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

Hydraulic Failures

Flying a helicopter without hydraulic boost can be an event that ranges anywhere from completely normal to life ending.

Fact is that some helicopters fly perfectly well without any hydraulic power to assist control inputs and some helicopters can not fly without them.Sikorsky sums up a total loss of hydraulics in one short sentence. “Flight is not possible”  It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to realize that if you are flying these models of  Sikorsky helicopter at the time of an improbable dual hydraulic failure you are going to have a bad day.

Somewhere in between no hydraulics installed and dual hydraulics where at least one system must be working, are the rest of the helicopters I have flown. Hydraulic systems are needed on most larger helicopters because of the control forces required to move the cyclic , collective and sometimes tail rotor.Pretty dull sounding stuff till you are struggling with a hydraulics off landing on a helicopter that probably should have been certified with dual hydraulics.

I have two rules when it comes to hydraulic failures on single hydraulic boosted helicopters. Number one, is don’t fly beyond your nearest suitable landing site. Some manufacturers list the emergency procedure for a hydraulic failure as land as soon as practical or practicable. My thought is don’t do it. Land. You don’t know what the problem is exactly. Land where you will not create a hazard to persons and or property and apologize later if you have to. You will at least be alive to apologize or defend your actions.

As instructors we teach hydraulic off emergency procedures and frankly some helicopters are very controllable without hydraulic boost. We can pick them up to a hover and maneuver around without hydraulics. Easy. The problem here is that, to a pilot new to the aircraft and possibly new to flying,  he or she may walk away thinking that since the helicopter is easily controlled without hydraulics then losing hydraulics is no big deal.

That is wrong in my opinion.To all of you that questioned lifting off with hydraulics off in the scenario previously mentioned , good for you.I have had several FAA or FAA designated check airmen ask me to do that with a helicopter on a check ride. OK, but what emergency are we simulating ? My point here is that when we demonstrate hydraulic off emergency procedures we should also inform the student of the many secondary things that could be happening with the aircraft. If you have been flying helicopters for a few years and/or you are particularly well informed you can probably name several things that can appear as hydraulic failures and yet be something else or vice versa.  Hydraulic failures can be  mechanical, electrical,hydraulic and unknown. Most hydraulic systems are direct drive pumps. Hydraulic fluid in most helicopters has a relatively low flash point. The list goes on and on.

I prefer to land as soon as possible, every time. Would I fly past an empty football field to the airport a mile further. Maybe, but that is risk management and a P.I.C. ‘s lonely decision.

Rule number two for me is that I will not fly a single hydraulic powered helicopter that has any kind of secondary short term hydraulic boost system. When I see a back up surge tank or similar installed, the hair on the back of my neck goes up. Hydraulic systems of this nature are designed to provide enough back up hydraulic pressure to allow the helicopter to be landed after the primary hydraulic system has failed. Sometimes this secondary boost tank or system is to assist the main controls and sometimes to assist the tail rotor or both.

Either way, the manufacturer has cut corners by not installing a full redundant hydraulic system and recognizes that flight is possible without hydraulics but not advisable, or worse. Worse in that in a couple of models I have flown the lack of hydraulic boost makes the tail rotor pitch control “not possible ”

Some single hydraulic systems will lose their back up pressure just when you need them most . Do a run on landing in that case,as the manufacturer recommends or specifies as an emergency procedure. About 60 % of my time is spent where no place exists to make a run on landing anywhere.A run on landing where no place to run on and a hydraulic system that is about to become useless is a bad scenario. I’ll take that second fully redundant system now. Shame on you manufacturers and those that approved the helicopter to be certified without dual hydraulic systems when you knew that your decision may result in an accident.

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I was talking to a new friend the other day about my job as a firefighting helicopter pilot. He asked me if the Erickson Air Crane that I flew was the largest fire fighting helicopter in the world. It is not. The best fire fighting helicopter in the world, but not the largest.The Chinook is a bit larger than the Air Crane and the Russian Mil 26 is about as big as both of them put together.

My friend asked about fixed wing water bombers. He wondered if the Canadair CL 415 was the largest water bomber. It is not. It is the best fixed wing water bomber in the world but not the largest.The Russians have some large water bombers naturally and the old Martin Mars is still a sight to behold. There are 747 ‘s and a DC-10 converted for water bombing as well.

Size is not everything when it comes to water bombing aircraft. A combination of water carrying capability, maneuverability and reliability are the more important than just an ability to carry a lot of water or retardant.

Some photos of the aircraft I mentioned  are shown below.

1193569901033877690The Mil 26.

chinookThe Chinook

The Canadair CL 415

cl415iluyshin-ii-76td Ilyushin-II-76TD Water Bomber

scale-with-keithThe Martin Mars(with me by the wheel)

1129042133033877690Big is not always better. Just ask my Italian copilot Luca with one of Italy’s best fuel truck drivers backing him up.

Posted in Contract helicopter pilot, helicopter firefighting, Helicopter Pilot, Random rantings, U.S. Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Rules


Military trained helicopter pilots spend most of their careers flying with another military trained pilot sitting beside them. In the commercial civilian world where two pilots are not required by law, a second pilot is seldom used. Most commercial operators would never attempt to sell customers on the idea that a second trained person in the cockpit improves safety. That argument would have to extend through most of their fleet and if that operators competitor is using a single pilot to operate the same aircraft, the difference in cost to the customer would be a tough sell.

I have flown two pilot operations in VFR helicopters requiring only one pilot. Some customers prefer two pilots up front in VFR conditions but usually only when hauling the companies VIP’s. The rest of the company personnel doesn’t rate the extra expense perhaps or simply someone back in risk assessment at the customers HQ is doing what they think best? CYA.

As far as I am aware, the United States is the only country that allows single pilot IFR while carrying passengers. The United States aviation regulators prefer to notch up the safety aspects of flight in proportion to the type of passengers carried. In other words if you work for a company that has its own helicopters then you could be flown in a helicopter that does not meet the criteria for public passenger carriage. Your own company can cut some corners, in other words. If you are a civil service employee in a state or county owned helicopter there is no telling what you may be flying in.

I am not blowing any whistles here and I won’t bore you more than I already have with the various Federal Aviation Regulations.

The bottom line is that for commercial  helicopter operators in the United States to operate a passenger carrying service where passengers are flown for charter flights from point A to B the rules governing those flights are the most stringent and the aircraft used must meet a high standard.

I’ll give some examples to illustrate. The same flights will be flown with four different aircraft with the same passengers on the same mission.

The  Governor and his entourage  arrive in New Orleans to view the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. They are briefed by the crew chief of the military UH-60 and will be flown over New Orleans. The crew is made up of two pilots and a crew chief. The senior pilot has a total of 739 hours in helicopters of which 325 are in the BlackHawk UH-60 and his copilot has 340 hours in helicopters of which 117 are in the UH-60. There is a problem on start up and the flight is scrubbed.

Fortunately there is a commercial version of the UH-60 sitting on the ramp. It is operated by Big Guy Helicopters and the Governor and his group climb into this BlackHawk known as a Sikorsky S-70. Unfortunately this BlackHawk is not certificated for passenger carriage. Well neither was the military version, so what?

The operator is a commercial passenger carrying operation but his BlackHawk which is operated as restricted category helicopter, cannot carry passengers. Simple solution. The government agency that has contracted the S-70 has a waiver that allows them to carry personnel at their discretion. So, no, Big Guy does not meet the criteria to carry passengers as set out by the FAA, but the U.S.D.I. says its ok to fly the Governor. The Governor doesn’t like the looks of the Big Guy pilots so he asks if one of the military pilots could fly with the Big Guy Captain as a copilot.

No, the military pilot does not have a commercial helicopter pilots license, is not a Big Guy employee and additionally does not have enough helicopter time and experience to be flying on a U.S.D.I. government contract as a pilot in command. He was a Captain in the UH-60 and yet he does not meet the minimum standard of experience to fly for the government carrying the same folks?

The Governor says he wants a different helicopter then. OK, he is the Governor. The State owned and operated Bell Huey shows up. It is the same Huey the Governor has flown in previously and he feels much better. The Huey is an old restricted category Bell Uh-1H that has been modified with components from other Bell products and as such is not a helicopter that the manufacturer Bell, has ever built. In the eyes of the FAA this is not a helicopter that could ever be certificated for commercial passenger carriage. The State operates this helicopter as a public service helicopter. The pilot, ( there is only one) is not regulated or checked by the FAA as far as his credentials and experience are concerned. The helicopter, since it is not a helicopter in the eyes of the manufacturer and the FAA, has no specific requirements for maintenance, tracking of parts or almost any over sight by the FAA as far as how it is maintained. The pilot, if  he is in fact a licensed commercial helicopter pilot, will have to fly in accordance to FAA rules regarding airspace and other flight criteria. That is about all that the FAA requires of him.


The Governor and his group head off in the Huey, which had it been a Huey operated by a commercial operator, would not likely have been allowed to even fly over a built up area like New Orleans. That same commercially operated Huey would never be allowed to carry passengers, unless they were employees of that same company but certainly never flown as a passenger helicopter carrying people from one airport to another and especially over a city!

The State owned Huey lands back at the international airport and the Governor decides he wants to take the Mayor for a flight as well. The State owned Huey needs some fuel but on the ramp sits an S-61 owned by a commercial operator under contract to the same U.S.D.I. (the United States Department of Interior). It is a nice looking helicopter and the Governor likes the look of it and so he gets it for his next flight. This Sikorsky is operated as a passenger carrying helicopter recognized by the manufacturer to meet the standard of the type. Everything about this helicopter is as Sikorsky says it should be. It is maintained in accordance to Sikorsky’s strict standards of maintenance, the parts are all tracked and accounted for as they should be, and the FAA oversight on the maintenance of this aircraft is tight. It is a passenger aircraft for hire. It is very important that this aircraft be operated correctly to ensure the safety of its passengers. The pilots are inspected by the FAA or their designate and must meet a higher standard of knowledge and performance. This aircraft and its crew are held to a standard that the other operators of the helicopters previously mentioned may in fact meet or exceed but who is to know. Certainly the passengers don’t have a clue. Who is then looking out for the safety and best interests of those passengers?

The commercially operated S-61 and its crew have briefed their passengers and are about to start engines.but the crew chief standing outside notices that a strobe light that should be flashing on the tail is not flashing. The pilots check the light switches and for some reason the strobe still won’t work. After checking the aircraft minimum equipment list it is found that strobe light is not on the list for items that can be not working and the aircraft still operated. That condition will hopefully be amended, but for now the S-61 is grounded for its non working  light.

The Governor is not happy but fortunately his Huey is now fueled and ready to go. Its strobe light is working but it has a non working auxiliary fuel gauge and as busy as they have been lately is about 25 hours past when a maintenance inspection would normally be done. The helicopter flew in safely so it can probably fly out safely as well, right?

The Governor mumbles something about these private companies needing to get their shit together as he climbs into his almost, sort of a Huey but not and takes off over the city.

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From Hot to Cold

Hot air blew on the backs of my legs as I flew my Bell 47 G3B-1 back to the airport that early morning. At 05:30 the hot air seeping into the cabin had been tolerable but now with the morning sun beating in the big bubble it was hot, too hot!


I landed at our base and shut down after the 5 minute “cool down”. It was the engine and turbo charger that were cooling. I was sitting sweating with my helmet off and my head in the rotor wash hanging out the door. The mechanic was busy positioning the fuel truck and pumping some toxic mixture of Baygon and I can’t remember what in my spray tanks. The mission was to apply a mist of death over the areas where adult mosquitoes were sucking the life blood out of the local residents. I flew in the early morning to minimize the amount of people I sprayed in the public parks and golf courses around the city of Edmonton Alberta. I still managed to spray a lot of people and for that I am sorry. For those of you I sprayed as you played golf, jogged or hiked, perhaps you could  take some consolation in the fact that I got more of the chemical on me than any of you will in ten lifetimes. I am at this point physically as healthy as can be expected and mentally sound enough to realize that Edmonton was a good place to leave.

The mechanic and I discussed my little over heating problem and with the permanent smirk he always wore around me,  proceeded to unfasten the heater hose that was plumbed into the cockpit. Our working relationship had gone  down hill over the summer and I would have to say that he was one of the few mechanic/engineers that I have not got along with in my career.If there are others of you out there and you are now shouting, “Oh Yeah,” keep it to yourself  and let me enjoy the allusion of being well liked and respected or at least tolerated.

I gave the mechanic’s work a cursory glance and then asked for reassurance that his tied off hose repair was not his best effort, just a temporary “fix” right?  The question was unnecessary, I was being a prick and would soon pay for my snide remark.

My next spray site was a ravine close by the airport. I pulled power rolling in more throttle as I climbed off the airport . Lowering the collective I dropped into the ravine and boomed on, spraying down the ravine. As I lowered the collective I correspondingly rolled the throttle back to maintain and not overspeed the R.P.M.  At the end of the ravine where a  little dry creek sometimes flowed to the river I boomed off and made a cyclic turn trading airspeed for altitude and reversed course up into the ravine. I boomed on again and pulled collective power while rolling in more throttle. Something was wrong with my throttle. I could not get any more throttle to roll in and and the climbing ravine meant I was losing R.P.M. fast. I  boomed off, did a quick cyclic climb with right pedal and went down the ravine skimming the tree tops while trying to force the throttle open some more. The throttle sprung back against my palm and I knew that I had all the throttle I was going to get and a whole lot less than that, if I loosened my grip.

Popping out the end of the ravine at the river felt good for a second but there was no suitable place to land. I could keep enough throttle held in for straight and level flight so I elected to bring the airspeed back to a best rate of climb speed and see if I could climb.I could climb just a little and so with that, I started a slow climb out of the river bottom and up to the altitude the airport was at. I called the airport and asked for a straight in to the base without delay.

The tower could tell from my request that all was not right in my world and asked if I had an emergency I wished to declare. I did but I didn’t and that was another mistake to add to the list. Fortunately for me, my run on landing back at the base simply resulted in my buddy the mechanic asking me if that was the best I could do for a landing?

The conversation went down hill rapidly from that remark. The heater hose had fallen in behind the throttle arm when I had reduced the throttle position and it was obvious the tie off on the heater hose had not held. The mechanic had been rushed into a “bush” repair and we both had known better.  In looking back I can see a whole series of  mistakes and bad decision making on my part.

It was a learning opportunity for the both of us and I am just as much to blame for what happened as the mechanic. In fact as the senior person on the job, I take most of the blame for letting an unsatisfactory working relationship degrade my professional standards and to allow a problem to go unresolved.We both learned a lesson or two.

The mechanic went on to become one of the companies best and I went on.

Posted in Contract helicopter pilot, Flying Stories, Helicopter Pilot | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Can Do

One of my first bosses in the helicopter business was a can do kind of guy, but only in the sense that he never turned down a job. That left those of us that worked for him to figure out how we were actually going to accomplish the work. When I look back on some of the flying jobs he got me involved in I can’t decide who was crazier, him or I.

The first frost flying job he sent me on was typical of the work he accepted. The customer was unknown to us and we had only a general idea of where his farm was. I headed off with darkness fast approaching and not enough fuel to reach the farm. My fuel truck, according to my boss would be parked in a field outside a town that neither I nor the truck driver had ever been to before. I can’t recall if the truck driver ever found the right spot but I never found the fuel truck which left me with a little problem. I had enough fuel to make it to a place that I eventually got fuel. I am going to have to take the 5th amendment on just how I managed that little feat. A couple of hours later after fueling I was on my way, and guided by the flashing lights of the farmers tractor, managed to land right side up in his pasture. My bubble window as almost entirely fogged over inside and after connecting the heater hose and rewiring the sad little fans I was ready to fly. It was all in a days/nights work.

I told the boss a few days later when another last minute mission came up that I wanted good directions this time to my destination.

“It will be easy” he said. “The place is out on its own. The only cabin on the only road north of this little town that is in the middle of nowhere. Easy.”

The owner had told us where he hid the key and I was to land, (again, with not much fuel left) and bunk in for the night. The fuel truck driver would be out at first light and we would get the flying done and be heading home before the wind came up in the morning. It was raining at the time but forecast for early morning clearing.


I flew off in the rain and approaching darkness getting to the cabin with not much fuel left, which was good for the work we would be doing but was still a source of anxiety until I actually spotted the cabin. My joy was short lived. The cabin’s roof had apparently collapsed after last winters snow storms. I needn’t worry about finding the key. I would be sleeping in the rain on the front seat of my helicopter. Shit!

It wasn’t more than a week later when another flying job of similar nature came up. “Another roofless cabin, in the middle of F*%*#n’  nowhere?” I asked.

The boss had anticipated my whining and with that in mind would be positioning a truck at the remote site earlier that afternoon.

“Put a couple of jerry cans of fuel in the truck for me, just in case.”  I added.

The work we were doing was brush spraying and getting to the job light on fuel meant we could carry more  in our spray tanks. The jerry cans were there just in case the piece of crap truck wouldn’t start. At least I would have fuel to fly into the Motel I would be staying at that night. I arrived at dusk and was relieved to see the truck parked as promised. My fuel was on minimums but that was ideal for the next morning, besides I had some spare fuel in the truck.

There turned out to be no jerry cans of fuel in the truck. I looked around the area but no cans were hidden anywhere.

Oh, well no problem as long as the truck started. The truck would never start. As my boss said later,

“I got a ride from your truck all the way over to my Motel, it was hours later when I realized I still had the keys to your truck in my pocket. Sorry about that.” he laughed.

For some reason, I continued to work for the guy. Maybe just to see what else he would come up with. The greenhouse spray white-washing job was a classic. I did it and it went as expected. Nothing but common sense and logic would have prevented us from ever trying to paint greenhouses with a spray helicopter. One hours flying and about 30 hours of scrubbing later  convinced me to start looking for another job.

I was sent out to spray a cattle feed lot to kill the fly swarms. No amount of protesting could dissuade the boss from the advance money he had taken to do the job. If you have never seen a stampede in a shit filled feedlot with several hundred cattle running wildly back and forth than you just have not lived. Two passes and I left before the cattle got hurt. I landed with my fly spray mixture back at the base shut down quickly, jumped in my pick up and got outta town before the posse arrived. If nothing else I had managed to learn that move from my boss.

The more I write, the more I remember, and some of the notations in my old logbooks still make me laugh hard reading them 30 years later. Those will be stories for later blogs.

Posted in Contract helicopter pilot, Flying Stories, Helicopter Pilot | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Could be good


When you fly your own family members around you take special care to make sure that they have a positive experience. I don’t really know how many times I have flown my children in a helicopter. My oldest boy Adam, who most people know as Jonathan, is a Chef living with his family In Tokyo. Adam flew with me on many occasions and was always interested and relaxed when we flew together.
Adam’s younger brother Ben was not so relaxed. When my other children were asking for steeper turns or more radical maneuvers Ben’s voice could be heard above the others shouting


I knew Ben would never be a pilot and that is fine. I am a believer in doing what you have a passion for and the rest will follow. Ben’s little brother Colin always enjoyed flying with me and if anything ever happened on a flight that bothered him he never mentioned it to anybody. Colin was always the first one to climb a cliff when were out in the mountains and he seemed to be comfortable with heights, to the extent that we often had to have Colin in the back when we hiked on mountain trails.

Laura is the youngest and having three older brothers who played sports and enjoyed the outdoors was just the family she grew up in. Laura turned out to be the biggest jock in the family, actually. She played all the sports the boys did, including hockey, and then went on to become one of the top ranked women water polo players in the nation.


The water polo fell by the wayside and Laura has, as many younger people do, been seeking a life that makes sense for her. She has the same spirit she has always had and I guess it only took me by surprise for a second when she told me that she was interested in becoming a helicopter pilot.
Why not I thought? Sure its a male dominated occupation, but I know quite a few capable female helicopter pilots. The fact that their gender has made them have to work that bit harder to establish themselves is not really in dispute. Female pilots that earned their positions through hard work and demonstrated ability have almost unanimously earned the respect of their peers. If Laura investigates the career a bit more with my help and decides that flying helicopters is the job for her then I have no doubt she will do what it takes to be successful.
We will get started with some preliminary investigations and see where that takes us. If any of my blog followers have any input it would be appreciated. My views tend to be a bit biased when it comes to flying helicopters and wishing my children all the best in what ever career they have or will pursue.

Posted in Flying Stories, Friends and Family, Helicopter Pilot, U.S. Travel | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments