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A Bad Year For Helicopters.

Part 1


During the earlier part of my career I had a couple years in which I had a relatively intimate relationship with helicopters, a certain Bell-J2 being the prime contact. My first contact with this particular machine was on the 16th of May, 1967 when I boarded her to do some aerial recon geology at Sandy Lake , about 145 miles north of Red Lake in Northwestern Ontario .


I had flown into the base camp the afternoon prior in the back of a twin-engine “Beech -18”, scrunched in on the top of a load of camping gear and groceries. The temperature was in the 90’s but many of the lakes were still ice covered. Every time we went from black spruce to ice the plane dropped about 30 feet straight down; on the north side of the lake as we made the transition back to black spruce we reversed the process and gained our 30 feet back. This active flying as a passenger did not sit too well with my body, in particular my stomach. Upon disembarking after a trip of about an hour and a half in the “Beechcraft from hell”, I crawled up the bank from the dock and spent an hour or so getting my land legs back in shape. You can now understand why this Nova Scotian selected the stable Canadian Shield in place of a bouncing “Fundy fishing boat with gunwales painted green”!


After about an hour doing tight circles in the J2 the next morning, I sensed I needed another opportunity to put my feet on terra firma. A walk of about an hour and a half through an alder swamp did wonders for my constitution and I had no more difficulty with motion sickness for the rest of the summer.


About the last week of June our helicopter every once in a while would develop a slight coughing jag that would last for a minute or so. The pilot would put the machine down, kick out the passengers, and see what would happen when he again applied power. Inevitably it was nothing, and everyone would climb on board and get on with the job. However on the third time this happened the pilot said “Enough!” and left the machine on an outcrop near the shore of a small lake and permanently went back to civilization. Our resident engineer twice combed the machine thoroughly looking for the problem. A second pilot/engineer came in with a Bell G4 and they repeated the process together. Still nothing.


A new wunderkind pilot arrived in camp with a total of 90 hours of commercial time under his belt - all off the tarmac at Expo ‘67. He and I and the engineer flew over to the machine, and the pilot spent about 45 minutes in the air with the J2 putting it through its paces. Nary a falter! The engineer signed the machine as airworthy and the pilot and I took off to the west at about 1.30 in the afternoon. It just happened that our assignment for the rest of the day was to get into an area along the Manitoba/Ontario border that was lacking in both outcrop and landing spots, map whatever outcrop we could find, and return to base camp. We had tried to access the area several times in the past but weather, fuel, or darkness had inhibited our access.


Everything was going swimmingly as we cruised west. Our intention was to fly directly to the border, check out some outcrop visible on the photos, and then work our way back. The plan was good! We were just coming up to the border at about 300 feet when I spied the low outcrop ridge we were seeking. I was in the process of pointing out to the pilot a small open swale which looked like it could safely handle the machine, when the aircraft suddenly started to cough, and shake, and loose altitude. I can still vividly recall how quickly the white spruce on the low ridge were coming up to meet us, and me bracing my feet on the door frame and the pilot’s seat. There was no panic, just simple preparation for the inevitable!


What I hadn’t anticipated was that our 90-hour wonder from the Expo site had simply excellent instincts as a pilot, instincts he demonstrated not only that July 15 but later in the summer and afterward with some of the largest helicopter companies in Canada. Those instincts managed to somehow allow us to auto-rotate, accompanied by the odd serge of power, right into the middle of the small swale. We found out later it was the only landing site within about a two mile radius, and it was just large enough to comfortably accommodate two small helicopters. How we missed getting our tail caught in some of the bordering alders I have to this day not yet figured out.


Even though the helicopter was on floats, it hit hard! Dust that had accumulated over a number of years suddenly took flight from its hiding places and totally obscured visibility within the bubble. When the dust cleared we found ourselves jarred, but unhurt. The landing had been quite successful and from what we could see the machine had suffered no visible damage.


When the pilot shut the machine off I opened the door and stepped off the float on to the grass and sedges of our little meadow home. I immediately sunk up to my waist in the floating bog. Crawling back on the float, I surveyed our surroundings and sadly noted that if we intended to make solid ground we were likely going to have to crawl part of the way on our bellies. Somehow the situation didn’t seem that serious! Besides, the horseflies were the size of humming birds and as ferocious as killer bees, and discretion suggested that our best strategy for the moment was to escape back inside the bubble. That we did.


Next on the order paper was to check our radio (didn’t work!), our emergency rations (a kit that appeared to be at least 5 years old given the melted state of the chocolate!), and other supplies (a pencil flare kit, and a first aid kit). Neither of us had used a pencil flare previously and as we were not sure whether these flares were in working order, it became obvious that we needed to run a test. Being captain of the ship the pilot proceeded to do the honor and also proceeded to blow the end off his thumb, which he had inappropriately curled over the end of the pencil. As a result we moved to a test of the first aid kit!


About 4.30 in the afternoon we saw a Beech-18 heading north a few miles off to the west. We found out later that the plane had just blown an engine and was in decent to the nearest lake. About the same time I realized it was my wife’s birthday and I knew she would not have been pleased to know the circumstances in which I was celebrating that auspicious day. Beyond the horseflies we had no other action until about 9.45 in the evening when we heard a plane off to the east. One flare later we recognized our Cessna 180 banking low over the edge of our swale and turning back east toward camp while they still had enough light to get home. We assumed we had been seen.


During the day the pilot had tried three times to see if he could get the machine off the ground. It would start and operate well until he tried to apply power and then the shaking and coughing would return.


The next morning we were awakened about 8.30 by the familiar thowak, thowak, thowak of a helicopter, and a Bell G4 with our resident engineer and another from Ontario Hydro settled in our little swale. At about 10 am I was lifted out of the swale and transferred to one of those beautiful deserted sandy beaches that we all dream about and never see. Later in the day I was transported to the Nursing Station at Sandy Lake where I spent the night, making it back to our base camp the next day.


So what had caused the difficulties with the J2? Well to make a long story short that helicopter's engine was torn down twice over a two week period in that little swale in Manitoba before they found the cause of the coughing and shaking. It turned out to be a chip out of an intake valve that was about the size of the point of a lead pencil. When the intake valve was replaced the machine reassumed its airworthy status and headed back to base camp to take us onward to other summer adventures.


A Bad Year for Helicopters

 Part II


When we last left our hero, he had just been safely delivered back to base camp after a near-disaster in a float-equipped Bell J2 helicopter on the Ontario-Manitoba border. When the J2 finally came home after being repaired, it immediately left to provide air support for another section of the field crew about 100 miles to the east.


Things went well for about a week when, during a refueling stop, the pilot noted that the drive shaft to the tail rotor was slightly bent. The machine stayed on the ground until another drive shaft could be acquired in Toronto , flown to Red Lake , then to the site, and installed. We thought ourselves fortunate in that we had only lost a week of helicopter support, and we had been able to shift our dependency to our accompanying Cessna 180 to ensure we got on with the job.


With the helicopter back in the air things went smoothly for about two weeks when the pilot, at another refueling stop, noted a crack in an engine mount. More calls to Toronto , and this time to Texas because the Bell engineers had no record of those engine mounts giving way. Finally an engine mount arrived accompanied by its own Bell engineer, and the helicopter was again declared airworthy. Life goes on!


It was now mid-September and time to fold up the operation and head back to civilization. As is always the case there remained a few select outcrops to be mapped and sampled, some that had been inadvertently missed during the summer, others which had, because of the unfolding geological picture, become critical pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. Yours truly drew the short straw and had the good fortune of checking these outcrops out on the way south; but my geological interest was up and it seemed like a nifty assignment.


The pilot and I left early for we knew we had a long day ahead. As the day progressed we had the good fortune of securing easy access to most of the outcrops needing examination, and found ourselves at about 4.30 in the afternoon finished with our scientific endeavors and cruising west over Sandy Lake to the Hudson Bay store and our last refueling stop before heading south. Because of a 30 mile an hour headwind the pilot had leveled the aircraft off at about 30 feet above the rolling lake surface. About 8 miles from the Hudson Bay store I felt the machine suddenly loose power and the next thing I know we were sitting on the pitching lake surface. The lake was too rough to attempt any type of taxiing, and besides the granite walls on either side of the narrow bay would not have let us into shore in any event. So the pilot did the only thing he could do, put on all the power he could find, broke the floats free of the lake, and flew the machine the final 8 miles to the HBC store on the air cushion between the rotor blades and the lake surface.


There was no fancy circling to finesse a landing. It was “Wham, bam, and thank you mam!” as the pilot slapped the machine on the embankment in front of the HBC and cut the power. He immediately got out his trusty oil can and squirted each of the cylinder heads. Even to my untrained eye it was obvious we had been working three cylinders short. When the engine was torn down later in the week it was revealed that a piece of exhaust valve about the size of a thumb nail had broken loose and had completely demolished two cylinders on opposite sides of the engine, and had begun demolition of a third.


Discretion being the better part of valor, about an hour later I left the pilot and his J2 in front of the HBC and caught the Beech-18 sked run back to civilization. I couldn’t see any advantage in my taking a third chance in that machine that summer!