Having been in aviation for over thirty years now I’ve made a lot of friends who are pilots and skydivers. I’ve also lost quite a few of them over the years. Flying in Army helicopters, ferrying small single engine aircraft over the ocean, and skydiving are arguably three of the highest risk occupations out there, and I do all three. I try and reduce that wherever I can, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes shit happens, and there is nothing you can do about it. I’ve lost friends for a number of reasons, showing off, not paying attention, getting screwed by air traffic control, maintenance issues, and just plain bad judgment. The last one really applies to almost all of the accidents that have taken my friends, except for the ferry pilot who was given the wrong altimeter setting by ATC, off by 1000 feet at night in horrible weather, and the mid-air collision that took 5 of my skydiving friends. Sometimes, it’s not a bad decision, it’s just bad luck. And I’ve also had friends who should’ve been killed but survived due to amazing good luck. One of those is my good friend Chris.
I met Chris way back in the 80’s when we were tearing around the sky in the US. Army’s premier helicopter of the day the venerable UH-1H Huey. The two of us had a great time in the Huey, which was, and still is, an outstanding helicopter. But it’s still a helicopter and when things go bad they go bad in a hurry. One day Chris and another pilot were cruising over the north woods of Minnesota when a warning light flashed on warning them of impending doom, by the way every warning light on a helicopter means impending doom. The pilot in command, not wanting to be in an aircraft that might soon take on all the flight characteristics of a falling safe, decided to land while he still had some control and performed and immediate auto rotation. With little or no choice of places to land, the pilot aimed for a small clearing in the trees covered in tall grass. It looked like they just might get down safely but when they touched down one of the skids hit a hidden stump causing the Huey to roll over on it’s side with the rotors still turning which tore the helicopter to shreds. When things stopped spinning Chris was trapped in his seat at the bottom of the wreckage and had to be pulled out by the other pilot. Luckily, there was no fire, and the only one hurt was Chris who suffered some shoulder damage because it was his side of the aircraft that took the brunt of the impact. Chris’ injuries were not life threatening but still left him with some permanent loss of mobility in his left arm. Unfortunately the Army likes it’s pilots fully functional and just like that Chris’ Army career was over. Bad luck, getting in a helicopter crash, good luck, surviving said crash, more good luck, no fire, bad luck, losing Army career. He didn’t stay on the ground long though and was soon flying helicopters again, this time as an air ambulance pilot. It wasn’t long before he was testing his luck again. One day he was flying a short distance from a hospital back to the airport after having just dropped off a patient when the plate that holds all of the push pull control tubes for the main rotor broke loose from it’s mount. When that happened Chris lost all means of controlling the helicopter. What followed was the most terrifying two minute ride imaginable. With the controls disconnected the helicopter was completely out of control, climbing and diving in crazy arcs across the sky. At one point the aircraft was pointing straight down at the Mississippi river almost no hope of pulling out in time. At this point Chris got lucky. The whole time the helicopter was out of control Chris continued to move the stick in hopes of regaining some control. Just before impacting the river the broken plate that had been flopping around uselessly suddenly caught on it’s mount and held just long enough for Chris to pull out of the deadly dive. The ride wasn’t over though because the plate slipped off again shortly thereafter. For the next minute and half Chris tried to get the helicopter on the ground with just brief moments of control. Then heading at a set of power lines Chris had one of those brief moments of control and pulled up planning to clear the lines and plant the helicopter down on the road behind them. Unfortunately when he tried to climb over the lines he heard the low rotor speed warning blaring in his headset. He didn’t have the power to clear the lines because unbeknownst to him the flight nurse sitting next to him in the co-pilot’s seat had reached down for something to hang onto during the terrifying ride and had accidentally grabbed the throttle on the collective control lever and rolled off the power bringing the engine to idle. With no power and no airspeed Chris was going to come down hard. But luck hadn’t completely abandoned him because right next to them was a three story office building with a flat roof. With nowhere else to go Chris managed to bank the helicopter over the building and slam down right in the middle. Amazingly the aircraft didn’t suffer any damage from the crash except where Chris kicked in the side door after shutting the engine down and climbing out. Bad luck, good luck, bad luck, good luck.
Chris took a short break from flying after that incident but a pilot’s got to fly and he was soon back in the air. Now he’s looking to change things up a bit by doing some offshore flying out to oil wells in either south America or Africa. I sure hope his luck holds out.