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Death Came Calling Like a Hurricane

 

It is good for survival dogs to be exposed to as many modes of transportation as possible. Helicopters are extremely versatile yet potentially hazardous machines. They produce a tremendous amount of noise, which can be disconcerting to the unexposed, untrained animal. The tail rotor and the main rotor spin at speeds that make them virtually invisible, however if someone or something strays into either the encounter will most assuredly be fatal. Prior to their first exposure to a helicopter, a survival dog should already be a well seasoned traveler having been exposed to the methods revealed in the Insiders Track .

 

Sadie spent a summer season traveling around various parts of Alaska with her owner in a helicopter. One camp was particularly breathtaking. It was set up on the shore of a beautiful mountain lake a little west of Rainy Pass near Fairwell, AK. One morning was clear and beautiful when Sadie and Dave made an early morning flight to transport a surveyor and his helper to the craggy terrain where the survey line was being run.

 

The helicopter was a Hughes 500D. This is an excellent little mountain bird. Highly maneuverable, and able to comfortably land in tight spots that other helicopters wouldn't dare consider. Typically, a helicopter pilot sits in the right seat, which is just the opposite from an airplane. In an airplane, the main pilot's seat is the left seat. The overwhelming majority of the population is right handed, so by making the left seat the pilots seat in airplanes, the pilot is able to use his preferred hand to easily access the throttles, aviation charts, radio knobs, navigation instruments, and various other switches and circuit breakers in which flight safety is dependent upon their ready accessibility. The helicopter pilot is not so fortunate. The cyclic control stick which protrudes upward from the floor between the pilots legs requires constant attention for the duration of the flight. While good pilots from necessity become very adapt at manipulating the cyclic with their left hand, the cyclic is primarily designed to be manipulated with the right hand. The cyclic can never be safely left unattended while in flight. However the collective, which is the second most important flight control manipulated with the pilots hands is located along the left side of the pilots seat and is therefore typically manipulated with the left hand. This control can be adjusted and left unattended for brief moments of time while the pilot manipulates a radio or glances at a flight chart. So, a typical helicopter pilot is adept at adjusting radios and other things with his left hand since his left hand is the freer of the two. For a practical reason, the civilian Hughes 500 breaks the tradition of seating the pilot in the right seat.

 

Like its counterpart, the Bell Jet Ranger, the Hughes 500 is a five place helicopter counting crew stations. However the Bell Jet Ranger sits three people in the back and two people in the front, while the Hughes 500 sits three people in the front and only two in the back. To make room for three people in the front the pilot sits in the left seat so that the collective control is at the far left of the helicopter making room for a seat in the middle. Sadie typically sat in this middle seat while riding in a Hughes 500. On this morning the surveyor was in the right seat and his helper was in the back.

 

Their destination was a ridge top at about 5000 ft. MSL (mean sea level). I made an approach to the same spot I had picked them up from the previous evening. Once skids light on the ridge top, it was apparent that the wind conditions were more favorable to allow an approach closer to their actual work location. I asked them if they would like to get a little closer, from which they responded in the affirmative. So I pulled pitch (increased collective) to make the short hop to the closer location. This site was considerably craggier than the spot we just left however with the current wind conditions the landing should be routine for the typical terrain this job covered.

 

As I approached this new landing site I adjusted my collective down to start the decent to the spot I chose to land on. As soon as I made that power adjustment our whole day changed from routine boredom in a fascinating work environment to a flight and an experience that was unforgettable for those fortunate enough to live through it. If an engine is going to fail in a turbine engine helicopter that failure is most likely to take place during a power adjustment. My AGL (above ground level) altitude was relatively low when I lowered my collective for landing since the site was so close to the first landing spot. We were close to about thirty feet above the ground. But, this was a mountain top in some of natures roughest terrain. We were at 5000 ft. MSL thirty feet above the rocks just in front of us. To our right was a valley floor with a small stream running through it about 2000 ft. below us. The slope from the mountain top to the creek bed was very steep.

 

The serenity of the morning was shattered with that landing power adjustment. The helicopter yawed left as the engine quickly unwound, warning lights and warning horns both came on indicating something dire had just occurred with the engine. A storm of a different nature, yet every bit as deadly as a powerful hurricane struck us with full furry. Instinctively I applied right pedal to adjust for the yaw, lowered my collective, and reduced my throttle to establish auto rotational glide. However, my mind quickly realized that we had a very serious situation. While the landing area in front of us was marginally adequate for a power on landing our chances of surviving a power off landing to this particular location was slim to none. My mind told be that we were going to hit the side of this mountain and roll down it if I didn't do something quick. I had heard stories of Hughes 500's rolling 1500 ft. down the side of a mountain, and when the rolling stopped the doors opened and the passengers climbed out. If it had to happen this was the best aircraft to be in because of its shape. However, the thought was not appealing to me. In a split second I increased my collective slightly, and laid my cyclic hard over to the right toward the open air and the valley floor. Now when a single engine helicopter's engine quits the blades are no longer driven by the power of the engine, but if the pilot quickly reduces his collective and establishes auto rotational glide the rotors will continue to spin and will be driven by the air rising through them much like a maple seed spinning slowing to the ground. Enough energy is stored in the spinning rotors that a pilot can land softly if he executes the auto rotation maneuver correctly and can find and reach a suitable landing spot. I broke a cardinal rule. I increased my collective in an attempt to get some distance between me and the mountain since I deemed the only landing area available to me as unsuitable for a power off landing. My mind said, "you got to get farther away from the side of this mountain". Just as quickly, after the pitch increase and laying my cyclic over hard, my mind told me, "now you have to put the collective down and establish auto rotational glide. Even if you hit the side of the mountain you have take what you get now or you will surely fall like a rock!" So I lowered my collective full down. I had only popped it up for a split second. It was enough to move us away from the mountain. We went from thirty feet AGL to probably three hundred feet AGL. Our altitude gain was not due to a climb, but due to the steepness of the mountain slope. Now as the collective was fully lowered the full fury of the storm engulfed us. We quickly lost our three hundred feet buffer as we fell toward the side of the mountain. A quick glance at the rotor rpm showed it to be in the very low green arc. If a pilot allows the rotor to go out of the green arc during an engine failure it is sometimes impossible to get it back into the green causing almost certain death. As the distance with the mountain closed the rotor rpm built back up and the helicopter gained valuable airspeed. The helicopter closed to what seemed like a couple of feet off the side of the mountain. This part was a smooth slope and like a kid on a giant slide we glided along its surface precariously close as the helicopter continued to gain more valuable airspeed. While I exercised my skills as a helicopter pilot desperately trying to save us, my spirit being seemed to go on autopilot praying that the God I knew would have mercy and spare us. They say when it gets down to the nitty-gritty most people pray. I found I was no exception.

 

It seemed we rode the slide for a good five hundred feet before the helicopter gained enough airspeed to maneuver it away from the surface that could quickly smite us into oblivion. Once away from the side of the mountain in a well established auto rotational glide, I breathed a sigh of relief. We had entered the eye of the storm. Although our situation was still serious we were still alive with a better platter set before us. Sadie was calm beside me although aware that our situation was not normal. I had a split decision. I could turn left into about a four knot head wind and try to make the tundra in the distance. This would be a comfortable landing area. Into the wind and a nice open area. However just prior to the tundra was a fairly foreboding cliff with some unwanted trees. If we couldn't make the glide all the way the cliffs could prove disastrous. My next choice was turning right. From three thousand feet above the creek seemed to have many nice gravel bars all along it. One of these would be considerably friendlier than the cliffs on the approach to the tundra. I felt we had a better chance to the right so to the right we went. Now in the calm of the storms eye I relaxed some and rescanned all of my aircrafts instruments. It was then that I noticed my engine had not completely shut down but was at flight idle. I then rolled my throttle full on to see if the engine would come up to speed. Unfortunately it did not. My prayers were forgotten in the peace of the storms eye and my thoughts wandered to some hanger flying where another pilot had told me a story of a friend who crashed and they accused him of rolling his own throttle off when the accident investigation could find nothing wrong with his engine. When a helicopter pilot knows he has an engine failure or a short side governor failure with no governor override switch there is good reason for him to close his throttle completely. During the initial establishment of auto rotational glide I had closed my throttle to flight idle. Now that I had returned it to full on and the engine rpm remained at flight idle I should have closed them down completely, however the poison of my friends story caused me to reason that I could leave it full on and this would be like a practice auto rotation and no one would accuse me of rolling my own throttle off. So on it stayed.

 

Now as we continued toward the valley floor my thoughts drifted toward my boss. I would have to call him and tell him what happened. My pride hoped I would do a good job with the landing and I could tease my boss about needing a new engine. (is it written, "pride comes before a fall"?) All was peaceful on board, but this was going to be a for real power off landing. As our three thousand feet above the valley floor closed down to a couple of hundred it was time to start my low area recon. One thing I noticed was that the nice gravel bars strewn along the creek were actually bolder bars. We quickly closed in for our power off landing. The boulders were huge and everywhere. Before touching down I knew we were going to need more than just a new engine. I didn't know how much damage we would take but it seemed quite unavoidable. So much for teasing the boss. At fifty feet I started decelerating the aircraft to dissipate the deadly forward airspeed prior to touching down. At ten to fifteen feet I applied a slight initial pitch pull to further slow our decent. Then I started applying cushioning pitch to set us softly on the ground. As pretty as you please we set down on top of two huge boulders. I had used all of my collective pitch. It felt like the stick was up into my armpit. We were alive, safe, and on the ground. It was over. With no engine there was nothing else I could do as a pilot so I released the controls and turned to my dog to tell her everything was going to be okay. I said, "Sadie, it's" . Before saying, " going to be okay." the back side of the hurricane struck us with a fury. The aircraft had rocked back on the boulders and the tail rotor struck the ground. The combination of the slight jarring and the huge collective pitch increase sent the message that, " this thing wants fuel". And that is exactly what happened. Whatever had malfunctioned corrected itself and the engine got a full shot of full at maximum power. We quickly found ourselves back in the air swapping ends as fast as the rotor blades spin. I was no longer a pilot, but a passenger on a death ship. We were spinning so fast that I didn't see a blur, but just one solid color. My door had opened and my head was out shaking violently, so violently I literally thought it might shake off. If I had still had my hand on the collective I would have closed the throttle, but now the centrifugal force would not allow me to reach anything. I thought of my thoughts of calling my boss and teasing him, now I wondered if I would get to call him, I wondered if I would ever get to call anybody ever again. The realization hit me that this was going to kill us, it really was going to kill us. At the moment of that realization I shouted as loud as I could, "GOD I WANT TO LIVE!" Instantaneously there was quiet. I looked down at myself to see if I was still alive. Gratefully I was. Then I checked on my two passengers. I asked them if they were okay. Fortunately they were. Then I said, "Lets get out of this."

 

Sadie was no where to be found. The helicopter came to rest upright in the center of the small creek with the skids smashed. I looked everywhere for Sadie. She was now my only concern. I asked the surveyor to help me tilt the helicopter up so his helper, Molly, could look under it to see if Sadie was there. She asked, "Dave do you really want to know? I don't know if I would really want to know." I told her, "I have to know, one way or the other I have to know." Well Sadie was not found under the helicopter. After forty-five minutes of looking I gave up. There was nothing else for Sadie that I knew to do. So I retrieved the aircraft's ELT (emergency locator transmitter) . I thought I would carry it to the top of the mountain so its signal would get out better thus facilitating our rescue. All the human souls had survived our crash intact. We were able to walk away, but my dog... What had become of my dog.

 

About a quarter of the way up the mountain I stopped to look around. I looked down at the crash site, then I scanned the valley. To my amazement about a quarter of a mile away was a little black and white thing running as fast as she could back toward the crash site. I shouted as loud as I could, " Sadie, hay Sadie!" She but on the brakes and stopped fast. She looked in my direction. When she saw me a huge wiggle went throughout her whole body, then she cut a beeline for me. But she only went about twenty feet before stopping again and taking a double take. That huge wiggle swept through her body once more. Then, she did not stop until she made it all the way to my location. When she stopped she whimpered. She was not hurt physically, just relaying that, "gee boss, that was kinda bad. Wasn't it?" I looked at her and said , "yea Sadie it was pretty bad." But as tears of joy rolled down my cheeks I petted my dog extremely grateful that all had survived fully intact this potential nightmare. Sadie and I made our way to the top of the mountain together to set out the ELT. We were the best of buddies reunited. Life was good.

 

Epilogue: Sadie whimpered again when we got within ten feet of the crashed helicopter, letting me know that was bad news. The four of us hiked to a nearby sheep hunters cabin to stay until a rescue helicopter came to extract us. Sadie got on board but she wasn't none too joyful about it. This was one of our greatest adventures. Years later when I would tell this story, she would look at me like, "yea I was there. I know this story." Traveling around the wilds of Alaska with your survival dog in a helicopter may not ever happen, but when you follow my guidelines in the Insiders Track you will have a dog every bit as capable as Sadie to travel by many means and be there when you need your survival dog.

 

1999 Survival Dogs Ltd.