WASHINGTON -- Two UH-1N Huey helicopter crashes have devastated the "roto-photo" gang at the 6512 Test Squadron, a small, close-knit unit of pilots, flight engineers and photographers known for working as hard as they played.
This mix of officers and enlisted personnel, who played racquetball during lunch breaks, rode motorcycles and off-road vehicles in the California desert, staged Halloween costume parties and preferred using such nicknames as "Q-dog," lost five friends and colleagues in 1991, more than a third of the 14-member unit.
"In the Air Force, helicopter families are very small," said Dia Lovell, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Robert A. Lovell, a flight engineer, died in the first helicopter accident on Jan. 14, 1991.
"We're considered the dregs of the Air Force because we fly helicopters and everyone in the fighter squadrons looks down at you," she said. "That's why helicopter people become so close."
Located at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., the self-described roto-photo group usually flies UH-1Ns to photograph aircraft test missions, provide pilot and parachute training and support space shuttle landings. Relatives said the unit participated in Operation Bee Sting, a testing program for new laser-assisted, .50-caliber machine guns that were being sent to the Persian Gulf war.
Their bonds were strengthened after Capt. Jay D. Burdett took command in December 1989 and soon began inviting officers and enlisted personnel to his home for dinner.
"He was real easy to get along with," said Mrs. Lovell, who added that Captain Burdett's wife, Janine,and other officers' wives would "treat everyone [in the unit] without respect to rank. They weren't snotty with us, and it made you feel good."
jTC Social activities often revolved around three pilots, dubbed "Captains A, B and C" for John "Augie" Augustine, Jay Burdett and Travis Chevallier. Today, Captain Chevallier is the only surviving member of the trio, but he has transferred out of Edwards and could not be reached for comment.
Captain Augustine died with Sergeant Lovell in the January 1991 crash. A second accident Oct. 10 killed Captain Burdett; Staff Sgt. Kurt H. Ellington, a survival school instructor; and Sgt. John R. Anderson, an aerial photographer.
"On the Halloween before Bob's accident, we had a masquerade party at Q-dog's house," said Mrs. Lovell, referring to a photographer in the unit. One of the officers showed up in drag, dressed as a hooker. The Lovells wore scuba gear. Everyone left his rank at the door.
"It was probably the first Halloween party I've seen where nobody drank anything but [non-alcoholic] sparkling malt cider," she said. "We had parties and always had a great time, but none of us ever got rowdy or drunk."
Other gatherings were sobering for another reason. Many in the roto-photo section felt left out of Air Force career opportunities and promotions because helicopters seemed to take a back seat to F-16s and other sleek jet aircraft.
For Captain Burdett, the 30-year-old son of a Korean War veteran who flew for American Airlines, there was difficulty breaking into highly competitive "fixed wing" assignments despite strong recommendations from senior officers that he do so, recalled his older brother, Dean Burdett. The officer, who had more helicopter time than anyone in the squadron, wanted to fly jets to qualify for a commercial pilot's license after leaving the service.
"None of them were going anywhere. Promotions were scarce," said Mrs. Lovell, whose husband also considered leaving. "Bob and Augie would stay up for hours and hours talking . . . about the pitiful quality of life, not being able to have a choice. He'd come home, and Augie would call up and apologize for keeping him out so late."
Bob, 30, and Augie, 26, were flying together at 6:40 p.m. Jan. 14,
1991, when their UH-1N malfunctioned and fell about 3,000 feet, hitting the ground twice before stopping. Both men apparently broke their necks on impact, but two passengers survived.
Captain Burdett, who was extremely upset by the deaths, joined the Air Force mishap board investigating the crash. "At one point they tried to blame the crash on Augie, but Jay and another person went in and said, 'You've got to change that,' " said Susan Preston, Captain Burdett's sister.
Mrs. Lovell, who gave a similar account, said, "Jay couldn't take it anymore. He kept talking that apparently there was bad oil or gear lubrication that caused the main coupling to melt or something."
Despite his strong suspicions about drive shaft lubrication problems, Captain Burdett and the rest of the roto-photo unit wanted to fly at every opportunity, friends and relatives recalled.
"They know there are dangers, but they don't want to have undue dangers," Dean Burdett said.
"When they don't fly, it's like a bear with a sore foot," Mrs. Lovell said. "They've got to have it, that excitement's got to be there. They're out there and they're actually daring something to happen. It's daring fate."
She remembered her last exchange with her husband, a typical bit of nonsense and playful teasing as Bob took out the garbage before going to work. Dressed warmly in his flight suit, he lured her out into the cold morning air and then pretended to overlook the fact that she was shivering in her nightgown and robe. "You cold?" he finally said.
"Then he kissed me goodbye three times as always," Mrs. Lovell said.
Captain Burdett's wife, Janine, who gave birth to the couple's first child last July 12, was too upset to comment for this article, according to friends and relatives who spoke to her recently. "He was taken away from her and all her plans are gone," said Mrs. Preston. "She talks about her life with Jay and says, 'It was perfection.' "