Tag Archives: Training

The Hughes 500D makes inroads

Over three summers in 1974, ’75, and ’76, thanks to some pretty bad forest fire seasons, Viking Helicopters was able to make major inroads into the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and their Northwestern Ontario fire program in both Dryden and Thunder Bay. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but eventually, the Ministry all but abandoned the piston-powered Bell 47s in favour of light turbine helicopters, including both Bell and Hughes.

One thing in particular with the Bell 47 stands out. The Ministry at one time owned a bellows tank that could be strapped between the floats of the 47G-4. It would need occasional patching, but even so, the Northwestern Region’s Thunder Bay Fire Centre was very proud of its acquisition. Yes, that’s right. The OMNR owned the monstrosity. That bellows tank leaned against a wall in our Thunder Bay hangar for quite some time.

When the contract for a turbine helicopter to be based out of Thunder Bay for the 1977 fire season was put out to bid, Larry offered one of his newly-acquired Hughes 500Ds for the job. Viking Helicopters won the bid. At the time, the D model was lacking the cargo pod.  A prototype was shipped out with flat doors, and I ended up doing the certification test flights. Much later, after additional wind tunnel testing, the cargo pod was outfitted with more aerodynamic doors to replace the flat doors on three sides.

I recall a telephone conversation I had with Larry prior to the start of the contract. He took the time to explain the financial risk he had taken in acquiring the D models. It was to be a make-it-or-break-it proposition that first summer on the fire contract with the Ministry of Natural Resources and the new helicopter. It was a breakthrough contract for the company.

I worked C-GYTX to the best of my abilities on that contract over four summers. The first summer, in cooperation with the NCR fire crews, we worked up standard equipment loading patterns for initial attack for the 500D. We practiced deplaning in the hover and hover unloading and loading. The crews familiarized themselves with the cargo hook obscured by the pod. With practice, hooking up turned out to be no problem.

Later, those initial attack standard load patterns were developed for the larger helicopters, mainly the Bell 204, 205 and 212, with standard loading as well. I believed at the time, and still do, that standard loading during initial attack presents a safer and more efficient way for a pilot to manage his aircraft.

That first summer, I took a lot of good-natured verbal abuse from the fire crews about the red, green and yellow stripes on the helicopter. I had to admit that I couldn’t see the colours from the inside, and that got a few laughs.

We had a very successful four summers flying on that fire contract before I left the company five years later to pursue other interests I had acquired from my experiences working for Viking Helicopters.

Quite a few years later, I learned that the cargo pod certification was amended to limit some airspeeds, and I wondered if the aerodynamic door fittings had anything to do with the changes to the certification.

Airworthiness Directive Schedule
MD Helicopters 369, 500N and Kawasaki Hughes 369

DCA/HU369/60  External Cargo Container Kit – Placard

Applicability:  Model 369D, 369E, 369F, 369HE and 369HS equipped with Gajon Associates Ltd
(Viking Helicopters Limited) STC No. SH1134EA external cargo container kit (baggage pod).

Requirement:  To prevent hazardous yaw oscillations during descents which could result in loss of control of the helicopter install a placard on the instrument panel as close as practicable to the airspeed indicator and in clear view of the pilot that reads:-

Vne 90 KIAS IN POWERED DESCENT ( more than 1000 fpm) OR IN AUTOROTATION (FAA AD 93-07-10 refers)
Compliance:  Within next 50 hours TIS.
Effective Date:  3 September 1993

The Buffalo shuffle, the piss jar and the optimism tax

I’ve paid the optimism tax more than a few times in my life, the first as a youngster when I sent home via an acquaintance and his vehicle a couple of sleeping bags, some clothes, and a ton of flight school photos. He, and they, never arrived.

Don, the flight-school acquaintance, had been just another Canadian who went down to enroll in the U.S. Army in order that he might learn to fly helicopters. He swallowed the recruiting station hook complete with its line and sinker, and ended up sitting on an airport fire truck at a domestic Army field somewhere in the southeast. Not satisfied, he jumped ship and hightailed it back to Canada where he saved his cash and subsequently ended up with some of us at the same flight school.

Ian turned us all on to B.C.'s Calona Royal Red

Ian was from northern B.C. One of the benefits of having students from across Canada was that we got an introduction to a wide variety of different and cheap alcohol. Here we're sampling some of B.C.'s finest - Calona Royal Red.

Of course, we didn’t learn any of this until one night when we piled into Sok’s Chevy and shuffled off to Buffalo, the land of cheap beer and friendly women, for a little R&R. While we were watering down a wall framing one of the more cheaply financed sections of Buffalo (there were many at the time), a cruiser pulled up and we were confronted by a couple of Buffalo’s finest who took some exception to our need for public urination.

Fortunately for all of us, a radio call ended up dispatching the officers to a more pressing matter of a break and enter, and we thankfully piled back into Sok’s car to head north where we belonged. During all of this, Don had been quietly shitting his pants at the prospect of being caught out as a draft dodger and ending up in an American jail.

It was during the ride home that Don regaled us with his tales of bitter disappointment in the U.S. Army and his subsequent jump from active duty to Canadian reservist, so to speak. It had never occurred to him that perhaps he shouldn’t have shuffled off across the line with the rest of us.

If anything, that should have told me all I needed to know about Don.

Ten years later, I ran into Don while we were both flying on large fires in northern Canada. He was still shifty-eyed. Needless to say, while we were in the fire camp we never spent any time together reminiscing about the good old days.

Occasionally, I will still pay the optimism tax when someone takes advantage of my good nature, but there’s no point in worrying about it. It’s simply not worth it, although I must admit that I still miss those photos and the accompanying negatives.

I’ve never missed Don, and the sleeping bags and the clothes were all replaced.

Sok (Marty) was a local from St. Catharines. When returning from our Buffalo missions he would never pull over to the side of the road to let us take a piss once we had crossed the border and were back in Canada. He was adamant that doing so was a red flag for the police to stop our vehicle and give whoever was driving the drunk test.

After all that beer-drinking in Buffalo, on occasion some of us needed relief. To that end Sok kept a huge pickle jar in the back seat. Those with the weaker bladders were doomed to the embarrassment of the piss jar.

A peeler with a heart of gold

Midwest HelicoptersI spent some time apprenticing for Midwest Helicopters in Winnipeg. Their hanger was an old World War II vintage building, with a thick wooden roof and huge sliding doors. It was one of those buildings such that if it ever caught fire, nothing would prevent it from burning to the ground.

Just down the tarmac and a short walk away was the Winnipeg Flying Club, where Bruce K. and I would occasionally attend the bar for lunch. Like me, Bruce was a lowly apprentice. Unlike me, he had more experience. Sometimes Ken Wilson would tag along, just for the amusement factor.

Lloyd Mackenzie was Midwest’s chief engineer. His hobby — when he wasn’t trying to keep Bruce and me out of trouble — was Samoyed dogs. When Bruce and I spent a little more time than absolutely necessary enjoying lunch at the Flying Club, Lloyd would walk out onto the tarmac in his white shop coat and pace back and forth with his hands on his hips, searching for the troublemakers. When we marched past him on our way back into the hanger, he always had a remark to make, but he never gave us hell – even though we deserved it.

The Winnipeg Curling Club on Ness wasn’t that far from the airport, and once we heard that they had strippers doing lunch-time matinees, it was like trying to chase flies away from a cesspool. The three of us – Bruce, Ken and myself – would pile into Ken’s orange Judge and head on over to spend an hour or so applauding the girls. Eventually some of the dancers came to recognize us as regulars.

There was this one rather large-breasted young thing who took a shine to us one afternoon, probably because we were flinging fives or tens her way – then an unheard of amount of money. Or, perhaps it was because of the huge, thick, dark-rimmed glasses that she didn’t wear while she was dancing. Well, on her afternoon break we talked this poor, innocent, little thing into accompanying the three of us over to the Flying Club to finish up her afternoon with a refreshing drink or two.

She regaled us with a story about working her way through school by “dancing”, which we all thought was a pretty good thing on her part. The afternoon progressed, and from the Flying Club window we could see Lloyd checking his watch and looking up and down the tarmac, but there was no way in hell that we were going to leave the little damsel in distress.

Finally I had to take a washroom break. When I returned from the swamp I caught sight of the poor girl’s huge naked breasts splayed out on the table. The silly thing had pulled up her sweater and flopped them out on a bet. After that little bit of exhibitionism, we figured that we had better get the hell out of there, so we high-tailed it with stripper in tow. Bruce and I tried to talk Ken into taking her to his place since it was the closest, but he wasn’t having any of that. His wife would have killed him if she found out.

With nowhere to go but back to work, we hustled the poor girl out the back door and across the parking lot to Ken’s Judge. The sound of her high-heels clickety-clacking on the asphalt brought smiles to our faces. When she stumbled she’d grab onto one of us, explaining that she’d never walked so far in the shoes she was wearing.

We didn’t doubt her.

Bruce was from Portage La Prairie. Later that summer Bruce and I and Bob P. got to drinking in the Portage Hotel on a fine sunny afternoon. We’d had a couple of beers each – nothing too extravagant. We were happy to be settling in to a long day of relaxing in the bar. For some reason, a fight ensued, and everyone in the bar got involved, including the women.

I never saw so many huge brown ashtrays, beer glasses and pitchers in full flight, and that was back in the day when they were all glass. In order to stay out of the line of fire we tipped over a couple of tables in a corner of the bar and hunkered down to watch the action from a safe vantage point and to dodge the flying glass. When we heard the sirens we jumped up and ran out the back door, barely making it outside before the paddy wagon rolled up. After witnessing that destruction, to this day I’ve never wanted to be in a bar when I thought a fight might break out.

Some years later the Portage Hotel burned to the ground and thus took one of my memories with it.

Bruce, then an apprentice engineer, later became an engineer, and then a flier. In 1978, while attempting to cross Knight Inlet during limited visibility, he piloted his Bell 206 into the cold deep waters. As far as I know, my old friend was never recovered.

Jim Hawes was an engineer with Midwest at the time we were all there. He’d shake his head at our crazy antics and give us all a huge grin when we cleared by Lloyd and finally got back to work. Jim would later go on to own Custom Helicopters in St. Andrews, Manitoba. Occasionally, if I’m riding east, I’ll stop in for a visit and we’ll have some laughs reminiscing over the old days.

Sadly, Jim has passed away. I will most definitely miss the laughs we used to have while reminiscing about some of our experiences with the characters we both knew so well. We always spoke kindly of them all, usually while wearing huge grins.

Courts of St. JamesDuring a lot of this, I was sharing a place with Doug McIntyre, a Transair 737 pilot who was originally from Thunder Bay. We were in the Courts of St. James where many of the Transair and Midwest staff congregated – often a party in itself. Occasionally Doug would show up at the Flying Club and hang from the log rafters during his more sober moments. Unfortunately, a few years later, the Winnipeg Flying Club burned to the ground and local airport history was the sadder for it.

Doug was himself caught up in a house fire when he went back into the burning building to check for friends who might still be inside. He didn’t come back out.

From city to bush

Niagara Helicopters would hire many of the graduates of its flight training school to fly tourists over the falls to build flight time. I spent two weeks doing that, and then I was shipped off to Moosonee on James Bay in far northern Ontario, ferrying a Bell 47G4 with Ivan Thomas. We were doing a lot of mining exploration up there at the time. I ended up making quite a few trips “up north” to Moosonee, ferrying equipment back and forth.

Back and forth, back and forth.

A lot of us roamed back and forth over the falls for our entire time at Niagara Helicopters. Those fortunate enough to get to Moosonee got bush flying time in the north.

The company had a house in Moosonee that we used as a bunkhouse. It had three or four bedrooms, and aviators were constantly coming and going to man up the equipment. During freeze-up in the fall, and breakup in the spring, the helicopter was the only access to Moose Factory Island, home to a hospital and nurses’ residence.

Continental Diamond Drilling - South Bluff Creek

Continental Diamond Drilling - South Bluff Creek

Parties were a staple of life in the north, especially where nurses were plentiful–and even where they weren’t. Some of those we attended were on the radar base (it was closed in 1975), since it was easy for us to get to, but occasionally we’d end up on the island at parties thrown by the nurses in their huge residence. The Halloween costume party there in October was the best!

We entertained one or two of  the nurses here at the staff house in Moosonee.

We entertained one or two of the Moose Factory Island nurses at the staff house in Moosonee. Here, Ivan Thomas catches some fresh air and a little bit of sunshine after a long night.

I and some others ended up dating several of the nurses, and we would often surprise them by showing up at the residence at strange hours. We had discovered a boat that we commandeered to do the river crossing in both directions, loaded with nurses, beer and pilots. As long as the boat was back in its rightful place first thing in the morning, no one was the wiser–although we often wondered whose gas it was that we were burning on those surreptitious, dark-of-night crossings.

When the girls had to get back to work, we flew them back, two at a time, in the early morning. The hospital grounds would be abuzz with helicopters landing and taking off in the front yard, nurses deplaning and running in to get changed for work. The doctors and the rest of the staff must have been shaking their heads over that.

Why those sensible young women would spend any time with the crazies in the bunkhouse is beyond me, but they seemed to enjoy our company. Perhaps they were just a little crazy too.

Ivan was Australian. Before he started flying he was a radio operator who had worked in the Antarctic and Macquarie Island before going to Contwoyto Lake in the Territories. How he got to Niagara Helicopters as a student with the rest of us, I have no idea. Being the outgoing person that he was, Ivan got to know everybody. We had some of the liveliest parties in our house thanks to the nurses on the island at the time–and thanks to Ivan too. Ivan retired from flying due to a medical condition. He bought a business that he turned into a very successful operation and then sold it.

Ivan Thomas is no longer with us, having passed away six or seven years ago.

Experience makes for a great teacher

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Niagara Helicopters had a number of flight instructors on the payroll. Most were inexperienced in the rigors of bush flying. They were kept on by the school to build flight time up to some arbitrary magic number imposed by the industry and the companies that they wanted to work for. What those low-time instructors were good at was instilling the basics, for basics are everything.

Let me say that again: basics are everything. Without basics, there is no foundation; thus, you have confusion. Confusion is bad. Situational awareness is good. Attitude, altitude, direction, heading, airspeed and common sense rule. And don’t forget to pay attention to all of it. Look outside. Look inside and scan the instrument panel once in a while too. Always fly the aircraft; don’t let it fly you. Stay ahead of it; don’t get behind it. And while you’re up there, where are you going to go when if the engine quits?

Beyond basics comes a knowledge required to survive in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. If an instructor doesn’t have any experience with bush flying, it’s difficult to pass on the tricks of the trade to his students when he doesn’t have any tricks.

Ben debriefing one of his students. His knowledge and his low-key ability to pass it on to others without all the bullshit worked for me.

Fortunately, at just the right time in my training regimen, the flight school hired Ben Arnold. He was an old-time helicopter aviator who had been a part of the beginning of the piston helicopter era in Canada. He was British, although by then he had spent many years in Canada.

Over time I developed a rapport with Ben. Usually we’d end up in the bar at the King Eddy Hotel, listening to the Jack Drake Duo[1] and watching the dancers. On the nights when the duo wasn’t playing, Ben would play the piano for beer money. On a good night we could shut the place down and have a few dollars left over.

Occasionally we’d pile into his blue Volkswagen and head across the line to Ye Olde Tavern and consume a few pints. Ben still had a bit of an accent, so he’d get me to coach him in the proper pronunciation of a few responses to the questions that the border guards might ask when we headed back across the bridge. I wondered about his immigration status, but I never asked. We always sailed across the border and into Canada, home-free. I never failed him.

Nor did he ever fail me. In six thousand hours of flight time, his instruction, principles and guidance held up. He taught me much that I needed to know to survive as a beginner in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. Over the years I acquired first-hand experience in bush, mountain, arctic and desert flight environments. Ben’s instruction was the foundation for most of what this beginner learned through on-site experience.

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Thanks to Ben Arnold, I made my own luck.

And yes, I was lucky too.

[1] Those two were a couple of pretty cool guys for the times. One thing I’ve always wondered: Did they name themselves after Gotham City’s own Jack Drake? Back to top