Two Close Calls

One, another pilot’s; the other, mine.

I flew up to Chelan, WA to visit a friend on Wednesday. The weather here in central Washington State has been too good to force a cherry drying pilot to sit around and wait for rain. I’m sure my clients didn’t even miss me. (Heck, I could have been back in Quincy in 30 minutes if they needed me.)

I flew direct to Chelan, enjoying some low-flying over the wheat fields of the Waterville Plateau. I know where all the wires are up there and I wasn’t that low. But I do admit that I enjoy the rush of flying at 120 miles per hour 100-200 feet off the ground. The flat expanse of the Plateau is perfect for this kind of flying — you can cover the entire north-south distance without flying over a single home or business.

The descent down to Chelan is always a thrill. First I sometimes need to climb a bit to cross over the tops of four or six sets of high tension power lines that run east-west across the north end of the Plateau. Then I’m at the edge of the Plateau and the earth drops away to the Columbia River over a thousand feet below. My two-bladed rotor system makes it dangerous to do a nose-over dive like you might see in the movies. Instead, I have to content myself with lowering the collective almost to the floor and settling into a 1,000 to1,500 foot per minute descent rate. I always descend downriver from Chelan Airport, so I have to bank to the right and follow the river northeast. By the time I get to the airport, I’m only 100 feet above its field elevation, mostly because it sits on a shelf over the river.

I used to do this flight a lot more often when my finances were better and I could afford to fly on my own dime. Things are different now and I’ll likely make this trip only once or twice this whole season. This was my first time this year and I’ve been here nearly two months.

Three R44s Parked at ChelanMy friend met me at the airport. He’s a helicopter pilot too and he’s also in Washington to dry cherries. His helicopter is parked at an orchard. There were two other R44s parked in a field at the airport and I parked with them. But I didn’t bother shutting down. I invited my friend to join me for a flight further up the river to Brewster, where another friend of mine’s old Sikorsky S55T (and that T stands for “turbine”) is recovering from a mishap last season. We flew up the river, pointing out all the orchards we’d dried in the past along the way.

Close Call #1

Back at Chelan, I parked with the R44s again and shut down. The Airport Manager drove up with his dog in his pickup and chatted with us as I locked up. We could hear the sound of a helicopter running on the other side of an old hangar. The airport manager told us about the pilot, a man who had likely been flying helicopters since before I was born. As we chatted, we could hear the engine winding up as the pilot got the helicopter to full RPM. My friend started walking toward the hangar to get a better look at the pilot’s departure; he was out of sight from where we stood.

A sickly bang! sound rung out. It was not the kind of sound I’d ever want to hear anywhere near where my helicopter was spinning. An older helicopter came into view around the front of the hangar, flying erratically. The pilot got it under control easily and continued hover-taxiing to the fuel pumps about 100 feet away. As he set it down, my friend picked up a piece of something and started walking back to us with it.

It was a splintered piece of wood.

Meanwhile, three men in a hangar nearby came out onto the ramp. Together, we watched as the pilot shut down the engine. The blades slowed. They didn’t even come to a full stop before I saw the damage.

The outboard 6 to 8 inches of each of the two main rotor blades had been severed. My friend was holding a piece of one of them; the other one was on the ramp. The blades had struck a steel I-beam that extended out beyond the hangar walls. He’d probably hovered past that spot a thousand times in the past. This time, he cut it a bit too close.

I call this a close call because of what could have happened. The blades could have disintegrated as the pilot hovered. He could have lost control of the helicopter. We could have been dragging his injured or dead body out of the wreckage. Worse yet, the wreckage would likely have flown all over as the helicopter beat itself to death on the ground. My friend could have been struck with flying debris. Heck, I could have been struck, too. And I wasn’t even that close.

Needless to say, the pilot was very angry with himself. We all felt bad for him, but there was nothing else to do but wheel the helicopter back into its hangar until repairs could be made.

Close Call #2

I had a nice day in Chelan with my friend. We had lunch at a downtown cafe where we could sit outside in the shade. Then we went to Blueberry Hills and had some pie. (I had to skip dinner to keep my calorie count down for the day, but it was worth it. I love rhubarb pie.) Finally, at about 6, my friend drove me back up to the airport. We said our goodbyes, I climbed aboard Zero-Mike-Lima, and started up.

A small private jet made a magnificent departure from the short runway just before I was ready to take off. He climbed out as if a rocket were strapped to his back.

Conscious of the wires around three sides of my landing zone, I took off on the fourth side, heading right over the river. I didn’t climb much; once I was over the cliff, I was already at least 500 feet over the river. I flew downriver at that altitude for a while. I wanted to follow the river all the way back, but there was a fire burning near Wenatchee and I’d forgotten to call the FSS to see if there was a TFR. So I figured I’d just go down the river a bit before I climbed back up to the Plateau and made my way back that way.

Powered Paraglider

You can find this photo of a powered paraglider on Wikipedia.

I saw the other paragliders first. There were at least five of them, flying in lazy circles about 200 feet above my altitude, to my left. They were close enough to see their colorful canopies, but not close enough to see whether they were powered. But I didn’t look long. Movement much closer caught my eye and I spotted one at my altitude less than 1/4 mile away.

I swerved to the right, away from him. I then kept scanning the airspace all around me, looking for others. Thankfully, I came up empty.

My onboard video camera caught the action. This is a clip from the flight. The paraglider is in the picture right from the beginning. Look slightly right of center near the top of the frame. His canopy is yellow. I spotted his friends at about the 0:09 mark and banked a bit to the right; I spotted him at 0:15 and made a more aggressive turn.

The quickness of this encounter (or near encounter) is quite evident in the video clip. The video is only 20 seconds long. When you’re moving along at 120-130 miles per hour, things happen fast. It turned out, he was going the same way I was — and I’m pretty sure he was powered — so he probably didn’t even hear me coming up behind him. At his near-stationary speed (when compared to mine), I was upon him only seconds after he came into view.

I am not accustomed to seeing any aircraft other than helicopters at my altitude, so to say that this shook me up a bit is an understatement. Just because you don’t expect to see something doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

No More Mishaps

The rest of the flight was uneventful.

I climbed up to the Plateau, crossed over the big wires, and settled down for another relatively low flight across the wheat fields. I took a detour later on, following a canyon down into Lower Moses Coulee, over the town of Palisades and out over the Columbia River south of Wenatchee and its fire. I flew low-level along the eastern shore of the river to Crescent Bar, then climbed up to the Babcock Bench to scout out a geocache location up there. From there, I flew out to Quincy Lakes, overflew the Ancient Lakes and their waterfalls, scouted another geocache location, and headed back to the ag strip where I’m based until July 20.

I’d flown a total of about two hours. It was my first time out flying in two weeks. (I sure wish it would rain again soon — if only to wash the dust off the helicopter.)

It was good to get out — and good to get shaken up a bit. I’d seen two instances of complacency rearing its ugly head. Fortunately, no injuries; just lessons learned.

8 thoughts on “Two Close Calls

  1. The yellow of the paraglider’s sail made it really hard to see against the hills in the background. In that video clip, even though you’d told us where to look, I still didn’t see it for several seconds.

  2. @Miraz Jordan
    In real life, he looked a lot closer than that video shows. But no, I didn’t spot him until just before I made that sharp turn. It was a reflex action.

    When I clipped the video, I started from the very first moment he could be seen — and that was barely visible. So don’t feel bad if you didn’t see him right away. I didn’t see him for 15 seconds past the video start point!

  3. @BWJones
    We had a crash like that a few years back in Mesa, AZ. Guy tried to land a Jet Ranger on a trailer with rails at night. His reward: a transmission through his brains. I’ve landed on a trailer before, but it was a flatbed without rails and the conditions were favorable. Still, accidents happen. What really bugged me most about that story was the idiotic comments that followed it. I HATE the “experts” that gather to voice their opinions on things they know nothing about.

  4. The Tribune has had problems in the past with commenters… Initially they took a no moderation, no screening policy, but it has been causing problems. There are discussions now about how to implement some form of moderation as the comments and “experts” that pop up are absolutely non-contributory to the story.

  5. @BWJones
    The thing that bugs me most is how these “experts” are badmouthing people in situations where death is involved. The pilot may have landed on trailers 100 times and had some freak problem this one time. But as far as these “experts” are concerned, he’s an idiot for even trying to land on the trailer. This poor guy has to live with the fact that his accident caused the death of another person! And these “experts” have to heap more shit on him?

    Frankly, I believe that accident stories should NOT be open to comments. Perhaps no news story should be. Perhaps comments should be limited to opinion pages content.

What do you think?