Gray, murky, drizzly and just above freezing. April weather in Revelstoke B.C. where the drizzle falls as snow somewhere above us in the higher mountains. This is Heli skiing country where the snow stays till late May. Happy skiers on vacation in the mountains, somewhere, enjoying the wonderful powder skiing. Down here the precipitation and low clouds are just something to endure. The hill crew has been on our cut block setting chokers on logs and the hookers have their logs arranged by weight and proximity to other wood.
Its cold, wet, miserable, dangerous work that can never pay enough for the risks involved. To make things a little more interesting, the hill crew will be dealing with a fledgling logging pilot today and another trainee they have seen once before. Thankfully an experienced logging Captain will try to prevent the newbie pilots from killing or injuring them.
The hookers are ready and we are starting the S-58T and getting set for an hour long logging, ”cycle”. Sitting over in the left seat the Captain, looks out his large bubble window on the side and adjusts his seat for the view he needs. He will spend the next hour looking down the 200 feet of line that ends with his remotely operated cargo hook. I sit over in the right seat and look at my little knee board and pen. I will be writing down the weight and number of logs that we lift each, “turn”. My duties are simple. I watch the instruments and keep the Captain from pulling too much torque by monitoring it. I am not clear how that will work but I am pretty sure that I will be looking out my bubble window most of the time anyway. I need to get a look at how the flying is being done down there.
To a non long line pilot or non flyer it may sound strange to talk about the flying that is being done somewhere other than in the helicopter but that is how we think of vertical reference flight. At this point in my career flying a helicopter is a natural almost subconscious act. The actual flying is the line and the hook some 200 feet below that will need to be flown to the hooker. The logs are lifted and they take off down the hill and are landed in, you guessed it, “the log landing”.
I have flown long line loads of varying types, for any number of missions for years. Logs are something new and my total prior experience consists of watching a logging, ” show” a few weeks back and chatting online with a high time logging pilot. Loren Goetzke had taken a few minutes online advising me about helicopter logging. Loren’s advice ended with the loggers mantra,”that you have to slow down to speed up”. I thought I understood his advice. Fly slow and smooth at first, remain within your current abilities and the speed will come with experience.
Yeah, I thought. I can do that.
”Are you ready Keith?” came the Captains question over the intercom.
“Yup” I said. Well, there was that torque question? Too late. We were off the ground fast, the intercom said that the, ”hook was up” and over the radio the call went to the hill crew that we were up and heading their way.
“Who has the first turn?”
I checked the hook height as we shot up the steep cut block. It just seemed low. I could see the hooker waving above us as he waited choker ropes in hand. For a second I thought the Captain was flying by the hooker below but a flare followed with a rapid descent. The hook dropped and stopped smoothly into the hookers hand. The chokers were snapped into the hook and the hooker ran off the log, scaled a higher log and jumped to a rock like a fiddler crab on seaside flotsam. “Clear” came his call, followed by “coming up” from the Captain. The logs were stood up, pulled together and the number and weight was called over the intercom. I forgot to write anything down on my knee board. A lot of thoughts were running through my head. Our rate of descent and approach angle was steep, fast and not at all what I would have ever considered trying. The log landing was a vertical drop below us and I had not been prepared for what we were about to do.
The Captain had slowed the logs, got over them, pulled power and flown them into the landing in one quick smooth motion that was nothing short of poetry. This was some real flying. I was going to like this. I had no illusions that it would take some time to get onto this heli-logging but I knew I wanted to try.
The hour cycle was done in no time and I had managed to record the turns and totaled the sheet as we were landing back in the service landing. My turn was coming up and I changed seats as the fuel pumped. The Captain was outside, finished taking a leak and was heading up the stairs to the cockpit about the time I was asking myself, now why didn’t I relieve myself ? Nervous, Keith?
“You ready cowboy?” the Captain boomed over the intercom.
“I am” I lied.
The Captain called us on our way. I had at least remembered to call the hook up. I was introduced over the radio although I am certain it was as much a warning as an introduction.
Up the hill to the hooker I had in sight. Flare and keep the hook under control and drop to the hooker not too fast, slow and stop. A perfect hook delivery if only the hookers arms were about 8 feet longer. I was short and moved the hook over to a patient waiting hooker. Chokers in the hook, turn and the hooker calls “clear.”
“Coming up,” I croak over the radio. All that adrenaline and bile in my throat has me sounding like a two-pack-a-day smoker. The logs are up, off and down at a ridiculously steep fast approach.
A voice penetrates my mind that’s working at its maximum.“The weight?” That would have to wait. Had I said that or just thought it?
“We can get the weight just before you touch the logs into the landing.”
I laughed into the intercom. The word, ”touched” seemed so far from what I could see happening that I relaxed and actually got the logs stopped and set down albeit slowly but smoothly. It had been a light first turn and over the radio, cheering followed my climb up the hill to my second victim. The cheers seemed genuine but then again it may have been for the fact that I finally had set the logs down. Holding the last log for a few seconds trying to place it had probably looked pretty funny. Oh well. The second and third turn went ok but for some reason I had started to slow my log delivery and lingered over setting the logs into the landing.
The Captain hinted that I could set the logs a little more firmly without damaging anything. The weather was starting to clear a little and the sun coupled with the torrent of sweat running down from my helmet into my eyes was not exactly improving my hook delivery. Relax, I told myself and then went faster than ever.
“Is the spoked circle scraped into the log landing a target of some kind,” I asked the Captain?
He looked out as I slowly set the logs into the center of the wheel shape. Chuckling over the intercom he said. ”I’m thinking it’s a sun dial.” Well that did it. I would show them. The faster I went the worse I got. After about 45 minutes the Captain suggested we take a break and head back to service.
So that was it. I had failed. My landing back at service was a sight. Forgetting that two wheels on the ground meant the tail wheel was still in the air I dropped the tail wheel the last foot and sat pogo-like bouncing with my head bobbing like the turkey I felt like.
“Sorry about that” I said and was. Sorry about so many things.
“Well, what did you think Keith?” the Captain asked. Humiliation, was not a feeling I had experienced very often in my career and so I suggested that “I could probably hitch hike back to town”.” A walk in the rain would be good to cool down if I could stifle the urge to throw myself under the wheels of the first passing log truck.
It was the Captains turn to laugh now. “You didn’t think you would start out flying like me did you”? Before I had a chance to answer he got on the radio and asked the open question, “well boys, what did you think of old Keith?”
Well that’s just friggin cruel,I thought. To my great surprise, one hooker after another came on and said that I had done well for my first time out. I must have been sitting there like a fish out of water. I was trying for a response that I could not get out.
“Stick around Keith, just fly smooth and try to make every move count. I’ll give you hints as you go. You have to slow down to speed up, you know?”
“Yes, I have heard that.”I said and now I believe it.