Flying Floats

We had an airshow at our little Albenga airport here in Italy over the weekend. To be accurate, the airshow was flown at towns to the east and west of us on the Liguria coast. Albenga is the only airport of any size to base all the aircraft ,so we only saw the warm up routines performed. The Italian Air Force demonstration team the Frecce Tricolori was here and several other aerobatic and vintage aircraft.

There were also some helicopters and no, we did not fly in the airshow. We were one of the static displays and my Italian copilot stood fielding questions and explaining our firefighting operations. My limited conversational Italian skills prevented me from participating and chatting with the hundreds of visitors but we were well represented.

The copilot commented on a nearby MD 500 helicopter on fixed floats and asked if I had flown such things. I had, but it has been a few years since I have flown on bags. About 18 years to be exact. When I started my career in 1974 we flew on floats more than skids. We had Hughes 500’s, Alouettes, Bell 47’s and Hiller 12E’s all on fixed floats. The country we flew in was more water and bogs than dry ground so it was a practical but painfully slow way to get around. The Bell 47 and Hiller 12 E are slow to begin with but put some floats on them and you were going no where fast. I remember always carrying at least four 5 gallon jugs of av gas strapped to the racks on top of the floats. God help you if you missed or couldn’t get to your next remote fuel cache. Most caches were a group of fuel drums at the edge of a lake, logging camp, Indian village or just a little strip where an Otter or Beaver could land and push some drums out in the snow the winter before.

Caches were ‘owned’ by one  or more helicopter companies and cache borrowing and raiding was an unfortunate fact. If you found yourself flying over another companies cache and it was looking pretty full you might just drop in and borrow some fuel. Proper etiquette was usually followed. Don’t touch the last few barrels and take the whole drum rather than a partial making sure to write your aircraft registration and date on the barrel top. Not everyone was so honest and arriving at an empty raided cache in the middle of nowhere was no fun. If you arrived with your spare fuel cans still full you may be ok. If not, you got to drain the water impregnated dregs from all the drums into one drum and the mosquitoes would just about fry landing on your steaming head.

Water landings,start up and shut down on floats are interesting and take some getting used to. When the tail rotor rpm is low and the main rotor torque is high enough ,the helicopter turns opposite to the main rotor direction. A couple of eye opening shut downs and start ups will improve your decision making and skills. Its usually not a factor.

One of the first jobs I did on floats was a bit bizarre. I wouldn’t do it now, but back then I was young and well, you know, not seasoned.(not smart) We had a contract to ear tag Moose for what ever reason. Today we dart the big Bullwinkles and wait for them to take a little nap.Back then we came up with a less costly but considerably more dangerous method. Moose will take to water and they can swim pretty darn fast. Drive a Moose to water and land beside him and taxi over.Watch not to tuck the nose of the floats under taxing too fast and position the Moose tagger,(another smart guy) near the Mooses head and sometimes big antlers.

Kneeling on the floats the tagger clips a tag into the none too happy Mooses ear. Watch the Moose doesn’t get a leg up on the float I had been warned. We already lost a helicopter that way my boss had said.

And still we continue to do this I thought ? I do this.

I survived the experience and only one incident,which was a miracle in itself. A big bull had got a hoof up on the float rack and I pulled power and moved sideways fast which didn’t end in the dynamic rollover it could have but did manage to land my tagger in the water.

I set down a few feet away and my tagger set the 20 yard dash speed record for a man dressed in a Mackinaw jacket,jeans and no more rubber boots.

I can’t and won’t write the dialogue that followed his soggy climb back into the cabin but the engine noise and my laughter drowned out most of the swearing any how.

About Heligypsy

Has it really been forty-seven years flying helicopters all over the world? I guess it's time to share some stories, I hope you enjoy my adventures.
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