On the 6th of November 1986, at 1132 hours, I was the Captain of a Chinook helicopter that crashed just two miles short of its destination, the Sumburgh Airport in the Shetland Islands, 150 nautical miles north of the mainland of the United Kingdom. At the time it was the worst-ever civilian helicopter crash, taking the lives of 45 out of the 47 people on board. One passenger and I survived the crash. How or why we survived is a mystery.
I had a dream inspired by a magazine article, just like so many of us, not knowing how or if it could ever be realized. In my case that dream faded over time as the priorities of life ebbed and flowed in my pursuit of other dreams and responsibilities. Faded, but didn’t die.
Preliminary findings in Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash tell me things haven’t changed much in over a half century. Today, as back then, instrument rated pilots flying IFR capable helicopters continue to tempt fate by pressing ahead at low altitude in low visibility. And mostly they make it to their destination! But it’s an insidious gamble, particularly in hilly areas.
I took flight lessons from my brother later in life, acquiring my private license at age 62. Now age 73 and still flying a little, I look back fondly at those hours in training. He was a great instructor, demanding but extremely knowledgeable and experienced in a whole variety of aircraft.
On a mild and sunny day in October, the quiet weekend atmosphere of Schekino gliderport was disturbed by three jet gliders. Unlike gliders with plenty of modern motor solutions nowadays, the Russian example has a unique feature. The empty weight of a glider is less than 115 kg, making it significantly lighter than its counterparts.
You’ve completed your final checks. You look in the side-view mirror and the red flag is waving. You slowly move the Pawnee’s throttle forward and start towing the fully watered-up 18-meter competition glider down runway 36. It’s a hot, humid day and the density altitude is high. But you’re thinking, “hey, the grass has just had a crew-cut and the mud has dried out—so how hard can this be?”
With all of California now under a state-wide stay-at-home order (and those in the Bay Area where I live having been on one for two days prior to the state-wide declaration), I have found myself strangely going back to my beginnings. The old Saitek joystick has been busted out, and Microsoft Flight Simulator X has been fired back up on my aging PC.
I knew I wanted to have my own plane, but I wasn’t sure which path to follow to achieve that goal. One option I considered was to buy a mid-70s Cessna 172 and upgrade the heck out of it. But I also considered building a plane because I felt I could do it and would end up with a thoroughly modern airplane for much less money than an equivalent new certified one.
My dad recently flew west and I have been thinking about the gift of flying that he gave me from a young age. Flying has been a great joy in my life. I am very thankful that my dad was the original aviator in our family, because without his interest in flying I’m not sure I would have ever had mine. I’ve had much fun and learned a few lessons along the way.
Recently I was able to get involved in two compassion flights with Angel Flight and PALS (Patient AirLift Services), both into and out of Boston Logan Airport. The need is big and the opportunity to experience large airport operations and help people out is compelling.
It seems like the folks that ended up in Berlin were really different. They were like a family and a really close family at that. More importantly, they wanted everyone to know they were the best. They flew fast and when a fellow pilot got stuck somewhere in the maze of traffic schedules, they quickly changed and, even though they might be absent, another body took their place.
So one day I was running between mountain peaks in the rainy season in Laos trying to stay VFR as navaids were virtually nonexistent there. My load was bags of rice and one baby goat for some long range patrol guys to BBQ. While flying along dodging clouds, rain, and mountains, I suddenly felt a whack against the back of my seat. My first thought was that I had been hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, but I was still flying.
Bill said, “I guess I owe you a ride,” while looking at me. “Give me a couple minutes to button things up, and we’ll go.” I looked at Kim, and then I looked at Bill. He said, “Kim helped me out, so I promised to give you a ride.” Kim looked at me winked.
I began my climb and started looking for a low spot to cross the ridgeline, west to east. The only problem was there was no ridgeline, only more of the white wall all around me that became denser as I climbed. I continued the 180-degree turn and extended it to 360 degrees and at the same time dove the airplane to get out of the snow.
An airplane is a wonderful history teacher. From above I have surveyed the battlefield at the Little Big Horn; I have followed the Oregon Trail through the plains, and the original path of the Transcontinental Railroad through the forbidding Sierra Nevada. Not long ago I flew to Farmington, New Mexico, to seek out a small story from the waning days of the Old West.
People like to collect stuff. From postal stamps to magnets, from paintings to whiskey, and for more wealthy ones, cars and warbirds. I started collecting something lighter, more ephemeral, and extremely limited. Not for the supply itself, since it has been available for billions of years. But the number of sunsets we, as humans, can see in a lifetime is arguably restricted.
Until recently, collisions between aircraft were rare, supposedly because pilots used See and Avoid. But now ADS-B information displayed in our cockpit on the iPad reveals that this explanation just wasn’t correct. There were hardly any collisions because the odds of two aircraft meeting in the air were next to zero. But “next to zero” does not mean “zero,” as we found out during a recent trip.
About an hour into the trip I received an alert from the multifunction display that the cylinder temperatures in my left engine were into the red zone. Checking the engine monitor, I saw that my fourth cylinder was indeed well above the red line. Oh boy! I immediately pulled the throttles, enriched the mixtures and opened the left cowl flap.
The product was an easy sell—a flight from Lethbridge Airpark, near Melbourne, Australia, to the Mornington Peninsula on a sunny winter’s day. The problem was getting the customer, my daughter Sarah, through the door.
When I walked into the office, I brought my study guides, notes, and lesson plans fully ready to call it a day and start discussing aircraft systems and emergency procedures. To my surprise, my instructor looked at me and said, “Let’s do some traffic pattern work here at PTK; we need to get you in the air.”