Just north of Middlesboro, and
right smack through the center of my AO (Area of Operations), was an “Oil
Burner” route. An “Oil Burner” route is the name given to an
authorized area that military jets can low level in, for practice.
Because military jet engines are not very efficient at low altitudes they
sometimes leave a smoke trail, hence the name “Oil Burner”. Problem
is, they get bored with the routes, make their own routes, and come darn
close to colliding with helicopters. This had become such a problem
that the Air Force eventually had a big meeting, in Ashland, KY, with the
members of the Appalachian helicopters Pilots Association.
I was not immune to the many near misses choppers in the coalfields had and on 2 occasions almost became a statistic myself. On one occasion, I had just dropped of the company attorney at a landing site near his home that we called “Lake Mistake”. I took off to the east and was climbing out as usual. Just as I cleared the ridge in front of me so did a military jet going in the opposite direction. My best guess, 50 ft or less. He was so close I could read “U.S.A.F.” on the top of his helmet. Neither one of us could have done a thing it happened so quickly. He just kept on trucking along on the wrong side of the “Oil burner” route. I, on the other hand, had all I could do just to hold on as I passed through his wake turbulence. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall of the officers club that night.
On the other occasion I was at cruise crossing the “Oil Burner” route near Berea, KY. It was for the big B-52s. I was about 2,500-ft up when I noticed something in my windshield. Because it was directly behind the center strip that connects both windows I did not see it until it was so close that the wings began to show on both sides of the strip. B-52!!!!! I immediately initiated a cyclic climb and jumped up a quick thousand feet. That guy never budged. I wonder if he even saw me.
Others also had similar situations and a meeting was arranged between the Air Force and the Appalachian Helicopter Pilots Association, of which I was a member. Mike Kirkpatrick was the main backer of the meeting because he had the most near misses and was very vocal about it. To make a long story short, the Air Force said that they needed to train low level in the coalfields because the terrain matched the terrain in East Germany and it was up to us to watch for the jets. I suggested that the jets just jam 122.8, which was the frequency for all small airports, with a power setting that would only be effective for 5 or 10 miles. That would surround that low level jet with a 5-10 mile bubble of jammed frequency. Since all the choppers had 2 radios any ways, and one was almost always on 122.8, then we would know when a jet was near and stay low or at least look for him. They told me they liked my idea but nothing ever came of it. So when anyone saw a jet he just called out it’s location and direction on 122.8 and we tried to watch for his the best we could. As for Mike, he lost his job shortly after that and began flying in the gulf. I always wondered if the Air Force had something to do with that to get him out of their hair.
It seems that the big drag line at Mountain Drive was a "training" target for secret military night flying aircraft. I never saw one because I was not up on the hill during those hours but I heard many a story about such from the guys. The night shift guys would be working on the drag line and all of a sudden hear a gust of wind when there was no wind around. They went from small single engine aircraft to big 4 engine planes. All had engines so silent that you could only hear the air passing over the aircraft. Some would just fly by and some would circle but they never stayed long. One man told the boss that he was standing next to the slope when he noticed a big plane that was down near the road and it was painted black and had 4 engines that he didn't hear it until it had gone past. Guess the military has to train someplace.
Going into Knoxville once, approach control almost put a climbing jet airliner into me. I saw that one coming and climbed out of the way. They do a lot of teaching there, as I understand.
Going into Cincinnati, during some marginal weather, approach control forgot about me. I was down well below any traffic and decided to circle over a racetrack that was about ½ mile inside their 5 mile inner control area until the frequency cleared. When it did, I called in and told them I was holding over a racetrack about 5 miles to their south. I was given a sever tong lashing for penetrating sacred air space and then vectored well out of the area to mimic a jumbo jet approach. One would think that they would be happy that some of the pilots out there know enough of what is going on to cover for the little things that slip by. That guy plain forgot about me and I was doing everything right. Such is life.