Though I was hired by Decair
mainly for the Rail Road Track Police Patrol I was sometimes utilized for
their heavy lift chopper since I was certified in that type aircraft.
The Sikorsky S-58 was the civilian model of the CH-34 (pictured to the
right) that I had flown and received
my instrument rating in while stationed in Germany. There is a saying,
"Once a Sikorsky pilot, Always a Sikorsky pilot" and is that ever true,
at least with me. Of my some 7,000 total hours I have only about
150 in Sikorsky's and to this day, I'd rather be flying a Sikorsky.
There is just something special about having all that machine under you
and all that power in your hands.
Before I got to Decair and even while I was there, whenever they got a lift mission, they called in a really sharp pilot by the name of "Butchie" as I recall. Not only was Butchie good with the machine, he was good with people as well. Decair also had a man working for them that had a lot of prior construction experience and knew his way around the unions. I do not recall his name but he got them the jobs and he was good. They made a good team.
There was a mission that still makes me smile today just thinking about it. A mall was going up in Connecticut and it was our job to go over there and lift all the large air-conditioning units to the roof and place them in their holding racks. With an early start, to catch the cool of the day, we could finish the job by noon. The flight there would be only about 30 minutes and we took off right after dawn. To our dismay there was a long north/south ridge, just 10 minutes from the job, that had locked in a solid fog bank thus covering up the mall. Just west of the ridge was a small town and to the south of it was a "U" shaped shopping center. We could see by the cars at one location that a small cafe was open and if we had to wait someplace we rather do it in a cafe than boring holes in the sky and using up precious fuel and chopper time.
Now it's hard to keep a low profile with a huge helicopter that makes as much noise as a train but we do try to be user-friendly, if you know what I mean. There was a field next to the road that led into the mall so we set the chopper down there and not in the main parking lot. That left us about a 300 yard walk to the cafe. We locked the ship up, made our way to the cafe, and sat down for breakfast.
We had finished breakfast and were just giving the fog on the other side of the ridge a little more time to burn off when we noticed a police car pull up to the chopper. The officer got out and gave the chopper a good look over and was obviously looking for the people that were with the chopper. That was all we needed, to be fined or jailed for breaking some little know law about landing a chopper in someone's field. The officer then drove over to the far end of the shopping center and began looking in windows. Why he did not come over to the cafe, we could not figure out but he didn't and he got back into his car, made a radio call and then drove off.
As soon as that patrol car was out of view we were out of that cafe and running seemingly for our lives. The doors were unlocked in record time and while Butchie was strapping in I began the start procedures. We combat-started that baby and were ready to pull pitch when the crew said we better get out of there because the cop was back and had his lights flashing. Butchie pulled pitch and we left that cop standing next to his car with radio in hand. Most of the fog had lifted so off to the job we went.
We found the mall site between the dissipating sections of fog and landed next to the units to be lifted. This was my first lift job with their ship and I listened intently as Butchie gathered in all the folks that were involved and briefed them on what was about to happen. Butchie told them to think of the chopper as a big rubber band in the sky. All he could do was get the unit close to the mounting rack and that it was up to them to pull it in and position it before unleashing it. Their main concern was what to do it that engine quit over them. Butchie told them that the ship was a very safe one and he wouldn't be flying in it if it were not, but just in case, they were to go to the ship's right as he would move it to the left and set her down. He told them to hold up their hands and count all their fingers and they did. He then told them that is the number they will have at the end of the day if they don't stick their hands under the load during final positioning and get some fingers pinched off. That got their attention.
Butchie was to take the first lift, then we were to alternate the remaining lifts but a problem soon became apparent that we didn't figure on. I had thought I had just sprained my left knee several weeks before but unbeknownst to me, I had actually torn cartilage. Though there was no problem flying the ship in normal mode, there sure was under a really heavy load, you had to push a lot of pedal and my knee couldn't take it. I didn't get the load 10 ft off the ground when I had to give it to Butchie. Since we could always use a knowledgeable ground man, I got out of the ship and became the roof man for placements.
We finished the job and went back home. Butchie told the boss about the cop and that they probably got our tail number. A few days later the boss called me into his office and showed me a big 1/2 page story in the New York Daily News. It was about how local police in a small Connecticut town had almost apprehended some thieves that were stealing the expensive weather vanes that were proudly placed on top of most barns in the area. The thieves were apparently using big helicopters to hover over the barns at night and via a ramp an accomplice would undo the vane and steal it away. There was a new police helicopter show on TV and their ship had a switch that, when activated, would eliminate all engine and rotor noise. The article said that we were using a similar switch which enabled us to steal the vanes at night without anyone hearing us. Did we ever have a good laugh over that one! Not only is there no such switch but we would have blown over the barn if we were able to get that close to begin with.
My knee got better and I was able to do some more work with their heavy lift machine. It had to be started every 3 days if it had not flown in that time and I was the only one there that could start it if Butchie was not around. It was a bear to start in the winter but it was fun and it broke the monotony of the track patrol.
We got a call one day to help fight a fire that was burning on the hill side next to the NY State thruway and adjacent to a small recreation area. Butchie was called in and away we went with our huge fire fighting bucket and cables. A camper had started the woods on fire and it was going up the side of a long ridge that was about 1,500 ft high. Firefighters were already fighting the blaze when we got there. It was mostly just burning leaves with an occasional tree going up.
We got our briefing and were to use the olympic size pool, at the campground, as our water source. It was my first experience at long lining and fire fighting and did I ever enjoy it. The pool was emptied of people and we began our show. I was surprised at how fast the bucket filled but of course it was designed for that. It was a medium load for the ship and well within the capability of my now somewhat healed knee. When the full bucket broke ground, you had a good idea of just how far it was under the ship which is important when getting close to the fire. Dragging the bucket through the trees is a no-no as well as letting the water out too high, you had to be close for it to do any good.
Butchie was a fine teacher and I learned a lot that day. One of the firemen was in the lower section of the ship, with a radio, and was directing us to the spots that needed the most attention. I learned that you don't fly directly over a burning tree and that you drop the load just in front of the fire. On one run we were diverted to drop a load on some firemen that had gotten in a rather tight spot. That took two loads and it eased their situation quite a bit.
There was a break in the action so that the fuel truck could fuel us and we got to talk with the fire officer below. Now Polish people have a knack for finding the easiest way to get a job done and being Polish, I was no exception. About a dozen of the firefighters had on "Indian Tanks", a back pack arrangement that allowed them to carry water up the mountain and with a hand pump squirt some on the fire. 1,500 feet is a long way to carry that water up hill, squirt it on the fire, then come back down for another load. Just one of those trips, in all that gear, would have done me in. I asked Butchie, why don't they just have us place a large tank at the top of the ridge so that they could fill up there. That way they only carried the load down hill and could probably get in three trips to every one the way they were doing it now. Paint the bucket international orange and give it a beeper and it would be easy to spot as well as move around when needed. Butchie agreed and told me to tell the chief. I did and I was promptly told to mind my own business and to leave the fire fighting to the professionals.
The fire was brought under control and we were released. It was a fine learning experience and I wish I could have done more of that. I certainly give those ground guys credit for doing what they had to do.
There was one other mission that I was on with their heavy ship that really put the capabilities of the helicopter to use. I had to take the ship to Vermont, I believe, where a large construction crane had just burned out its generator. It was the only crane on site and it was servicing two 16 story buildings that were going up. The 900 lb generator was also the balance weight for the unit. If a chopper could not replace the generator then a second crane would have to be brought in and erected to swap out the unit. We got the job.
When we got there the generator was ready to be pulled out and the spare was ready to go. We attached a tag line to the new generator and told the guys how to grab tag line and pull the ship in to them. When I got up there the wind was in the wrong direction for getting a good visual reference on the crane so I could hold position. By kicking as much pedal as I could and leaning out the window a little, I was able to catch a glimpse of the other side of the crane for my positioning reference.. My belly man steered me in and the guys hooked us up like a pro and we pulled her out of there. I set the unit next to the new one and the ground guys hooked her up, tag line and all.
Pulling out a unit is much easier than putting one in because the mounts must be positioned just right. It was a strain on my back and bad leg getting that ship around so I could now see the unit itself. The crane crew was good though and had probably done that several times before. They got the unit in and unhooked us and with a job well done, we headed back home.
On more than one job we had problems with the union. I can remember one in particular where there were lots of people standing around because something had broken and we were not allowed to swap units because neither pilot was a member of the "Heavy Crane Operator's" union. What a waste of people's time.
Sometimes the customer tries to go cheap on you and on one occasion it back fired on him. Butchie and I had to go to a horse race track in the city for an air conditioner replacement. Now no matter what you can't fool a helicopter and it can only pick up what it can pick up. When we shut her down and walked over to the guy in charge he showed us where on the building the old unit was and where the replacement was. Didn't take but 2 seconds for Butchie and I to come to the same conclusion, the unit was a little to heavy for us. Seems they gave us the stats on the roof unit for the job but had failed to tell us that they had upgraded to a larger unit. No use getting the one off if we couldn't replace it, that would leave a big hole in the roof.
The track boss asked us to give her a try and Butchie said he would. We went inside and took everything possible we could out of that ship, seats, everything. When we finished Butchie made it a point to give me his change, keys and wallet, right in front of the track boss. I knew I couldn't go and so Butchie got in, cranked her, and hooked up. We all got out of the way and Butchie did his best but to no avail. Two feet up was all she would do. Even if he was able to get it up he probably could not stop it for placement on the roof and it would more than likely crash through to the floor below.
Butchie shut her down and came over to where we were all standing and said he was sorry and that he had tried his best but the ship just couldn't lift that much. With a straight face he then said the only other thing he could do was to try it flying naked if he wanted. The track boss said "No, that was OK". I still laugh at that line. Butchie gave him the name and number of a company that did the really heavy stuff and we left.
That was the last time I saw Butchie. The lift business declined when we lost our lift boss and they sold the ship to Island Helicopters. I was offered a job flying it for them but I declined. I missed that ship for it was a real pleasure to fly. It sure broke the monotony of the track patrols.