Controlled flight into terrain, or crashing into land that you didn’t see, until presumably that last second, or not!
I wrote a few days back about a couple of flights in low visibility situations. So why did the pilots continue to fly into bad or worsening conditions when they had safer options ? Why do we sometimes proceed down a lane with a “Dead End ” sign at its beginning? Touch the paint by the “Wet Paint” sign? Continue flight to see if we can make it?
There is never just one reason for pushing on and when you have run out of ideas, options and places to go the cockpit is a very lonely place. As you will see.
Our camp was wedged in a narrow snow filled valley on the B.C./Alaska border. Its official name was Calpine Camp and had been named that for more than a year till the 20 some wood cabins had been given a coat of new paint by order of the camp manager. Returning to Calpine with a newly overhauled Hughes 500D I climbed the steep creek drainage off the Iskut River, rounded the corner and just in front of the Glacier sat Calpine in a fresh coat of light blue paint.
“Wow! ” I laughed over the company F.M. radio frequency, “the Camp looks like Smurfville”.
The name, naturally stuck and the camp boss who never really liked me for some reason, now hated me.
The job at Calpine (Sm—-ville) was drilling for gold. Five drills, moved as needed around the steep sided mountains looking for and identifying the direction of the gold vein. Lots of work for about 4 or 5 helicopters. Three MD 500D’s, a Bell 47T and a Bell 205A-1. A beautiful location at the foot of a Glacier in the coastal mountains. Beautiful when you could actually see anything. In late May we were down to less than 14′ on the snow from the previous winters accumulation of 26′. Water running everywhere and when the moist, warm, coastal winds blew in from the Pacific and rolled over the glacier you had a wall of white coming down at you in as long as it takes to say,”I am out of here”.
When you are slinging equipment, core boxes, drill pipe and supplies in and around the confines of narrow creek drainages your situational awareness meter is at the top of the scale. Add some fog, a crowded radio frequency and jam it all into steep sided rock faced creeks where the helicopter that just passed going the opposite direction was a ghostly sling load, fishing its way on the opposite side of the creek. We dealt with the fog in degrees of severity. When the visibility was real low we went from a 150′ line down to a 100′ or sometimes a 50′ if the trees were not too high in the area and thats when it got interesting. No way for that many helicopters to work in close proximity. When the weather gets down like that we had parking places to sit and hover until the loaded helicopter passed by or said he did and then it was your turn to fly up to staging, pick up your load, and wind it through the trees to your destination.
When the weather got worse we hovered back into the camp and shut down one after the other. The old man in our group of pilots was an ex south Vietnam Loach pilot who had no doubt seen some low vis. in smoke and gun fire. He was always the last man to park his helicopter due to weather.
I remember the day clearly.
“Keith, did you call down and clear on your pad?”
“Yes, Tang” I answered. “Shut down and feeling my way to the cook shack “, I answered on my hand held radio.
Tang’s 500D passed overhead, the only visible clue being an orange remote hook flashing by on its way to his helipad.
“I too shut down, no shame in this weather, very bad fog” Tang added unnecessarily.
“Roger” I said. “See you in the cook house.”
The other two pilots were enjoying the warmth and seated at the same table talking when I got my wet gear off and walked into the room. The base radio blared on.
“Helllooo Smurfville, its helicopter NMO, hows your weather in camp?”
I grabbed the radio mike and transmitted the news.
“No good at all, we are all parked and it looks like its getting worse if thats possible.” There was a long gap before NMO called back and I could here the tremor in his voice.
“Well thats not good,” he continued. “I have been trying one drainage after another to get up to you guys and what ever one I am on now has closed in on me. I can see down the line to the load above this little rocky creek but thats about it.”
My stomach turned a bit and I noticed both the other pilots slid their plates away and stared at me. ” Look,”I said, “why not just find a place to set that load, punch your line on the top, and low level down creek to the river. Head back down river to a wide spot or maybe you have enough fuel to make it back to your base? Do you?” I asked, hoping. Another pause and then a shakier response.
“Well I can’t find any rock big enough to put this pallet on and I can’t see shit and my fuel low lights been on now for a few minutes. Do you think, one of you can come out here and find me?”
Unless you are a pilot you have no real idea how desperate you have to be to make that request, in that kind of weather.
I looked back at the other two pilots. One was studying the food he no longer had an appetite for, and the other just gave me an exaggerated negative nod of his head . I took a breath and Tang came over on his hand held.
“I go, be right there, you no fly around, I find you quick, no worry” Way too late on the “no worry “, I thought, as I finally breathed out.
Tang’s 500 buzzed over the cook house and down canyon . There was total radio silence for about 6 long minutes.
“You got me in sight?” was Tangs first transmission.
“Yes, got you below, by my sling load” came the shaky reply.
“You follow me. I go slow, we only a couple of minutes away.”
“Wilco” was the reply.
A few minutes later the slow flight sound of an invisible Bell 205 and Hughes 500.
Tang appeared in the cook house, loaded his tray and sat down to lunch. And where is our lost buddy we asked Tang?
“Ahh, he say he be here in a while. Have paperwork to do.” Tang winked.
Yeah, I’ll bet he does, I thought .