I Learned About Flying From That: Lady Luck
By now, both of our low-fuel lights were flashing. I previously instructed the crew chief to give me fuel remaining every five minutes until the 15-minute mark, then every minute. He gave me the 15-minute call. I computed the distance remaining and realized that we might not make it to Florala — and our route would take us over wooded areas, swamps, ponds and the town itself — not good areas to flame out. It was a very difficult decision. We might make it, but if we did not, the consequences would be disastrous.
It was time to land. I announced the decision to the crew that we were making an off-airport landing. At this point, I took the controls from the copilot and tried to minimize power inputs in order to conserve fuel. I spotted a clearing ahead and announced I was starting my approach to the clearing. On short final, the crew chief shouted, “Wires, climb!” The copilot and I did not see the power lines strung across the field, but the crew chief saw one of the support poles. We now had 10 minutes of gas. We flew along for what seemed like an eternity with no place to land. Finally, a cow pasture came into view, with the lights of a farmhouse at the far end. I again announced my intention to land and initiated the approach. This time nothing interfered, and we were safely on the ground.
As the copilot and I shut down the helicopter, I asked the crew chief to go to the farmhouse and ask to use their phone to coordinate a fuel truck. I was also wondering how I was going to explain this to my commander — how an experienced pilot almost ran out of gas. As the rotor blades coasted down, the crew chief returned to the helicopter. He hooked up to the intercom system and gave me the first good news of the trip: The Florala refueler was the brother-in-law of the farmer. As soon as the farmer saw us land, he assumed we needed fuel and called his brother-in-law. Sure enough, 30 minutes later the fuel truck showed up, topped us off and sent us on our way.
There are many lessons to be learned from this event. I’ll try to name a few. I probably should have done a better job of reviewing the copilot’s work, but I felt rushed to get in the air and down to Eglin before exceeding my duty day. I also task-saturated the copilot. Some of the things I wanted to teach him distracted from the primary task at hand and helped lead to his disorientation.
When VFR, the map, compass, clock and a pilot’s eyeballs are the primary source of navigation — not GPS. I should have checked the copilot’s navigation earlier. When I told him to fly a radial, I did not confirm he was doing this.
It’s vital to use all your resources, especially in an emergency. The crew chief was essential to the safe outcome of this flight. We can teach nonpilots who fly with us regularly certain tasks, such as scanning for other aircraft and hazards and how to tune the radios.
There comes a time when you need to cut your losses. This might require landing at an airport without fuel or perhaps making an off-airport landing with power in a place of your choosing rather than making a forced landing without power. In this incident, I made the mistake of bypassing an airport because it did not have gas. Yet, in the end, I made the difficult decision to set the helicopter down in a field rather than risk running out of gas.
I don’t like relying on luck, but 14 years ago Lady Luck looked out for me, and I’ll never turn down her help.