The alarm sounding on my watch only verified what I already knew. It was time to get up.
04:30, dark, cold and I had been awake for the last half hour trying to convince my bladder that if it let me get some more rest, my cold tired body would be better off. It was about to tell me to go piss myself, when the alarm beeped. I staggered over to my jeans and slipped the stiff dungarees over my legs. I was shivering too bad to get the button fly done up and I couldn’t find my socks. They were in the bottom of my sleeping bag I remembered but where the heck were my boots. My feet were freezing. No matter, I opened the door of the cabin and walked an appropriate distance to the backside of a big cedar tree.
When I got back into the cabin, Howard was up coughing and swearing and laughing all at the same time.
“Jesus, Keith,” he said, “this sure is a glamorous job this helicopter flying business.”
Howard was my boss and mentor. He was 54, I was 32. Howard had flown just about everything there was in the aerial spray business, from Pawnees to TBM’s and Bell 47’s to Sikorsky 55’s. Thats what we would be flying this morning. The Sikorsky S55.
Round motors, radials. Howard’s had a Pratt & Whitney 1340 and mine had a Wright Cyclone 1300. They would be tough to start this morning. It was just above freezing and those old radial engines didn’t turn over too well without preheat in the cold.
We grabbed a couple of coffees to go and hopped in the forestry pick up and drove quietly sipping our coffees listening to the squawking bearings in the defrost blower.
Howard lit a cigarette and said, “Its close this morning. See how we have to use the wipers for the dew as we drive? The humidities high, temps are low we should probably wait till we get some sun on our spray block.”
“You think it will hang?” I asked, meaning the BT we were spraying for the spruce bud worm.
“Damn right it will, but these sons a bitches from the Ministry are gonna send us out anyway, and if the wind comes up before the sun does there will be hell to pay when the BT drifts into the lakes.”
“So what happens if the sun warms it up before the wind gets going?” I asked.
“Well then my boy,” said Howard “you had better keep an eye on those lakes for us. I am flying lead and you keep in tight on my right side but also keep an eye on the water. You see fog coming off those lakes you tell me and we will head for the barn.”
“Ok, will do,” I said.
The sun was just lightening the eastern horizon. “What do you think Howie? No wind, lots of dew, seems a little colder.”
“Its coldest just before the dawn,” replied Howard. We launched in formation fully loaded with Bacillus Thuringensis and just enough fuel to spray the block plus maybe twenty minutes reserve.
The spraying was going good. Long two mile runs booming off and on passing over numerous lakes. Pretty country that with any luck would still have healthy trees growing around the lakes in the future. The sun was just starting to make the east bound spray runs a little tough when I spotted the fog coming up and off the numerous lakes we passed.
“Howard,” I said into the radio.
“I see it” he said. “Boom off, punch some flags and lets go.”
I was now following Howard in a climbing turn as the fog ascended to our altitude. Nothing but white below us and I had only a vague idea where our base was.
“Well, what now?” I asked Howard. “I mean, what do you usually do when you get stuck in this kind of weather?”
“Well my boy, its weather like this that kills pilots like us” he said.
“I was hoping for something more encouraging than that Howard,” I said.
“You still have me in sight Keith?”
“Yes I do,” I answered.
“Ok,” Howard said, “the base is about 5 minutes on this heading, we fly to that point and if we don’t see the airstrip, which we won’t, we call them and ask if they can hear us overhead. When they tell us we are overhead or close you alter course 45 degrees right and I’ll go 45 degrees left. You time your outbound leg for 5 minutes and I’ll do the same. Look for anything sticking up outta the fog. We call at 5 minutes or when we have found something.”
I still don’t remember how many minutes I was on my outbound leg past the base when the weather started to clear but it was long enough to have run out of ideas.
Howard managed to get back to the base before me and by the time I landed it was fuel, load and go again. The danger had passed. We had both learned or relearned a lesson. Howard said it best later that morning.
“We should have waited to see what the weather was going to do Keith. Because, my boy, its a lot better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”