I seem to have hit a nerve

I wrote a blog a while ago about some firefighting I did in Northern Saskatchewan . I worked in many small towns and villages and most of them were pleasant experiences. A few towns were less than pleasant and one of them was Buffalo Narrows.


I referred to Buffalo Narrows as the shithead capitol of Northern Saskatchewan. That is how I perceived the place in 1989. I find that my perception of places is colored not so much by what I see, but from the people I meet in the place I am visiting.

Buffalo Narrows has no doubt changed over the years and perhaps for the better. I received several invitations to visit Buffalo Narrows to reacquaint myself with the area or to receive the beating I deserved for maligning the town.

To the few people who offered to show me around and allow me to view the town they love, Thank You. If I am ever back your way I’ll do just that.

To the vast majority of you who cursed me, threatened me, questioned my sobriety and my inability to date native women and accused me of using an alias, well what can I say. You are still very much like most of the foul mouthed drunks I met walking the streets of your sad little town.

Keith Gill

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The Start and Finish

Our S-64 Air Crane had been checked and made ready for the first fire call of the day, if it was ever to come. Time now, to get into the books, flight manuals, study guides, or maybe less demanding pursuits.  Standing by for fires is an activity where you get out of it what you put in. You can do as much or as little as you want with the 12 hours you spend living one minute away from your helicopter.

This morning I was reading a helicopter magazine and the author of this particular article was talking about low time pilot jobs. He correctly mentioned that agricultural flying was sometimes an option for low time pilots and then went on to incorrectly identify that type of flying as easy and basic. I laughed out loud, reading his assessment of ag. flying, as easy.

The other Captain on our three or four person flight crew heard me and asked what I had found so amusing?

This other Captain has a similar aviation background to my own. We both flew crop spraying helicopters in the early days of our careers. Although we both have flown a lot of  different types of helicopters all over the world in a wide variety of missions we both agree that some of our ag. flying was and still is flying, that is anything but easy. Between the two of us we have well over 30,000 hours in helicopters and several thousand hours of ag. time.

“This guy, has obviously never flown any ag” the other Captain laughed, referring to the author and calling him something I will not write here.

I mentioned that this was not the first time I had read or heard somebody describing crop spraying as an easy low time pilot’s job.

Let me tell you that the only thing easy about crop spraying is that it is easy to get yourself killed at the start of your career. I talked to a young lady this year whose husband, a low time pilot, was contemplating taking a job spraying seed and sweet corn in Illinois for the summer.

I tempered my comments with the knowledge that she would be the person waiting each night for her husband’s return. I hope the young man finds a good mentor in the company he is off to fly for this summer.

I had a great mentor on my second crop spraying job, back when I had about five hundred hours. My boss was funny, crude as hell and a veteran of years of crop spraying .He told you something only once, demonstrated the flying , if he thought it merited the time and money and then cut you loose with the same unnecessary warning I have heard many times.

“Try not to kill yourself”

When the time came for my old boss to call it a career in the ag business he walked away from flying and never looked back or so he said and so we all believed. In actual fact he been dropping back into the ag business in the summer and doing some spraying for a company that had contracts on seed and sweet corn.

My old mentor missed seeing a wire in a field of corn in Illinois. He crashed and died.

It might not be the same company but it will certainly be the same level of risk for this young pilot. I didn’t need to tell the lady, that piece of information and if her husband took the job I hope he gets as good a teacher as the one I had. The same man, who for whatever reason could not heed his own advice about “walking away and not looking back.”

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Following Along

The G.P.S. unit installed in our S-61 helicopter was state of the art. The company had spent a lot of money to make sure that we would always know where we were and for good reason. The mission was in the high Arctic and we would be flying our helicopter to dozens of remote fuel caches dotted over the Arctic Islands. In the Arctic, airports are very few and far between and we would be flying for much of the time with only sporadic HF radio contact and a satellite phone.


My first tours of the Arctic back in the early 70’s had been with HF radio coverage as well but navigation was mostly pilotage and believe it or not a sextant! I always consider my years spent flying off charts only, to be a bonus. When you rely on GPS almost solely for your navigation information, you can find yourself in a world of hurt when the GPS fails.

On this particular day we had a very long leg to fly from Resolute Bay to a fuel cache on an island about 320 miles to the North. It was Arctic spring weather with a ceiling of about 300 feet and a temperature dew point spread that had to be pretty close. Forward visibility was about 2 miles in light wet snow and we found ourselves diverting around foggy patches across the ice flows and open water. Our island fuel cache was about 50 miles ahead and we had used a bit more fuel than planned.

The GPS decided to quit. Resetting and cycling the GPS was of no use. Continuing on the same heading should have us arriving on the shoreline of the island but if we got a wind shift missing the island would be bad news. A compass is useless in the Arctic so a heading for us meant not diverting too much from the direction we had been pointing when the GPS failed. Diverting for low weather was going to be tricky. The chart was no use because the Arctic Ocean was a featureless expanse of nothing. As we approached where the island should be, ice rifts kept popping into view that had us thinking the island shore line was just ahead. White on white makes ice and land look pretty much the same. I had a small hand held GPS back in my helmet bag minus the “AA” batteries that I should have purchased back in civilization. The crew chief was rifling through spares boxes as we flew along and in a few minutes he had found the batteries. The shoreline was in view and the chart was in my hand. I handed over flight control to the other pilot and studied the chart and shoreline.

” Right turn” I said over the intercom.

“Are you sure”?, the other pilot answered. I was and as we moved eastward along the shoreline I knew what the other pilot was concerned about. We didn’t really have enough fuel remaining to be going the wrong way. My backup GPS was now working and naturally it was taking some time to acquire itself. The last time my little GPS had been turned on it, was 3000 miles south of our present position. I looked up ahead and told the other pilot that the bay coming into view was where our fuel cache of jet fuel drums sat waiting. As we turned into the bay the spot marked on the chart revealed no fuel drums in sight. The look from the other pilot said it all. I was staring at the shoreline and quickly inputting the coordinates for the fuel cache on my back up GPS at the same time. The GPS confirmed that I had indeed navigated us to the right spot, but it was looking like cold comfort as we stared down at the snow and ice still sitting deep on the shore of the bay.

“There”! , the mechanic shouted as he looked out one of the side windows of the S-61. “I can see barrels just barely sticking of the snow.

” It was going to take a lot of digging and ice chipping to get the barrels free but with all the adrenaline surging through our veins we would have all the energy we needed to get the drums out. A couple of hours later with the 61 refueled we were on our way. The fancy GPS never worked again but my little hand held, taped to the top of the instrument panel, worked like a charm. We flew for the next three weeks all over the Arctic working some long days and man handling a lot of fuel drums. The fuel caches were always where the GPS said they would be. I noticed however, that whenever the other pilot was not on the flight controls, he was definitely following our flight path on the chart as a backup to the GPS. Always a good idea, I think.

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A few problems with the hydraulics

I wrote a blog previously about hydraulic failures. The blog was technical and hypothetical in nature. It can make for dull reading and many helicopter pilots still regard hydraulic failures as a minor problem in some aircraft. Certain helicopters will fly perfectly fine with hydraulic failures and malfunctions that can be easily isolated. This blog is about some failures that were anything but dull and in a couple of the emergencies I am fortunate to be here to tell the story.

Quite a number of years back when I flew a Bell 47 mosquito spraying, the local residents of the city had become pretty used to my early morning flights over the parks and ravines. We were spraying a mist of a mosquito adulticide that has since been banned. Spraying the material now would probably get me about 30 days in the electric chair but it was effective and  that was what mattered.

This particular morning I had blown a hydraulic line while spraying and the high pressure hydraulic leak was squirting directly onto the Bell’s red hot turbo charger with spectacular effect. I had detected the problem in a turn and radioed the control tower that I was returning to base. The tower spotted me and asked me if I was aware that I was on fire.

“Well I am not on fire yet “I responded,” but I would appreciate a straight in without delay to my base for landing” “The tower wondered if I might be inclined to declare an emergency and request crash rescue ? I told the tower that I would soon be out of hydraulic fluid and as long I kept my speed up I was pretty sure I wouldn’t start burning. I should have availed myself of the emergency services and back then as a fledgling pilot I was probably more afraid of explaining to my boss about the declared emergency than I was  about burning up.

It all worked out OK and my chief pilot commented on seeing my little air show on his way into work that morning. He had a few other comments as well but nothing that I can write here.

A few years later another hydraulic failure in an S-55,(Sikorsky) required no emergency call either.  It started and ended in about 3 seconds and this time my youth was an asset. I had just passed over the power lines on a descent into a field to finish my last pass on the headlands of a corn field. The trees of the headland were on my right and I was just about to boom on when the cyclic pulled out of my hand and slammed against my left knee. I was pulling collective, rolling in throttle, pulling on the cyclic and switching to auxiliary hydraulics at a speed that only adrenaline and youth can perform. The cyclic that I was pulling on with who knows how many pounds force snapped free and I almost snap rolled the old S-55 into the trees on my right side. Good thing for me that the S-55 rotor system is slow or I would have topped the trees on my way out of the field.

The S-55’s don’t fly around much anymore but a turbine version almost got me with a hydraulic failure a year later. I had an uncommanded series of inputs while water bucketing on a fire. Isolating the primary hydraulics got me flying back straight and level and after consultation with maintenance we decided that since neither hydraulic system was acting up currently, perhaps I could fly the hundred miles plus back to the main hangar. It was a dumbass decision and my finger hovered over the hydraulics switch all the way to the base.

Maintenance could simulate a less spectacular hydraulic spasm with the hydraulic mule hooked up to the helicopter as it sat on the hangar floor. Several parts were replaced and the helicopter was returned to service with the mandatory test flight and sign off to be performed by the same dumbass that had flown the ship back the day before.

I asked for a mechanic to accompany me on the flight and the director of maintenance cast a glance around the hangar at the rest of the mechanics who were looking intensely busy. Since I only needed someone to watch a couple of gauges the D.O.M sent our most junior and I suspect expendable apprentice.

The helicopter was rolled to the fuel pumps in front of the office and with nothing but fear and suspicion to stop us we started the helicopter.

Almost immediately I could feel a feedback in the flight controls that while not severe, was definitely not right. The mechanic, who was in addition,  a low time helicopter pilot, asked for the controls to see what I was sensing. He thought what we had was just air in the system and wanted to do a short flight. I thought that his desire to get some stick time was overriding his better judgment and told him so.

We agreed on a run up to 100% to see if the feedback would became more or less pronounced. I felt about the same level of feedback and the young mechanic, pilot, was now manipulating the cyclic  and trying to negotiate for a check flight about the time the cyclic slammed hard over to the right .

The cyclic returned to center as quickly as it had gone hard over and we shut the helicopter down a millisecond later. Had we elected to lift off we probably would have ended up in the front office of the hangar.

The helicopter was successfully returned to service a couple of days later but I never ever relaxed in the S-55T.

A few years later I had another hydraulic failure in the S-55T . Add to that,a  couple of engine failures in the same type S-55T and I finally convinced myself to stop flying the type. I have had several more hydraulic failures in Bell products and others including two in the always challenging A-Star or Squirrel but that’s stories for other blogs.

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Pretty Good

I was talking with one of our pilots the other day and he was lamenting what he perceived as his eroding flying skills.

I thought for a moment before commenting because I considered him to be of one of the company’s best. If he thought his flying was not up to par, I didn’t want to know what he thought of my lesser performance.

There was no doubt that what he considered to be his ability slipping was not a matter of a lack of ability but simply a lack of exercise. To fly safely and proficiently does not require a lot of flight time, both in hours flown for currency or total flight experience.

What this pilot was lacking was an inability to perform at the higher levels he had achieved in the past when he flew more hours on a regular basis.

I told him that I could relate to his problem although no amount of extra flying was ever going to get me to the skill level he had demonstrated in past years. “I may never be able to fly that well again either “he said.

“You may not”,I said , but you will always know how.

I had a Yo-yo when I was a kid and like a lot of kids my age I watched the Yo-yo trick masters and practiced till I wore a red groove in my finger and had more lumps on my head than a rugby hooker.

After a few months I could do most of the tricks to some degree and yet I knew I wasn’t as good as the masters. How many hours had they spent perfecting their craft?

It is the same for some of the work we do with helicopters. Vertical reference, long line, instrument approaches, precision hover maneuvers in tight spots, all those skills that take so long to acquire and perfect also take consistent exercise, use, or practice to maintain at the higher levels of performance.

I can still pick up a Yo-yo and make a few basic moves. For some of the more complicated tricks I can see my mistakes as they happen and after a few minutes or hours, if I had the patience, I am sure I could get be back to the skill level I had at age nine.

The knowledge stays and the doing allows the long term memory to dredge up the nuances of the finer points. Repetition and will or determination if you prefer, get you back to close to where you once were.

“So don’t sweat it” I told the other pilot. Most of us never made it to your level of skill.

Even at age nine I knew that being pretty good meant I didn’t have to wear a hole in my finger.

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Say Again ?

I fly mostly in countries other than the U.S.A. English is the international language of aviation and anywhere in the world I fly I am able to communicate in some fashion in English.

Being able to communicate in a common language in busy airspace  is critical to flight safety and most countries make an effort to speak English when spoken to in English. That, in no way means that when you dial in the frequency for a control tower for another country, you  should expect to hear English being spoken.

For most of the places my firefighting helicopter works in Europe I am just as likely to hear the local language and dialect being used at the airport I am flying towards. The tower will answer my call in English and as long as common phraseology is used the controller will do his or her best to communicate. Sometimes our communications go smoothly and other times it is a mutually frustrating exercise in miscommunication. Strangely enough some of the very worst experiences I have had, occurred at busy international airports.

The reason for this alluded me early on in my European flying but I eventually came up with a theory. International airports that handle primarily commercial airliners have a limited variety of aircraft flying to their airport. The planes use standard instrument approach/departure  procedures and the phraseology is predictable and repetitious.

When we arrive unscheduled, calling in from low level, not on any flight plan and making requests never heard before in any language it can throw air traffic controllers into stunned silence.

A request to fly through busy airspace that you have no intention of landing at is often the start of a confusing exchange between us and the tower.The controller is used to issuing a clearance and you are asking for a transition across the runway approaches,departures or in some cases directly overhead the field.

No , we don’t wish to land is how things often start out. As clearly and as calmly as possible we try to explain that our helicopter is on a mission attempting to fly directly to a fire some distance and bearing from the airport. If possible the name of the town that the fire is near is mentioned. This can be a bad idea if the town has a name with 18 consonants and three vowels. You would think that having a copilot who speaks the local language would greatly improve your chances of getting through the airspace and thankfully it sometimes does. At other times I have been entertained by a shouting match that escalated to something that had me turning my side of the radio volume way down. I remember one encounter in Athens that had my copilot so worked up that he turned to me and said in English, “this guy in the tower is a  fucking idiot”. I had made a similar assessment but unfortunately for both of us on board, my copilot transmitted his opinion over the radio rather than keep our cockpit conversation private.

I told the copilot that with any luck the controller had not understood his  unprofessional outburst  any better than he had my initial transmissions in English. We never really found out because subsequent calls went unanswered and after a couple of minutes a female voice with no detectable accent called us up. My copilot hearing the clear spoken English gestured to me to answer, but no thank you I gestured back, it was the copilots show and he could have the majority of the time on the tower tapes now.

We got through that event unscathed with licenses intact but communication has always been a problem in our operation. When we do get on a fire the language problem presents further challenges. In some countries we operate with a foreign national copilot or Captain in our two pilot helicopter but often we add an interpreter to the crew.

The interpreter has an incredible workload when the fire and the airspace gets busy. A large fire may have as much as eight aircraft working the same area.If you are the English speaking pilot you are often  the only one on the entire fire speaking English initially. The interpreter has as much as three languages and who knows how many dialects to follow.When other countries get involved as often happens you may have Italian, French,Russian and Greek pilots in the aircraft. Cockpit language will be in the language of the crew and the local language is used for air to air communications. If the fire is in Greece as an example the aircrews are often working through an interpreter who needs to monitor radios a telephone and translate and communicate to the flight crew in their common language of choice.

In our helicopter that would mean that the interpreter is talking to the other aircraft in Greek, the ground crews in Greek and translating for his own flight crew into English which may be the second or  third language of preference for one of the pilots.

See and avoid while maintaining good crew resource management is vital. I prefer to monitor the radios at low volume so as to not interrupt the interpreters transmissions but when things get hectic down in the low level smoke and flame I don’t hesitate to stay clear till we have the whole story and situational picture.

Its a fire and the number one rule is do no harm,to yourself,others and the aircraft. Over the years I have had found that telling rather than asking works best when the situation gets hectic. In other words I have the interpreter tell the other aircraft, monitoring aircraft and ground crews where and what we are able and willing to do. Experienced pilots can usually always understand why we have disassociated ourselves from certain areas of a fire and prefer to work on our own with clear boundaries listed. When the fire gets into towns and villages I often suggest that we take the low ground down around the houses under the smoke and let the fixed wings work the clearer air on the sides. The big planes don’t want to be down amongst the wires and as long as they don’t drop a load in the blind we are pretty happy just seeing them when we head back to get water.

It all works 99.9% of the time and the other .1% can be the stuff of nightmares and blogs for another time.

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He could have been….

A Chief Pilot I worked for many years ago had developed an obvious problem with alcohol consumption. In those days the stereo typical bush pilot and helicopter pilot was a hard flying,drinking,living, rugged individual or so the myth was sold.I have seen many an aviation career both on the flying and maintenance side ruined by alcoholism.

On this particular day, I had as tactfully as possible, suggested to my Chief Pilot that he may have a problem with alcohol. He answered that he used to have a problem,but now that he was making a lot more money, he could afford all the booze he wanted. His response was supposed to be a joke but I wasn’t laughing.

Our company had booked us into a Hotel that was supposedly short on rooms and so we had been forced to double up. Sharing a room was never anybodies idea of a good time and sharing a room with the Chief Pilot was going to be worse.

My night spent with the Chief Pilot was a study in the beginning stages of sleep deprivation. My sleep deprivation,not his. Morning arrived when the boss began choking on the phlem he had been building while snoring between apnea gaps in his breathing. I had considered a mercy killing several times during the night but the old son of gun was half tough and I couldn’t be sure I could hold the pillow down long enough to do the job.

Coughing and rolling out of bed the boss opened the mini fridge, grabbed a jug of orange juice and sloshed a meager couple of ounces into the Hotels monogrammed tumbler. My curiosity was aroused momentarily but then came the topping of the tumbler with vodka.Spinning around and taking a gulp that would have gagged most folks he bee lined for the bathroom.

“You need in here,before I shower” he asked?

“Nope I was up earlier” I  said.

“I never heard a thing”, he answered as he slammed the bathroom door.

Yeah, I thought,imagine that. Later that morning I tried my tactful intervention mentioned earlier.

I have had similar talks with at least a dozen pilots and mechanics over my 30 some years as a pilot. I suppose there are countless reasons why men and women in our profession develop unhealthy associations with alcohol.

I am always disappointed when coworkers and managers knowingly let this dangerous behavior persist. I say something when I think I should but I admit that I have been guilty in the past of both over consumption and ignoring problem behavior in others.We owe the public ,ourselves and our coworkers our best sober efforts to perform our jobs to the best of our abilities.

The Chief Pilot, Larry,  is long dead now. Alcohol related diseases finished him and even though he managed to stay sober for periods of time he eventually succumbed to his disease. I remember an incident just before Larry had a serious crash that  really struck home for me.

It was a slow afternoon in the hangar and Larry had returned from a late lunch where quite obviously the only solid food consumed was the mouth full of mints he was chomping on as he stiff stepped across the hangar floor.The owner upon spying Larry, told him that a call had come in from the International Airport Helipad. Five executives from Shell Oil had arrived earlier than expected and Larry would need to get in the Long Ranger that had been rolled outside and fly the Shell execs back to our hangar.

I shared a nervous look with one of the other junior pilots as Larry stepped out the door and without preflight or further ado got in the Long Ranger. The owner caught me shaking my head and gave me the eyebrows raised look.

“What”? he said.

“You know what, better than I do, Ted”, I responded

I was angry and the owner knew it. I walked back to the helicopter I had been cleaning and I listened to the Long Ranger start up. The start sounded fine and before long the helicopter was at flight idle. Clearance was taking a while and after a couple of minutes I joined the owner and a few others as we peered out the hangar door windows at Larry.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. Larry was clearly keying the microphone and saying something,but he was never going to hear the tower answer. The owner disgustedly turned to the mechanic gawking out the window beside him and barked, “Go get Larry a F#+*ing headset” !

“And you are still going to let him do the flight” I said loud enough for the owner to hear.

I walked out the back door to the parking lot and walked around in circles upset and frustrated. I was angry at myself for not doing something, angry at the owner for his negligence and angry at Larry for risking the lives of people who placed their trust in him.

Larry was a talented pilot who from what I had just determined from the owners actions, could probably fly better drunk than I and the other pilots could sober.

Four years later Larry was dead and if nothing else he served as an example of what I knew I never wanted to be; a tragic waste of talent and a life cut short in its prime. Larry finished his career never hurting anyone except himself.

Posted in Canada travel, Contract helicopter pilot, Flying Stories, helicopter firefighting, Helicopter Pilot, helicopter tours, Random rantings | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments