Safety & Training
Putting It All Together
July 30, 2013 By Fred Jones
I learned to fly helicopters in 1986. The summer before I made the transition from seized-wing to helicopter, I was working on a Gypsy Moth spray program in the Bancroft, Ont., area where I was flying a Cessna 172 as a “pointer pilot.”
I learned to fly helicopters in 1986. The summer before I made the transition from seized-wing to helicopter, I was working on a Gypsy Moth spray program in the Bancroft, Ont., area where I was flying a Cessna 172 as a “pointer pilot.” With the aid of a navigator, we led a small fleet of spray aircraft from one spray block to the next and my navigator instructed them to “spray-on” and “spray-off.”
There were helicopters flying back and forth from one spray block to the next to survey the spray program, and about 15 aircraft stationed at the airport. I had spent most of my time in aviation as an aircraft flight instructor in London, Ont., and this was my first exposure to another dimension of commercial aviation. They paid us $1,000/week, room and board included. For me, at 19 years old, I was “rich” and the aviation atmosphere was electric.
We were operating from a 2,500-foot gravel strip near BonEcho Provincial Park, and the spray parameters were pretty specific, so we did most of the spraying in the early morning or evening. We spent a lot of time sitting and waiting for the weather to be just right.
The spray aircraft were M18 “Dromeders” – a Polish built aircraft purpose-built to carry a big load of “goop” behind a 1,000-horsepower radial engine – with a little tiny place for one pilot to perch. It always impressed me that the cockpit was an afterthought for the Polish design engineers. But I digress.
The pilots of the Dromeders were ancient – more than 50 years old some of them. “These guys are relics,” I can remember thinking. I also remember being captivated by their stories over a beer or two in the local watering hole in nearby Cloyne, Ont. At the same time, I respected the years of flying experience they had accumulated and the training that they had received.
One late afternoon, I was at the airport and one of the Dromeders was lifting off for a spray flight. At about 300 feet AGL, I heard the engine bark then stop – the aircraft pitched nose-down, banked right, and then disappeared behind a line of pine trees about half a mile west of the airport.
Without thinking, I jumped into one of the nearby pickup trucks and drove to where I thought the aircraft had gone down. I was expecting the worst. About five frantic minutes later, I arrived at the scene. It was a postage-stamp, cut hay field, about 800 feet square surrounded by 50-foot pines. When I got there, the pilot was sitting on the leading edge smoking a cigarette. I was apparently way more upset about the whole thing than he was. In the moment, I was tempted to take up smoking just to calm my shattered nerves.
There had been no apparent damage to the aircraft during the landing, and while we waited for others to arrive, I observed, “It is going to be a pain to have to remove the wings and truck this pig back to the field.” He commented, “That won’t be necessary. The engineers will drain the goop, and some fuel, and I will fly it out once they make the repairs.” He said this as if this was a regular occurrence. I wasn’t about to miss that show.
Once the engineer showed up and affected the repair, and the goop and some fuel were off-loaded, I witnessed one of the most memorable fixed-wing takeoffs of my life. The pilot taxied the aircraft to the downwind side of the field and wound up that radial engine with the brakes on until it screamed. He rolled about 200 feet and then pitched the nose up to about 45 degrees and easily cleared the trees.
I learned a number of lessons that day. The incident brought home the importance of experience and emergency training. Clearly, without either of those, the scene that greeted me in the hay field that day would have been completely different.
I also learned that sometimes we all need a little bit of luck. If the engine failure had occurred at 100 feet rather than 300 feet, a completely successful forced approach would have been even more difficult. In any emergency scenario, effective training and experience are the best defence when things go wrong, and even when our luck is bad. And while I am at it, let’s not be too hard on the old guy . . .
Fred Jones is the president/CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada and a regular contributor to Helicopters magazine.