I am no expert on helicopters. I always look up when one goes overhead and watch them hovering over a traffic accident. I wonder about the thump, thump, thump sound and how anyone can fly a machine that requires both hands and both feet working in unison. I have had quite a few rides in helicopters and found them interesting and well suited for many situations. I guess most flights were fun.

Once, while up in the Ocoee River area, my wife, our grown son and I were celebrating his recent graduation from something. Not sure if it was UGA, Medical College, internship or what. But we were driving through that area of Tennessee and I saw a small sign by the edge of a muddy field that said “Helicopter Rides, $20.00”. We did not see a helicopter but there were a couple of cars parked there and there was a fellow with a folding card table, a chair, and a “cash box”. There were also two 2” X 12” wide boards lying on the ground in the mud a few feet away. And, there was a windsock on a pole stuck in the ground nearby.

What we were looking at was a makeshift “airport” or “helipad”. The two boards served as a place for the helicopter to land in the muddy field. The wind sock accounted for all of their “approach, landing and takeoff” equipment. While I was seeing this as a possible adventure, my wife and son had already reached a heightened state of concern about any possibility of a helicopter ride that would originate here. But I pressed on and asked the fellow if we could go for a ride. “Sure”, he said. “They’ll be back from the current tour in a few minutes.” He can only take two at a time and that will be $40.00.” My wife said that was fine with her. She would just sit this out in the car.

In a few minutes a small piston engine driven helicopter came into view and we could hear the familiar thump, thump, thump. As the machine came closer, it looked smaller and smaller! As it sat down on the helipad (two 2” X 12” boards), it suddenly struck me…….this thing looked like it was made from an Erector Set. And, it may well have been. I’d almost swear the engine came out of the 1979 VW Beetle that I once had.

It was clear that this machine was only intended to seat two people, total. But for purely economic reasons, (2 X $20 instead of 1 X $20) they had adapted the front seat belts to accommodate a third person in the middle. I had to do some persuading to get our son into the ‘copter. I use the word “in” but he never could quite get “in” and rode the 20 minute flight with his right leg outside the “cabin” and his foot was resting on the right landing skid. I wasn’t worried about him falling out, however, because he had a white knuckle death grip on the hand hold above the opening. (There were no doors) We made the flight ok but I’m not sure he has ever forgiven me for that one.

On a fishing trip to Russia, we had to go by helicopter from the airport to the remote area we would be fishing. There literally were no roads to the area. This trip involved our flying on a Russian Mi Helicopter. This was a huge machine with rotor blades that looked 100 feet wide. The only limit to what they would carry on it was if they could cram it in the thing. We had 6 people, tents, rafts, fishing equipment, and camping stuff plus two crewmembers. It was a turbo powered behemoth. I was told it could carry 14,000 pounds. Most small helicopters can carry 800- 1000 pounds.

It was comforting to see they had the hood up on the turbine engines and doing something that looked like checking the oil just prior to take off. The instrument panel had about 4 gauges. No “heads up’ display. They had a hand held GPS unit in a little cradle by the instrument panel. We soon found ourselves flying over an active volcano range at a noise level that totally prohibited any conversation even if you yelled at the top of your voice. I did not see any parachutes! We made that trip with no incident, flew over beautiful county side, saw dozens of bears, landed in weeds about 3 foot tall, and my son did not have to hang his leg out the door! The bears are another story!

Then there was the time in the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia, Canada! There was a lot of flying on that trip, but most was done on airplanes. A large commercial plane to Seattle. Then a private twin engine turboprop owned by the Oak Bay Marine Group up to the airstrip near Queen Charlotte Islands. From there, we were on the old reliable De Havilland Otter sea planes. These took us out over the Pacific to the sheltered inlet where the MV Salmon Seeker was permanently anchored and served as a floating hotel and dock for Kodiak type boats that were used by the Salmon and Halibut fishing clients. Other than the wind blowing about 40 miles per hour and raining buckets, everything went fine.

In a few minutes, I was in a rain suit and partnered up with Baltimore Colts great Gerald ( Jerry ) Hill in a rubber boat and the guide headed out into the Pacific. 40 mile per hour winds, rain blowing sideways and all. I won’t go into the fishing except to say I did catch a halibut they estimated to be about 30 pounds. The guide said just throw it back because I would catch some more that would be bigger. I did, throw it back. I didn’t, catch any more. My one big salmon turned under the boat and was free when the line hit the prop.

It was, though, a great trip, great food, exciting fishing environment and the people were great too. There were some 200 pound range halibut caught and a lot of salmon, as well.

Then, the morning we were to go home arrived. It was raining, still. Coming down in sheets. But worse, the fog was coming in fast and visibility was getting worse by the minute. We were to depart at 9:30 by the seaplanes that brought us to the ship. At breakfast, I did not believe we could possibly leave. But the Oak Bay people had a problem. New people were coming and they had no place to put them. Getting us off and back to the coast was essential. The captain said that the Otters were coming and we would leave as scheduled.

But as 9:30 approached, people were getting nervous. It was not a good day for flying. Everyone had their bags packed but some were afraid to fly in these conditions.

Then we heard the Otters on the radio. One was nearby and we could hear the big radial engine but we could not see it. The ceiling was down to about 200 feet and thick as the “pea soup” you’ve heard about. Somehow, the plane slipped below the fog and sat down on the water. He taxied up to the dock and the arriving people on board were literally kissing the dock when they got off. They had had the fright of their lives.

It was to be that each of the two planes would have to make multiple trips to get everyone shuttled back and forth and resupply the boat. But, the Otter pilot announced that he would not fly back in today until the fog lifted. Apparently it wasn’t just the passengers that were scared. The ceiling was getting lower and lower. The other Otter had already turned back to the coast airport.
It looked like we were stuck but they were going to take 7 or 8 back on the plane that was there. I was scheduled to leave on the first plane and was not too thrilled about it.

There was an older gentlemen there with his grown daughter. They were on their annual father/daughter excursion and they were scheduled to go on the next flight. He asked if anyone would be willing to swap with his daughter so they would not be on the same plane in case of an accident. I told him I would give her my seat. I wasn’t being heroic. I did not want to fly, anyway. By the time they took off, only an insane pilot or a pilot totally familiar with the area would have done so as the visibility was almost totally gone. Once out over open water of the Pacific, there was no fog and flying and landing at the air strip was fine. But now they had to figure out what to do.

In a few minutes, the captain announced that two helicopters were coming to shuttle us out. They could land on the helipad on the ship one at a time. But it would take a while for them to get there from Vancouver.

It was one o’clock before we heard the thump, thump, thump of the first helicopter. It took several minutes for the pilot to find the boat and to set the chopper down on the pad. It was a nice corporate type helicopter similar to what a lot of the TV stations around Atlanta use. They could get 3 or four people on it with bags. The Ceiling was no more than 75 feet. They nervously got on and took off. The other chopper had been holding and we could see him not more than 25 feet above the water. This one was one of the small Bell choppers with a plastic bubble for a cabin. It could seat 3 people plus the pilot or two people and some bags. The pilot landed and they started trying to get people on and counting pounds. 800 was his limit. I hung back and let some others go on that one, too. I was in no hurry to get on one at all.

About an hour later, they made another run and visibility was not getting better. It was finally down to me and one other guy and some bags. It was “show time” and the conditions were almost “zero visibility”. And for us, it was the little Bell with the plastic bubble.

The pilot landed and got off to supervise loading and calculate weights. He looked at me and asked if I was willing to fly. I asked him if he was up to flying the thing and he said he could make it but he would need my help. He handed me a map of the area and we located where we were on the map. No GPS’s to rely on. We would literally fly down on the water and follow the map back to open water. The other passenger was mortified and refused to fly without a life vest. I commented to the pilot that I supposed he had flown in here lots of times before. I wanted a little reassurance, you see. He replied that he had never been here until today and that he and the other chopper had almost collided on the first trip because he missed the inlet and had to turn around and met the other chopper coming in! He waited this time until the other chopper got to open water and radioed they were clear before he would take off.

So we lifted off. The pilot was testing the load to make sure we weren’t too heavy. I was in the middle seat with the map and we picked our way slowly back out just above the water in the thick fog and it was still raining. This ex Vietnam chopper pilot was intense. The plastic windshield was in two pieces and there was a joint seam in the center. Rain water was coming in on me. We missed a couple of turns but in time we did get to open water and there was no fog and we shouted “hooray”. It was a big relief. We did not have to fly at 25 feet anymore!

We finally set down and the entire group was standing under a canopy applauding and cheering as we got out to walk over. One of the group that I knew well came over and said, “It looks like you were really scared.” I said “why do you say that?”
He said, “Well, the front of your pants are soaked where you wet yourself.” I had not noticed that the water coming in the seam on the leaking windshield had soaked my pants right in the front! I tried to explain the leaky windshield but everyone just got a big laugh. And, by now, everyone needed one! That is one helicopter flight I will always remember.

© 2015 SPT

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