HAI Convention News

The Most Gorgeous Thing, Ever

 - March 6, 2011, 3:30 AM

Anyone who knows me well can verify that I married a great-looking lady; the fairest in all the land, in my eyes. But as pretty as she is, Lourdes is not the loveliest thing I have ever seen. That special feast-for-eyeballs came about during my very last Huey flight in the U.S. Army.

Lessons learned in Army Aviation should include this warning: If you are the unit’s “short timer” pilot, don’t be surprised near the end of the day when the head honcho hands you the logbook to a tired old helicopter and he’s got a peculiar look on his face.

Like me, you may soon be off on a cross-country flight in a bird that is too problematical to perform routine missions. It sounds reassuring to hear the Operations Chief say, “...You can probably make it all the way to Stockton [Army Depot--The Repo Depo] before something really bad happens.”

One peek in the troubled logbook tells the story: more than half of the gripes are signed-off as “Circle Red-X” conditions. That means the repairs needed on the bird exceed the maintenance capabilities of the home unit and the helicopter must be ferried to the Repo Depo in central California for field maintenance (at least the avionics work!).

Walking out to the Holloman (N.M.) Air Force Base ramp early the next morning, I took in the somber-looking, olive-drab Army UH-1H sitting near the taxiway. The young Army rotorcraft mechanic accompanying me on the cross-country (XC) flight to Stockton was adding engine oil to the reservoir and buttoning up the air-intake screens; almost ready to depart. 

This was my first “solo” XC in what was normally a dual-piloted Army “slick.” It was thus a rare treat for “Lucky,” my crew chief who normally flies in the back latched onto an armed M-60 machine gun in wartime or keeping an eye out for passengers who don’t listen to his safety briefings.

Lucky came from parts unknown, but he was clearly happy to be riding in the left front seat for a change. Now he’d be getting some stick time from a veteran CW2 and enjoying the up-front-Cadillac-widescreen version of the legendary Huey.

We traveled light and planned to make the 1,500-mile flight in a couple of days, the old bird willing. Back in two days--with a little travel pay–that’s the Army way.

Holloman Tower bid us adieu in the long shadows of dawn. We lit off westbound with clearance to cross the Restricted Area, low level. The battered old bird rumbled along into a mild headwind, indicating 100 knots--and not the smoothest flying Iroquois I’ve ever strapped on. Cruising west at 1,000 feet abeam White Sands National Monument, we were rocked moderately crossing over the dramatic “pipes” of the Organ Mountains. Passing by Las Cruces Municipal Airport, we clattered our way over the high mesa to Deming, our first fuel point. Lucky was showing promise as a stick, I recall, but there was nothing else memorable on that desert XC flight, all the way across Arizona and on to Palm Springs. And then...it got memorable.

Our long, slow approach down into the L.A. Basin toward Ontario Airport--following the railroad on our sectional map--was complicated by an increasingly thick haze of smog.It was actually purple on the horizon ahead of us and the ambient odor was acrid. Tall smokestacks belched more of the same from a stark, gray steel mill. Acres of wrecked automobiles in massive boneyards, miles of congested rail yards passed by our plastic windows. An apprehensive leg, through some of the worst smog I have ever navigated. (This flight occurred in the spring of 1971: LA smog at its worst!)Dialing in the Ontario Tower, we were relieved to hear a friendly voice. The Fed steered us his way during a lull in airliner traffic. We followed his vectors and soon observed the tire-scarred numbers “26” pass under our chin bubbles. We hover-taxied over to the jet-A service helipad, located near the base of the (old) FAA tower. The smog burned our eyes!We managed to get some encouraging information from the weather people as our Huey was refueled and we grabbed a light snack. Afterward, Lucky had ample opportunity to add more oil to our leaky Lycoming. Our destination (Stockton) was reported to be VFR with a broken ceiling, winds light and variable. Preflight looks good, other than an oily engine deck. Now to carve our way out of this purple haze and head for Yosemite National Park!

Got an approval from the Tower to climb on course through the crud to VFR-on-top, which we did regularly in the military (single engine) with never a glitch. Breaking out around 6,000 feet, the dazzling white cloud tops were wonderful to behold, and the carbon-and-sulfur stench was gone. Requesting cruise speed from my left-seater, I studied the map against the terrain below. Lucky’s magnetic heading appeared to parallel the pencil line on our colorful map.

Looking things over, we had plenty of fuel, lots of breaks in the clouds. On course, and steady as she goes. I made our position reports with Flight Watch on time, and then, as we climbed ever so gradually to clear the fluffy cloud tops ahead, we passed the midway point of our fuel load and something electrical in the old ship simply died.

 Something that would disable our radios, nav instruments and our transponder, with nary a voltmeter glitch or master caution light. There was no electrical odor. We both looked for solutions but quickly discovered that the problem was not circuit-breaker-related and fortunately did not affect her dependable turbine engine.

About the time we whirled past cloud-obscured Yosemite, I began to get really nervous. Breaks in the clouds were getting fewer and farther between. Navigating became a case of over-the-top, time, distance and heading. Higher we climbed, closing the air vents as cold air whistled in.

Lucky didn’t begin to tell me what to do; this was my problem, and he was along for the ride. When I calculated that we were nearing the Stockton vicinity, I feared messing with airline traffic. And if we flew too far west, we’d be over the Pacific.

Our fuel dropped to a measly 200 pounds, assuming that the gauge was correct. With no breaks in the clouds, fear was welling up in my gut as I made large circles and dialed the emergency code into the transponder, praying it would alert the regional radar facility. But the radios were dead. They appeared to be on, but there was no audible “squelch” and no reply light on the transponder. Ten thousand feet and running out of ideas.

At 100 pounds indicated, I realized I must begin an instrument descent and rely on pure luck to get us through the thick mass before our 10 minutes of fuel is burned up. Dreading this last-ditch maneuver more than anything, I began to slow the big helicopter down and lowered the power. The raw fear that had been boiling within me suddenly began a one-way rumbling advance in my gut and my priorities were quickly reversed!

I sat frozen in the right seat, glancing over at Lucky to see if he was “as afraid” as I was. He was transfixed, staring at the fuel gauge: this was a first for him, too. So that old expression of being “so scared he crapped his pants!” wasn’t just an expression, it dawned on me!

About the time I bottomed the collective pitch to descend blindly into the deep sea of clouds, I saw the most gorgeous thing on planet Earth: a coral-blue opening appeared immediately off to starboard, a 30-foot wide “sucker hole,” sent by Heavenly Express! An incredibly beautiful green pasture beckoned, 9,000 feet directly below us, if I could just dive right in there and stay visually oriented inside the now greenish-blue vertical tunnel, all the way down.

Dialing back the turbine-engine-trim for a rapid descent to the right, that irresistible impulse in my bowels quickly subsided and the “yee-haws” from Lucky told me he was feeling much better about our prospects. Spiraling all the way down with our tail section in the white stuff, the sucker hole stayed open, and we broke out at about 500 feet above the ground, plenty of time to beep-up the engine speed and take a deep breath!

The lush green meadow became our LZ, conveniently bordered on the east by a full-service gas station where we used the pay phone to call the Repo Depo. We could actually see the facility from the meadow! The Depot pilots were old hands at this sort of thing and told us, “Leave ‘er there, boys. We’ll come get ‘er.”

Ha! They didn’t have to twist our arms. And I honestly don’t remember my mechanic’s name these many years; but after that flight, he was “Lucky” to me!

Former U.S. Army helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo is author of Wind Loggers and The Rise and Fall of Captain Methane: Autobiography of a Maverick.