Helicopters Magazine

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The “There I Was” Story

Many years ago, one of our pilots experienced an engine failure en-route to a job. He handled it well and was soon on the phone to the owner.


July 18, 2014
By Michael Bellamy

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Many years ago, one of our pilots experienced an engine failure en-route to a job. He handled it well and was soon on the phone to the owner. After acknowledging that the machine and pilot were OK, the owner asked in retrospect if he would have done anything differently to handle the emergency. The pilot told me later how annoyed he was that his boss had insinuated that somehow he had erred.

So, you are flying along, as the expression goes – fat, dumb and happy – when suddenly, the turbine starts to surge erratically, and then, with a loud bang, quits altogether. Your adrenalin goes into full rich as you drop the pole and scan the instruments. Airspeed! Watch your airspeed! Back to 60 Kts. Mind the rotor speed! There’s a clearing. The ground is rushing up. Trees are going by. Hold off on the flare. Get ready to run it on if you run out of pitch. Now pull! The machine levels, then slumps the last few feet into the scrub and you’re down. The helicopter rocks gently on the uneven ground as the blades coast to a stop. The hum of the gyros and your heavy breathing are the only sounds.

The machine is undamaged and, flushed with relief, you acknowledge to yourself that you pulled it off. You can almost hear the chorus of “Attaboys” back at the hangar.

Is this the end of story?  It shouldn’t be. What you just demonstrated was airmanship, but what follows is professionalism. To walk away without further contemplation ignores the value of the experience. As the aforementioned owner asked, “What would you have done differently?” It’s a query that was probably the result of a similar experience. The owner wasn’t condemning the pilot’s performance; he was encouraging him to critique the performance to be better prepared for the next time.

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For example, what subtle indicators did the machine provide before the catastrophic failure? Were engine instruments deviating from the norm? Having to repeat the autorotation, would you choose to be at a higher altitude or would you alter course slightly to provide more landing opportunities? I know that low altitude and flying over inhospitable terrain are often unavoidable, but they can be minimized. Most importantly, could you honestly attribute the successful completion of this emergency to just being lucky?

I once nonchalantly chose a final approach path crossing a maze of pipe at a gas plant coping with a strong wind. Settling onto the pad, the machine de-celled, the result of a fractured “B” nut on the fuel control. The engine operation had been normal up until then. Realizing how catastrophic the outcome could have been had the engine let go crossing that network of pipe led me, from then on, to accept a quartering wind under similar conditions. For most of you, this lesson seems like a “No Brainer” but when you are fairly new to the game, it was important. It established a determination to analyze future incidents and responses more critically.

Pilots are all graded on how well they respond to critical situations as defined in the “Emergency Procedures” section of the Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM). This training is done under controlled circumstances where a specific simulated emergency is anticipated. For most of our operations, it’s the most practical way we have of determining a pilot’s response capability without endangering the machine or putting lives at risk. What happens later, under actual circumstances in the field, is where that training and the pilot’s own ability come together.

How well the pilot can identify and therefore avoid potential emergency situations is the result of intuitiveness obtained from analyzing past experiences. As an example, experiencing a momentary hung start on a Jet Ranger might be ignored as inconsequential. But the recollection of losing an engine shortly after take off due to an engine driven fuel pump failure would certainly be there to warn the pilot if that circumstance was repeated.

I have always been a proponent of “There I was stories” – a pilot or engineer sharing a past experience that may have led to a crash or caught just in the nick of time, prevented one. The dialogue usually exposes warning signs that at the time may have been misinterpreted or ignored.

Experience is invaluable but in order to benefit from it, you must be paying attention at the time.


A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.


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