05 April 2010

A Tough Business

He sought me out. Why?
Because I was the most experienced pilot there? Because I looked approachable? I never asked him. Now I'll never know why.

Every two years I find myself in Torrance California at the Robinson Helicopter Company's "Safety Course". It's a chance for me to kill several birds with one stone-
-I renew my Flight Instructor Certificate.
-I get to take the factory tour and see how they are building the helicopter and if anything has changed.
-I meet with old friends at the factory.
-I make new friends at the course and learn what's going on in the industry.
It's always interesting, educational, and fun.

It was my second time to attend the course... 1985.
He walked up during the first coffee break and introduced himself, then stuck pretty close to me at every break for the rest of the class. He had just added his commercial pilot rating to the Airframe and Powerplant license already in his pocket. When he finished the course he was going to Peru to join a crew on a "Tuna Boat" where he would fly an R22 helicopter searching for the fish, then twist wrenches on it when the day's flying was done...

Hard work. Long hours. Extended periods away from home. But if he and the crew were successful he would reap great rewards... he'd be paid a percentage of the proceeds, and the proceeds would be substantial.

He picked my brain all through the course and when we parted he promised to stay in touch.
And he did. He'd be out on the boat three months or so, then he'd take a 30 day break. When he got home he'd call and tell me stories about the outings. He was making great money and when he had enough savings, intended to start his own business. Let's understate matters by saying he was "highly motivated".

On "The Boats" he graduated to a bigger helicopter... an MD 500, the same "Scout" helicopter I followed around in Viet Nam when we were doing reconnaissance missions.

In 1993 he called-
"I've bought a 500 I'm gonna rebuild and I'm passing through your area. Will you be home?"
I met him at our little airport and took him and his friend to our local motel to get a room, then Sara Jean and I took them out to eat. The next morning I took them back to the airport and saw them off. It seemed to me his dreams were all coming true.

Still, he called with updates now and then. He had started a business darting animals with tranquilizers, then transporting them to alternate locations with nets slung beneath the helicopter. He gave me the website address for the business where I saw he now owned at least two MD 500's. I was impressed.

A while later I was poking around on a helicopter forum and saw "Fatal helicopter crash in Utah... an MD 500".
My heart sank. I investigated. It was him.

The Olympics were to be held in Salt Lake City in 2002. There was a problem West of the city on a stretch of Interstate 80...
Moose were crossing the highway and cars were colliding with them. He was hired to move the moose to a safer location.

You can review the concluding accident report here.
(Note the date of the accident... sad.)
They had just finished lunch. He landed and disembarked his son to coordinate from the ground. Ceilings and visibility were low. With his "darter" and a representative from Wildlife Resources aboard he took off and ran into powerlines 108 feet above a frozen lake. The helicopter broke through the ice, then bobbed to the surface. The son ran to the crash site and tried in vain to rescue the occupants, then watched as the helicopter sank below the surface.

We all lose friends as time passes. I lose more than my fair share and it's painful as Hell sometimes. I'm sure he got comfortable flying in the area and just forgot the powerlines were there.
There's an old saying that's SO true...
"Aviation, like the sea, is unforgiving of mistakes."
I try ALWAYS to remember that.


ddf said...

"Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect."

Greybeard said...

Thanks for that ddf. The exact quote is better than my paraphrasing.

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

I'm sorry, I didn't read the report, but did his helo have a good WSPS system -- ? And/or, would that have made any difference in his situation?


Greybeard said...

Wouldn't have made a diffeence here BZ...
The wires were BIG.