Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wire Strikes

helicopter wire cutters
While I always found it comforting to fly a bird with wire cutters I have never personally contacted a wire when flying though I've come close a time or two. I also personally know some who have had amazing wire strike experiences and lived to tell about it without any wire cutting devices on their aircraft.

I have received training in flying under wires and in identifying wires. Most fixed wing aircraft pilots don't have to be as concerned about wires as a helicopter pilot except for crop dusters who routinely fly under them. Depending on the mission and the unimproved landing sites helicopter pilots routinely operate in, wires are always a concern for most helicopter pilots.

When I first arrived in Korea I was shown a piece of 3/4 inch cable that a Korean miner has strung across a ravine to move his ore.Cable Strike Ravine Bernie Reth and Bob Launder decided to low-level down the ravine, which was below the average terrain, one day. Bernie, a Vietnam Veteran, was on the controls when he spotted the cable in his extreme low-level flight path. He was were he could not easily go under the cable or pull pitch and go over it. A collision with the cable was imminent. Bernie banked the aircraft (a UH-1 Huey) into a hard left bank. The rotor blades on a Huey turn counterclockwise, so the left bank had gravity working in the blades favor for a chance to cut the cable. And, those two very lucky rascals did exactly that. They cut the cable and flew back to base. The Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker did not believe the report that a Huey cut a 3/4 inch cable and the pilots lived to tell about it until the company sent them a piece of the cable that was cut.

My closest wire strike came while training a friend, Philmon Canfield, to be a buffer zone pilot in Korea. Our company policy was to fly low and train low. That way the weather could not force us down into an unfamiliar environment where it would be easy to become confused and lost. If it were possible to fly we would be right at home where we always trained regardless of the weather.

There was a small valley I had just shown my friend how to navigate. I gave him the controls and he really brought the aircraft down super low and cruised through the valley. After he completed his run, I got back on the controls and said, "My turn".

Since he had just flown it super low, I decided to fly a little lower than my normal, but still a bit more conservative than my friend. He was sitting in his seat sight seeing as I was concentrating on my flight path. All of a sudden a strand of commo wire appeared just beneath my tip-path-plane. Commo wire is no where near the size of the cable Bernie and Bob struck, but striking any wire can be potentially hazardous. I was too low and close to pull up and go over the wire. I did have room to go under it. My friend's super low flight path had previously taken us under the wire unbeknownst to us. I quickly lowered my collective pitch control and we dipped under the wire. I then asked Phil, "Did you see that wire?"

He said, "What wire?"

I told him, "The one we just flew under!"

He said, "No."

We gained a little altitude and went back searching the area for the wire so we could positively mark it on our hazard map and tell others about it. From above we could not spot the wire. Finally I shot an approach to a hover just above the valley floor and we slowly hovered forward until the wire showed up clearly against the skyline. We positively marked its location on our map and flew under it once more since there was plenty of room. I made a point not to fly down that particular valley too low any more.

The 3/4 inch cable strike Bernie and Bob had was pretty incredible, but the most incredible wire strike with survival I know of happened to a good friend of mine, Dan Britt, who was flying with Berle the Squirrel mentioned in a previous post during air mobile training (AMT).

Usually we did our own air mobile recons (AMR) prior to AMT lifts. An AMR involves flying the routes to determine the time necessary to cover the ground and locate any hazards along the route. The pilots doing the AMR were supposed to thoroughly check all PZs and LZs for hazards. (PZ = Pickup Zone, LZ = Landing Zone). Battalion decided they would conduct the AMR since this was to be a joint AMT exercise.

My buddy Dan was in the 1st Platoon while I was in the 2nd Platoon. We were both chosen to be flight leads for our perspective platoons on numerous occasions. This time Dan was in the chalk two position, since his platoon leader had decided he would fly the lead position. All of us are trained to be ready to takeover the lead position at anytime since you never know when the lead aircraft may get shot down in a real situation, or simulate getting shot down in a training situation, or experience some other mechanical problem that would eliminate him. Being ready is especially important for the number two aircraft, since they are next in line for the lead position. Dan was particularly competent and ready to take over because of his previous lead experiences. Those Vietnam Vets had groomed us both very well.

Dan's copilot was Berle the Squirrel a 3000 hour Vietnam Vet that never amounted to much more than copilot material. He was the exception among the Vietnam Vets I knew.

1st Platoon was first into the PZ to pickup their load of troops. Dan was allowing Berle to fly the aircraft the first time around so he could follow his map and familiarize himself with the route. That is the same thing I would have been doing. Navigation is really the more important aspect of flying. If you can't get to where you need to go you are really worthless regardless of how skilled you are at manipulating the controls.

After all the troops were loaded the 1st Platoon flight lifted from the PZ. Soon after liftoff the lead aircraft with Dan's platoon leader peeled off to the right and announced over the radio, "Going down". Just like a good platoon leader always ready to check the competence of his men.

Dan and Berle both thought he was simulating getting shot down and they both figured that they had now gotten the lead position. And..., about that time they got it!!!

They flew through the lower eight strands of sixteen strands of high tension power-line. Sparks flew everywhere. Berle the Squirrel on the controls let them go and looked at Dan shrugging his shoulders with eyes wide open as if to say, "We're dead!"
Dan said to himself, "Bull do-hickey!" as he dropped his map and got on the controls most ASAP (As Soon As Possible). He barely got the aircraft on the ground just before the severed strands of wire wrapped tight around the mast squeezing the push-pull control tubes tightly against the mast now preventing any possible control movement at all.

Dan and Berle were both two very lucky men to still be alive thanks to Dan's quick reaction. No thanks to Battalion's sorry AMR. The word was that the battalion guys just did a cursory overflight from high overhead and said, "Looks good" before heading back to Seoul to whatever after hours recreation they enjoyed.

Dan's platoon leader could have made things easier by announcing "WIRES!!!" along with his going down statement. I can only imagine his adrenaline was flowing wide open. The moral of this story is that it's not over until it is really over. Just because things may seem hopeless doesn't mean they are.

Well, there's my tall tale for today...ciao!

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