Early in my career, I had the good fortune to work for Era Helicopters in Anchorage, Alaska. My supervisor at Era was Lou Earhart, one of the nicest, most professional people I’ve ever had the blessing to work for or around. I considered Lou to be a consummate professional pilot. Then one day he told me about a mistake he had made.
While ferrying a Jet Ranger up to Anchorage from Bell, the helicopter suffered an engine failure. Lou successfully autorotated to a field. Upon Lou’s inspection of the engine, the apparent cause of the failure was detected and easily fixed. Lou restarted the engine, hovered for a bit and was satisfied that all was well, so he pulled pitch to depart over an obstacle, where the motor quit again, and with no options, no plans and nowhere to go, the ship was destroyed.
Fortunately Lou was not injured except for his pride. But here is the lesson that Lou was sharing with me. Because the engine quit in flight, the aircraft is legally grounded once it lands whether that be shinny side up or hell hole pointed at the sky.
Lou as a commercial pilot was not authorized by FAA regulation to declare the aircraft flight worthy. Once the aircraft had not been released for flight by a properly certified mechanic for either a test flight as part of the ongoing maintenance procedure or to full flight status, the insurance policy on the aircraft was null and void. That’s right Era had to pay for the aircraft themselves.
Several years later I was flying a Bell 205 for Los Angeles County Fire. All was going to plan as we crossed some very nasty terrain in the northern part of the county when the engine went into a series of compressor stalls.
Fortunately I had some altitude to work with and I put the pitch down and the stalls quit. I then brought power back up to a minimum cruise setting and the engine behaved normally. It was 15 minutes flight time back to our home base so I left the power alone and flew the 205 back to our base.
Back on the ground (after saying a few amens), I wrote up the stalls and reported my problem to the director of maintenance. He in turn told my boss Jim Sanchez, who in turn ripped me a new exhaust pipe. The conversation went along the lines of why, when I had several appropriate places to land the helicopter, did I take upon myself to fly an aircraft that obviously was not flight worthy for an additional period of time? Who exactly, Jim inquired, had made me a qualified powerplant mechanic?
Jim is 5 foot 2 in cowboy boots and I am, or was 6 foot 2 at the time, and I remember that he was addressing me eye ball to eye ball and we where both standing.
What I could not figure out was obviously Lou Earhart and Jim Sanchez had spoken about this subject and yet I knew they had never met. Chief pilots are interesting in the respect that they all seem to know the same things and they know everything that you are not telling them.
My long-term take on this is; mentors like Lou Earhart and Jim Sanchez that educate by all means possible, including pointing out their own errors or doing a little constructive critique when it’s needed, are to be respected. Once you identify a problem in flight and land the aircraft because of that issue, you are not legally in a position to continue. If you experience an extraordinary event in flight and determine that continuing on is a good idea, see above.
A safety culture that supports professional conduct by its staff even when it’s not convenient pays dividends in unexpected ways.
Read Part 2 of “Know Your (Legal) Limits” in the May issue of Rotor & Wing, including a story about Lee’s time with LA County Fire when the organization transitioned to its first two Bell 412s, and how a flight paramedic helped identify a problem post-flight.