Public Service

A Toast to Load Masters

By Staff Writer | July 21, 2017

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I write this June 15, the week after I was in Ottawa, Canada. A little flat, lots of green stuff and anywhere you step off pavement, you get wet. I have to say the Canadians I ran into are true glass-half-full folks. They would say, “Nice day, eh,” “No wind, eh,” “No clouds, eh.” I’d say, “Great day? It’s 42 **** degrees on June 6. You’re crazy...eh!” (The next day was a nice day. I even managed to work without a sweater after 10 a.m.)

The purpose of the trip was to help a client evaluate an experimental firefighting apparatus. The device generates and drops a swath of very-high-expansion foam while being hauled via helicopter on a 100-foot line. All of this was conducted at Helicopter Transport Services (Canada)’s hangar outside Ottawa. Its chief pilot, Michel Bussieres, was our pilot for the day. I must say, the professionalism and hospitality of Michel and his people were very welcomed.

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The initial briefing went well — a Bell Helicopter 212 was to be employed and a dirt runway was the target du jour — until Michel asked who was going to be his load master. I, of course, thought that somebody would volunteer for that job, but when I looked around, everyone was looking at me.

This reminded me of the induction center stories regarding the U.S. military draft in the late 1960s, when draftees were directed to line up in a single line, shoulder-to-shoulder, and to count off by threes. The Army sergeant told the ones and twos to take one step back. At this point, a Marine Corps sergeant walked in and said, “Congratulations, threes, you are now part of Uncle Sam’s Marine Corps!”

At this point, I knew I had rolled a three. I have spent a career making a concerted effort at being the picker-upper rather than the hooker-upper. This all relates to one of my first days in Vietnam. I didn’t have an assignment one day, so somebody decided I should go out and monitor the landing zone. At the landing zone, Chinooks were lifting full conex shipping containers two at a time. Just as I arrived, I observed a loader on top of the conex container trying to hook the very short lead line to the belly hook on the CH-47. The Chinook came so low that the loader was forced to jump down between the two roughly 6,000-pound conex containers. At about that time, the pilot pulled the Chinook up and the two containers slammed together with the loader in the middle. That’s when I decided working under helicopters was not conducive to longevity.

Michel and I discussed how he was going to handle the load, where he wanted me to be located and, most importantly, which way I was to run if things go wrong. What could possibly go wrong with an experimental unit that had never been flown before, lifted on a 100-foot line?

As the operation began, I was well equipped with my favorite Trans Aero yellow baseball hat, eye protection and hearing protection. My wife will tell you that hearing protection for me is about as useful as birth control pills to a pregnant woman. But us more experienced folks need to set a good example for the fledgling aviators.

On the first lift, all went well until my bright yellow hat got ripped off by rotor wash — even though I had a headset on. Nice thing about yellow is you can see it when the thing winds up 100 yards from where you are standing. Bad thing is, 100 yards out and back, in Ottawa, on grass, means you will be working with wet socks and shoes for the rest of the day.

The rest of the day was spent ingesting Ottawa’s fine sand and gravel, getting doused with high-density foam and getting sunburn, beak and cheeks. So much for my plan of wearing a hat.

In the end, my client got his data, the folks at Helicopter Transport Services did a great job, and I used all the hot water the hotel had in one shower.

I will now offer to anyone that has ever worked under a helicopter I flew the following piece of advice: Next time I see you, the first drink is on me. You earned it.

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