I was assigned to ferry an OH-58A (a.k.a. Bell JetRanger) from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Corpus Christi, Texas, for overhaul. I was a newly minted Army captain, two years out of flight school, with about 500 hours of helicopter time.
I was on the second day of the ferry flight, with the VFR helicopter loaded down with sectionals and all of the helicopters logs and records. The weather was good VFR, and I was flying along the Texas coast from Galveston to Corpus Christi, listening to local radio on the ADF. I was flying low enough that it would have been illegal over a congested area, but high enough that my whirling wings werent kicking up sand as I blew down the coast at all of 90 knots.
I was tooling along, enjoying the cool, smooth morning air, when what to my wandering eyes did appear but a woman emerging from a sleeping bag on the beach, stretching and yawning, leaving virtually nothing to the imagination.
Being an eagle-eyed Army aviator trained in the techniques of ground observation, I whipped my steed into a hard right bank, climbing with back pressure applied on the cyclic and pulling power with the collective at the same time, so that I could reacquire the target.
I came out on the perch with several hundred feet more altitude and almost zero indicated airspeed. I continued to roll right, keeping the aircraft under positive G while pulling the nose down through the horizon and flashing my landing light at the surprised maiden.
Now, there is a place in a helicopter where, if you point the nose down in such a manner, youll go downhill fast and straight. Pulling power with the collective or putting back pressure on the cyclic will not do much to arrest the descent, so altitude drops quickly. I was not flying a combat-tested helicopter with a fully articulated rotor system and maneuverability galore, but a first-generation JetRanger that flew nicely and looked great, but didnt have much guts.
At this point, with the nose down and the girl waving back vigorously, I was now along for the ride. Somehow, someway, by wiggling back on the cyclic while applying power to redline torque and temp and continuing the gentle right-hand turn, I induced the helicopter to mush out short of smacking into the beach. Next thing I knew, I was hightailing it along the beach like a bat out of hell on its way to Corpus. With the landing light still on.
To this day, the only reason I can figure out for not becoming a semi-permanent part of the beach is a combination of blind luck and the fact that I kept the mild, positive-G right turn going. You can probably apply a lot of aerodynamic theory to this, but its much too complicated for me to worry about at this point.
This all happened so fast, without thought, that I didnt even have enough time to break into a sweat until I was a couple of miles farther down the beach. The last I saw of my temptation her boyfriend was pulling her back into the sleeping bag. But wow, I bet I really impressed her, especially with that landing light.
Now, years after the event, its apparent that this was one of those flights where one thing just seemed to naturally lead to another. The chain of events that led to this near-accident included a solo, unsupervised flight by a relatively inexperienced pilot flying away from the bounds and restrictions of the home field; flying VFR in uncontrolled airspace; high energy and enthusiasm for flying; poorly guarded impulse and reactions; and the limited capabilities of the machine. If any of these links had been broken, this near-disaster wouldnt have gotten as close as it did. Believe me, it never happened again.
Other lessons to consider: This is the kind of buzzing/low-altitude maneuvering that claims many pilots every year. In this case, altitude would have done more than provided more room to recover. It would have insulated you from the eye candy that got you into the pickle in the first place.
Road to Recovery
In 1947 I purchased an Aerocoup in Chicago for $2,350 – a price that included flying lessons. During the 3.5 hours of instruction that followed my CFI told me a number of times to remember two tasks if ever faced with an engine failure: use the airspeed indicator to make sure I didnt get too slow and the altimeter to tell me how much distance I had left.
I flew that airplane for five years without incident, and I dont think I ever thought about those statements again. But flying took a back seat to raising my family, and I didnt fly again until 1999 – a 47-year hiatus.
I bought a Cessna 150 and proceeded to do a lot of traveling in it. In 2000 I was headed to an airport near my sons home in Iowa. I was about 10 miles from the airport, which was on the other side of town, when I descended to 1,000 feet. Thats when the engine quit.
I tried to restart the engine without success, and by then I was down to about 700 feet. I realized Id never make the airport and started looking around for a place to put down. I turned away from the airport and toward a bean field on the other side of a busy highway.
As I crossed the highway, I saw a huge gap in the traffic. I figured I had enough altitude to turn and straighten out over the highway, landing in the gap in traffic. As the airspeed dropped I had to keep pushing to keep my airspeed above the stall.
As I lined up over the highway, I was at about 50 feet. My airspeed was fine and I landed just like I was at an airport.
That long-ago CFIs few words of advice had returned just when I needed them. I give him credit for turning my emergency into a safe landing. Had I not remembered those pearls, I know I would have tried to stretch my glide by pulling up.
CFIs probably wonder if the things they say stick. Well, I was 78 when this happened, and I remembered it for a good long time.
Another lesson I learned: If Im not there when they put in the gas, I get up there and check for myself.
Other lessons to consider: You might want to get up there and check yourself even if you watch them fuel the airplane. Loose caps can lead to siphoning, and fuel can stream overboard unseen at a prodigious rate.
Putting Check Back into Checklist
Salt Lake International had a clear, hot afternoon for a departure on the 1:15 flight to Lake Powell for a weekend on the boat. As usual for our Friday-after-work departures, we were in a hurry.
I arrived at the airport about a half hour earlier than the rest of the tribe, which gave me time to preflight the A36, pack the bags and get fuel. The gang loaded up and I taxied out to the run-up area, where I went through my usual before takeoff checklist.
The tower cleared us to depart runway 17 and, as I advanced the throttle, I had a nagging feeling Id forgotten something.
We had just cleared the runway when the front passenger door popped open. Instinctively I set the airspeed for 90 knots to keep the airplane flyable. With the gear up, the airplane would still climb, but it needed left rudder to go straight. I reported the problem to the controller and was cleared to return and land.
I asked my wife to hold the door closed as best she could, assuring her we were in no danger. Having her hold the door closed did nothing in terms of noise or handling, as far as I could tell, but I suspect it helped her keep her mind off of terrifying potential outcomes in the couple of minutes it took to get back around.
The loaded Bonanza climbed slowly to about 600 feet, where I let the airspeed climb to 105 knots for the trip around the pattern. By the time I was on downwind, Id concluded that Id hold the gear and flaps until landing was assured, because I wasnt sure how the rudder and added drag from the door would affect the airplanes handling.
On short final, I added 10 degrees of flaps, which required more left rudder. I then eked them out to 20 degrees, which required left rudder almost to the stops. I extended the gear about a quarter-mile out, and the airplane flew rather steadily at 80 knots toward the runway. Just a little bit of flare put the rudder to the stops as we touched down and taxied in.
The nagging worry I had at the start of the takeoff roll had been the passenger door push the button and lock I had neglected. Because of that, I had an exercise in emergency cockpit management. The need to fly the airplane first was reinforced tremendously, because a door opening is not in itself a recipe for disaster in most light planes.
I also found I had no temptation to try a turnback to a downwind landing. There simply was not enough altitude. If I couldnt fly a pattern, Id have gone for the freeway.
Other lessons to consider: This is a perfect example of how checklists become rote exercises in which the pilot reads the item rather meaninglessly. Proper discipline is to identify and verify each item, verbally if necessary. Put your passengers to work posing a challenge from the checklist for you to verbally answer.