It was a cloudy and rainy day, and my pilot and I were tired and ready to return to the airport from our morning shift. But the air traffic controller would not grant clearance for our “special VFR” (visual flight rules) approach. Helicopters were allowed to land and take off from the airport in marginal weather, providing we followed a prescribed route. But that morning, we were told to stay outside the air traffic control space. The tower had lost an airplane. The single engine aircraft had disappeared from the radar as it approached the runway.
We bored holes in the sky for a few minutes, waiting for permission to land. Finally my pilot, Mike Ward, asked the tower if we could be of any help if the controllers believed the plane was down somewhere. The air traffic controllers told us the last spot they had for the plane was just beyond the outer marker, just northwest of the airport.
Mike was an excellent pilot, with great instinct, and he flew directly to the site of the crash. It didn’t look like an airplane anymore. Instead, it looked like a collapsed metal tool shed. We radioed the tower and told them we had located the downed plane, and gave directions for emergency crews. We both knew the pilot had not survived the impact.
When fire crews arrived, we offered to lift a couple of responders to the site. Mike landed on a sloping, grassy hillside. I hopped out, and opened the door for a paramedic/firefighter, but the responder nearly walked into our main rotor. We had landed on a hillside, and our main rotor was much lower than usual on one side of the hill. Just a second before a calamity, Mike jerked the collective up, raising the machine and its rotor to a safe distance, at that same moment, the responder saw he was about to walk into the spinning blade and ducked. Meanwhile, I lost my footing and found myself flat on my back with a helicopter skid right over me. Mike stayed steady in a hover as I regained my footing. In a few minutes, we were back airborne, and doing the job of reporting the news of the crash.
We had some close calls in my three thousand hours of flying, and some of them were the result of flying in bad weather. That was likely the same thing that happened to the airplane we found crumpled in a field.
In the moment, I didn’t think about anything but helping the police and fire responders, and then reporting live with the news. But later that day I wondered about fate, odds, survival, and dumb luck. And I still can’t tell you I’ve figured out how some folks cruise through the bad weather of life, and how others end up getting slammed into the ground. And it sent a chill up my spine.