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Fiery Crash in the Australian Outback

Posted 1 years 359 days ago ago by Admin

Let me pass along to you an important tip: Listen to a pilot you are replacing; if a pilot quits a job you’ve just accepted and tells you, “Hey man, the machine’s unsafe,” or “This is an unsafe operation.” Believe them.  

The cattle mustering pilot I was replacing in the Northern Territory of Australia quit because the owner of the cattle station, in an effort to save money, applied for and was granted a 25-hour extension on time before overhaul (TBO) of the cattle station’s Hughes 269.  Not heeding the departing pilot’s warning would be a decision that would nearly cost me my life.

I’d just refueled the aircraft at the cattle station and was flying back to where I’d left 35 head of cattle halfway through the muster.  I was at 300 feet when the tired little engine began to cough, vibrate and sputter.  I instinctively reduced power. It didn’t help. There was no doubt I was going down.

Frantically scanning the parched landscape, I spotted a semi-clear area surrounded by trees, five-foot ant hills and tall, dry grass.  I maneuvered the little craft between several trees aiming to land on either side of the ant hills knowing full well that if I hit one of them it would be like slamming into concrete.

I managed to milk what little power the crippled engine could deliver to make it down safely. Once on the ground, pleased I hadn’t damaged the aircraft, I let out a heavy sigh of relief, which turned out to be way too premature.  Almost immediately an awful oxygen-sucking, ‘WHOOMPH’ filled the air much like way too much lighter fluid is set alight on a barbecue but much, much louder. Immediately, my tiny cockpit was surrounded by dancing flames.  

I instinctively twisted on the throttle thinking I’d lift the little craft out of the inferno, but as I applied throttle the engine quit. The only sound now was the crackling of burning grass around me. I suddenly remembered something that caused a shudder up my spine: there was a full tank of gas right behind my head!

I unlatched the shoulder seat belt and shoulder harness and threw myself out the open door.  My body hit the ground, landing hard with a thud. I rolled, then scampered to my feet putting a good distance between me and the burning helicopter. As I stood in shock and watched the little chopper become fully engulfed in flames, I had an odd thought: Boy, is the boss going to be mad when he finds out about this!

I didn’t stick around to watch the helicopter explode, as I’m sure it must have done. Instead, I began walking the three miles through the bush and tall grass toward the portable cattle yard where I knew the ringers (Australian cowboys) would be impatiently waiting for me to arrive by air—not on foot.  I clearly remember having another thought while walking, ‘Imagine the irony of dying in a fiery helicopter crash as a civilian after flying 1,042 combat hours in my one-year tour in Vietnam.’  

After an hour of bush walking I burst out of the undergrowth to see three faces tilted skyward searching for me. When the three ringers saw this disheveled helicopter pilot emerging from the scrub the look on their faces changed to one of disbelief.

“Where the bloody hell have you been?” the head stockman asked.  “And where’s the chopper?”   

I turned toward the direction from where I had walked and pointed, “See that thick column of black smoke on the horizon?  That’s what’s left of your helicopter.”

“Bloody hell, the boss’s going to be angry when he hears about this!”

That’s what I thought too, that is, until I told the boss what had happened. He wasn’t, he was so happy in fact that he threw a party in the mess hall for all the 50 staff members to celebrate the demise of the tired little helicopter that had only 5 hours before the engine reached the extension to its TBO. The boss figured it would have cost him $3,500 Australian dollars to rebuild the engine. With the insurance money he would receive, he would be able to afford to buy a brand-new chopper. This incident, while very scary with consequences not worth thinking about, turned out to be a win-win situation for all concerned.  

Two Director of Civil Aviation (DCA) accident investigators flew out to the 1,369-square-mile cattle station where I was working and living to inspect the wreck.  Each man donned white lab coats, white pants, and matching white sun hats.  They looked more like doctors about to perform a delicate operation rather than aviation inspectors sent there to determine the cause of the accident.  Knowing how meticulous the DCA was about everything, and judging by the way the two men were dressed, I half expected them to treat the accident site like an archeological dig, using tiny paint brushes and dentist’s tools to uncover the root of the problem. Instead, they opened what looked like a black doctor’s bag, pulled out a hack saw and heavy hammer then proceeded to cut and bash the engine out of the burnt wreckage, which they then loaded in the back of their Toyota pickup for transport. 

After a day of going over the engine and its internal parts, they determined that I had experienced a partial engine failure due to grossly fouled spark plugs and extremely low compression in one cylinder. The insurance paid the claim swiftly and issued the station owner a check for enough money to buy a new Hughes 300C helicopter.  

As it happened, my former boss, Keith Angel, owned a helicopter he’d purchased new that he could not find work for so a very amicable deal was made. He sold the owner of the cattle ranch this low-time chopper for less money than the station owner would have had to pay to buy a brand new one, leaving him with change left over.  

The good news was that I now had an almost new helicopter to fly. I made the boss promise to stick to the engine manufacture’s TBO. He readily agreed to the  arrangement that caused happiness all around.

About Randy:
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].


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