In 1979, I probably became the
only helicopter pilot in aviation history to make it, untouched, between
the spans of high-tension lines. I sure didn't plan on doing that
and sure hope I do not have to try that one again. The good LORD
sure was flying with me on that one that day and that is the only reason
I am here to tell about it now.
I first spoke about it at a meeting of the Appalachian Helicopter Pilots Association. There were about 30 pilots at the meeting and I waited till the end to give my little talk. I knew it would be embarrassing, but I also knew I had done something no one else had ever done and if my experience could save someone else then I talk about it I would. If it caught me it sure was going to catch others.
At the end of my talk, one of the members, who flew the flatlands of western Kentucky, really laid into me good and more or less said that I was a poor example of professionalism. I guess there will always be those that are perpetually stuck on a lower level of understanding. The rest sat in pretty much of awe of what I had just said happened to me. When the meeting was over, 3 or 4 of the pilots came up to me and said that they really appreciated that I shared that with them. Then another pilot came up to me and told me that several years ago he also had a frightening experience, while flying, and he too had the "Slow Motion Factor" kick in on him. He was afraid to tell anyone because he was embarrassed about it. When I told him that it was the 3rd time in my life that it happened he felt very relieved and amazed at the same time.
I brought the incident to the attention of Kentucky Utilities but they did nothing. I then wrote a story about it for Flying Magazine in the hopes that it could possible save someone's life just as a prior article saved mine that day. Flying Magazine printed the story in their March 1980 issue.
The night of the incident, Mr. Harbert asked me to come to his room at the Holiday Inn. I sure did not know what to expect. He poured me a drink and then said that we both should be especially "Thankful" this Sunday when we go to church. He then told me that he knew we were not pushing weather and because we both were looking for those wires he knew I was on top of things. He also said that he didn't see them himself until we were already going under the one. He didn't know how we made it through there but he sure was happy we did and that was good enough for him.
Just a few days after the incident I asked that one of our other pilots go back up to the area with me for "his" findings on what had happened. Jack Smalley was the pilot that came to us with the purchase of our "Star Fire" job up north. He was "Clairabelle's" original pilot. Jack was amazed that a chopper could fit between the wires at that location. He was also amazed at how well the wires had blended into the mountains. In short, he said that he would have been caught also under the same conditions.
Here is the account of that story as was written for the March, 1980 issue of FLYING MAGAZINE.
(I Learned About Flying From That, #478)
A storm system was moving in slowly
and, as the day wore on, Special VFR conditions became more common.
By the time for my last run back to base through the coalfields of southeast
Kentucky, the overcast had covered the higher hilltops. The valleys
were still clear, with 600 to 800 feet to the cloud base and two miles
visibility in light rain. My passenger, alongside me in the front
of the Jet Ranger, was the company president.
Instead of taking the normal, 15 minute straight line route over the mountainous area to Middlesboro, my base, I elected to fly the wide valley area easterly to Barbourville, then down its valley to Middlesboro. We had the time to spare, and this routing would take me around the mountains.
West of Barbourville, there are wires stretched across the valley. They're marked on the sectional, but I was not familiar with that particular area.
I held normal cruise throughout most of the flight but when we neared the first set of wires along the way I slowed to 52 Knots. Twice again I slowed to this speed due to a dip in the overcast, which I flew around.
Upon reaching Barbourville, I had about 200 ft and two miles in light rain. I had Barbourville in sight and, anticipating the wires, slowed to 52 Knots. I was at about 150 feet, looking forward and low for the wires, as the valley there flattens considerably. The overcast was gray and, as I was to discover later, so were the wires.
Kentucky Power hadn't put the cables where I was looking for them under me, in the valley. They ran from just under the top of the high ridge on my right, with an extra long span to the top of a small hill.
The bottom span was some 140 feet above the valley floor, with the upper span 70 feet higher...not much room for a Jet Ranger, even at 50 knots.
It all happened in about two seconds.
The wires, gray and blending into the background perfectly and only 10 feet below me instead of the 80 I expected, were on me in a second. I immediately entered a climbing right turn, either to pop over them or turn around for another try. I saw no upper span where there should have been one, so I reckoned that the wires under me were the upper span.
There, just under the overcast, was the upper span. From here until I made it through to the other side, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Seeing the upper cable, I knew my momentum would carry me into it no matter how sharp a turn I made. I knew we were dead.
There was a chance, though. Why not try to put it between the spans?
I keyed on the upper span and, with the cyclic, dived the ship with rotor level. I wasn't concerned with the lower span at all: it was the upper cable that was about to bite.
About now I remembered some old wire strike article I once read. It said that if you had to miss a set of wires by fling under them, get your tail rotor down so you don't snag it. I could feel my tail rotor stuck up there some 20 feet because of my angle. My nose was pointed down but I was still going pretty much horizontal.
I keyed on the upper span in front of me and, remembering my tail, tried to place the now horizontal tip path plane as close to the underside of the span as possible. Just as the wires slid overhead, I pulled back sharply on the cyclic to lower my tail and make it through. Nothing made a crunching sound and I still had all my controls. I did wonder thought, if I still had my strobe light.
My boss saw the wires only as they swished overhead. He said they looked about three inches thick and were about five feet away. "What would have happened had we hit them?" he asked. What do you say? I paused. "We would have crashed and died."
I've terminated may flights due to weather. My passengers know my weather limits, and when I say it doesn't look good there are no more questions. The weather that day wasn't bad enough to terminate. I wasn't fooling around, I didn't have "get-home-itis" and I wasn't stretching things just because of the boss. The wires were just there, and they caught me.
I wrote Kentucky Power and told them what had happened. I even included part of a sectional with the exact point circled in red. I told them they badly needed marker balls there.
Initially they said they would look into it. Then they sent me a pamphlet about wires and airplanes which, in short, said you shouldn't be flying that low. That's where it stands.
That is the article that I wrote for Flying Magazine. It is my hope that this story just might save another as a similar article saved me many years ago. Years later I contacted the Army Aviation National Guard unit in Knoxville, TN to see if they would like me to give a talk to their pilots on "Wire Strikes" & "The Slow Motion Factor", but they never got back with me. I did the same for the Director of Aviation at Ft. Campbell with again no reply, yet they continue to lose choppers to wire strikes. You would think that they would be interested.