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

The Shot

I have taken a lot of aerial photographs from helicopters. My photographs, which would number in the thousands, have produced maybe a dozen or so decent photographs. I am not discouraged. I have flown dozens of photographers and cameramen, doing everything from stills, to videos and movies in any number of scenarios and I have seen how difficult it is to get a shot or footage that compares to what my minds eye has seen.

If the experts take thousands of shots and hours of footage to get that one shot, or that 30 seconds of usable footage, I can be happy with the few  photos that I have gleaned. As a pilot, my best skill in flying for film and photography is my ability to listen. If you clearly understand the objective and what the person behind the camera wants, you will be well on your way to success. Its a given that you can fly the helicopter and that you won’t compromise safety for the sake of the shot, but your biggest skill is more social than tactile.

For everything to go smoothly the photographer and you have to share a connection.You need to be supportive and helpful but remain in control of your side of the house. When the flying is finished and the shot is better than anyone had hoped its bliss. More times than enough the opposite occurs and that’s when you need to quietly pull back and analyze the situation. If you are doing all that is asked but you know the conditions are not optimum speak up. If the problems are beyond your control and the inference is that you are not flying the way they want, relax. Let that situation sort its self out. A true professional will see things for what they are. Tuck your ego away and wait.

It may be the company I have kept, but I am truly surprised when a film crew shows up with people unsuitable for the job and equipped with cameras that will NEVER get the shots they are looking for. When that unhappy situation transpires I just sit back knowing that I am in for a very long day. If the money is good I’ll do my best to provide the service.

When you work with professionals and a bond of mutual respect has formed you can feel free to speak your mind. When you work with amateurs you need to be careful. Careful not to let them first do something stupid, and secondly, as long as the flying is safe and the checks are good, let them learn. It is their nickel and unless your council is called for, be quiet.

I may get some argument on this previous  point and that is fine. If you have the ability to suggest something without losing the flying then go for it. Its still amazes me how many thousands of dollars I have seen wasted by people who were afraid to; fly with the door off, sit out in a harness, maneuver around for a shot, call it when conditions were clearly unsuitable, use or rent the correct equipment and hire anyone who was not related to, or had skills that may have made for an interesting evening, but that were worse than useless on the job.

The bottom line for all photographic flights for me is this. If I can do the work safely and the customer’s money is good as far as I or my employer is concerned then I’ll just do my job to the best of my ability. When your flying results in something special, you can feel good and when it doesn’t you can laugh to yourself and look at your own shots and think , “my photos turned out better”. Keep smiling, it is hopefully a long career.


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Frosty Reception

Most helicopters are not permitted flight into known icing conditions. I have iced up on occasion and in a couple of those instances, I got to find out just how fast a rotor blade can become a very ineffective airfoil and lifting device.

Those events will be blogs for another time. The icing I am talking about here is frost and more particularly frost damage to crops. Frost flying, as its known to helicopter pilots, is an after dark and early morning mission. The flying can be mundane, tedious and very fatiguing. For some pilots, it has been both terrifying and career/life ending, but mostly its repetitive back and forth over a crop in the dark.

It is all dull stuff, till something goes wrong. What can and does usually go wrong happens less than a 100 feet off the ground  in the dark over a surface not usually suitable for a safe landing.

Frost flying utilizes the warmer air above the cold surface air and the helicopters rotor system drives the warmer air down onto the orchard fruit,or tomatoes,strawberries or even tobacco. Pick a crop, they are all susceptible to frost damage during their growth cycle. Orchard crops such as citrus or pears, apples are damaged when they mature in the Fall or late winter in the case of citrus. Other crops like tomatoes and strawberries are damaged in the early growth stages which are either spring or winter respectively.

The pilots job remains the same, no matter what time of  year. Keep the frost from forming on the crop. In most cases the temperature that the crop gets down to is not as critical as the actual frost which combines with the early morning sun to “burn” the crop. The pilots job is to keep that warmer air flowing and frost from sticking.

If the inversion layer over the field is low enough to be usable and the helicopters can get enough air down to be helpful, crops can be saved. If the weather is a windy cold air mass, crops will be lost from the freezing temperatures only. There is little that can be done to help, when temperatures get and stay below freezing for extended periods of time. When an orange freezes as hard as a billiard ball it is done as an eating orange.

Many farms use  helicopters not just to prevent frost damage but to demonstrate to the crop insurance people that everything was done that could have  been done. Now pay up!

Something to consider as a small helicopter operator is whether you want to even get involved, in flying of this nature. Yes, there are hazards; flying into fields you have not previously “reconned” is a stupid risk to take in the dark. There are a lot of other things to go wrong as well. A tired pilot can make a mistake at 03:00. Wires and wind machines get impacted. Any mechanical malfunction such as a generator failure from running all those extra lights can get interesting when the world goes from light to barely visible.

I have had hydraulic failures, smoke disorientation and a couple of friends have hit wires at night while frost flying. Remember that altitude is your friend when transitioning from one field to another.

The other hazard is getting paid. If you have flown three nights in a row and your customer/farm owes you for 18 hours of flying you had better be sure that they are going to pay. Getting deposits up front  and working with reputable ag. companies will help. However, a farm that did not carry crop insurance and was gambling that they  would either not need you, or that your work would be their salvation, may not want to pay after watching a million dollars of crop get plowed under.

If you make a contract to show up and you have a mechanical problem that places your helicopter on the ground on the last night of the frost and your customer loses the crop? What are your chances of getting the money for the nights you did fly? Not good, I’d say! Show up with a bill for several thousand dollars a day after you’re no show, caused the farm to lose thousands more and you are likely to see a more frosty reception than the crop had to endure.

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Helping Out


The helicopter I fly is the best initial attack  firefighting  helicopter in the world. I have flown at least 46 other models of  helicopters and yes, there are several other good helicopters out there but none better.

My point is not to promote the Erickson Air Crane, our customers from all over the world do that for us. What I want to say is that wildfire firefighting is very much a group effort and no single asset by ground or air works nearly as well as the combined efforts of the many people and equipment that go into fighting a fire.

I have put out several fires with the S-64 but that was only my personal assessment. A fire, as anyone who has ever put out a campfire knows, is only out when the embers are wet and cold. It is impossible to determine from my vantage point if a fire is truly out and I have never turned down an offer of help on any fire I ever worked. I never will.

There are things that we all wish to be remembered for and believe me, you don’t want to be remembered as the guy who said, “we have it handled , or its out” when a restart burns up somebodies home or property. That is a ground assessment only.

Speaking of ground troops. If I were to write a general formula for the best initial attack firefighting combination it would include the following. A fast preloaded fixed wing to get on the fire to make a retardant drop and a report. The two helicopters are on their way. Two, yes, because as good as we are at targeting the fire with our helitanker, a second bucket equipped helicopter with a good Helitac crew is invaluable. Trained well equipped personnel on the ground, especially in areas inaccessible by road is important. The helicopter that brings in the crew should be equipped with a bucket. Now, I know that tank equipped helicopters are the flavor of the day and I’ll take some criticism for my opinion but I stand fast. Until they make a tank that is as light weight as a bucket and can get into every water site, then a long line and a bucket are the answer. The Helitac crew carrying helicopter needs to be moving men and equipment and if it is working with only limited water carrying capacity anyway, it will simply get into the closest water sources, which may be a place a tanked helicopter should never go. There is nothing new here.

One last thought on ground crew and equipment. We use a lot of hand labor to cut fire line and I understand that topography and tree density necessitate that fact. A D-10 bulldozer will cut a pretty impressive line that a hundred ground crew couldn’t match in a lifetime but there must be equipment that could get on the fire line sooner than it currently does. Our S-64  can  and do lift some pretty large earth movers into remote areas. It seems that when conditions would warrant their use even a bobcat slung in would do a lot of good. I have slung a lot of equipment in on fires over the years. All terrain quads, pumps, hoses, gators but never anything to help cut fire line. Like I said It wouldn’t work in all cases but with a medium to large sized Helitac helicopter it could certainly sling in something to help when the fire has, or is in the transition from initial start to possibly getting larger.

Its not just about water and the amount we lay down on the fire. There are often ground fuels and certain oily type bushes that relight like a gag birthday candle no matter how much water you put down. Ground crews and soil smothering in wet soil is the most and sometimes only way to extinguish that type of fuel. Just some food for thought here .

Bottom line to all this initial attack firefighting is that the faster you can get as many effective assets as possible to the scene the better your chances are of getting a wild fire stopped. No single ground or air asset is the answer. We are all a team ,just helping out.

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Surviving Seismic Contracts

He maybe had about 2 more hours and then he would likely start to die. It was 20 minutes past official dark and the next nearest other rescue vehicle was a Honda quad about 6 miles away. We had a man out on the grid with a broke down quad who was lost, could not find a pin flag to tell us where he was and about a minute ago his radio began beeping rather than transmitting. A dead radio meant that he couldn’t tell us now when he had found a pin flag .The pin flag number would tell us exactly where he was on the grid.Darkness combined with 20 mile per hour winds and blowing snow wasn’t going to make my job of finding him any easier. I declined the offer of taking along a spotter to help look. I didn’t want to add to the body count. I am not being overly dramatic either. It was less than a quarter mile visibility in blowing snow and rapidly getting darker. The flight would be very low level to give any hope of finding the man with my pissy little search light. As many of you know,  running any lights into blowing snow will screw up what little night vision you have and add to that steeply climbing and descending  jagged terrain and it was not going to be easy. Thankfully there were no wires in the area and no trees over 25 feet in height. This was high desert country and the temp would be dropping to about minus 20 tonight.


The young man that was lost was new to his assigned job as a trouble shooter. I had my doubts about how well he could read a map also. He sure as hell had no cold weather experience. He was part of a crew we had inherited from Mississippi and the first couple of days I had asked the Mississippi crew if anybody spoke Spanish?

That got a lot of laughs and comments that I could not understand. ” Spanish, now how cum you askin’ that? ” one of the men said.

“Well, because with you guys laughing and talking your Mississippi Ebonics I can’t hardly understand a word your saying to me ” ,I answered.

More laughs and more comments but other than my name I had no idea what they said back to me, but apparently it was all pretty funny stuff.

Tonight, nobody was laughing as I headed over to my helicopter to find Junior. Some body called out to me from the Mississippi crew. “Don’t you go worrying about Junior, he too fat to freeze”. A bit of nervous laughter followed and I answered that I would be back in a few minutes with the lost boy.

That was about all it took too. I was darned happy to be landing beside Junior. He was happy  to be on board, laughing and telling me what had  happened,most of which I of course couldn’t understand. Talking fast,laughing and coughing he looked at me through blood shot eyes that told more than the words I couldn’t make out.

“You owe me a drink Junior”,I said. ” Hell, I’ll buy you a whole damn bottle, Keith”

” I heard that” I laughed as I came in for a landing. “I heard that !”

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I really like this city

Melbourne ,Victoria,Australia. I have been here twice this year and didn’t really expect to be here at all.I really feel at home in Melbourne.My very first flying job in Australia was based here at the Essendon Airport and I can really appreciate my good fortune now.It was 1999 and as fate would have it I would be ringing in the new millennium in Melbourne.

How to describe Melbourne? Well, its like Seattle,Vancouver and the quainter parts of Victoria B.C. but with a busier,transient,office worker extremely outgoing, friendly feel. I had a day off today from the depressing, mind crippling fires in the area. I headed downtown ,because, despite my aversion to crowds and the sensory overload I needed to be alone but not lonely.This is the perfect town to do that in. I fast walked the streets. You have no choice. There is only one speed to walk here and that is fast. Not frantic fast like most big cities but break free fast like the joggers who zip past sweaty tee shirts slapped over their executive frames. Office workers  quick step off to the parks, coffee shops,bistros,restaurants and side alley pubs.People are happy here. Tourists are gee whizzing the place and not even bothering to be half sly doing it. I walk with my camera pointed in front of me. Snap, snap and folks with big smiles for my shots. Shopkeepers ask me where I am from and then seeing my Erickson Firefighting logo on my shirt, spend minutes thanking me for our efforts on the fires. A dozen people in different shops and everyone has a story.

I talk to people who have lost loved ones in the fires around Melbourne. I can only say that I am sorry, but they won’t let me. No, you have helped, they tell me. I can’t say what I want to say. There are things that I know about living through fires that so many people should have known. I’ll write about it soon,but for now I can only tell people that I am so sorry for their loss.

Its a fact that country folks are independent ,self reliant, good neighbors. I really feel bad for the towns around Melbourne that were so hard hit. The towns will rebuild. Houses can be rebuilt to higher codes to withstand a possible firestorm but from what I have seen, nothing could have  saved the homes from some of these fires. People could still have lived, especially anyone with a patch of ground and a couple of days to prepare a shelter.

I really like this city of Melbourne and the towns around here. This fire event didn’t have to be this bad and I feel all the worse for knowing that fact.

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Jugheads are often regarded poorly by the helicopter pilots that work with them on seismic jobs. That is too bad, but I understand how the low opinion can be formed.When somebody does something that threatens to end your life you tend to react negatively. Jughead is defined in the Urban dictionary as follows:

A Juggie is a doodlebugger — someone who works on a seismograph crew (oil exploration). The term “Juggie” or “Jughead” has been used since the late 1940s in the United States. A Juggie may work on a portable (helicopter) crew, a land crew or marine crew.

Flying seismic for a few years, I got to meet a lot of juggies.In the 70’s and 80’s before the oil exploration business collapsed most juggies were North Americanos and hailed from places like Anchorage, Kemmerer,Alpine, Oklahoma, Houma, Mineral Wells,Victoria, Calgary,Houston,Denver and every where in between. In the 90’s and in to the 21st century the juggies were Mexicans and Central or South Americanos.

The hard working, hard drinking ,stoners of the early years were replaced by harder working  poorer paid  Spanish speaking laborers who drank little, ate less and suffered in silence lest the border patrol visit the job site and arrest almost all of them.
Exploitation of humans in the U.S.A. or just history repeating itself? I don’t care to debate the issue.
Fact is, that almost every ethnic group has taken its turn working itself up from the basement of the outhouse, in this land of great opportunity. Those ethnic groups haven’t asked you to pity their lowly initial status. The men I worked with from Mexico, Central and South America were very happy to have the job and yes they knew they were not getting a fair deal. But they sure as hell knew that what ever the deal,it was far better than what they had left behind thousands of miles south.
I had a few of them try to kill me, but for the most part it was ignorance and a failure on my part to understand just how little they comprehended about what we were doing. Men who fear for the loss of their job will tell you in two languages that they understood your safety briefing and then go out and do something so colossally stupid and dangerous that you can barely react quickly enough to save them, yourself and the rest of the passengers.
One of several examples to come:
Moving men around in steep mountainous scrub brush country meant that you often had several toe in landings to perform.A toe in landing is a balancing act that places the forward part of the helicopter skids on a steep hillside or rock outcrop. The standard rule is that all entries and exits from the helicopter are done slowly to allow the pilot to adjust for the shifting center of gravity as he or she holds the helicopter in its tenuous position.
On this particular seismic job I had removed all the doors from the helicopter. This accomplished several things. It allowed easier ingress and egress , eliminated people  forgetting to close (latch) the doors properly,prevented the doors being slammed,handles torn off, windows grabbed and broken, doors flying open in flight and almost completely eliminated me having to remind people to fasten their seat belts. Nobody wants to fall out the open door at 7000 feet. That is a long way to scream. It didn’t prevent people forgetting to latch their seat belts back up so that they often flapped outside against the paint of the fuselage as I cursed over the radio and returned to toe in again to have the offending belt secured.
On this memorable day I had been picking up  crews off some steep mountainsides in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. It was all rocky ledge pick ups where I could just get enough of the skids on to keep me clear of hillside brush and rock. My first two people had been together and for some  reason had both climbed in the back seat after loading their packs in the rear baggage compartment. I yelled at them to take the outside seats so that the middle back seat was empty and  would also block my third passenger from attempting to get in the back seat.
What I had not considered was that the crew boss was occupying the seat directly behind me and not in his usual ,better more privileged, front seat. Landing a little further up the mountain on a very tight rock outcrop my third passenger,a stocky,muscular kid from Chiapas, upon seeing the bosses seat open, went quickly back down the skids to “his’ backseat. Everyone was shouting,”Nooo!”  There was of course no place for him ,which didn’t matter at this point because we were so far aft of my balance point that we were leaving backwards a lot faster than we had arrived. I was going backwards pulling power and hoping that my friend from Chiapas was ideally going to pull himself up to the front seat , get in somewhere, or at the very least not fall off.
I had about 4,000′ behind and below me to figure my problem out and with three bug eyed rear seat passengers staring back at me, I made a rapidly descending right pedal turn to a long run on landing on a bit of straight dirt road with my cyclic almost against the forward stop.We changed the seating arrangement and laughed all the way back to staging. That much adrenaline can get you laughing giddily or chucking your tortillas. Laughing worked out better.
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The attack rabbit

I was talking to another company pilot about some ideas our company may have about acquiring some S-61 helicopters.I enjoy flying the S-61 and it would supplement some of the work we do with our S-64’s.
The company has operated both helicopter types previously and we have several of us who have experience in this type  of helicopter and a number of mechanics that do as well.
An S-61 and CH 54B,similar too an S-64F that I flew for another employer
I began telling the other company pilot about the last job I had flown in the S-61. We had flown the S-61 from Oregon to the very top of North America. Alert is the most Northerly inhabited place in the World.

Alert sits at the top of the map


North of Alert is the North Pole. Alaska is a thousand miles south west. The flying in that part of the Arctic can be challenging  for weather and logistics. Fuel caches are spread around the Arctic Islands and some of the fuel, while questionable as to its vintage, might be a better choice than several days spent waiting for help and hoping that a Polar Bear doesn’t decide to eat you.
One fuel cache we landed at one Spring day with the S-61 had about a dozen Arctic Hares running around doing what rabbits do when they are not eating. The males get very aggressive and I remember one male ran up to the helicopter,pissed near the tire and then hopped over to me and challenged me to a boxing match.
The other company pilot hearing this story, had to call bull shit at that point and I said, no, true story. I am sure these hares had never even seen humans before and for all the rabbit knew, I was going to try and get some where with one of his ladies. He was just defending his harem.
I wish I had got a photo of the event but at least I managed to find some video from another source.
Not quite as dangerous as the killer rabbit of Monty Python fame but almost as amusing.

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A most unforgettable man

Back in 2005 I flew on Katrina relief for several weeks. I had the great fortune to meet some wonderful people. I wrote a blog about Katrina afterward and although there were a hundred interesting events and people that I met, no one left a more lasting impression than Frank “Blackie” Campo.
We are going back to New Orleans in March and I will see my daughter and some of those people from my time after Katrina but I’ll never see Blackie again. He died this summer and I, and the thousands of people who were lucky enough to meet him, will never forget him.
A multiple award winning film about the Katrina aftermath features a segment about Blackie and Mabel.

If you have not read my”Remembering Katrina” blog you may want to read it first before you look at the Youtube video, but either way ,I am sure you’ll see Blackie and know that you are seeing a person, that you too, wish you had met.

Remembering Katrina

In the last days of August 2005 a local firebug was keeping me busy in the evenings after my regular work day had ended. Paula and I were sitting down to a late night supper, checking the news to see “you know who” fly on the latest fire, when the initial Katrina weather alerts began to filter in. I was up at two a.m. watching the news on the night Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. When I returned to bed I said to Paula, “This is going to be bad.”

Although Louisiana has more helicopters than any other state it looked like they were going to need a few hundred more, from somewhere. I know Washington State is a long way away from Louisiana and I knew there was no National Disaster Plan that actually coordinated efforts but we had to get involved. I called the Federal Government’s Interagency Centre in Boise Idaho, the response was that no contractual agreement existed that would allow any of the more than 300 aircraft they held under contract from private operators to respond at this time. Useless. Our call came at about 2 p.m. the next day. The F.B.I. needed a helicopter in New Orleans and they needed it there in 24 hours. How and why the F.B.I. was calling a helicopter company almost 2000 miles away is another story in itself, but we quickly got the helicopter ready at the hangar. With my gear packed, a “see you sometime” kiss to Paula, I was on my way by 4 p.m. with about 2 hours of light and 1850 miles to do in 21 hours.

At 10 p.m. flight service in Salt Lake advised me the lightning I was seeing was a fast moving front, which forced me to divert and land for a few hours in Burley, Idaho. By 3 a.m. I was back in the air, but behind schedule. The next day was fly, fly, fuel, eat snacks Paula packed, fly, and fly. I began to get a better picture of things as I got closer. The F.B.I told me there would be a trailer and shower when I got there. Sure, I know B.S. when I hear it, the F.B.I is no different. I found myself under direction to fly to Baton Rouge instead of New Orleans, and had to explain that “No, I will not be ready to fly when I get there at what looks will be 9 p.m.” I had been up for 17 hours, napped for 3 and had another 18 hour day just to get there. We agreed to meet the next morning at 8 a.m. I had been calling ahead searching small towns for rooms as I flew and finally found one. The airport manager was barbequeing at home when he heard me fly in at about 9 p.m. The manager delivered me to the Motel, handing me about 4 lbs. of barbequed pork, beef ribs and beans. God bless my fellow aviators.

I could talk about my flying exploits in the New Orleans area on Katrina disaster relief. There are, as you can imagine some good stories. But I want to tell you about some people I met. A lot has been said about the people who survived Katrina. People behaving badly make news. Families sticking together and helping each other through devastating personal and financial loss is not sensational news. Just humans at their best.

The good news was that I got to the Emergency Response Center in Baton Rouge before President Bush arrived. His helicopter was going to be landing next to mine very soon. Bad news was that the FBI wanted me to fly them out right away and the airspace was now closed. “Its called a Presidential TFR” I told the agents, “and busting it would be akin to a White House over flight and may result in death, disgrace, at the very least a revocation of my license and I suspect about 30 days in the electric chair.” After several calls on the part of the FBI and a very detailed call to the FAA emergency help desk by me, we were granted special permission to leave in the next 5 minutes. I checked my transponder code about 3 times as we flew towards New Orleans. Nervous? You bet. We made it through the first day in New Orleans.


Back that evening in Baton Rouge at the Emergency response center I watched dozens of helicopters coming and going The media was camped out everywhere, police, military and my buddies from the FBI and secret service. No trailer, no shower, no food but I was still way better off than most of the folks I had seen that day, so no complaints either. One of the FBI folks, a New Orleans resident (now homeless) told me that he had a cousin living here in Baton Rouge and that his cousin may be able to put me up. He would call him for me. The call went like this,

“No Dusty he is not an agent, not a criminal and no he is not currently charged with any crimes. All his previous charges were dropped for lack of any living witnesses”. This seemed funny to who ever Dusty was and I was invited to come over to their home that night. Thank You.

David and Dusty Snyder were waiting for us when we arrived at their suburban Baton Rouge home that evening. After introductions on the front porch I moved my gear into their house and apparently one of their daughters bedrooms. The pink my little pony decorative theme was a hint to the little girls age. I was not the only guest. There was Davids sister from New Orleans and his Uncle Frank and Aunt Mabel from St Bernards Parish.

“Have you eaten?” was Mabels first question. I had, in fact. Least I could do was buy my buddy from the FBI dinner. When we sat down at the table it was quiet but friendly. It seemed that about ten family members were unaccounted for after the storm. In this part of the country literally everyone knows each other or are related and their whereabouts are usually known.

“The phones and cell phones don’t work in New Orleans now” I said. “Have you flown over most of the area and in particular St. Bernards Parish?” they asked.

“Yes,I have.”

“Do you know where Shell Beach is?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And how does it look?” Everyone was staring at me. How do you tell somebody that there is no Shell Beach anymore. Not a stick of wood. Not a wrecked car. Not a boat. Nothing you could recognize as anything. Water and floating debris. A greasy oil sheen where you lived for how long did you say? 87 years? I toldl them what I saw and then took a big drink of my water. Mabel looked at the table, “Anyone want some more tea?” she asked, walking to the fridge. Nobody spoke for a bit and then Uncle Frank said,

“Well,I knew it would be bad. We’ll get by, always have.

“Is there land showing in places?” It was the sisters turn to ask.

“Yes, it was those places we landed today.”

“What about animals, were there dogs? I had to leave my dog behind,” she almost started crying.

“There were more dogs than I had ever seen wandering around.” I said. Thinking back on the day, I had been fortunate to run into friends and fellow pilots at the International Airport in New Orleans, they stocked me up on food and snacks from their supplies. I handed it all out to the dogs that day. Every where we landed, hungry dogs. No cats. I walked around the back of a house situated close to a levy on a piece of higher ground. A little island of green grass in a wasteland of submerged houses and businesses in a mostly commercial district. Whoa! A horse in my face. I don’t know who was more startled, but I made the louder noise. How far and through what had that horse swam to find the only food and dry ground around for miles. Survival. Nice horse, I hope he lived.

After supper everyone went off to bed early. Depressions escape. Sleep. David sat and talked to Uncle Frank and myself. I mostly listened. Uncle Frank was known to most as “Blackie” Campo and he and his family had come to Louisiana via the Canary Islands. There had been Campos in this part of the world since the1800’s. The Campos were outdoorsmen, hunters, fishermen, guides. Blackie owned,(used to) a marina, three houses, dry dock, fishing supplies, bait, fuel and free fishing advice, guiding if you really wanted to catch fish. David had worked summers for Uncle Frank. A great guy to work for, tireless, stronger than any two men. I didn’t doubt it. Uncle Frank had those huge hands you just stared at after he had shook your hand. At 87 he was still an impressive figure, wide shoulders, big arms, a voice like the first two notes on the piano. As it turned out, a voice that could tell some great stories too. Blackie had been one of the first people inducted into the Louisiana Sportsmens Hall of Fame, and David said “that Uncle Frank was still one of the best fishing guides in Louisiana.”

Frankie is what he liked to be called. He said to me, “Yeah, I’ve done some fishing in my life”. Had been the fishing guide to five Presidents. Five letters from five Presidents, thanking him for his work. All those letters and all those photos, memorabilia, memories, locked safely in the trunk of the car, sitting on high ground where it had never flooded through countless previous hurricanes. Gone.

David had gone to bed. Frankie and I were talking. It was late. I would stay up as long as Frankie wanted to talk. Frankie needed the audience and I could listen to his stories all night. A life, full. A day spent fishing with Frankie would have been a great day whether you caught fish or not. Presidents could fish with whomever they wished. I knew why they had gone fishing with Uncle Frank.

Every night at the Snyder’s was an event but I needed to go. I would miss Frankie quizzing me on my days and sometimes night flights and I especially would miss his stories. The last night, Frankie was listing the gear, antiques and memorabilia that they had lost when Mabel came out to the living room.

She looked upset and I thought she was going to tell Frankie to get to bed. She was the boss and Frankie adored her.

“I’ve been listening to your list,” she said “when it hit me that all our financial books are gone too. No record of all those fisherman you carried on the books for months Frankie.” All the bait, fuel, repair bills. These were commercial fisherman. Once large operations with multiple boats, some boats in tact some not. A lot of money owed, no records.

“That’s all right Honey,” Frankie said. “They know us, we know them. They’ll pay their bills when they can.” Mabel didn’t look so convinced. “Good night gentlemen.”

I left the next day.

I never saw the Snyders or Campos again. I call every now and then. “Please cash the check my company sent you David” I had said. David would not take money for my food and lodging when I was leaving. Stubborn. How was Uncle Frank doing? Was there anything to salvage? A little, he said. But guess what Uncle Frankie is doing?

“Fishing, relaxing?” I was joking of course.

No, he bought a fuel truck and he is fueling the commercial fishing boats around the area. I asked him, “well, Uncle Frank, do these guys have any money to pay you for the fuel?” “No,” he said and they won’t have any money till they bring in some fish. Someones got to help”.

The world could use a few more Blackie Campos. I’ll never forget him.

Blackie passed away in 2008 at age 90 and Mabel his wonderful wife died in 2014. She was 93. Great people.

Posted in Random rantings | 3 Comments

Before the Seismic job begins

Seismic exploration for oil seems as cyclical as helicopter logging or mineral exploration flying using airborne magnetometers.I don’t know why these types of flying have so many, (bad pun), ups and downs. Demand,seems the obvious answer, but its not just that and frankly if I was smart enough to understand how that all works, I wouldn’t be flying helicopters. I most certainly wouldn’t have found myself in some of the most remote and inhospitable places in North America hanging out the side of a helicopter staring down a 100 to 200 foot line.
I have spent a good portion of my career hovering with a carousel full of seismic bags or an ATV or a drill or a box of dynamite and looking down the side of a mountain at no place big enough to land a helicopter. About a quarter of my career has been slinging things and probably a quarter of that time has been spent in a portion of the flight envelope that helicopter pilots call dead mans curve.
I mentioned in a previous blog about seismic exploration with helicopters that seismic flying is most often divided into layout and trouble shooting support and/or drill move and drill support.
There is also a good chance that helicopters may have played a part in the seismic operations before the job even began. Aerial magnetometers are flown over the landscape to detect magnetic anomalies under the earths surface. The information from the magnetometers is used to determine if oil reserves or anything else of value such as minerals are present in large enough quantities to warrant further exploration.
Magnetometer flying with a helicopter is a not so much vertical reference work,( long lining) as it may appear. The magnetometer which can often resemble a missile, is flown on a line some distance below the helicopter to get it clear of interference from the helicopter in some cases.

The magnetometer is flown over the area to be surveyed in a grid sequence flying within very tight parameters. The lines to be flown are often duplicated and the pilot needs to fly his or her helicopter and the load below with precision.Typical “lines” are flown with airspeed within 10 kts, altitude within 100′, while maintaining a track over the ground that keeps the helicopter within 20 meters or 60 feet of the desired track. Not so hard over flat ground in light winds. Throw in some very steep mountainous terrain that could exceed the helicopters climb or descent profile,add a gusty cross wind and very uneven terrain and you are working hard to fly the line.Remember any out of trim movement can get the magnetometer swinging even if the helicopter is flown perfectly straight.
Now fly about 100 lines and you have the equivalent of about 200 instrument approaches each day for the degree of concentration required.
The pilot needs to keep a difficult scan going flying a magnetometer. Outside the pilot needs to be aware of all the things a VFR pilot needs to look for and at the same time see and anticipate sharply climbing or descending terrain. Did I mention that the magnetometer is often flown less than 200′ above the terrain. Makes that 100′ parameter more critical now doesn’t it ? The magnetometer may be worth a million bucks and there are seldom spares on the job even if the customer was willing to let you have a crack at running another one into the rock face.
The scan is out and back in on your instruments to stay within the parameters. Very accurate G.P.S. coupled to a light bar keep the aircraft as on line as the pilot can manage. An instrument scan is hard enough to maintain inside on instruments, now break your scan to cast an eye outside to start leading the power and airspeed and you can see that it takes a lot of concentration. I have two pilot friends who have been doing this work steady for 30 plus years and about 20,000 hours each. I have done a few hundred hours of it and to them I say, good on ya !
I realize that this blog was some what technical in nature and lacked personal anecdotes. Sometimes a bit of background is needed. In following blogs when I start telling stories about seismic portable drills, grids, recorders, mags, jugs, shaker trucks,dynamite, drillers,jugheads and trouble shooters etc.. it may be a little easier to follow. Even with all that I may have to post a seismic glossary of terms both technical and slang. Or just give up? I’ll try!

Posted in Flying Stories, Helicopter Pilot, Random rantings | Tagged , , | 1 Comment