A friend asked me recently about bird strikes with helicopters. The recent landing of an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after a bird strike no doubt prompted his question.
When you fly at lower altitudes as most helicopters tend to do and land at places other than just airports you face the possibility of having your helicopter damaged by almost anything in the vicinity whether in the air or on the ground.
Its been a long career for me so when I list what I have hit or been hit by in the rest of this blog keep in mind that its been 34 years, over 16,500 hours in all aircraft and almost 14,500 hours in helicopters. That probably represents at least 17,000 take offs and landings and a lot of my flying has been low level. Most of my landings and takeoffs have been off airport and at least half of those have been to something other than what we call a prepared surface.Those surfaces were; water,ice,snow,logs,rock ledges,dirt trails,openings in a forest,log landings,ship decks and well you get the idea. Not clean,smooth and flat. In some cases the surface was moving up,down and sideways.
A helicopter creates a lot of wind and anything not secured or put away will fly up and almost always float its way towards the helicopter when a helicopter is taking off or landing.
So I answered my friends question like this: I saw a napkin float up into a rotor system on a helicopter that was landing once.My friend said that the napkin impact couldn’t have been too catastrophic.
It wasn’t of course, but the napkin had come from the front seat of the pickup truck whose door had not been fully closed and which the rotor wash had flung open bending the door at its hinges, smashing the mirror and denting the hood of the truck.
Oh, and an empty fertilizer bag that was in the bed of the truck flew out as well, landing on one of the rotor blades. The rotor blade with the two cent fertilizer bag stuck on its leading edge flexed downward abruptly chopping through the tail rotor drive shaft cover and drive shaft.The helicopter had suffered, what we call a sudden stoppage event so besides the tail rotor drive shaft, cover, the rotor blade and the truck damage, the helicopter company needed to inspect and replace the main transmission,intermediate gear box and tail rotor gear box.
The fertilizer bag appeared none the worst for its impact and was burned in a big pile along with the other bags.The helicopter company had probably wanted to burn the helicopter and everyone involved in the accident as well.
The only good news in this story is that I was not the pilot at the controls of the helicopter. But I have had my share of strikes as well.
I have no idea how many birds I have hit over the years. Firefighting and agricultural spraying are hard on birds. We hit birds in the smoke and on the edge of the smoke as birds are busy feasting on insects and other birds. I have had hawks dive bomb me from above and below because I was close to their nests.I had a hawk flare up from below talons extended and rip a slice out of my flight suit and left arm.The hawk continued upward and broke a wing passing through the blades. My door was off for some work I was doing and I leaned out watching the hawk spiral down into the trees. I felt bad about the attack. I landed and tried to find the hawk. I had saved a hawk once under similar circumstances. Not this time.
I got hit by a quarter of a brick once. I saw the brick at the last second. Again, my door had been off for cooling. The brick bounced off my shoulder blade when I snapped my head clear and the brick landed on a passengers lap. The passenger for some reason went to throw the brick back out my open door but I stopped him. I never found the person who threw the brick which was probably best for both of us.
If you are thinking I should be flying with the door on to avoid problems I should mention that I once got a heavily weighted hook stuck in my door window taking off from a riverside helipad. I was taking off when a fisherman decided to cast his catfish bait and hook. I performed a quick stop that didn’t save the side window or the front window a millisecond later when the weight smashed both. I did get a smelly weighted hook as a very expensive souvenir.The fisherman ran away,which again, was probably best for all parties involved.
I have had shovel handles and hard hats go onto the main blades,garbage bags, a big pheasant, branches and various brush and stones. The stones were thrown by Eskimo kids and I did catch them. I brought the kids back to the helicopter to see the dents their stones had put in the rotor blades. They looked like they felt sorry about what happened and everyone was OK with the result which probably saved me from being gutted like a big seal for grabbing the one kid. He ran pretty fast for a little guy in wind pants and heavy parka.
“Have I ever been shot or shot at”? ,my friend asked. Well yes, but never while flying that I know of I thought.
Quite a few of my helicopter friends have, either as cops,in Vietnam or in one case while mosquito spraying. “I have been shot twice, but both times while running and nowhere near a helicopter”. I answered.
“What did you do to get shot” my friend asked ?
“Same thing I am doing here” I said. “Talking, when I should have been listening”. I have been advised to write more upbeat flying stories. Maybe I should just write about happy flights to picnic helispots with smiling passengers and macaroni salad.
On second thought,there is not much to learn in those little stories.