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Wild Grass 6

by BobCurby 

Posted: 02 June 2010
Word Count: 2299
Summary: Whilst carrying out my job as a pilot to the geologists of a mining company I nearly crashed in a ravine.....

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Wild Grass
Chapter 6


People sometimes ask me, "What's it like to fly a helicopter?"

My reply is usually something like "Well, do you drive?....yes? O.K. - well it's like this - I'm sure you've experienced driving on ice? Now try to imagine doing so in a 4-wheel drive, backwards at full throttle - in the pitch dark....Now you should be getting close!"
Usually that explanation does one of two things - either they look at me as I am 'off my trolley' or, they are aghast; no-one ever imagines just how difficult it is to fly a wingless bubble suspended on a rotating blade! A friend of mine asked what the tail rotor's for. Well, that's a valid question, for which there is a long technical explanation and a short simple one. I go for the simple one.

"Rotor on the left of the tail - Speed it up, the chopper turns left, slow it down, it turns right - O.K.? It's the other way round if the rotor's on the right of the tail - got that?"
I'd like to take you back to the 60's to the spell in my life when I learned to fly - but let's skip the first year with fixed wing and instructor; we'll start with the helicopter.
42 solo flying hours in a Piper Tri-Pacer and my employers considered I was ready for the chop. Oops, I mean chopper. It was a Hughes, a small helicopter from the U.S. (well it was a U.S. Company). I was told I had to be up to speed and get enough solo hours to qualify for the Augusta Bell jet powered helicopter, before the end of the month.

It was a proud day for the family when I was handed the keys to the AB and told to be ready for dawn, who I foolishly hoped would be a gorgeous blonde.
Dawn, on a wintry June morning, saw me in the pilot's seat. I went through the pre-flight checks, several times, then I started the left hand jet engine and watched it come up to speed on the dial. For ten minutes I ran on left only, charging the bank of batteries on board. Then I started the right engine, which spins the opposite way to its partner; both turbines exhaust from the same after-burner neatly placed below the big 4-bladed main rotor.

Ten minutes later 6 men with trolleys came out onto the apron - the geological survey team. They stowed their gear and climbed aboard.
"Strap yourselves in boys, we go in 1 minute." I laughed as I said that, it just seemed funny at the time. I made all the right noises at the company control tower and got clearance to take off. I didn't need to involve national air-traffic control until we got near a flight path - and there were only 4 of them in the country at the time.
That day we were going deep into the Northern Territory, not quite as remote and unfriendly as its Australian namesake, but nevertheless just as lonely. The company had an idea that rich mineral deposits could be found close to the surface of the rocky outcrops forced up by the grinding plates of the Great Rift Valley.

Our brief was to do seismic tests, take bore samples and use ultrasound to seek out seams below ground. Well that was the team's brief, mine was to safely get them there and back. I nearly failed to hold up my side of the bargain.
I got them there alright, the 3 hour flight was un-eventful, and I set down in a clearing near a waterfall and sparkling lake, crystal clear in the early morning sun. I wish that digital cameras, like we have today, had been around then; I'd have some stunning photos to remember that day by.
Returning them safely in the late afternoon was not to be so easy.

One of the many materials a jet engine prefers not to have in its huge mouth, is a large bird. Sadly, the fish eagle we hit didn't know that. We lost the left engine, which meant the right engine lost balance with the rotor and would have whined out of control, hitting 25,000 rpm before exploding - yeah just like the movies - if I hadn't disengaged the rotor. On most helicopters the rotor is so well balanced that it will keep rotating even if the engines have stopped, providing the gear-train is dis-engaged to prevent engine braking. I tried to re-start the left engine. It would spin up but just wouldn't fire up. All the time we were losing altitude, 6,000, 5,800, 5,600 as the rotors began to lose rotation.

We were going down - into dense jungle with deep ravines. At 1,000 feet the left engine decided it was time to spit the remaining bit of Fish Eagle out at the tail rotor and follow it with a burst of flames that almost reached the same spot. The tail rotor was only idling, there was no control in it and trying to steer had little effect. We were gently dropping down like a sycamore seed, albeit only the rotors were going round, that is, until the roasted bird hit the tail rotor, which then stopped and we began to slowly rotate with the main rotor.

“Hang on guys; we’re going to get a little dizzy….”
“Are we going to crash?” One of the geologists asked, clutching his crutch, the last part of his anatomy he needed to worry about.
“I’m afraid it rather looks that way.”
I began calling the international emergency frequencies using the MAYDAY call-sign and giving our position.
At 300 feet the left engine started and began to rise in speed, I fired the right engine and watched it climb in speed; at 5,000 RPM I could engage the gearbox train to the rotors. I watched as the left reached 3,500 and the right was close behind, 4,000, 4,500 and it was then we hit the tree. A large Acacia about 60 feet tall and about 200 feet up the side of a ravine poked its green head at our flat green belly.

The impact tipped the AB sideways and for a brief second I saw the jagged rocks of the ravine. I knew we would not survive a fall. I took a chance and engaged the rotors and opened the throttles fully.
For what seemed an eternity, the big helicopter shuddered and floundered, I looked back at the wide-eyed and very scared but quiet men in the seats behind me.
“Close your eyes and, if you believe in God, pray.” I said as I waited for the inevitable, the death plunge, followed by an explosion and a sensation of floating before blackness. At least that’s how I wanted to go. I knew it would be more like searing heat as the choking aviation fuel ignited round me, then several crushing bounces off jagged rocks, stripping flesh off my arms and legs, before finally hitting the ground and lying unable to move while cobras bit me and wild pigs gnawed on my feet before I finally died in extreme agony partly from blood loss and partly from the venom of the cobras.

They all closed their eyes and one man produced a large cross on a rosary. I knew that praying would only serve to comfort them and keep their minds off the crash.
The engines reached 9,000 RPM and the rotors were pulling hard, we went sideways towards the steep side of the ravine. I used the level-up process on the rotor and felt the huge body righting itself and then, almost as if on a spring, it shot up out of the ravine, pieces of acacia trailing from the undercarriage.
“Yahoo!” One of the men shouted, partly in relief, partly in joy.

“Don’t get too excited, we aren’t completely out of trouble. Can you feel the chopper shaking? Well that’s because the engines are out of synchronization because of that bird strike. I have to keep the engine speed down where the rotors are only just functional. We will make progress, but, we could still end up going down.”
“Shit, you are some pilot, and you’re just a kid, how long have you flown helicopters?”
“Long enough.” Well how could I tell them I had never flown the AB before that day?

“Well, I’m going to tell the bosses you need a medal or something after that!”
“No, let’s all just be thankful that that engine started when it did, if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be having any sort of conversation right now.”
“Yes, but you kept trying, you never lost your cool, someone else would have just panicked and accepted the crash, I think you did a special job back there.”
“I would rather that nothing more than my report goes beyond this cabin, I am not a hero.”
He went to speak again but I raised my hand as I had heard someone calling on the radio.
It was an air traffic controller who, having heard the MAYDAY, was calling hope that someone was still alive and the radio was intact. I returned his call, explained what the problem had been and asked for escort assistance in case we went down again.

We maintained a low altitude and were only flying at about 80 knots, which afforded the men great opportunities to take pictures of many beautiful geographical features we passed over, not to mention the animals we saw. After about thirty minutes of flying I saw a blip on the radar screen and then a call came over the radio through my headphones. The emergency support service had despatched an air ambulance to escort us back home. The pilot called and made himself known and I explained our situation. He expressed his concern and suggested we go down, land, shut down engines and then restart. I declined in view of the difficulty in getting the left engine to restart. I explained that I felt our problem was due to damage to the intake compressor vanes in the engine after the bird strike.

His on-board technician seemed to agree and so we soldiered on. The shuddering was severe enough to make metal objects clink as they lay alongside each other and one of the team’s cases slowly began turning around as if under its own power.
“Joe, grab that case before it skates off somewhere,” one of the team called out.
A tall well built bearded man in his forties, unbuckled and stood up to grab the case. Just at that very second the left engine decided to hesitate for the briefest of moments causing a sudden surge in vibration and throwing the man off balance. He fell heavily onto the instrument case and then slid with it into the back of the empty co-pilot’s chair alongside me.

“What’s happened?” I called as I tried to maintain stability in spite of the vibration.
“Joe fell when that vibration hit, I think he’s hurt.”
“Can you get to him without falling down yourself?”
“I think so, I’ll crawl instead of standing up.” The speaker was Andy, a much younger man, who I had learned earlier was the expert in chemical analysis. He undid his belt and crawled on all fours to where his team-mate lay.
“Joe, Joe, can you hear me?”
There was no sound from the big man.
“Joe! – look, he seems to be unconscious. Shouldn’t we get him medical help?”
“Well, of course, yes, but we can’t go down, we may not start again. That other helicopter there has paramedics on board and when we land they’ll attend to him.”
“Well, call them, land and get him fixed up, quick!”
“Look out of the window and tell me what you see.”
Andy looked out of the window alongside his seat.
“I see grass and some lakes or rivers.”
“That’s the Mpopwe swamp, 1,000 square miles of black mud with ten inches of water sitting on top, the grass you see is the area where the water is only just on the surface. Where do you suggest we land a 4 ton helicopter on mud six feet deep and soft as summer butter?”

He chose not to respond, knowing full well it was not a viable prospect. I could have also told him that we may not lift off again even if we found a patch of firm ground. I called the other pilot and advised him we had an injured man on board. He acknowledged and advised that we could land in a few miles, but again I declined. According to my charts and radio compass, we only had 15 minutes to our base. I advised him of that and asked for them to call ahead for an ambulance pick up. I was surprised and pleased when he called back and told me it was their job to take anyone to hospital and they would be pleased to do so. I passed the information back to the team and they were happy to know their friend and colleague would be taken care of.

In spite of my protests, my actions were reported fully right back to the United States and I was flown to Seattle in style to be given a dinner in my honour, all of which thoroughly embarrassed me and I wanted nothing more than to just carry on with my job. Helicopters are fun machines, dangerous and yet much safer generally than any fixed wing aircraft, I always make time to fly if given the chance, but that first day in the big Augusta Bell will dwell in my memory forever.

FA©T ©2010 Steve Goodings

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 20:03 on 05 June 2010  Report this post
Well, well, another very dramatic story very well told. Not much to say really, save 'well done!' I much enjoyed the read.


BobCurby at 22:45 on 06 June 2010  Report this post
thanks for you comments - I am glad you enjoyed that. I have another chapter on the go and will upload in due course.


BobCurby at 23:27 on 24 June 2010  Report this post
I spotted two typos - editing.
Then - Wild Grass 7 will appear...

Riff Raff at 19:05 on 25 June 2010  Report this post
I really enjoyed this and could relate to it. My husband was a rigger before a career switch. During a cricket match last Sunday, a Kite flew up from the trees directly beneath a helicopter. Andy shouted, 'Oh no,' and starting running. His team thought he'd lost his mind.

...told to be ready for dawn, who I foolishly hoped would be a gorgeous blonde.
Ha! Loved this. Very funny.

“Hang on guys; we’re going to get a little dizzy….”
“Are we going to crash?” One of the geologists asked, clutching his crutch, the last part of his anatomy he needed to worry about.
“I’m afraid it rather looks that way.”

You are very good at dialogue and I'd like to see more of this in your work.

Vivid writing. What a life you've led!


BobCurby at 01:03 on 26 June 2010  Report this post
Sadly Fiona I have... my wife used to be convinced once upon a time that each day as I left for work, I would not return! Not that I'd have left her, but that I'd be lying in hospital or dead!

As a child I was a cross between that sweet little 'angel' DENNIS and the little boy Kevin from HOME ALONE. I couldn't leave anything alone and I just HAD to try a button, knob or switch - you know what I mean!?

I was known to be 'accident prone' - not careless, just NOSEY and always in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could never sit still, always had to be doing something.

My anecdotal memoirs are not chronological, but they are themed so that similar types of occurrence are adjacent. I have other helicopter tales - well there would be wouldn't there....??

Watch this space!

BobCurby at 22:42 on 06 July 2010  Report this post
Wild Grass 7 almost completed.
Should be done in the next 24 hours.

Richard Brown at 09:57 on 07 July 2010  Report this post
Bring it on!


BobCurby at 23:53 on 13 July 2010  Report this post
I would like to upload Wild Grass 7 - but I have been so active in other groups that I use up my upload allowance, I have just uploaded Wild Boar to the Fiction Challenge Group, so I'll have to wait a few days....

It'll be here, soon - and it's more funny than dramatic.

Richard Brown at 09:54 on 14 July 2010  Report this post
OK. You have been busy!


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