Dale flew with me for the first
week, then I was on my own. Bill Bolton was the local mine superintendent
and for all practical purposes my main local boss. I had few restrictions
and could do what I pleased when I was not flying but I still had to stay
close by. One of the definite benefits of the job was that I could
wear anything I wanted to and since I am definitely not a suit person,
I chose jeans and a J.C. Penny's blue work shirt. I could work on
my car in the hanger if I wanted or sleep the day away. It was pretty
much an 8:00 AM to supper time job. There was a large lake just 30
minutes away for my fishing and a local college right across the street
from my apartment for my tennis.
In the beginning most of my flying was up to the northern jobs and back which allowed me to get a good look at things. I was fortunate to have pretty good weather to fly in those first few weeks and once I had learned the land marks along the way I started flying off course a bit, when I was flying deadhead (no passengers), in order to acquaint myself with more landmarks. This was in case of bad weather when I had to divert a little. The next thing I did, and again only on the deadhead flights, was to low level the route. Now I'm not one to low level if I don't have to because I got all that out of my system in Vietnam. Low leveling puts you in jeopardy if that engine burps, you have birds and wires to watch out for, it makes the local people you fly over mad, and there is always that yahoo out there that will try to see if he can shoot you down. I'd much rather be on top of a scattered layer of white puffy clouds where you can see 100 miles and be breathing air no one else had ever breathed before. But duty calls and weather will force one on the deck from time to time so you best know what things look like from that view. So down I went and I logged the view and landmarks into memory.
Next came the instrument approaches. The ship was equipped with only the basic instrument package, so without a second pilot or autopilot, which they didn't have at the time, you could not legally fly it in IFR (instrument flight rules) conditions. For those of you not familiar with helicopters, if you let go of the controls or take your eyes off things they tend to go into a straight down dive. Helicopters do not want to fly by nature, you have to make them do it and you best talk nice to them while doing it because they do have ears. Get yourself caught or forced up into the clouds and you have your hands full. In any case, I had to make some bootleg approaches into Middlesboro airport and our job via the Middlesboro 24 hour radio station. I never had to use one thought I did have to spend the night on a strip bench once.
The weather in the area was pretty good for flying for the most part. Tennessee and my area of Kentucky had mild summers and mild winters. When bad weather came through, there seemed to always be a solid deck with it that you could fly under or around. There were many occasions where the clouds had formed a solid deck only a few hundred feet up but you could see 30 or more miles under it. Back then the FAA used the old style weather reporting system that had a local person forecast his own weather for the area. London Airport had one, which was the closest to me, and that guy was good. He could tell you when the snow was going to get to you within half and hour. They later got rid of all those folks and went with the computer readout, then your forecast was good, plus or minus 3 days. They killed their golden goose when they went that route.
As for the coal mine, there was no huge big ugly pit and that eased my feelings about mining quite a bit. The coal was deposited in several layers in virtually every mountain you could see. The miners would dig out the coal and use the dirt to fill in the heads of the back valleys around the job. These new flat areas were then flattened out and seeded. In may places the local people moved up to the flat spots to get a way from the steep hillside living that virtually everyone had to put up with. Cattle now had a place to graze as well as deer. And I had a place to land if I lost and engine, which never happened.
The coal was then trucked to a tipple where it was dumped into a big hopper that had a shaker at the bottom of it. The shaker separated the stone from the coal and sent each it's own way. The coal then went through a crusher that brought it down to size for train transport. The coal then went into a big pile that was over a tunnel/conveyor belt system that would fill the train. When the pile was big enough a train was called in and it was loaded and sent to it's destination. The coal was constantly tested for quality. Mine inspectors were there all the time and when a job was finished the company could not get their bond back until the inspector cleared the site via the reclamation laws that were to be followed. The larger jobs did this well but some really small wildcatters would leave a real mess. The "Orphan's Mines Act", later took care of quite a bit of that.
Whenever political problems (Washington type) arose in the coalfields Mr. Harbert would always have the man that could make the changes flown in for a tour of the mines. Mr. Harbert or Don Cook would always go along for the lecture part and we flew many an important person. Mr. Watt, the then Secretary of the Interior, was even on the job at one time. I even flew the headman for all surface mining in China. Most of the time and Aerial view answered all their questions and common sense would prevail. Sometimes it worked but sometimes it did not.
A law was passed that really made the people in the coal fields angry. It said that instead of filling in the heads of the smaller hollows and valleys with the spent fill from the mining, that you would now have to put it back in place. The people from Kentucky to Pennsylvania were crying for flat land, not more hillsides. The law stuck though and so the fill was put back up the side of the mountain. Only thing was, you can't put aerated soil back on solid rock because rain will then pool up where they meet and set the stage for slides. And slide they did. Someone should have gotten the "Dilbert Hoople Award" for that one.
Getting back to flying, on a typical Monday I would fly Bill around the mine site so he could get a bird's eye view of what was going on. Come Tuesday the plane would come in with the Birmingham bosses and I would fly the bosses for the northern jobs to their perspective job sites. Wednesday would find me all over the place. Thursday would have me picking everybody up and taking them back to the airport for the trip back to Birmingham. Friday was a what-ever day and weekends were free. They didn't want to do any night flying so pilot wise I had it made.
Mr. John Harbert was the owner of the company and I could write a whole chapter, just on him. Here was this mover of men, rich as all get out, and yet, if you met the man on the street, you would think he was a regular Joe. He was the kind of guy that the LORD occasionally sends down as an example for others to be like. Mr. Harbert liked wearing L.L. Bean clothing, the sportsmans lines, so he sure did not look like the owner of the company. He came up about once a month and it was always a pleasure to fly him around. I can't count how many times he told me to set the chopper down so he could got out and just started shaking hands and talk with the men. In the beginning they didn't know who he was but they went along with it because he had to be somebody special to come in on the chopper like that. The foreman would then mossy on over to me and ask who the heck that is. Mr. Harbert really impressed the men, at all seven of the mines.
As the helicopter became more common place with the operation, Mr. Harbert made it known that if anyone got hurt on the job they would get priority with the chopper and that went for their families as well. He was well aware of the travel problems on the roads and if the speed of that chopper could get just one person to the big hospital at Lexington and give them a better chance then it was theirs. I will write more on the medivac flights in a separate story.
Because of the lay of the land people pretty much had to depend on themselves to get things done. As a result the Coal Company and others like it, were treated like common property, sort of. If there was a small mudslide nearby a simple call to the local Coal Company usually had a loader there to clear things in a jiffy and at no charge too. If a group of ladies needed money for a project of theirs they were welcome to sell hot dogs or such to the men at lunch. Sponsorships for little league teams were common. Mr. Harbert made it a practice to hire as many of the local teachers as he could for summer jobs. There was one time thought that this practice really stood out and that was during the big flood.
We had been hit with 5 days of steady rain and the ground was soaked and the creeks overflowing. Then a line of bad thunderstorms stalled over the area for 2 more days before it lifted. I went in to the job early because I knew the boss would want to go up and see if we had any damage. There was no damage to us and so we were done in 30 minutes. Then I was told to go over to Middlesboro airport, the hospital next door needed me. I went over to the hospital and introduced myself and was told that the road to Pineville (the city in the next mountain gap north) was flooded and they badly needed supplies. A surgeon got on board and with a ship loaded with hospital supplies we took off for Pineville hospital, which was 5 minutes away.
Flooded road my eye, the whole city was under water. The hospital was on the side of a hill and water was within 2 feet of the front door. As for the city of Pineville, all that was left was the top 2 feet of the streetlights and the tops of the 3 story buildings. They were cut off in every direct except for straight up. I called this in to the boss and was told that I was theirs for as long as needed. I found a spot to land on one of the lower roofs and the supplies were unloaded but the chopper was mobbed. I told the boss and he let me have Slim Hanson, the head electrician who was a private pilot himself. Slim took over the loading and unloading of the ship. We then logged over 6 hrs worth of 5 minute flights back and forth between hospitals. As soon as word got out, via the radio stations, we were swamped with supplies from a chopper load of fast food hamburgers to a chopper full of milk. When it started to snow on top of that we still kept going, just had to go back to the hanger for the snow baffles for the engine. We did have a long break when the Governor's chopper flight came in with 2 choppers of reporters, that took up all the space on the hospital roof. We found a couple people that were in dire need of dialysis and flew them in as well. The next day the Guard choppers came in and I was in the way. There was never a charge for the community flying that we did, that was just the way it was in the coalfields.
Though I was hired as a pilot/mechanic I was told I was only to keep up with the service bulletins (SBs) and air worthiness derivatives (AD Notes) that were coming in constantly on the ship. That was no problem because reading those was a piece of cake. When the ship went into a 100 hr inspection I was to take it to a repair center in South Carolina and stay with it until it was completed. The expense account paid for everything so I had a rental car and ate well and pretty much made a mini vacation out of it. They would not let me in the shop so what else was there to do. Something was wrong thought. There were little things that were wrong with the ship that I could easily adjust or fix and they didn't trust me to do it. I had 2 years of A&P school and lots of maintenance experience with PHI and that was my butt up there in that ship and I wanted everything to be at 100%. Then I got my break.
By this time I had named the ship "Nelliebelle" and my people were now use to calling for her by that name. While at one of the jobs I went to start her and got nothing, the starter relay had malfunctioned and we were way out in the boonies. I had to take the top off the relay and have one of the guys push it down with a stick, then make sure it was pried up after my start was completed. It worked and I got the reputation of a Mr. Fix-it. Word got back to the chief pilot and after a little talk he OK'd me for little things like that. He didn't realize it at the time but that opened the flood gates for me maintenance wise.
There was one other problem the ship had. Because we had so many starts and stops, Dale had the original battery taken out and replaced with a huge "Saft" battery that could power up the space shuttle. It sure could spool up a hot engine and cool her down quickly for a quick restart. Only problem was, it tended to snap the starter generator shaft on occasion. It caught me once but never again. I soon carried a mini tool kit in the ship that had some tools, a voltmeter, spare starter relay, and a spare starter/generator shaft. I could replace a relay in about 15 minutes and a shaft in 45.
There was only one problem with the ship that was a constant pain for me for almost a year and that was the Mickey Mouse headset/intercom system that was installed by the folks at the maintenance center in S.C.. The system schematics were poor and the connectors were always coming lose or malfunctioning. With the help of Mountain Drive's head electrician, I ordered good connectors and installed them one Saturday. It took all day but it worked and after that all the headsets worked just fine.
In time, I started taking the ship to a new maintenance facility in nearby Knoxville called Vertiflite because they had a new lead mechanic that allowed me to do my own work while they did theirs. Bob Cain had taken over the maintenance and he was Vietnam schooled and we got along together quite well. I have a lot of respect for that man and we are still friends today. The ship usually went in on a Friday morning and got out on Monday. Bob would put the whole crew on her so we would have minimal down time, as requested by the boss. I believe Nelliebelle was the only ship they worked on that had a name.
The Vertiflite folks became like a second family to me. I was one of the few pilots that brought donuts every morning and a paper, and to mechanics that means something. Before they got their own place they were stuck in a corner of a big hanger at Knoxville airport. We froze and sweat together and played jokes on each other to pass the time. Herb Bobo, one of the mechanics, was the target of most of our pranks.
On one occasion we were talking about rings and severed fingers when lunch time came around. Herb was in the process of removing the inspection panel over the fuel valve and had left with only a few screws to go. I made it to a magic shop and got back with a rubber finger before he got back. I took off the rest of the screws to Herb's panel and put the finger inside then put the panel back on. Bob said Herb would probably have a heart attack over that. Before he started work on the panel again we got talking about what they did with the fingers. We set old Herb up as well as one could be set up and he about died when he pulled that panel and began inspecting the control. When he spotted that finger he let out a scream and broke out in a sweat. Poor old Herb had to sit things out for a while. He had been had.
Playing jokes was common amount the guys back at the job as well. The LORD had blessed those folks with a sense of humor and an extra dose of horse sense, as they say. I was the only Polock on the job and since "Galkiewicz" was a new one for them I was just referred to as "John G". By this time A.J. Cox, the assistant parts manager, had become my fishing buddy and I would always stop by the shop and say hello, in the mornings, to the guys in the shop. On one particular morning I had to take off really early and only A.J. was there. I said, "A.J., you know what the roughest 5 years in a Polock's life are?" He said "no" and I said, "the 3rd grade". He about broke up over that. That was the best one he had heard in a long time and the guys were always trying to out do me in Polock jokes.
I didn't get back to the job until just before quitting time and just as I was passing the shop the guys came out and called me over. A.J. was with them but didn't say a thing as they gathered around. Then one of them asked me what the roughest 5 years in a Polock's life were. I kept a straight face and pondered a moment or two like I was really having to think about that one. Then with a straight face that would have made an acting coach proud I said, "Well! I can't speak for other Polish people but I about never got out of that darn 3rd grade." Boy! Did that ever catch them off guard. I wish I had a camera for the looks on their faces. After a very long moment or two A.J. and I broke out with a laugh and A.J. spilled the beans.
Playing jokes was a common thing. Walking up to the shop area I had to pass by the tire fix-it area and I would ask the guys about finding rattle snakes in the tires. They would always give me some kind of "brave" talk and I would always say they would probably run like a scared little girl if they found one in the tires. On one particular occasion, I saw that the truck they were working on would take a while. Late that night, I got a long rubber snake I had and tied some clear fishing line to it's head and hid it under the tire pile next to where they were working. I ran the line under the truck to the side of the small hill I had to go up. I then covered the line with dust. Next morning I told them I had seen a big rattle snake go into their tire pile the night before. I got the usual static from them then went on my way. When I got to the far side of the truck I bent down to see under it as to what they were doing and sure enough they were going over to that tire pile for a look see. Just as they were bending over to look between and under the tires, I gave that line a jerk and out came that snake. Wish I had the camera for that one too, never saw guys jump so high in my life. They started to chase me up the hill but I had too much of a head start on them.
The girls in the office weren't immune from my antics either. They all had a sense of humor and that made things quite livable. When the first microwave ovens started to come out they got one for the office. Linda, the head secretary, was so proud that they had one that she would show it off to everyone that came in the door. I saw my opportunity and struck. The office had a mouse problem and I had a small rubber mouse at the hanger from prior pranks. I got it and while Linda was busy I put it in the microwave with a cracker that I had bitten the corner off. I set it up just as if the mouse had been nibbling on the cracker and the time was just right, lunch was just around the corner. We all sat down for lunch and Linda was making it obvious that she needed an excuse to put something into the new microwave. No one else knew and when Linda opened the door she stood perfectly still for a few seconds and just stared. She then let out a scream and backed off a bit. Everyone jumped up to see what was inside and one of the other girls said, "That John G!" That was a good one but that wasn't my best.
My best was a spur of the moment thing that Mr. Bolton took to like a duck to water. I was caught up on everything so I pulled my car into the hanger and was working on it. Nelliebelle was sitting outside on the pad and was ready to fly. Mr. Bolton had told me that he was expecting an old friend any time and that he wanted to take him up for a look see. So I was on standby.
I was well into some dirty engine work, when in comes Mr. Bolton and his friend, whom I had never seen before. Now remember my uniform was jeans and a work shirt and here I am bent over fixing a car and dirty to boot. Mr. Bolton said he wanted to fly now. I don't know what made me do it, guess it was just the perfect opportunity for it. I straightened up and said something to the effect that the pilot had gone into town and would not be back for quite a while but that I could do it, I knew I could. I then went on about the company's policy about giving people a chance and promoting from within. I then said I knew I could do it and pleaded for a chance. Mr. Bolton went with it and said that it was indeed their policy and finally said "Well, OK".
I cleaned up then we went outside to Nelliebelle. Mr. Bolton's friend never said a thing but had a very concerned look on his face and eyes as wide open as they could get. Mr. Bolton helped him into the front seat and showed him how to work the intercom. When we were all in I hit an overhead switch and nothing happened. I said something to the effect that no, that wasn't the sound. I then hit the right switch which turned on the battery and the fuel boost pump that did make a sound. I said, "That's it" and began starting the engine. With the engine now going and the blades turning I said, "This is easy". That guy remained silent and just looked.
The hanger pad had ample room for Nelliebelle but just in case, Dale had painted a big yellow line where the ship's nose would sit so that the spinning blades would have enough clearance (6 ft), in order not to hit the hanger. To a passenger, all they saw was hanger and it was close, very close. In order to take off, I had to back up a little, then do a pedal turn around the mast, and off we would go. When we were airborne, Mr. Bolton's friend spoke up and said he figured we were pulling one on him but just in case he had his hand on the door handle and was ready to jump out if I couldn't hover it well. We reminisced about that one for a long time afterwards.
The job had its sad moments as well as accidents do happen. I had my orders and they stated that no matter who was on that ship, they would get bumped for a hospital flight and bumped they were. I will write about those in one of the side stories.
The Harbert people made me feel like one of the group. I was privy to many a conversation among the bosses in that ship and on occasion I was asked my opinion of things. In return, I sometimes spoke up when I felt that something was amiss. I got real good at estimation the size of the competition's coal piles and was used on occasions for such.
On several occasions I had to take up a local photographer named Charlie Warren. Working with Charlie was a pleasure and I soon learned about lens and the proper setup for Aerial pictures. We worked well together and many times only one pass was needed for him to get his picture. All he had to do was to grab one of his special cameras and I knew how to set up for the shot.
It came time for the Harbert folks to make a new company brochure which the coal mine operation was to be part of. A big fuss was made over a very special photographer that was to come up and take the pictures of all 7 of the mines. They really pampered that guy because he was so famous and had just completed a big shot for a large magazine. I was even told to wear slacks and a dress shirt when I flew him and that was extremely rare. I was introduced to him and was then given to him for the entire day.
He climbed in the back seat and had 2 cameras around his neck, though nothing special like Charlie would bring. Along with him was a young kid he used to vent his anger on. The kid had a large white plastic garbage bag that must have had about 200 rolls of 35 mm film in it. After the first pass I knew that this guy had an ego problem and used it well to cover up the fact that he really didn't know what he was doing. Where Charlie took the "sniper" route for his shots this guy used the "machine gun" approach for his. Rarely was I told to fly at the right distance for the shot but I did what I was told. As fast as that helper could load a camera he took his pictures. We got home after dark because he wanted to get a dusk shot of the big drag line at the northern job. They left all the trash in the ship for me to clean up but that was OK because I got 2 rolls of film they had missed.
There was a big party for him at the Holiday Inn that night which I attended as well. Did I ever feel like I was between a rock and a hard spot. I knew there was a close deadline for the pictures and I knew I was not a photographer but I also knew something was wrong and it might effect the company. It ate on me all night then I decided I had to say something. When I saw my chance, I pulled Mr. Harbert over to the side and apologized for what I was about to say but better to be on the safe side then to be sorry and caught short later. I guess the old 281st training kicked in on that one and once again if there was any way I could cover myself and the company/men I would. I told Mr. Harbert I didn't think that guy did a very good job with the pictures and that he should be advised of such. He said he respected me for that and would look into it. I was glad to get that off my shoulder but inside I was wondering what tomorrow would bring.
The plane took everyone back early the next day and I was called into Mr. Bolton's office. Boy! Was my heart ever low. I was then informed that Charlie would be there shortly and that I was suppose to fly him over every picture site I flew over the day before. Charlie was to reshoot everything just to be on the safe side. We did and it was several weeks later that C.L. Melonizer, one of the northern bosses, told me that every one of that guy's pictures came out bad and could not be used for the new brochure. In the meantime, Charlie's pictures of all the individual offices had come out so well, each office was give their own framed enlargement that hung proudly for all to see. When we got our copies of the new company brochure there were Charlie's pictures. I was mighty relieved over that.
The operation continued to grow and the chopper was being used for all kinds of missions now. I began doing a lot of parts runs because they had discovered how efficient a chopper could be compared to shutting down an entire mine waiting on one part. On one occasion the loader that scoops up the coal in the pit and puts it in the coal trucks broke down. Somehow it had cracked a face plate that turned out to be a very rare part. It literally shut down the entire mine. They found one way up in Virginia and sent me for it. They didn't tell me it couldn't fit in the chopper though. I had them take it out of the wood crate and set it in the back seat. It took two men struggling to get it in. With it centered, it still stuck out a good 4 inches on either side. So I climbed over the front seat and tired it down the best I could with some rope that I always carried in the chopper. I had to use the door handles for tie downs and hoped that it didn't shift and pull them out of the door. I was concerned about the takeoff for that was the critical time, once in cruise, things would streamline and the doors would stay in place. The takeoff went smoothly and by holding slightly less than normal cruise I was able to keep the vibration minimal. I paid the price though when I landed next to the loader in the pit. The dust storm I put up found every open spot the doors provided and I almost choked on all the dust that came in. I went straight back to the hanger and vacuumed her out the best I could.
When Nelliebelle would go into a major inspection, I would get the backup jet ranger that was based in Birmingham. Harbert had acquired it when they purchased one of the northern jobs. I named it "Clairabelle", after the famous clown, because every time I got it, it took me a whole day to fix all the little things that needed fixing. Besides that, Dale was it's pilot and, as a chain smoker, he had caked up the windows so bad with smoke you had to strain to see out of them. I never did get it up to my standards but it was flyable. Clairabelle did have one good redeeming feature, it was set up for dual controls. I always left them in so that the guys could take a shot at things, which in turn made them appreciate me more.
Don Cook was the executive vice president of Harbert and I flew him often. On one particular occasion, I had to pick him up at one of the northern jobs and fly him back to Mountain Drive. When he got on it was obvious he was in a very bad mood because of a meeting that had gone bad. The LORD must have had his eye on things because he had lined up the perfect day for what was to happen next. After I had established takeoff, and we were still climbing to cruise altitude, I asked Mr. Cook to take the controls so I could clean my sunglasses. It was a sunny day with white puffy clouds all over the place. It was my plan to let him fly Clairabelle for a while and possibly remove some of that tension. A small cloud was coming up fast so I made like I was having trouble cleaning one of the lenses and asked him to start a turn so we would miss it. He did and when Clairabelle responded to his control input he was hooked. When we reached our cruising altitude I told him how to level off and drop the power down to its cruise setting. He took to it like a duck to water and for the next 20 minutes he didn't have a nasty thought in his head. I let him get us to within a few hundred yards of touchdown before I took the controls. When he got out he said, "Thank you for that". That made his day as well as mine. Sometimes you just have to go on instinct.
The operation grew and a large hanger was built for us at Middlesboro airport. It was time for a new helicopter and with my input we got the first Astar in the coalfields. They decided to keep Nelliebelle for a while as an instant backup. I got an early maintenance slot for it and went to the Dallas area for training. We gave Bob Cain the other slot we had so he could plan for the maintenance on it. What a pleasure it was to fly. I named it "Pierre" and it was an instant hit with the guys. It would do 150 mph instead of 120 and had 4 hours of fuel verses 2-1/2 hours. A short time later they even put in air conditioning and was that ever nice, especially since there was no visible power drain on the engine.
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 we 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 anyways 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 hooks. After it left the ship, some of it hit the left rear horizontal 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 of an 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.