29 October 2009

Learning "The Impossible", Part 1.

Ft. Wolters, TX, FEBRUARY, 1968
You know you're gonna learn to fly one of these things, so you stand and watch them move against the background of blue sky and marvel. There are lots of little buzzing birds up there...
TH-55's, OH-23's, and a few OH-13's, but every once in a great while you hear the rythmic thumping of a Huey or Cobra and your heart quickens as you run outdoors and watch in awe as it flies by at what seems to be twice the speed of the others...

One of these days you may find yourself in THAT cockpit, manipulating those controls.

You're introduced to the machine you'll fly, the Hughes TH-55 "Mattel Messerschmidt".
Man, it's ugly! Kinda looks like half-an-apple with a pencil stuck in the middle of its butt. You learn to preflight the thing and are boggled by the number of little parts you have to check-
because they can, AND DO, break!
Are you really sure you want to do this? Remember, it's not just the machine that can kill you...
They're shooting real bullets where you're gonna go.

In the machine for the first time with your instructor...
In the luck of the draw you've drawn a good one...
a Warrant Officer-Viet Nam Veteran, easygoing and friendly. He doesn't scream like some of the other student's instructors. And unlike some of the other instructors he keeps his hands off the controls so you know the crazy attitudes the machine is assuming are caused by you, not him... making the little bird come perilously close to crashing.

I know regulars here have seen this video but it bears review, because when you first get your hands on the controls of the helicopter you think to yourself-
Yet when he takes the controls to miraculously avoid making contact with Terra Firma the machine stabilizes and remains motionless over one small piece of real estate.
So, he can do it... Will you ever be able to?

A few days later, four hours in your logbook...
He says, "Pick us up and hover over by that brown patch on the ground." You gingerly lift the collective and the nose swings a little more to the right than you would like, but you nudge the cyclic in the direction he indicated and the bird moves (!) at a steady speed and three foot hover to the spot he indicated. You're unhappy 'cause you never quite get the nose pointed in your direction of travel, but he smiles and says "Good for you!", and suddenly you realize...
"I may eventually be able to do this!" Still you know without question... if he was not in the seat next to you and the engine quit, you'd be in a world of hurt.

But from that point on the dual instruction is magic. You get to the point you can hover and keep the machine in one county and initially you wonder, "is this better than sex?" The machine becomes an extension of your body. You lift, turn, move laterally across the ground, and land... all completely under control. Amazing!
You take off with no difficulty. The approach and landing to a spot is more difficult, but eventually you learn the secret... get your ground speed and vertical speed under control early in the approach, and you'll have better control at your intended landing spot.
Your instructor notices.
He points and says "hover and land over there".
He turns to you, smiles and says "Give me three trips around the pattern... normal takeoffs, normal approaches. If things don't look right, go-around and do it again. Radio calls the way we've been doin' 'em. After your third landing, hover over here and pick me up and we'll talk about it. You'll do fine!"
He unplugs his helmet, opens the door, steps out, gives you a "thumbs-up", latches the door, and leaves you feeling as alone as you've felt in your life....


More later.

The instructor I refer to in the post was a guy named James Gilbreath. He was a good guy and a damned good instructor.
I've intended for years to contact him.
Now, poking around, I find
it's too late.
Prepare the way, Jim. I'll express my thanks to ya later.


OlePrairiedog said...

And later as your classmates hurled your sweatsoaked body into the pool you realized, "Crap, It's cold in Texas in February" and "Crap, my wallet is in my GBS (Gray Baggy Suit)". None of that mattered as it still didn't get the grin off your face for the next three days.

Anonymous said...

Whee...what a wondeful post, thank you sir. More please more.


Anonymous said...

Brings back memories. Couldn't have related the challenges of learning how to hover and first solo any better. It took me the state of MO instead of a county to find "the hover button"
John K.

cary said...

Good story.

Condolences about your instructor.

Looking forward to you teaching me the same things...