Fifty Feet, 90 Knots!

One of the best parts of flying an Army helicopter was that almost all flying was done fifty feet above the highest obstacle.  For the vast majority of my flying in Ft. Rucker, Alabama, I was cruising at 90 knots, with the belly of my aircraft just fifty feet off the tops of the endless stretches of pine trees.

For those of you with no frame of reference.  When you first learn to fly, almost all flying is in the traffic pattern at approximately 1000′ above ground level (AGL).  That is where you learn the basics, take offs, landings, and traffic pattern work.  As well as the proper method for communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC).  When you do venture away from the airport, it is to perform maneuvers that cannot be safely performed in the traffic pattern.  But these are done at altitude, and aside from stalling a Piper Tomahawk airplane, not very exciting.

In the beginning, all flying is exciting.  But you will be hard pressed to find a pilot that doesn’t get bored flying at altitude, straight and level.  I think they pay airline pilots the big bucks, just to keep them awake.  And even then, it doesn’t always work.

The same was true when we went from the Osage to the Huey.  We did a lot of flying around the traffic pattern, practicing take offs and landings.  The hovering practice was obviously close to the ground, but for me, it was maddening frustrating.  Just a short couple weeks ago, I was hovering a TH-55 like it was on a pedestal, but the UH-1 refused to hold its position.  But that is a tale for another post.

What I am getting at is, once you learned the basics of flying, it quickly became mundane.  That is until the Army allowed us to fly the “Army way”.

The helicopter came into its own in a little skirmish called Vietnam.  At first, they flew along at about three thousand feet or more to stay out of range of small arms fire.  Then the North Vietnamese got a hold of surface to air missiles.  These missiles were also known as flying telephone poles, and they ruined a helicopter pilots day.  A UH-1 had no chance of out flying these things, like the fast moving jet jockeys sometimes could.  So they needed a new plan.

Military tacticians soon learned that if a helicopter clipped along, just above the tree line, they could avoid most surface to air missile detection.  As far as small arms fire was concerned, by the time the enemy spotted the aircraft, it was gone.  This treetop flying became the norm throughout the remainder of our time in Vietnam, and a standard practice for most modes of military helicopter flight.

It was damn fun too!

Well at first anyway, it too became so routine that I once had trouble staying awake.  I will elaborate on that flight in yet another post.

Some of my favorite fifty-feet stories are such.

One of my stick buddies during the tactics phase of flight was a red neck farm boy from Iowa.  We will call him Ace.  Regularly the instructor would chastise him for nearly reckless behavior.

One time, when I was sitting in the jump seat, our instructor asked for a particular radio frequency.  That was my job as the third wheel, the fifth wheel was the guy sitting way in the back.  I looked down at my knee board, and started flipping through charts looking for the frequency he requested.  As I am looking down at my lap, I hear the engine unspool and the aircraft begin to settle.  My heart stopped and my breath lodged in my throat.  The engine failed, and we were settling into the endless sea of Alabama pine trees.  I looked out the window and watched the nose started to arrow towards the trees as the horizon slid up the wind screen.  Our goose was cooked.

Just as that thought formed in my mind, I heard engine spool back up and lift come back into the rotor system.

“Don’t ever take your hands off the controls when flying low level.”  Our instructor announced over the intercom.

“I was looking for the radio frequency.”  Ace responded in defense of taking his hand off the collective.

“That is the job of the guy in the jump seat.”  The instructor shot back.  “Bill, do you have that frequency?”

That was not the only time he garnered the ire of our flight instructor.  One time he was performing a max power take off from an LZ.  The goal was to make a nearly vertical takeoff, just clearing the trees at the edge of the LZ.  Well ace didn’t clear the trees.  In fact he took relish in feeling and seeing them scrape across the chin of the helicopter.  Being young and dumb, I thought this was pretty cool, but I also noticed the instructor transitioning from his usual relaxed, along for the ride posture, to someone ready for trouble, his hands hovering around the controls.

After the last scrape of leaves and tree branches slid across the Plexiglas® the instructor chastised Ace.

“I believe the standards say that you should clear the trees, not hit them.”  He said coolly.

“I just barely scraped them.”  Ace said once again defending his reckless behavior.

“It doesn’t take a very large branch to snag a skid, and land us upside down in the trees.”  Our instructor replied flatly.

I don’t recall the rest of the exchange, I was too busy dealing with the survivability of landing a Huey upside down in the thick pines below us.

Not all exchanges between Ace and the instructor where while he was carelessly flying.

One beautiful Alabama afternoon, me and the instructor were having a great day of flying.  I was performing my maneuvers flawlessly.  The banter was light hearted and entertaining.  It was just a good day to be a pilot in the United States Army.  Then just as I leveled off from a LZ pee and smoke break, Ace chimes in from the back.

“Sir, if I tied a brick to the end of a fifty foot rope, I am pretty sure it would be about three feet into the trees.”

After a short moment of contemplation our instructor responds.  “Nope, looks like fifty feet to me.”

My spirits lift even higher.  I was concerned that the moment of contemplation would result in me pulling in some pitch and bringing the aircraft to a slightly higher cruising altitude.

“If I hang that same brick out the door while I am flying, I guarantee you that the brick will be three or four feet above the trees.”  He says after a moment.

In my mind, I recall all the times the instructor told Ace to bring the aircraft to a higher altitude.

“Fifty feet is different for some people.”  Our instructor says without hesitation, looking out the front of  the aircraft as though it was just another conversation.

“Who determines what fifty feet should be then.”  Ace shot back.

This time the instructor made a show or lifting himself from his relaxed posture, and turned his visored gaze toward Ace.

“I do.”  He said coolly, and held his gaze on Ace for awhile ending the discussion.

I felt pretty good about myself, but knew Ace hated the fact that I was a better pilot than he was.

Later, Ace came really close to killing me during solo flights in the wide open forests of Alabama.

Solo flights consist of two students flying without an instructor.  One is the PIC for half the day, then you swap seats, and the other guy or gal is the PIC.  It was great fun, but you couldn’t be stupid, there was instructors flying watch over the training area to make sure you were not strafing traffic on the highway.  The single biggest, get your ass kicked out of flight school, rule was; never assume control of the aircraft from you stick buddy…EVER!

That was made so clear, that it stands out clearly in my mind, thirty years later.  I almost died because of my fear of breaking that rule.

The stick buddy change was usually performed during refueling half way through a training session.  We would fly into a cleared out area in the trees .  This cleared out area was called a landing zone.  Within the landing zone was a support unit with tanker trucks and other support personal.  Often times the support staff was National Guard or Reserve troops on their two week training stint.

One day, Ace was on final approach to one of these LZ’s.  Before flying into these LZ’s, we climb to traffic pattern altitude, and make contact with the LZ’s ATC.  The ATC gives us an approach vector, and clearance.  As Ace descended back through low level flight altitude, we picked up an aircraft approaching fast from our right.

One of the first things they teach you about collision avoidance is, if the aircraft does not move in your windscreen, you are on a collision course.

Ace was doing a great job of adjusting his speed and altitude to make sure we collided with the fast moving, and very lost Huey approaching from our right.  Ace asked me what he should do.  My hands and feet twitched to wrest control from this idiot.  ATC screamed at the lost aircraft to change course and identify themselves.  For several seconds I wrestled with the implications of taking command of the aircraft.  All Ace needed to do was change direction, or drop some altitude.  But he kept our speed and altitude in perfect unison with our impending collision.  Would saving my life be worth getting drummed out of flight school?  Would the review board understand my actions.  Would Ace tell anyone that I took over the aircraft and saved us from a fiery death?

Just as I was about to announce “I have control!”  The lost aircraft banked hard right and made a beeline for the opposite side of the LZ.  As it raced away, ATC continued to call out “aircraft identify yourself!”.  The fleeing helicopter maintained radio silence.  Ace was once again cleared to land, and I wondered if I would survive flight school sharing an aircraft with this guy.

Not every moment with Ace was a near death experience.  Some of them were pretty fricken cool.  These next couple of moments happened on the same day.

We were clipping along at our standard ninety knots, Ace was navigating, I was loving my life.  A rare clearing opened up before us.  But this clearing was special.  About half way, dead center was a pair of trees that created a “V”.  The tops were far enough apart, I could safely fly between them.

“Fifty feet above the highest obstacle…right.”  I asked Ace over the intercom.

“That’s what it says, and you’re are the one flying.” He replied, insinuating that I would get in trouble, not him.

I dropped the Huey down so that the closely cropped field was fifty feet below the belly of the aircraft.  It was exhilarating watching those two trees race towards us.  Just to make sure I was safely within the rules, I pulled a little pitch as we grew closer, lifting the aircraft just a tad.  We flew between those two towering trees, their tops at window level.  Then I dropped back down to my usual cruising altitude, before lifting myself to once again soar over the trees on the other side of the clearing.  I felt like a real combat pilot in that moment.

Later that morning Ace proved he wasn’t just a dangerous pilot, he was an inept navigator.  We were flying in relatively unfamiliar territory.  The current leg was a straight route that didn’t offer much in terrain features, but that should not matter.  It was our job to navigate with as little help as possible.  After about the second page of the book, Ace got lost.  We were just about to turn the page when he says, “I lost my place.”

“Well use the power lines or the roads to get your orientation.”  I say.  We are not suppose to use manmade objects because those will probably be destroyed in a real combat situation.

“I am trying.”  He responded, his voice edged with frustration.

After about five minutes of flying straight and level without any input from him I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I can’t break out my map book.  Flipping through it while flying would be a big no no.  But I was tempted.  Instead, I slow down, get my bearings, then started a slow orbit to see if we can find a church.  For some reason, the cartographers include every church in southern Alabama, and put the name of the church on the map.  If I could find one, and read the sign, we could figure out where we are.  After a few minutes I found one, but short of landing in the front yard and walking up to the sign, I could not read it.  The print was to small, and getting any closer would violate the altitude rules.

Then I found a four lane highway.  We crossed it, and I banked right.

“I have an idea, I will fly along the highway, and you find some landmarks we can use to figure out where we are.”  I said as I swung the aircraft around for a pass over the highway.

“Good plan.”  He says.

I picked up a rest area along the highway, but he still could not figure out where we were.  Finally, I rolled around for one more pass.  This time I would go slower, and we would try and read the road sign to figure out what highway it was.  As I rolled out over the highway, I came out over a semi-truck.  It looked small from about a hundred feet, in my big green flying tad pole.  I slowed my speed to about fifty knots, and took delight in watching the traffic below start to pull away.

I leaned forward as far as my shoulder harness would allow.  Finally I picked up a highway sign.  My super sharp vision started to focus on the numbers.  Though I don’t remember the highway, I called out the numbers.

“Find a rest area along highway whatever, and figure out where we are!”  I nearly shouted into the intercom as I accelerated and rolled off the highway.

“I am trying.”  He shot back.

“Shit,”  I said with realization. “Did we make our radio call off that last LZ?”

Ace looked up at me, “No, I don’t think we did.”

“Figure out where we are, I will call in.”  I replied.

I made several attempts to call in, but could not bring Halo up on the radio.  I figured we must be out of range.  As I climbed to five hundred feet for better reception, Ace found our location two pages over from where he was originally looking.  I finally got a hold of Halo, and they informed us that we were in the midst of a weather recall.  I acknowledged the recall, and asked Ace if the power lines to our north lead back to Lowe field.  He said yes, and I high tailed it back to the airfield.

Because a large thunderstorm parked itself over Lowe, we were told to stay clear.  Out my left window was Enterprise airport, shining in a ray of light that penetrated the gloom around us.  I told ATC that
Enterprise was clear, and we were all ordered there.  Not five minutes after I landed and walked the required distance from the aircraft for a smoke, Ace was waving me back.

I got into the aircraft, and plugged in, he said we are clear to return to Lowe.  It was a cluster fuck of student piloted aircraft all trying to get on the ground before the next thunder boomer rolled into the area.  Shaky voices cracked and called out, stepping over each other while haggard ATC students tried to sort them all out.

Once we touched the landing pad I followed the steady stream of hovering helicopters back to my parking spot.  While I taxied I reflected on a full day of flying.  I looked over at Ace, and wondered if he was ever going to become an old Aviator.

After all, there are old aviators, and bold aviators.  But you never have old, bold aviators.

I later heard that Ace was killed along with a half dozen others during a night vision training exercise in a Black Hawk.

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