Since there were
now 2 choppers, they decided to get another pilot. I didn't have
any say in the matter and so a pilot was chosen for us that was also Astar
qualified. And so "Super-Pilot" came on line. Super-pilot was
about 10 years older than I and fixed wing rated as well as being an instructor.
He also had an A&P maintenance rating which I soon learned had little
substance to it. He had been in Viet Nam as an enlisted man and had
used the GI-bill to get his chopper rating. He was a jack of all
trades sort of speak but master of none it seemed. Pilot wise he
looked at weather as a challenge that he could beat and I sure didn't care
for that. You can pretty much tell a mechanic's worth from his tools,
in my book. His tools were mostly from "Harbor Freight", the very
cheapest you could get. After he got settled in he felt as if he
should be the chief pilot because he was older and had all those ratings.
That attitude caused me a lot of aggravation.
The Astar had a 300 hr inspection schedule instead of the normal 100 hr schedule but I didn't buy into that at all. With the approval of the chief pilot I put it on a 100 hr program for the first few hundred hours of flight. I kept a very close eye on it and caught just about every thing that went wrong with the machine. I found ways of making some of the maintenance easier and even came up with a fix that tripled the life of one component but the manufacture never pass it along.
I had only one "scare", with Pierre. It's new technology of design almost got me and saved me in the same instance. Slim Hanson, our head electrician was in the other front seat and we were returning from a lengthy parts run. Mountain Drive was in site and we were coming out of altitude and doing about 165 mph when we heard a very large bang from the rear of the ship. For an instant we both feared the worst but Pierre kept right on flying and we were landing in two minutes any ways so we went on and landed at the hanger. When I got out I saw that we had lost approximately 16 sq. feet of engine and transmission cowling. When the cowling left the ship it took out one of the deck retaining hook. After it left the ship, some of it hit the left rear vertical stabilizer then went into the tail rotor. In most choppers, anything that hits that tail rotor will destroy it instantly which means your probably dead. Because the tail rotor was made with brand new "composite" technology it had stayed together and only left colored paint transfer makings on the blades. Slim said that we sure were lucky on that one.
I got Nelliebelle out of the hanger and went back to the area where it had come off. I found the pieces in one of the more rugged sections of the Cumberland Gap National Park and noted the location. By late that afternoon I had all the Pieces back in the hanger. Two days later they were on their way to the manufacture.
The problem with the fit of the cowling was a problem that I was already aware of. It was not snug enough against the ship to make for a snug fit. The slop in the fit let the lower section of the cowling sticking up about 1/8th of an inch. Only thing was, that 1/8th inch ran for almost 5 feet. That's a lot of surface area out there grabbing the wind. Just to be on the safe side, I had already put a band of super strong silicone in front of the lap so it would divert the wind stream that would have hit the sloppy fit. I had the right idea but apparently not enough "umph". Close call or not, I still liked and looked forward to flying that ship.
One of several problems that became apparent early on with Super-pilot was that he would never write anything up. Time after time I'd get in for the next flight and would have to ground it. It seemed that he was too busy flying to worry about little things like things starting to break down or act up. About this time the rubber laminated blade dampers were separating on a regular basis and that would set up a very noticeable main rotor vibration that would slow you down from 150 mph to about 60 mph, so you would have to limp home. It happened to me a few times in flight but never to Super Pilot. I didn't find out about his failures until after takeoff when I had to immediately abort and return home.
It finally caught up to him a little later though. I had just gotten back from a week's vacation and was in the office catching up on my paperwork when I got a call from Bob Cain at Vertiflite. It seems our Astar had just crashed in front of the Knoxville tower, due to a tail rotor failure. The FAA was already there and wanted to see me and the logbook. I got in Nelliebelle and headed down to Knoxville.
Sure enough there sit Pierre, in front of the tower, all bent up. One of the tail rotor drive shaft bearings had failed and cut the drive shaft in two. Tail Rotor drive shaft bearings are examined on a regular basis and they tend to give the pilot warning of pending failure well advance of an actual failure. A worn bearing will put a definite feed back hum and vibration into the pedals. The feed back from one just about to go out would probably try to put a pilots feet to sleep. Super pilot had tried to slide it in but bottomed the collective at the last minute and crunched it in. The FAA guy was content because things were so obvious.
At Vertiflite's hanger I got my first chance to look in the logbook. Super pilot had written in the logbook, for the prior flight the day before, that there was a vibration in the pedals and that he had inspected the system and signed it off as OK. I showed it to Bob Cain and he just shook his head in disbelief. He and I both knew that a failing tail rotor bearing will give the pedals a very prominent buzz that would be very noticeable and if bad enough, will put your feet to sleep. Super Pilot knew he had a problem but elected to fly through it as usual. I showed the log book entry to Super Pilot and he just shook his head. When we all came back after lunch the log book turned up missing but that was not of much interest to the FAA guy because he had a obvious bearing failure and that was that. It was to me, I had to fly the same ships Super pilot did. It wasn't hard to figure who had taken the log book and we looked all over the place for it too. Several more times I found things going wrong that he never would tell anyone about. Helicopters have a way of telling you when they need attention. There are all kinds of different vibrations and sounds that they use just for that purpose. In most pilot's hands they are very safe to fly.
We picked up a brand new Twinstar, the twin engine version of Pierre, and I immediately named her "Fi Fi". About this time Mr. Harbert sold the entire operation to a very large oil company. Almost all the old people left and went back to Birmingham. We picked up another pilot/mechanic because the flying had grown so much. He looked great on paper and had ties with the manufacture of the ship but his toolbox was also almost all "Harbor freight" as well. The new guy was not of my choosing either. As it turned out he would "Cowboy" the aircraft and had little finesse with the ship. Weather scared him to death and he would cancel out a flight at the first chance. He was just a "Good-Old-Boy", that covered up his lack of professionalism with dirty jokes and several rounds of beer for anyone that would drink with him. After the more experienced local people got to fly with him a time or two they started asking for me by name. When he showed up they would sometimes cancel the flight. I now refer to him in my stories as "Cowboy".
On one occasion, Cowboy threatened to punch me out. For the 3rd time, I had found that he had left an engine flex line lying on the primary #1 engine oil bearing feed line after doing an engine compressor wash. He just wasn't paying attention. If this had gone unnoticed the flex line would have worn through the ridge line causing a leak and loss of oil. That would have starved the #1 bearing of oil which would have resulted in an engine failure. He said I had done it and if I ever mentioned it again he would punch me out. This is the same guy that started backing the Twinstar out of the hanger before the hanger door finished going up. It crunched the heck out of the tail of that ship. How I wish I could have picked my own people.
Though I could pick whatever flight I wanted to fly, I was pretty much desk bound and had to leave most of the flying to the other guys. I asked several times for, but never received, a secretary and had to do everything myself. If I wanted the maintenance done right I had to do it myself also.
I was now a pencil pusher and all my efforts were split between the maintenance paperwork needed to keep 2 ships flying and the "Mickey Mouse" in-house paperwork that was generated by some pencil pusher from the oil company in order to justify his existence. The people had changed as well and the pride soon faded away in the entire operation. It seemed that the parent Oil Company found an opportunity to get rid of all their dead weight by transferring them to Kentucky. We did get some good people but they were few in numbers.
With them, came the "Spy" system. It seemed as if management required "nasty grams" in everyone's file so that, if need be, it would be easy to fire someone. A male and female sprang up for the "unofficial" positions with eyes on career advancement as the reward. One of the old secretaries got a nasty gram put in her file for putting one of her stamped letters in with the "outgoing" company mail. It was not a nice place to work any longer.
I now found myself between a rock and a hard spot as well. The new local boss wanted the choppers 100% of the time regardless of FAA regulations. My other boss, the chief pilot of the big Oil Company, wanted me to do things his way. The helicopter operations was looked upon as a "Bastard Child" by the oil company's chief pilot and to make matters worse I was being paid more than his line pilots that were flying "real" aircraft on overseas routes. To them chopper pilots were not "real" pilots.
Super pilot had become friends with the local boss and now could do whatever he wished. He could take either ship on night training flights without telling me and he could take up his girl friends when he wanted. On the maintenance end of things I began making it a practice to go over their work because they were constantly leaving things undone. On two different occasions I got called in on the carpet to explain why I was now hogging all the twin engine flights. Both times I showed the office manager the numbers and I was indeed low man by a considerable amount because of all the desk work having to be done without a secretary at my disposal. My file was filling up with nasty grams fast.
I finally stepped down as chief pilot, with the Oil Companies chief pilot's promise that I would not be harassed, and could remain there as a line pilot at the same pay. Super Pilot became the new chief pilot and I rarely touched the Twinstar again. As my punishment, I now flew all the boring flights with the jet ranger but I was professional enough to accept that. Then the Twinstar went into a lengthy 300 hr inspection.
I had kept good records of the maintenance we had done on all our ships and I knew we were averaging 3.4 hrs of maintenance for every flight hour on the Twinstar. There was no way the three of us could do that inspection and meet the one week deadline set by the boss. Besides that, all the flights were now piled on the jet ranger so that meant we were down to 2 working on the big inspection. Cowboy and I started on it and Cowboy was getting really worried what would happen when we couldn't finish the inspection on time. The company's attorney had just had a major hip operation and we were suppose to fly him home from Memphis because the ambulance ride would be too much too soon for him. Come Thursday, I was taken off maintenance and began flying all the jet ranger flights. Super pilot took Friday afternoon off to give private flight lessons to a gentleman named Shane Redmon so that left just Cowboy on the inspection. When I got back, Cowboy was champing at the bit but would not tell me a thing. When I got in Monday there was Fi Fi, all back in one piece. A check of the log book showed that the inspection was completed on Friday and that on Saturday, Super pilot had flown to Memphis and brought back the attorney.
A few days later I had an evaluation meeting with the local boss and when he asked if there was anything else and I told him that I was not part of the inspection that had just been apparently penciled in. He said he would look into it and 2 days later I was fired for, "Not working with my fellow employees in a trustworthy manner".
I could see the writing on the wall thought and got out of there with all the copies of paperwork I needed. A Twinstar just one serial number away from ours was based out of Knoxville and under Vetiflight's care. It had just gone through the same exact inspection and I was granted permission to use any and all of the records I needed pertaining to their ship. Within a week I had a report that was about an inch thick and made several copies. I hand carried one to the FAA in Louisville and explained everything to a gentlemen named Felix Nunnery. They didn't do a thing until almost 1-1/2 years later. I also sent copies to the president of the Oil Company and the man in charge of executives, the chief pilot's boss. From my end of things nothing happened.
I had a lot of friends still at the mines and would get calls occasionally about certain things that were happening. One such call came from our Brownie's Creek operation. The caller told me that the vice president of the Oil Company had just been flown in by Cowboy and apparently Cowboy had tried to impress him with his mastery of the aircraft and scared him to death. The Vice President had just stated loudly, for all to hear, that neither he nor any of his people would ever fly on a helicopter again.
I got another such call after a department heads meeting that both Super pilot and Cowboy were told to attend. At the meeting, Super Pilot and Cowboy were told that the helicopter division was being terminated because the ships were in such bad shape that no one would fly on them any longer. I was told that both were laid into pretty good and used as examples for the others.
And so ended my flying career. The LORD works in strange ways though and so I was nudged into being an entrepreneur. Six months after being fired I invented a cat toy, of all things, that I named "Kitty Tease." I then started the "Galkie Company" and began manufacturing it. That cat toy began the next phase of my life and 17 of the happiest years of my life. Years later it would be voted, "Best Cat toy in the Last 30 Years", by CAT FANCY magazine, the nation's top cat magazine. I sold a lot of them and from then until now I made a living off that toy and the other inventions I dreamed up. If you watched the O.J. Simpson case, those were my experimental "High-Vis" fiberglass pointers that Judge Ito used during the trial. He got the very first of my prototypes and was so please he used them for the trial. His "Thank You" letter is proudly displayed in my office on my "wall of recognition".