'Semper Gumby' a way of life for Army helicopter crews
July 28, 2008
SEOUL — You can draw up the best flight plan in the world, U.S. Army helicopter crews will tell you, but just watch what happens when the normal day’s events hit it like a truck.
Especially when you throw in South Korea’s fickle weather and Murphy’s Law — "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."
Black Hawk helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Herlt favors an expression not uncommon in the military: "Semper Gumby."
He thinks it sums up the attitude — "always flexible" — that air crews need to withstand the by-the-minute changes of military aviation.
Herlt, 35, of Newville, Pa., is with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, at K-16 Air Base near Seoul. The unit is part of the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade.
"You know," Herlt said, "being a warrant officer in aviation, plans change a lot, so you gotta be flexible. ‘Semper Gumby.’ "
He and his fellow aviators experienced nothing but changes one recent Wednesday when they drew what appeared to be a routine flying assignment. They were to pick up a general at Osan Air Base, fly him to Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, then fly him back that afternoon.
They put in hours of meticulous planning the day before — checking maps and charts, working out their times and the route they’d take.
Lead pilot that day was Chief Warrant Officer 2 Seth Thompson, 27, of Austin, Texas.
"You can have the greatest flight plan in the world," Thompson said, "and they call you that morning and say, ‘Hey, we’re not doing this.’
"And so, everything, you need to start from scratch."
The first problem kicked in with the Black Hawk they’d been assigned for the day. Crew chief Sgt. Marko Zarkovic showed up at 5:45 a.m. to get it ready and saw that Murphy had gotten there first.
"I got out there and to my dismay there was not one seat in the aircraft," said Zarkovic, 25, of Buffalo, N.Y.
With Thompson and Herlt pitching in, they raced the clock, got the seats in, and made it to Osan on schedule.
"You gotta be fluid and you gotta be able to adapt to change well," Herlt said.
The flight itself went smoothly, they said. But later in the day came word that the general would be leaving later than scheduled.
Flying him back to Osan was passed to another crew. Instead, Thompson, Herlt and Zarkovic were tasked with taking a passenger from K-16 to Osan.
They went back to their maps and quickly decided on a new plan. But Murphy’s Law kicked in again — repeatedly. The forecast changed. They scrapped the new plan and made a newer one. There were phone calls to flight ops. More weather checks. More checking of route information and discussion among the three about whether to try flying the mission on instruments.
But then, around 5:35 p.m. Thompson heard the latest weather update and it meant unsafe flying.
"That’s it," he said to Herlt and Zarkovic. "We’re not going."
"Sometimes, young pilots fresh out of flight school are frustrated at first when they see their well-laid plans changed and changed again," said Company C’s commanding officer, Capt. Joshua Nanes, 30, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
But Thompson, Herlt and Zarkovic knew to take the day’s changes in stride.
"We’ll use [Semper Gumby] in the middle of a mission change," Herlt said. "And it just tells everyone on the crew, ‘Hey, be flexible, and we’re gonna get through it as a team.’ ‘Always Flexible.’ ‘Always Flexible.’  "
See an audio slideshow here.
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