Flying Under Bridges

What were we thinking?

Back in the spring of 2004, when I interviewed at Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters for a tour pilot job, one of the interviewers — there were three of them — asked me what the craziest thing I’d ever done in a helicopter was. I said, “Well, I was sitting in the PIC seat but not manipulating the controls when we flew under a bridge.”

There was a brief moment of silence and then all three men laughed long and hard. I’m not sure if they laughed because they thought what we’d done was funny or if they thought it was funny that I’d actually answered truthfully instead replying with something I thought they’d want to hear, like “I never do crazy things in a helicopter.” (I don’t lie, even when it’s in my best interest to do so.) But it must have been a good enough answer because I got a job offer and I took the job. That summer gave me some of the best flying experience I could get to hone skills, build confidence, and move forward in my career as a helicopter pilot.

In this blog post, I want to talk a little about the events leading up to us flying under the bridge and what happened to the pilot manipulating the controls that day.

The Backstory

It was July 19, 2003. I’d spent the previous day ferrying a brand spanking new R44 Raven II from Torrance, CA to St. George, UT. The helicopter had been purchased by a student pilot we’ll call John who had a heck of a lot more money to burn than I ever will. Not only had he bought the Raven II for cash, but he’d paid the person who’d ordered it for his own operation an extra $40K so he wouldn’t have to wait for his own to be built.

He’d asked his flight instructor — we’ll call him Roy — to pick it up, but Roy didn’t meet Robinson’s very strict ferry pilot requirements. Although he had 2,000 hours in Robinson helicopters, he’d never taken the factory safety course. I’d met Roy the month before when he was rounding up burros out at Alamo Lake in Arizona. He remembered me and the fact that I had R44 experience and guessed (correctly) that I’d taken the safety course. John and Roy arranged for me to fly the helicopter with Roy from Torrance to St. George. Due to Robinson’s rules about ferry passengers, John would stay behind.

It was a mostly uneventful trip. The helicopter was ugly: white with a bright orange stripe and chocolate brown leather interior. But it flew fine and we cruised through the desert, mostly following I-15. We stopped for fuel at Boulder City, NV and then landed again at Mesquite, NV to wait out a thunderstorm in our path. John met us when we landed at St. George. They took me out for dinner, put me in a motel room up at the airport, and made plans to get me home to Wickenburg (near Phoenix) the next day.

The Flight

That brings us to July 19 again. John was eager to go flying in his new helicopter, so they decided to fly me down to Wickenburg. It would be about a 2-1/2 hour flight. Roy put me in the right (PIC) seat while he sat in the left, just like the day before. The duals were still in. John sat in the back. He’d get his chance to fly on the way home. (To this day, I think it was very kind of them to allow me a few more hours of stick time in the R44. I only had about 40 hours in one at that point.)

We headed south over the east end of Lake Mead near Pearce Ferry, past the Grand Wash Cliffs, and down through Lapai Alley to Kingman. That’s where we stopped for fuel. The rest of the flight was very familiar to me — I’d likely flown the route along State Route 93 dozens of times in the R22 I owned back then.

Near Wikieup
Here’s a piece of the Phoenix Sectional Chart that covers the area of Route 93 south of Wickieup. Note the wires.

Sometime just after passing over Wikieup, John asked Roy how he found burros from the air. (Remember, he’d done burro roundup only a month before.) Roy asked for the controls and I let him have them. He dropped down low and explained how he looked for bare patches in the desert where the burros would rub themselves. We looked but although we saw patches like he described, we didn’t see burros.

By that time, we’d reached Kaiser Canyon. Roy dropped down very low and followed it to where it joined up with Burro Creek. That’s when he turned to me and asked, “Have you ever flown under a bridge?”

I admitted that I hadn’t.

“Want to?” he asked.

Burro Creek Satellite
A recent satellite image of Burro Creek Canyon. If you look closely, you can actually see the shadow of the two bridge spans upstream from the bridge. We came from the south, following the creek.

I knew the bridge he was thinking of: the Burro Creek Bridge on Route 93, which spanned the canyon not far ahead. I’m not sure if I answered. Or if John answered. The canyon opened up enough for Roy to drop us into it. We rounded a bend and the bridge came into view.

That’s when John started getting cold feet. “I don’t think we should do this,” he said nervously.

But he was really too late. We were moving at at least 80 knots and the bridge was coming up quickly.

Burro Creek Bridge
The Burro Creek Bridge not long after the second span was completed. Back when we flew under it, there was only one span. Please don’t fly under this or any other bridge. It’s dangerous.

It wasn’t the bridge up ahead that had me worried. It was the two sets of big power lines — we call them “Bonnevilles” here in Washington state — that spanned the canyon on our side of the bridge. They wires actually drooped lower than the bottom of the bridge, which is something I’d never noticed before. But I only felt real fear for a moment. That’s how long it took to pass under them and the bridge beyond.

I can’t remember what happened next. Probably some euphoric whooping by all three of us. And laughter. Roy gave back the controls and I got us back on course. They dropped me off at Wickenburg, fueled up, and headed home.

I lived in that area for another 10 years and owned a helicopter the entire time. Although I passed by the bridge dozens of times — I even did a photo flight while the second span was under construction — I never flew under it again. What the hell were we thinking, anyway?

Afterwards

Time passed. I helped John and Roy out again in August, doing helicopter rides at a country fair in the same R44. (According to my log book, I logged a total of about 20 hours in that helicopter.) I think I visited Roy in St. George once again after that. Then we lost touch.

I don’t know what happened to John and his helicopter.

But I do know what happened to Roy. On April 6, 2014, the helicopter Roy was flying collided with terrain in a canyon near Green River, UT. He and his passenger both died.

I read about it in the news and my heart sank a little — the way it does when someone we know dies in a crash. (If you’re a pilot and it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will.) The investigation is still going on, but the NTSB preliminary report states that there is no evidence of engine failure.

That got me thinking, there are old pilots and bold pilots…

4 thoughts on “Flying Under Bridges

  1. Wow! Great story!

    Reminds me of some of the stories my uncle would tell me. Like when he was a Naval Aviator in WWII and flew the beautiful Corsairs. And the time he flew under the bridge and buzzed the crosses, upside down, on the hill above Ventura. He was a real hotshot–flew one of the first helos to the Paris Airshow in around 1947. He was a test pilot for that Sunnyvale-based helicopter company. Was that Robinson? I can’t remember. He also flew that gawd-awful “Flying Platform” of theirs. Wrecked plenty of them when they quit him, busted his back up but kept flying them till he got enough sense to quit rotor wings. Became a school teacher in Kalispell.

    Sorry to hear about “Roy” and his fatal. And you’re right…stay away from bridges and power lines. Whenever you come over to visit, I’ll take you over to James Island, where those Kodiak-bound Coasties ended their career when they snagged the powerline and ended up in the mouth of the Quileute River, only one of them coming home to his family.

    Keep them stories coming…

    • Thanks, Jeremy. Glad you enjoyed it. I really need to start writing up more stories like this. So many of my flights over the past 14 years ended up with lessons learned that could be shared. Or just interesting stories!

  2. Thanks for sharing this story Maria. As a low time pilot I like reading about realistic scenarios that any pilot could find themselves in. We get lots of the “dos and donts” in training, but the real world stories always stick a little better. It’s a form of scenario based training I guess, and you did a wonderful job of laying out the whole story.

    • Ah, real world training. That’s what pilots really need. I think I could write an entire BOOK about that.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Glad you liked it. I really do need to write up more of my stories.