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Meet A Rotorcraft Pro - John Harris, Kern County Fire Department

Posted 1 years 15 days ago ago by Admin

What is your current position?
I currently fly a UH-1H “Super Huey” as a civilian NVG fire/search & rescue pilot/CFII, for the Kern County Fire Department.   We operate as single pilot, 24/7, with a fire captain in the left seat for water dropping.  For rescues, the captain joins two other firefighter EMT paramedics in the back, to perform hoist recoveries.

Tell me about your first flight or experience with helicopters?
My first flight was in an OH-23C (Hiller UH-12C) in March, 1970, to see if I wanted to become a helicopter mechanic.

How did you get your start in Helicopters? 

 I was an 18-year old private in the Army Reserve, bored with my role as a truck driver.  I read that a small aviation detachment with just three helicopters was forming and needed volunteers.  I inquired, was given that first flight, which I loved and was told that I could also apply for Warrant Officer Flight Training (WOFT), which I immediately did.  

When and how did you choose to fly or work on helicopters? Or did they choose you?
After training, I began working on our vintage Hiller and two OH-13E (Bell 47D) helicopters.  (Both had wooden main rotor blades!)  I simultaneously, began flying with the pilots, all Vietnam veterans, who began “unofficially” teaching me how to fly.  After nine months as a weekend-warrior mechanic, I departed to attend WOFT. 

Where did you get your start flying or maintaining professionally?
After flight training,  I returned to my Reserve unit, but found there was minimal flying. I discovered that accumulating hours that way would be slow, so I volunteered for deployment to Vietnam. I was activated and sent to Vietnam as the last mobilized reservist.  Once there, I became a UH-1H Huey aircraft commander, performing a whole range of missions.  Afterwards,  I remained on active duty for several years, becoming an instructor pilot in both Hueys and Cobras.  I left after logging 1,500 hours, which then seemed to be the magic number needed to begin a commercial career.

If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?
I actually embarked upon a second career for the U.S. Government, during which I supported overseas contingency operations that often benefitted from my pilot background.  However, I always remained current in helicopters, by either flying rented Robinson R-22s or flying as a military Reserve pilot, which I did for over 40 years.  

 What do you enjoy doing on your days off?
I enjoy traveling with my wife, and of course, flying.  I was fortunate that I started renting Hughes 269Bs for fun, way back while I was still an active Army pilot.  Such rental activity would eventually lead to my first commercial pilot job. I also act as an unpaid volunteer pilot of an AH-1F Cobra, restored by the non-profit Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF).  We offer FAA-approved demonstration rides in the Cobra.

What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?
The safe conduct of an offshore hoist rescue of three persons, while employed as a UH-1H fire/search & rescue pilot for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.  On 27 August, 2010, I was already off-duty late that afternoon, when my pager went off, with an urgent rescue.  It was reported that three individuals were being swept out to sea in kayaks, by a powerful, offshore “Sundowner” wind.  Then they abandoned their kayaks, in a futile attempt to swim back to shore.  Normally, any such offshore rescues would be performed by the U.S. Coast Guard, but they were too far away at LAX, to respond in sufficient time.   With my crew in back, we immediately deployed, soon locating the victims who were all so exhausted, that two of them could not even raise their hands out of the water, to waive.   Fortunately, all three hoists were successful, and once onboard, one of the patients even exclaimed loudly in the cargo compartment to our incredible paramedic who had plucked him and the others out of the Pacific:  “I love you man!”

Have you ever had an “Oh, crap” moment in helicopters? Can you summarize what happened? 

In the summer of 1979, I was flying a Bell 206B III for Grand Canyon National Park on an OAS contract, for search & rescue and general support missions.  On this day, I was tasked to fly multiple trips across the canyon to transport equipment internally, to a confined area LZ located at 7,800 feet MSL on the north rim, with careful load calculations done in advance.   There was one technician in the left seat, who was by chance, a private pilot.  We had made two sorties in and out of the LZ with no power or control problems, and were making our third approach, with notably less fuel.  While completing my approach, I began to descend below the barriers, and  noted a higher sink rate than had occurred on the prior approaches, while monitoring the TOT (turbine outlet temperature),  that being the most critical limitation.  Suddenly, we encountered some sort of wind shear, which accelerated our sink rate. Momentarily, I became concerned that in arresting our descent, it might cause a TOT over-temp, but that worry rapidly became the least of my problems. I suddenly ran completely out of left pedal and the aircraft began an uncommanded 90-degree right yaw. I had never encountered LTE (loss of tail rotor effectiveness) before and likely would have crashed, save for what I believe were the positive instincts I had acquired while teaching full touchdown, stuck-pedal tail rotor failures and autorotations, as an instructor pilot.  At about 20 feet AGL, I rapidly rolled the throttle off and entered autorotation, which solved all my problems.  I immediately regained full pedal control, kept the nose straight, and continued down vertically, with one positive pitch pull at about four feet. There was no longer any concern about TOT and although we touched down pretty hard, there was zero ground run and no damage. That fixed-wing pilot in the left seat looked at me with wide open eyes and asked: “What was that?” to which I replied,  “Well, that was my first, for-real, autorotation!”  

If you could give only one piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot or mechanic, what would it be?  

If you want something, set a goal and be persistent; don’t take a first “no” as a final answer and never give up on your dreams!

In your view, what is the greatest challenge for the helicopter industry at this moment in time? 

How to address the anticipated shortage of both pilots and mechanics. The prohibitive training costs involved for both skill sets should be offset by some sort of loan-payback program, whereby recipients could pay back the incurred debt, by working it off for the sponsoring employer.