I was about a third of the way through my training to become a private helicopter pilot. Minch, my instructor, was taking me into controlled airspace, class delta, in order to start fulfilling the requirement of learning how to communicate with air traffic control: the jargon, procedures, and patterns that are necessary to stay safe when around busy airports.
I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but when you start talking to ATC, it’s like you are being interviewed by the vice-principal after doing something bad. I have always pictured a bunch of folks sitting around the speaker, with a mike in hand, laughing hysterically at the goofy things a newbie pilot says when trying to communicate with ATC. This is a whole new language. Oscars and Romeos and Hotels and Charlies all at the same time, roger? Don’t get caught with the occasional “Copy” or “10-4!” That’s trucker speak, and it only works on the ground.
Sorry, I am flying off course. Let me reverse thrust.
Those of us who live in Southern California are used to wildfires. I live next to the wilderness, and I will tell you that we never get used to wildfires. But, we do get used to seeing them off in the distance. On this particular day, there was a fire started in the hills about five miles north of our airport. As I was doing my pre-flight inspection of the Schweizer 300C, a Skycrane and a DC-10 were making drops off the horizon. Needless to say, it was difficult for me to concentrate on my preflight when these massive flying machines were flinging deep dark red goo all over the huge flames just off my shoulder. To me, the Skycrane pilot is at the pinnacle of helo flying, and I am quite intrigued, to say the least.
We boarded the helicopter back at our home airport for another typical day of flying, with many items on the list to check off. I started the beast, made things begin to spin and wobble, did my normal pre-flight checks, and attempted to pick her up into a hover. As soon as I did, the engine started coughing and sputtering! It sounded like I was in an old CJ Jeep, struggling in second gear to get up a huge hill. Something was not right… obviously. I set the ship back down (it most likely settled itself back down due to the lack of power and diminishing rotor RPM), and the engine sprang back to life. It was almost as if it was looking at me with eyebrows raised, asking, “What? What are you looking at? What’s the problem?” OK, sorry… jeez. Nothing. Fine. We’ll just fly then…
I looked at Minch, and he just shrugged his shoulders. He picked it back up into a hover and all was well. I guess it was my touch that did it? So, out of caution, we stayed very local for a while, practicing hovering and traffic patterns. After about 30 minutes, we were satisfied that the engine just had a hiccup… maybe something wasn’t happy on warm-up, but once warm, the mice were happily spinning the wheel. So, we departed our small, uncontrolled airport for the lights of the big city.
As we were flying out of our pattern work, the thoughts of the fire escaped us. I was focused on the work we were doing, and the raging flames and billowing smoke were off in another distant place. The wind was not that strong, so the smoke was heading pretty much straight up, and was not a factor. We were comfortable. However, once we headed for the class delta airspace, all of that was going to change. The airtankers happen to have a re-fueling and re-putting-that-red-stuff-back-in-the-aircraft base at this airport, and now it was buzzing… literally! The helicopters are also based here, but only come back to the airport for fuel, as they find their water sources close to the active area in order to douse the flames and keep the turnaround time short. They do a wonderful job of it, too.
We tuned in the tower on the radio, and sure enough it was active with the taxiing and taking off of the fire-bound aircraft. I called in my normal requests, and was granted permission to land on a fun taxiway that is off the active runway, kind of in the middle of nowhere in terms of the airport layout. It’s shaped like an old fashioned keyhole. I can only assume it was made for helo ops? Taxiway foxtrot, as it is known, is also adjacent to a wash (that’s California speak for dry riverbed). As we executed our helicopter pattern, we avoided the flow of fixed wing aircraft and completed our left traffic pattern over the wash. I did my normal approach to foxtrot by slowing and descending downwind over the wash, turning left base and then lining up for final. Final approach is a little tricky because to have to overfly a big fence, and put her down widthwise in relation to the keyhole. It’s not small, and there is plenty of room for a landing; but a newbie like me is nervous and cautious, regardless.
I landed uneventfully. I waited for a few seconds on the ground for the huge DC-10 to receive its takeoff clearance, then I asked for mine. Now is a good time to explain that we are flying in a fairly small two (the factory says three) place piston helicopter. When you bring it up to a hover, and see a DC-10 off your side about to take off, it’s a little intimidating, to say the least. I am about as big as one of its engines. So, Tanker 10, as it is known, started to accelerate down the runway next to me, with all engines screaming at full blast. The DC-10 was full of the red slime, and it took more than two-thirds of the runway for it to leave the Earth. I believe at one time this runway was the longest in operation in the United States. The 10 took off to the west, and the silhouette of that huge bird dead center in the middle of the setting California sun was an awe-inspiring sight to see.
Minch almost had to nudge me to reply to ATC for my clearance. “Helicopter Two Three Romeo Whiskey, cleared left closed traffic, remain south of the active.” After my reply, we were on the go, with a wake turbulence discussion close at hand. The controller reminded us that the DC-10 just took off (as if we didn’t notice), and we contemplated asking the tower if we should race. But, we bit our tongue and laughed together instead.
With my previous landing receiving praise from Minch, I was instructed to set up for an autorotation this time. All of my autos had been done at our home airport thus far. We always did them over a taxiway or runway, so there was a lot of room for error. I always had a long, straight section of asphalt to aim for and use. This time was different. I was now aiming for the center of the circle portion of the keyhole, just on the other side of the fence. My flare would need to be timed perfectly to avoid plunging my fast-spinning tail rotor into a mesh of steel. My entry was good, and I was set up straight for the flare, but I was too high.
I continued just past the keyhole, ending my flare in a grassy area next to the taxiway. After receiving a small verbal lashing, I hover taxied back to the center of the keyhole, and spun it around to set down where I should have been in the first place. Because I started taxiing from the grass, I brought with me a huge gust of grass clippings and dirt. My instructor was not impressed. Taxiway foxtrot was dirty, and he instructed the ship and I to transform into a huge leaf blower. (Just like Mega-Maid in Spaceballs, I went from SUCK to BLOW!). It reminded me of the video of the helo pilot pushing the little deer across the ice to safety with its rotor wash. I guess I was just practicing for a real life rescue scenario?
After properly clearing foxtrot, I set the ship down on the spot I should have originally landed, and proceeded to again ask for takeoff clearance. As I called for clearance and picked her up, the engine went back into caveman mode, and started coughing and sputtering again! Minch immediately grabbed the controls. My hands went straight up to visually let him know he was in control, because with the constant radio traffic there was no room for verbally switching control.
He performed a perfect hovering auto. A hovering auto is a very fancy phrase for: slam her down as gently as possible and as quickly as you can! Now, slam and gentle are rarely used in the same sentence, but that’s exactly what he did. Again the engine came back to life like nothing was wrong, and it wondered why we were hesitating. Minch quickly pulled pitch and brought us back into a hover, with no problems whatsoever. He was juggling the controls and trying to talk to ATC at the same time. I was dumbfounded. I had about 15 flight hours at this point, and I didn’t know what to do. Minch, as cool as he has ever been said, “Let’s get the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of here.”
He confirmed clearance, and made an abrupt takeoff. Left pattern, crosswind departure. I was able to see the airtankers re-phoschecking and the Skycrane land under us as we headed back to our home airport. That was cool, but I have to admit, I was pretty nervous… ready for an engine failure at any time. We purposely followed large open roads back to the airport at 1,500 AGL, 500 feet higher than we normally fly. That way, if we did have a problem, we would have 500 more feet to auto down to safety, and would have more options for a safe landing.
The return flight was uneventful, and we landed and shut down as normal. I forget, but I may have kissed the ground. We soon found a mechanic and told him what had happened. He knew instantly… gunked-up valves. Valves are like little fingers: there are two for every cylinder in the engine. One lets the fuel/air mixture in, then closes. The other lets the hot exhaust gasses out, and then closes. The mechanic told me that these engines were notorious for sticking valves, and it usually happens a few hundred hours after a new engine break-in, or a re-build. If the operator does not perform a proper cool down every time (we always do), the carbon deposits build up quicker and don’t get flushed through the system. He also told us if this ever happens again, to come see him.
So, lesson learned! Chalk it up as another test to the helo pilot’s wits, I guess. They say every helo pilot is always at the edge of their seat, ready for the next issue or problem that the aircraft will present you with. The popular jokes says that these helicopters are like ex-wives: if they aren’t trying to take all of your money, they are trying to kill you!