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.

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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

We just got hit

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.

Posted in Contract helicopter pilot, Flying Stories, helicopter firefighting, Helicopter Pilot, World Travel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments