.  The Swift Intruders certainly are unique and offer very exciting career opportunities.  The US Navy LCACs are also a great asset in time of peace.  They were used to deliver men and fire equipment to Catalina Island, off the coast of California, to combat a devastating fire that would have been very difficult to stop without the Swift Intruders. 

I would like to thank Lt. Elliott, Public Affairs Officer, and Capt. Edward Harrington, Commanding Officer of ACU-5, for making this trip possible.

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