After I returned from the Amazon, I
put a job ad in "Trade-A-Plane" and received 22 job offers. Most were for
Ag work, which I did not want to do and some were for herding and coyote
hunting but there were 2 that were of interest to me. It came down
to a corporate position flying a jet ranger in support of a coal mine operation
in Kentucky or Chief Pilot of a start-up helicopter division for Jamaica
Airlines. I chose the adventure of Jamaica.
Jamaica has a long high ridge that separates the country into two sections. The north side has the beaches and resorts while the south side had Kingston, the airport, and the mines. Jamaica Airlines came to the conclusion that a fleet of helicopters could support the mining activities high on the ridge and support the growing tourist industry as well. They saw my ad, gave me a call and within days I was off to Boston for an interview.
Jamaica Airlines was considering adding a fleet of several Hughes 500s and was looking for a chief pilot that was used to living in foreign surroundings and one that could also supervise the maintenance end of things. The pay was OK, so I told them I was interested. A few days later I was informed that I was acceptable but first I was to go to Jamaica and view the pending operation, at their expense. They wanted to be sure that the local culture and surroundings were acceptable for me before spending any real bucks on the operation. Two days before I was to leave, Prime Minister Manley told the world that he was going to "Nationalize" Jamaican industry and the entire operation fell through. So I got on the phone and called Harbert Construction concerning their job offer in support of coal mine activities in Kentucky.
A few days later I found myself with a prepaid ticket to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I was told to wait for a helicopter to pick me up and take me to the operation. All kinds of images were going through my head at the time. The starting pay was good ($14,500) and the ship was a new jet ranger but all I could picture in my mind was a gigantic whole in the ground and the ugly scares that such operations leave. I figured I'd take a look see in any case. Little did I know that I was about to begin 9 of the best and most productive years of my aviation career.
Dale Bryant was the Harbert chopper pilot that picked me up in their low skid, canary colored, jet ranger. He was dual rated and the operation had grown such that he was needed in the fixed wing end of things so it was decided to get a pilot/mechanic so that he could keep up with all the service bulletins that were coming out on the jet ranger. I was given a short tour of the local mines and then we landed at the local Holiday Inn where I met with the people that I would be flying for.
Harbert Construction was a large construction firm headquartered out of Birmingham, Alabama. Years earlier they had purchased a large coal mine in Middlesboro, Kentucky in order to utilize their heavy machinery on a full time basis. The operation had grown with the purchase of several additional mines and it seems they had gotten in the coal business just as it was beginning to take off. The bosses flew in from Birmingham on Tuesday and flew back on Thursday. It would be my primary job to fly them between job sites and ferry needed local personal, as needed, between the sites as well. I thought, what-the-heck, so I said OK and was given the job. They gave me time to return home and pack my things and so I moved to Harrogate, Tennessee where I stayed for the next 26 years and where the writing of these stories is now taking place.
In the first week flying for them it was easy to see why a helicopter was needed. The Great Cumberland Mountain range was a very long ridge system that ran from Tennessee, northeast for several hundred miles. The ridge effectively put the farmland to the east of it and the coalfields to the west. The coalfields stretched from Tennessee to Pennsylvania and were so vast that it insured a few hundred years of coal for the U.S. at the present rate of removal. There was a problem thought and it was the lay of the land. The valleys and ridges were like those on an orange peel, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to them. There is a saying among the people that says "if you aren't standing on the side of a hill your standing in the stream at the bottom of one." The lay of the land therefor isolated an awful lot of people. It took you forever to drive anywhere and railroads were few and far between. If you got behind a coal truck that is where you stayed until he turned off then you probably had another one in front of that. Our furthest mine site was exactly 23 minutes by air, it was 2-1/2 hrs by car. As I recall, their chopper was the 3rd of over 160 choppers that eventually would fly for the mining industry in the coalfields.
The chopper was based, in a separate hanger, at the main mine, (Mountain Drive Coal Company), that was located close to Middlesboro, KY. Middlesboro (population 12,000) was situated in a big meteor crater that was on the Kentucky side of the famous Cumberland Gap, where Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee converged. I chose to live in a little town called Harrogate, on the Tennessee side, so that I would be closer to Norris Lake and Knoxville. Middlesboro was the main city in the area because it was on the main north/south route through the mountains. Cumberland Gap became famous because it was the only gap, of many gaps in the ridge line, which aligned with a similar gap in the next major ridge that afforded a more or less straight line to the grasslands of Kentucky. The buffalo found the gap and made a trail that the Indians followed. Thomas Walker then found the Indian trail but Daniel Boone seemed to get all the credit for it. The area is rich in history.
After I had settled in a little I was "unofficially" adopted by the family of Mountain Drive's head electrician, the Hansens. If it was not for them, I don't know if I would have remained there long enough to have given the place a chance. That is where I spend virtually every holiday and many an evening in between. I watched 3 little kids grow up into adults and I guess they watched me grow up as well. Years later, after the mines had closed and everyone was scattered all over, I was deeply honored by being asked to be a poll bearer at Mrs. Hansens funeral.
And so I began flying for Harbert construction as a coalfields pilot.