Getting Around In Helicopters
On the road again...!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Getting Around in Helicopters
Foresters and other natural resources professionals get around in helicopters more often than most folks. Kind of like a businessman or woman taking a taxi to get to an appointment in a strange city, natural resources specialists frequently rely on rapid, reliable transportation to get to their job sites in remote places where there is no landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft, or even the possibility of landing an airplane there. Helicopters are ideal to meet that need and although they are not always available, it is becoming increasingly clear that in some cases they are indispensible.
Among the hundred or so times that the Footloose Forester has flown in a helicopter, nearly all of them were in places where there were no roads; or in war zones where travel by land was dangerous, slow; or both.
Some of the earliest trips aloft in tiny 2 and 3-place helicopters were to fight forest fires in California during the early 1960s. One had to trust the pilot to know how much weight he could lift; and how high he could fly with his cargo of tools and firefighters. It turned out that weight limits were critical, a lesson Footloose Forester learned early on when a burly pilot asked two of us would-be passengers how much we weighed before he was willing to take off from the Big Hill helipad in the California foothills. So, he asked each of us before he decided.
The Honey Dripper, the handle of a convict from San Quentin who was on work release as part of a fire fighting team of trustees, told the pilot that he went “about one eighty five”; and the Footloose Forester chimed in at 135 pounds. Together with the shovels and fire axes that were strapped to the struts, and with both of us aboard, it was too much as the Bell “bubble cab” copter strained to rise more than 20 feet off the ground. Honey Dripper was asked to get out and was substituted for with a decidedly skinny convict who weighed around 150 pounds. We made it into the air without further straining the engine and were privileged to have magnificent scenery all the way to the landing site on a ridge line near Rockbound Pass, part of the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area.
Later, on one return trip from the same ridge on the Rockbound Pass trail, we unsuspecting firefighters were alarmed to feel ourselves tipping downward into the valley only a second or two after the landing skids were clear of the rock. The pilot purposefully nosed us downward to get more air speed quickly, since the 9200 foot ridge was already at the upper limits of altitude where the helicopter’s lift was minimal.
On another day, and with another pilot, we put down on top of a large rock that put us close to an active fire. Without the helicopter, it would be a hike of several hours through the forest that was so dense that there were no openings to land. Except for a few rock outcrops! That brave pilot put us down on a rock so small that the landing skids, both front and back, extended beyond the rock,
A Bell light observation helicopter, often used in forest fire control
Part of the reverie which features helicopters includes the thrills associated with taking the controls and flying in the foothills above the San Gabriel Range near Fort Ord, California. As a draftee in the US Army, the Footloose Forester had applied for helicopter flight school; and was accepted into the early part of the selection process. Part of the candidate selection process included a test flight to see if he had the demeanor, the dexterity, and the nerves to fly on his own, once given basic instructions by the flight instructor sitting beside him. Part of the testing of nerves also included an auto rotation procedure whereby the Footloose Forester was instructed to take the H-13 Bell 47 copter up to about 10,000 feet, then to turn off the engine. The instructor watched for emotional responses and signs of panic as the now silent bird fluttered down toward earth. It was all part of the check-list for emotional stability. The Footloose Forester passed all the tests but was not selected for flight school because, as a draftee, he already had advanced orders to report elsewhere as part of a scheduled deployment. He would get another chance to take the controls at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; but in the end the order for deployment according to the original plan held sway, and he was off to Germany.
Indeed, most flights in helicopters were in military aircraft during the Viet Nam War. Most were in HU1-B “Hueys” of one description or another. Huey Gunships had one or two M-60 machine guns mounted in the doorways; Huey slicks were designed or assigned to carry cargo, fighting men, or casualties; and Huey MedEvacs were specially painted with large white squares on each side that displayed the red cross of an airborne ambulance. As a civilian who carried travel orders permitting him to fly on any available aircraft, the Footloose Forester logged many dozens of flights in Army and Marine helicopters. Most of the Army birds were Hueys; but the Marines had mostly Ch-47 Chinooks and the Jolly Green Giant HH-3E cargo and troop transport craft that could carry combat teams. Except for the Sky Crane model Ch-54 designed by Sikorsky; and one other model, he flew in most of the helicopter models in the land-based fleet in service during the war.
In would be several years, however, before he flew in the small, fast and relatively new bird designated as the OH-6 Cayuse. At one time he could have included that one, too; while still in Viet Nam but he gave up his seat to another civilian passenger who needed to get back to Saigon from his field assignment at Dong Tam. So Footloose Forester stayed another night with the GIs at Dong Tam.
By the way, Dong Tam was a small riverine combat outpost that was carved out of rice paddies in the Mekong Delta lowlands. As you approached Dong Tam from the air, there was nothing but rice paddies on all sides, save for the narrow river entrance for hovercraft for which the base was probably built. In the dry season Dong Tam resembled an artificial desert of baked soil; an island of dust and sooty haze in the middle of a large expanse of emerald green rice fields. Dong Tam was so small that it didn’t have a runway for fixed-wing aircraft.
Army helicopters were small enough to be able to see out during the flight over jungles and forest land. As a forester who appreciated the distinction between what constituted jungle and what should be called forest, he always appreciated seeing the magnificent high forest regions in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam, what the military guys called II Corps. At times we flew so low that we could see black-clad soldiers on forest paths below, and in the middle of the day. During one flight, at least two squads were clearly visible, but nobody else in the Huey seemed to notice them, or at least nobody showed any reaction.
The Government of Venezuela made a helicopter available to our team of environmentalists for several flights into the Rio Caparo watershed where they were planning to construct a reservoir for generating electric power for the region. One or two people at a time were dropped off up-river to conduct on-site surveys of conditions; to be picked up late in the day at the appointed hour. It was most helpful to see the length of the impacted watershed zone from the air because part of the task we environmental analysts had was to identify residual islands in the main channel where wildlife would become stranded after the rising water behind the proposed dam forced them from their normal habitats. On one of those flights the pilot related a hair-raising story.
During the previous month, he said, he was ferrying heavy equipment upstream, suspended from cables under his copter. At one point a gust of wind caused the suspended load to sway so severely that the copter inverted in flight. The pilot was able to right his ship and still not lose the load. He looked and acted the part of a very confident man.
Another incident occurred during a different flight. Two agrostologists (grass specialists) were planning to spend about three days collecting samples in the upper watershed, and pointed on a map to the place on the river bank where they wanted to be picked up. The Footloose Forester asked them if the river junction we were looking at from the cabin of the helicopter was the place they were referring to on the map. Yes, they said. But the river junction we were looking at was not the place they marked on the map for the pilot. Privately the Footloose Forester cautioned the pilot not to refer to the pencil mark on the map, or else he would be flying up the wrong branch of the river and the environmentalists would be wondering why they were not being picked up.
Back to military helicopters; in El Salvador this time, with military pilots but this time around we were not in a war zone. It was the first time that Footloose Forester rode in the OH-6 Cayuse, the model he missed as a passenger in Viet Nam. This occasion was on request of an official from the Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadaría. The objectives of the trips to the volcanic uplands were to assess land use and vegetation cover in Parque Nacionales los Percoles. When a fast moving fire broke out in the agave understory on the steep slopes of Santa Ana Volcano, the official asked the Footloose Forester to assess how best to combat the range/forest fire. Although the slopes were steep, we landed on the rim of the volcano that was wide enough to use as a staging area for supplies and equipment. The officials declined to do that but they did ask the Footloose Forester to go aloft another time to map out a strategy for reclamation of the land after the fire was out.
The Footloose Forester did not fly on the following day, when disaster struck. More officials wanted to see the fire situation for themselves, so a couple of them were flown to a grassy staging area near the base of Santa Ana Volcano. The shocking story that follows goes something like this: One of the officials didn’t want to be dropped off in the hot sun of the pasture, adjacent to the slopes, so asked the helicopter pilot to drop them off under the shade of an umbrella shaped tree. The pilot complied, but after the passengers deplaned and he prepared to depart alone, his rotor blade clipped one of the branches. Although he was within a few feet of the ground, the helicopter crashed and burned. The pilot died in the flames that were so intense that in the ashes, not a single piece of the wreckage was larger than 15 inches long.
Footloose Forester returned by jeep two days later and made it a priority to visit the crash site. It was hard to believe that nothing, nothing was larger than 15 inches long, regardless of the material from which it was made. He never will understand how metal and glass can be consumed so completely.