Have you ever wondered what would happen if that little tail rotor thingy on the back of single rotor helicopters were to fail? Well, it all depends on where you are, how high above terrain and obstructions, and the speed of the helicopter when your bad day begins. I was flying a Bell 47 (like the TV series Mash used) when I had my one and only tail rotor failure…in the Grand Canyon!
I was performing sling loading operations in the Bell and was picking up my external loads from within a corral that was situated right next to an 800′, sheer cliff. I would fly into the corral, remaining at a hover, and one of the loaders would run under my hovering helicopter and connect the rope net to my hook. Once connected, he would run out in front of me and give me two thumbs up, signaling I was good to go. I would then add power and get the load off the ground and raise it high enough to clear the wood fence while pivoting the helicopter so I could dive over the cliff and pick up speed while descending to deliver my load to the Havasupai reservation. I had repeated this drill several times until my fun turned into a not so fun wild ride that came very close to being a fatal accident.
On that particular hook-up, right as the loader signaled that I was good to go, and as I added power and anti-torque pedal to rise to my hover, I felt a slight jerk in my tail rotor control pedals. That’s when things began to unravel. Normally, if you are at a hover when the tail rotor fails you would just chop the throttle and do a hovering autorotation. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Well, in this situation I was on top of a very bulky load. If I had landed on top of it, I was afraid that the helicopter would tip over backwards crashing through the wooden fence and over the 800′ cliff. That was a non-starter for me. On top of that, with all the unsuspecting folks standing around inside the corral, flying helicopter parts could easily kill or dismember a few of them. Keep in mind, all this drama was taking place inside my head within microseconds of understanding how dire the situation was and just as the helicopter began an uncontrolled rotation to the right.
The only option that I could think of in that fraction of time was to continue adding power and dive over the cliff to pick up flying speed and to eliminate the possibility of killing or maiming people. I reasoned that once I had cleared the corral, I could jettison my cargo net and then I could figure what to do next. Unfortunately, the wild rotational forces jammed my cargo hook so that the electrical release would not work; the load was swinging crazily beneath me, and I was losing altitude fast. The size of the boulders at the base of the cliff seemed to grow as I plummeted earthward in a certain death spiral. For a split second, I truthfully thought this wild ride is going to end in a disaster. Hold on though, in a flash of brilliance I thought “I’ve got one more thing I can try” as the helicopter spinning increased in velocity.
The old Bell 47 had a back-up external load ejection cable which required that I remove my hand from the collective pitch control lever and throttle in order to pull it. Having nothing to lose and everything to gain, I pulled it and the load jettisoned to the valley floor now only about 200 feet below me. You’ve got to keep in mind that I’m still spinning like a whirling dervish and descending out of control and I needed to fix that pronto. I dipped the nose of the helicopter in an effort to increase my forward speed which, up to that point, had been virtually zero. It worked. As I accelerated, the helicopter more or less streamlined, and I was flying at about a 45-degree crab angle, but the rotation had stopped. Now I needed a plan to get my crippled aircraft on the ground without rolling it into a tiny ball on the uneven desert terrain all around me. No good immediate options presented themselves, so I decided that as long as I was still flying, I would make my way back to the Grand Canyon Airport.
As I recall, it was about a 45-minute flight which would put me just about out of fuel, but it was my best hope. In fact, it was really my only hope for a safe landing. Having nothing to better occupy my time during my cross-country flight, I began to experiment in order to identify the type of tail rotor malfunction I was experiencing. As any rotor jock can tell you, each type of tail rotor failure has a specific emergency procedure that the pilot needs to follow if he hopes to handle the situation with the best hopes of survival. After a few tries, I determined that, by rolling the power on, the nose would swing to the right. In theory, if I timed the power application just right, I could touch down on the runway at the Grand Canyon Airport and slide to a stop. It was a good plan, or so I thought.
When I reached the vicinity of the Grand Canyon Airport, I made a radio call that I was making an emergency landing on runway 21 which was the most favorable choice into the wind. I planned a very long, shallow, descent angle so I could gradually slow my airspeed to about 40 knots. Hopefully this would keep the nose of the helicopter pointed slightly left of the centerline. Just before the helicopter began to rotate, I added power and lowered the collective and contacted the runway, but my adventure was not quite over. I didn’t want to slam the helicopter down on the runway, so I held enough pitch in the blades to basically keep me flying but now the helicopter began pivoting around so that I was flying backwards down the runway. I applied forward cyclic so the helicopter was sliding on the curved toes of the skids. The Bell 47 skids are rounded in the front and blunt in the back and I was afraid that if I lowered any more collective the blunt backs of the skids would dig into the pavement and I’d end up in a ball on the runway. The sliding finally slowed and the helicopter rotated a little more and came to a stop in an upright position.
Our maintenance team trailered the helicopter to the maintenance facility and diagnosed the problem as a failed pitch change link on the tail rotor assembly. Speaking of changes, I went home and changed my underwear, but I was back at it the following day.
- Tail rotor failure in the Grand Canyon - March 20, 2023
YOU MAGNIFICENT PAGAN GOD!!!
Out standing performance. I have wittiness to many non successful tail rotor recovery efforts in Nam. I am happy your effort were successful .
Keeping a cool head in an emergency situation like you did is a good example for all of us.
Thanks Skip. I survived by the Grace of God!!
Man… you handled a significant emergency like a boss!
Thanks Michael. Excellent Army training prepared me for this event but God saved my bacon when my fat was in the fire!
You Da Man! Great Save and excellent article!
Wow, deserves every bit of praise for your God given and hard work-practiced skills. It’s amazing how time slows down when your adrenaline kicks in and the thought processes go into double time.
What was the date of your mishap
Jeff that would have been sometime in 1972 or 1973.
Way to keep your cool and react to your training Joe. In 1983 while spraying a potato field with a Hiller I lost a tail rotor. Wish I would have had the nerve to do what you did. I rolled the throttle off and entered into an auto rotation straight ahead into the field. Everything was looking good as I entered a flair at 30 feet and then leveled the helicopter for a touchdown into the soft field. The problem was when I pulled pitch to cushion my landing the throttle came back to life and swung me sideways at touchdown. The skids dug in as I was traveling left side first upon touchdown, rolling just enough to have the main rotor blades impact the ground. Thank goodness I was slow enough I did not roll over, so we were flying again with that ship a week later with new blades. Lesson learned; I should have kept rolling the throttle to the idle stop all the way to the ground. Being a rotor pilot, I enjoyed your article.
Good head work. Your intimate knowledge of your aircraft gave you tools that would have remained in the box. This is hopefully a training event for new guys.
Great story! How long did you work up at the canyon for?
Only a year.
Training, experience, a cool head, and more all working together so you and the ’47 could live to fly another day. It so easily could have ended differently. My heart rate increased just reading this while visualizing what you did.
Mother Rucker 69-24
WOW! A great story with a great ending! Increased heart rate while reading it!
What an excellent story. Thank you for sharing! The photo of the iconic Bell 47 brought back memories of me drawing them on my book covers in middle school back in the early 60s. I was so enamored with shows about Aviation, Jet Jackson, Sky King, Whirlybirds, and Mash, (and who could forget Magnum PI! ) for example. Eventually, I earned a private pilots license, single engine land, fixed wing. I’ve been in a few helicopters, including a ride with my wife, my youngest son, and his fiancée, where we flew in a 182 (I think) from the Las Vegas Executive airport to Grand Canyon airport, got into a helicopter, I don’t remember which it was maybe a jet ranger, and we flew to the base of the canyon, got into a boat, and a Native American guide took us on the boat up the river, describing what we were looking at in the cliffs above. Of course then we went back to the helicopter, rode in it up to the top and flew home a different way to Vegas. Another time with my new bride and I on our 2018 honeymoon we’re I n Hawaii, where we took a helicopter tour of Maui that lasted nearly an hour and featured a pilot who had a voice like Arnold Schwarzenegger! “To the chopper!” is what he told us! One of my favorite helicopter rides was with my friend, Richard Ordowich, VE3TQX who took me from Central New Jersey to the helipad in downtown New York City before 9/11. His helicopter was a Robinson R22 and when he called for clearance to land at the helipad, one of the commercial jet help operators said something about the helicopter being funny looking so Richard responded I own mine do you?” Silence ensued!
Thank you for your excellent article. I really enjoyed hearing it. Was that your actual voice on the recording? Good job!
Sorry for the typos. I didn’t see a way to edit my recollections.
So I flew for 18 years at Supai and now we are in our 27 year supporting Havasupai Tribe. It is the easiest and most dangerous place I have flown all in the same day. We have been blessed with safe flying. It is overwhelming and stressfully other companies have had 26 mishaps at LM BAR 4 and HT. We have had two mishaps Mine was a nightmare normally unheard of. A full blown transmission seizure Blades stopped and I was 30 feet off the ground. By the time it was done I started back to earth from 93 feet in a 124 degree right bank No rotation on my side I hit the ground continued to roll over not the blade stopped my head from being crushed. A lot of little blessing that today Put me in a wheelchair but still am alive and hugging the wife the kids the grand kids and dogs
I was flying a UH1H. Thats not correct. I stop flying about 20 sec earlier. We replaced the Huey flew that one ten years but it took my son on a fire outside Payson Az in 2020. So I bought a 212 Eagle Single. dual Hydraulics and not restricted. What a great machine.
Going from flying 1200 a year and more to stopped brakes. to zero has been frustrating. Did you fly with Lee Christenson??? rip!
Love Supai love the canyon love the people love the work.
Stay healthy stay safe. fly with the dirty side down and always land that way