Houston Texas, known for its heat and humidity, has really received a curveball from the weather gods this year, including sleet, ice and freezing rain. Texans who live and work along the Gulf Coast are not used to sequences of icing conditions; perhaps one per year at the most. This global warming is really treacherous.
Looking out the window at the icy mess outside made me think about some of my weather encounters during 50-plus years of helicopter flying.
Alaska in the 1960’s was really scary. Single ship contracts in the bush usually lasted all summer where you flew out of a base consisting of a mini tent city. There were no such things as weather reports. If you paid attention and watched cloud formations and wind direction and speed, you could usually make a guess as to what was in store for you that day. During the winter months I flew out of Anchorage on charter flights, one such being for the Fish and Game department. The job was to go to the Kenai Peninsula and tag female moose. It was a two-day job and once we finished, the Fish and Game folks departed in their pickup trucks and I stayed until the next morning. I awoke to heavy ice fog, something I had no experience with and did not recognize it as such. It began to thin out two days later and being about starved, having not eaten since the Game folks left, I fired up the Hiller and headed for the blue sky above, believing the thin fog would not be a problem. It was – the helicopter iced up and I barely survived that event.
There was another occasion down in the panhandle near Yakutat when I had a government Geologist aboard who wanted to travel to a mountain top some 8,000 feet msl. To get there I had to over fly a glacier. At about 5,000 feet, with the temperature below freezing, the throttle froze on the Hiller. Using a lot of muscle, I freed the control only to have it zap all the way to the idle position whereupon the engine quit. There were no landing areas below and the Hiller fell like a brick toward sure doom. I managed to get the engine started about 200 feet above the icy crevasses. Definitely a pucker situation.
Flying HUB’s in Germany (HU-1B was what a Huey was before they changed the designation to UH-1B or Huey as they were called in Vietnam), I encountered evil ice, this time in a motor pool. We did a hot pickup of some troops late at night between rows of M-60 tanks. Turns out we were over gross and when I picked up to a hover, immediately ran out of aft cyclic and began moving forward at a good clip. Once on the asphalt, with the collective full down, we began skidding on ice for what seemed like a mile before we finally stopped. No damage but I learned to count heads before takeoff, regardless of the conditions.
During my years flying over the Gulf of Mexico, I had several encounters with sea fog, it being somewhat common during the winter months. If you are dumb enough to get caught in it, the only thing to do is to get on the gauges and climb out, hoping your destination is clear. Actually, you can determine that via a radio call which makes the decision a bit easier.
Of course there were more dumb decisions I made over the years concerning flying in marginal weather. Most were with small operators that depended on pleasing customers to keep their helicopters flying. That’s the way it was in the early days of our business. I consider myself lucky to a degree, but I also know that the close encounters made me a very calculating and wily pilot who learned early that no matter the situation, you always kept a back door open if you wanted to survive. The best back door I ever had was to get the helicopter on the ground. Corn fields, pastures, anywhere with half level ground and rotor clearance would do. I was never embarrassed to terminate a flight in the boondocks.
Fortunately, the maturing of our industry has tempered most of the reasons for pushing weather to accommodate customers, even ones piloting ego. I’ve never really understood the HEMS accident rate. The majority of the ones I have viewed were non-life-threatening situations. Many were patient transfers or dead heading flights. It just seems so silly to ignore the greatest asset the helicopter has – the ability to land vertically.