Oh @%+*&! (Darn!!)
Engine Failure in the Dark
Once, in 1984… just north of a little place called Badger Gap… near Yakima, Washington, I had an engine failure. At night. I got real scared. It is embarrassing to tell you just how scared a man can be and still maintain his bodily functions. But this is my story.
Those of you who have zero interest in flying stories may not want to read this. Just stick this paper in the birdcage-liner or fireplace starter pile of old papers, and move on with yer morning coffee. But for those of you who like a good aviation tale… the story should be very entertaining.
First things first, for all you non pilots. A basic premise of flying is that continued flight in a single engine helicopter becomes impractical without the engine. I have personal knowledge that the flight duration following engine failure is dreadfully short.
So it was that at zero dark-thirty hours, with the world around me as black as the inside of a cow, I blissfully lifted off the hill just above Badger Gap, near Yakima, WA. I was intending to fly around to the firing range with the commander of Headquarters & Headquarters Troop (HHT), 3/5 Cavalry and land at his field headquarters. Sparing you a lot of detail, he and I had recently had a major disagreement, and had agreed not to fly together again.
True to the Army form for consistency, on this particular morning, 19 October 1984, that commander came out of the darkness and climbed into my aircraft as my passenger… again. Less than 24 hours since our… well, agreement… we were to become partners in our struggle for life and death. We were, after all, still professionals. And like pouting children, he said nothing and I said very little.
Now, I had cranked the aircraft early because I wanted to warm it up for the passenger. I had expected the morning to be cold. It had been running for about 30 minutes. I was confident it was running well. We pulled off the hill, if I remember correctly, at about 0430 hours. That is, in the very early, very dark AM. After take-off, we gained a bit of altitude and just cleared the hill tops when I noticed the torque meter vibrating oddly. I understood the gravity of it. I began an immediate left bank to return to the hill-top. Then the torque meter suddenly went to zero. Barring a miracle, this meant we were about to land, one way or the other.
I distinctly remember that needle hitting the little peg at the bottom of the torque meter… it was an eerie observation. I remember thinking… “OH God… I DON’T wanna be here…”, and I thought I had an out of body experience watching myself being so very scared. (This is not so funny to anyone who experiences it, I can tell you…) It was like watching a very scary movie… but knowing “You Were There”.
I leveled the aircraft and pushed down hard on the collective to begin our sudden descent. The lowering of the collective was specifically to preserve rotor RPM for the safe landing on the ground. I made with the John Wayne broadcast… “MAYDAY… MAYDAY… MAYDAY…”, and gave my call sign. I discovered later that the radio monitor back at the unit did not understand a word I said…
I had heard somewhere that it gets awful quiet when the engine in a helicopter stops. But that is not true. There was so much rotor and wind noise, in fact, that I had no feeling the engine was out except for the darn, very bright, “Engine OUT” light in the middle of the dash… and the torque meter set to eternal “zero”. My cross-check of the remaining instruments showed no life in the power plant.
Only years of training enabled me to put down my collective. I was almost too dang scared to lower it because I would descend into the blackness, and there were HILLS down there. The kind that go bump in the night. In the end, I was too dang scared NOT to lower it because, since I was fairly certain the engine was out, the main rotor would not keep turning if I did not put it down. This was to be my very first iteration of “night-hawk” (i.e., blacker ‘n the inside of a well-digger’s… well… whatever it is a well-digger has…) autorotation operations… and it HAD to keep turning…
As I pressed the collective all the way to the floor, I yelled “Engine Out!!!” for the benefit of my copilot, and we sank like a stone into that black valley. It got ALL my copilot’s attention.
“What the…???”, he yelled.
Oh, did I mention that there was not much love lost between us? We never used the intercom… we were too scared. We just yelled. I noticed the throttle on the collective moving of its own free will, and I suddenly realized the copilot was testing the collective on HIS side of the aircraft to see if I had somehow rolled it off. In fact, he nearly sprained his wrist trying to move it, my grip was so tight. I suppose he had to do it. But for a second, it made me mad to have him doubt me pilot skills.
I heard once that during a night landing emergency, especially without an engine, if you turn on the landing light and don’t like what you see, well, turn the dang thing off. That is sort of what happened. Butthe light reflected directly into our wide open and terrified eyeballsfrom the chin bubble… and we were instantly blind for a moment. I yelled for my copilot to turn it off. He did.
The trick in any autorotation is to trade airspeed for lift… so your airspeed is slow and your descent is slow at the time you touch down. I began my deceleration when I felt I was supposed to, but I did it firmly, so steeply and so suddenly thatit startledmy copilot.
So, there we were. I was scared. He was scared. I held the deceleration until the little black things (brush) on the ground got big enough to see, sort of.
I leveled the aircraft and applied the collective… I pulled it smoothly but firmly all the way up until I hit the stops. I remember feeling the aircraft shudder badly as the rotor speed slowed… indicating very low rotor RPM. I instinctively gave it a second tug at the stops… scared to death that somehow the ground was just not THERE yet… my mind racing through all the vanishing options… when we hit.
We hit hard. My copilot and I grunted heavily… like you do in a football hit. I was sure the aircraft was damaged… but I did NOT care. My copilot lowered the collective, which I had held frozen at its highest point. I believe I wasn’t just scared. I was paralyzed.
My mind felt broiled when I heard his voice on the radio… calmly telling the world we were OK… and all I wanted to do was scream… “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN WE ARE OK? WE WILL NEVER BE OK! NEVER!!!” But I held it back in my throat because I was too busy being cool. Cool is the instinct of aviators. It is the denial of reality. It is the absolute last thing you abandon before visible panic. It allows you to function in some manner until the emergency is terminated, for good or evil. But I was quivering, for cryin’ out loud. I wanted to pee… I wanted to cry. Pilots are cool… and I tried so very hard to be cool, too. But my stress was so great… I just did not know how to manage it.
I stumbled out of the aircraft and wrote something obscene in the log book. I could hardly read it later. But I noted that there was an unusually high engine temperature since the engine was not running. That note would mean something later.
I tried to maintain control of my senses. I decided to leave the aircraft and take all the critical stuff. I removed a meal, and my operators manual, since they were hard to get. It was 70 degrees out and I was shaking, cold. I suddenly realized I had left my pistol, my gas mask, my survival radio and equipment, the aircraft key and all other REALLY important stuff… stuff which I might be court-martialed for or which I might have to pay for… unsecured. And it occurred to me that my brain was really fried. After my meal, I retrieved my stuff and walked uphill about 500 yards to my tent, where I remained the day.
Alone. Without any company. I baked in that tent through the heat of the day for more than 8 hours… worrying about so many things. I stewed over my day. How badly had we damaged the aircraft? Was it my fault… that is, did I miss something on the pre-flight? Did I land it properly? Did I screw up a procedure? I could not remember that I had taken a fuel sample the night before, and had to go back to the take-off area and confirm it. Heck… maybe I DID roll off that throttle… and my copilot would never let me rest.
Then disaster. During the mid-afternoon, I heard my aircraft start up and heard it run awhile from idle to full rpm and back to idle for over an hour. Then it flew away.
“I’m cooked.” I could not believe that it happened. It was a nightmare unfolding… I even ran to the edge of the hill to look down and see if I had mistaken another aircraft for my own… but as it flew off, I watched my career evaporate. I had screwed up, and someone else just flew it away.
An hour later, a lone jeep pulled up.
“The Commander wants to see you.” A grimy, field-dusty sergeant announced my summons wearily, it making no difference to him if I lived or died. I dutifully climbed in, and he drove me for over an hour to the place I had intended to fly in minutes that morning.
I jumped out of the jeep at the tent where there were two dozen pilots gathered for a meeting. I was sure it was to be an inquisition. Then my maintenance pilot walked up and stuck out his hand to me.
“Way to go Dan.” I was ready to deck him… this clown was always the funny man… and he thought I was kidding…
“NO, no, Dan… really. Great job.” I took his hand, barely containing the frustration and confusion I felt, unable to speak. I swallowed hard and could not spit. I wanted to know, but was afraid he was still fooling with me. He went on.
“Ah… it was nothing… I ran it up, and while I was trying to tinker with it, the crew chief figured out it was a loose pressure line and the engine died.”
“Yeah. Really. Remember that write up about the 200°(EGT… engine temperature)?”
“Well, YOU wrote it up… that gave me the idea maybe you still had a fire (the engine was still running at less than idle speed).”
“What?” I could not hear him, or at least understand him. I could not see him because my eyes were full of tears, and I was still trying real hard to be cool.
“Really. He touched the fuel governor… and it quit. The connector, factory torqued, was loose. That’s all.”
“Yeah. Ya oughta be gettin’ a Broken Wing for that… the Brigade Commander is really glad you didn’t break it...) (The Broken Wing is a cosmic Army award given, usually, for saving an Army aircraft).
“…anyway, the Commander says it is a shoe-in.”
“Kingsley… snap out of it. Earth to Dan… Come in, Dan…” He pretended to slap me on the cheeks.
“Vint… damn it…”
Vint cracked a huge smile and put his arm around my shoulders.
“Dan, sit down a bit… you look terrible…”. He laughed the laugh of a happy friend. I could tell he was not looking too closely at me… it was too embarrassing to see emotions this close. He was glad I had made it.
“Vint… I thought maybe I had done something…”
“Who told you that? We briefed the Brigade Commander this morning. It is OK. Yer a hero.”
One by one, all the pilots did the “homage thing”, and dutifully shook my hand. And two weeks later, I did get that Broken Wing, in front of a zillion pilots gathered in the time-honored tradition of the “aviator gawk”… or “let us all gather ‘round and envy him…”.
As I stood in front of that assembly, no one knew how cowardly I felt. Or how scared I had been. Or how unworthy. But I knew the truth. Vint, he knew the truth as he tried to laugh with me after the accident. A few others at that assembly, they knew it too. If I had crashed and rolled down that hill, my fault or not, I would have been poor… poor… DUMB Dan, not the hero. One little moment of good luck breathed new life in my career. But many of those guys bought the brave, bold, competent aviator image. Many still do.
There is a little private secret among Army Aviators. A Broken Wing is not an Army medal. It is awarded by the US Army Safety Center with a certificate that says yer a heck of a man… A Broken Wing is very special to all Army Aviators because it implies great skill. It is an unofficial award for safely bringing it home in spite of the odds… and you are allowed to pin that tiny medal to the back of your cap. It is a nearly invisible, nearly unnoticeable token of the monster aviator ego. But every soldier with wings on his chest can tell you who around his unit has one. If anyone does.
I know better than to fall for that old ego stuff. Life is just sweeter now. Air tastes better. I am just a man, and I do what I can. I am not a hero, but a lucky imposter. And I know now that whatever I do, if I can feel good about myself, it is enough.
But I have been retired 20 years, and I still wear the damn pin on the back of my cap. Can’t help myself.
About the author
There is nothing like letting it out; clearing the air; baring your soul; sharing your inner feelings. You have done all of those things and I'll bet you feel better about it. Thank you for a gripping tale. All the while I remember my own experience in auto rotation, so there was hair standing erect at the back of my neck.