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Velvet Elvis

Posted 4 years 284 days ago ago by Randy Mains

“Don’t make yourself famous,” is advice a pilot at Abu Dhabi Aviation gave me on one of my first flights with the company.  His meaning:  Do not do something stupid to put yourself in the spotlight of management or the other pilots. 

What that pilot said reminds me of a booby prize awarded to pilots or crew members at the Coast Guard base in Astoria, Washington, whenever they managed to make themselves famous.  

In 2013 I’d been invited to Astoria to give a talk to the men and women there.  After my talk, I was given a tour of the facility by the base commander, Dan Leary.  He told me about a tacky felt painting of Elvis Presley singing under a spotlight.  He said, “If someone puts themselves in the spotlight by screwing up in some way, they become the proud owner of the Velvet Elvis which they keep until the NEXT person screws up and it’s passed along.”

Hearing about that painting reminded me of memorable events in my career where I would have most certainly received the Velvet Elvis.  The first vivid memory occurred not while flying, but on the ground when I was a new wet-behind-the-ears helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

I’d arrived to the company that day. My first night, when I was fast asleep, I was jolted awake by the most almighty, bone-shaking explosion KAAWHAM!.  I sprung straight out of my bunk, certain a mortar round had landed inside my hootch.

Half asleep, in my underwear, and in a panic, I threw on my steel pot, flak jacket, and unlaced combat boots, grabbed my M-16 and bolted out the door, charging full tilt for the nearest bunker. KAAWHAM! Another explosion so strong the shockwave hit my chest like I’d been punched. I screamed out in a panic while still running, "Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!" 

Once inside the bunker I waited, my chest heaving, eyes wide.  Where is everyone?

KAAWHAM! KAAWHAM! KAAWHAM! Three more explosions came in quick succession.  I thought I was going to die before I'd even flown my first combat mission.  I clutched my M-16 to my chest, my eyes searching the darkness, waiting for the enemy’s inevitable assault. I chambered a round waiting for the hordes of Viet Cong to come through the wire when suddenly I heard, "Hey! FNG!

At last someone's coming? They'll know what to do. I crouched low scooting to the opening of the bunker and yelled with all my being, “I.N.C.O.M.I.N.G!”

“Hey! FNG! Shut the hell up, will ya?”

Finally, a beam of light approached. I stepped further back into the bunker. "What are you doin’, sir?" the tone dripping in annoyed exasperation.

I clutched the weapon tighter to my chest as I said weakly, "Incoming?" 

"There's no incoming," the voice said sternly. "You're livin' on a fire-support base. Those are the 8-inch guns firing, that's all. Probably a grunt unit in trouble called in artillery. The guns always sound loudest when they shoot over our heads, now come on, sir, get back to bed and quit hollerin'. You're wakin’ everybody up."

"Who can sleep through this?"

"Everybody! You'll get used to it, now get your rear-end back to your tent…sir, and go back to bed."

Sheepishly, I exited the bunker and walked past the faceless man toward my hootch. I unchambered the round from my M-16 and took the steel pot off my head. Before entering my hootch I heard someone say, "F----ing new guys! Mother of Mary pleeeeezze save us all."

That next evening I entered the officer's club after evening chow.  When the bartender saw me, he rang the bell loudly several times and turned off Johnny Cash on the reel-to-reel. A captain stood on a chair then announced, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, silence please!”

The room fell quiet.

“I would like to introduce a very unique early-warning system freshly imported to I Corps from The World. It appears our company has been chosen as the testing ground for this new secret weapon, a device constructed to alert troops in the field in the event of impending rocket or mortar attack.  Gentlemen, I present to you the new secret weapon. His name is Warrant Officer Mains."

Most of the men cheered. Others boo'd.

"In consideration of the fact that we've been sent a defective model, that is, he alerts us even when he hears friendly fire—last night is a case in point—I’m sure Mr. Mains would like to make full restitution to all the officers he woke up when he malfunctioned. So Mr. Mains, put your money down on the bar and buy everyone a drink for waking them up last night."

Moving forward from my combat years, here’s a more recent attempt to win my Velvet Elvis:

In August 1974, on one of my civilian first flying jobs after Vietnam, I was ferrying a Hughes 300C for 300 miles, from McArthur River cattle station in the Northern Territory of Australia to Mt. Isa, for the aircraft’s scheduled 100-hour inspection.  To ensure I’d have enough gas, I’d strapped three extra Jerry cans of avgas on the floor in front of the empty passenger seat.  

Twenty minutes into the flight I couldn’t make any sense of what was on my map and what I was seeing outside.  I lay the map down next to the door to my left while leaning forward scanning the horizon when “Woooosssshhhh,” my map got sucked out the window.

Because GPS navigation was pure fantasy back then, I’d been navigating solely by pilotage, using my magnetic compass and a World Aeronautical Chart scaled 1 to 1 million, where 1 inch on the map (one thumb knuckle) equaled approximately 15 miles. I immediately turned around on a reciprocal heading, hoping I would see something I recognized to get me back to the cattle station.

The McArthur River cattle station homestead, my home for the past six months, was a tiny dot on what was considered a medium-size property encompassing 1,639 square miles. I knew that in the next 25 minutes if I didn’t recognize something, I could become Dingo bait.  

By pure blind luck I managed to find my way back to the homestead but still could not understand why nothing fit with my map reading that day.  The answer became immediately clear when I offloaded the three metal jerry cans.  I noticed the magnetic compass swing back 30 degrees. 

And the Velvet Elvis goes to….

Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].