I learn that even a helicopter can get stuck in the mud.
The idea was to show Mike’s brother, who is in town this week, a few of the more interesting spots out in the desert. So we took him to one of our favorites, an abandoned house north of Lake Pleasant.
The house sits in a saddle between two mountain peaks and there isn’t much clear, level ground near it. So I usually park on a dirt road that winds past it. That day was no different. I hover-taxied along the road, looking for a level spot to set down. I was quite surprised to see that the road, which was still wet from all the rain we’d been having, appeared to have been used recently by an ATV or some other narrow wheelbase vehicle.
The first place I attempted to set down didn’t seem level enough. The problem, I later discovered, was a CG issue. Mike’s brother is a big boy and having him sit in the front seat was pushing my CG much more forward than I was accustomed to. As a result, the fronts of the skids were touching down long before the backs of the skids. But on that first set down, I wasn’t thinking that. I just figured the LZ wasn’t level. So I picked it back up and moved a bit farther down the road.
I set down in another spot and although it didn’t seem level (probably due to the CG issue again), I put full collective down and we settled into the ground. Unfortunately, I mean that literally. We settled into the ground. The ground on my side was soft and the right skid sunk into it.
I looked out my window at the skid. It was sunk in about 1/2 inch, mostly in the back. It didn’t look too bad. We decided to get out, walk around as we’d originally intended, and deal with the sunken skid when we got back.
I don’t know if it was a bad idea or not. Mike claims the helicopter sunk in a bit more while we were away — perhaps 45 minutes. While we explored the ruins, we picked up discarded pieces of lumber, blackened with age. We each carried some of it back to the helicopter with the idea that we’d somehow lift the skid out of the mud and slip the wood beneath it for support.
I really don’t know what we were thinking. The helicopter weighs 1500 lbs empty and it had about 30 gallons of fuel on board (180 lbs). Although the left skid had settled onto relatively firm ground, the right skid was definitely sunk in. Mike slipped a metal can top under the back of the right skid. Then we had his brother pull down on the tail rotor gearbox to lift the front end of the helicopter out of the mud so we could slip wood pieces under the fronts of the skids.
That was definitely a bad idea. Although the fronts of the skids sat nicely on wood, the backs of the skids — both of them! — sunk deeper into the mud. Now we had a real problem.
At this point, you might be saying, what’s the problem? It’s a helicopter. Just start it up and take off.
It’s not that simple. If one of a helicopter’s skids is stuck in something, it could create a pivot point. Then, when you start to lift off, the skid remains stuck. If you keep going, the entire helicopter could fly over onto its side. This is called dynamic rollover and it’s the cause of more than a few accidents. As far as I was concerned, the skid could be seriously stuck in the mud, creating a pivot point. I was not about to take off until I was sure the skid was clear of mud. So we dug. The ground was very soft and the pieces of wood we’d brought made relatively good digging tools. As we dug, we hammered pieces of wood under the skids, using rocks as hammers. Of course the trick there was to keep those pieces of wood relatively flat so they wouldn’t create pivot points. We worked on it for about an hour. We got very muddy. Our shoes kept sticking in the stuff and, more than once, my foot slipped out of my shoe when I tried to walk. (I hate when that happens.) At one point, I thought I might have to call for help — we just didn’t seem to be making the situation any better. But then we cleared most of the mud aside and I was satisfied that we’d done the best we could do.
Mike’s brother and I got in while Mike stood outside, watching to see if the vibrations of the helicopter’s engine and blades would cause it to sink deeper into the muck. I started up and warmed up the engine. Everything looked good. Mike got in. I told them both to keep quiet so I could concentrate. And then I very carefully pulled up the collective, making sure that I didn’t move laterally in any direction as we got light on the skids.”You’re off the ground back here,” Mike told me.
I’d picked up so smoothly that I hadn’t even felt it. We were airborne, I pulled more pitch and rose two feet off the ground. Then I pushed the cyclic forward and we took off, over the edge of the cliff and into the valley beyond.
Another learning experience. But a messy one.