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Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Posted 1 years 266 days ago ago by Admin

I very nearly lost my life in a training accident while serving as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam but my training to expect the unexpected saved my life and the instructor flying with me.  I’d been ‘in country’ for three months when my instructor nearly killed us.  I was taking my check ride to become an aircraft commander in the Bell 205 Huey.  Imagine the irony of losing your life while training to save your life in an emergency only to die training for it.  It seemed nuts.  It also sounds like a line out of the book Catch-22.

The check pilot told me as we walked out to the revetment area where our aircraft was parked, "I’ve got less than two weeks of my tour to go, Mains. I already got my orders to go to Fort Rucker where 150 hour students will be trying to kill me. So I want you to keep in mind that this'll be a straightforward check ride, nothing fancy. It'll be as I've briefed you in ops. Nothing more than that, OK?  You got any questions?"

"No. Don't think so."


The first hour went well. We were flying south of LZ Sally operating to an area we called ‘the playpen” just outside the barbed-wire perimeter.  We were making our landings to a grassy area away from the rice paddies and the Vietnamese Ville. I took off after making a running landing after being given a simulated a fixed-pitch tail rotor failure.

"That was fine, Mains, now take it around and I'll give you a hydraulic failure on downwind. I want you to perform the emergency procedure and land the aircraft as you would in a real emergency."


A hydraulic failure in the Huey is no major event if handled properly. It’s like losing the power steering in your car. The controls become extremely stiff and difficult to move, but you can get down OK if you make a running landing as does an airplane.

We were on climb out passing through two hundred feet when Decker reached over to turn off the hydraulic switch. It was a special kind of switch that had to be lifted up and pulled back over a small barrier to turn it off. In this way it could not easily be inadvertently switched off. I now had no hydraulic pressure to assist me. I moved the jerky controls. Decker was looking out his side window as if disinterested.

I recited the emergency procedure. "First, I'll adjust to a comfortable airspeed between sixty and seventy knots. I'll recycle the switch. If that doesn't restore the hydraulics I'll reach up to the hydraulic circuit breaker. Pull it out, if no power's restored push it in ... what the ...?"

I noticed the engine N2 RPM and rotor RPM decreasing. I instinctively tried to lower the collective to enter autorotation muscling it down while quickly scanning the instruments. Compressor RPM decreasing. Two hundred seventy feet of altitude. Descending quickly.

Simultaneously Decker's head swung to look in the cockpit. Thinking I was just an FNG trying my best to kill him he said, "What're you doin'?"

"Engine's quit! Switch on the hydraulics!"

He visibly jumped in his seat and quickly switched on the hydraulics. I aimed the ship for a dry rice paddy. He transmitted, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Blackwidow Three-Three engine failure southern perimeter of LZ Sally!"

He just got the Mayday call out when we passed through fifty feet and I hauled back on the cyclic stick, raising the nose of the chopper and putting us into a flare. We stopped descending as the airspeed washed off quickly. At twenty knots the machine began to sink again as we ran out of airspeed to trade off for height. At ten feet I yanked up on the collective pitch lever on my left to use the inertia in the wide blades to cushion our descent. I pushed forward on the cyclic. The aircraft leveled. I used the remaining collective pitch to cushion our landing. The craft skidded over the soft dirt for ten feet and we came to an abrupt stop. The blades coasted down slowly above us. We had been lucky. We landed in the middle of the rice paddy and missed the four dirt banks surrounding us.

The blades coasted to a slow, steady run-down and Decker looked at me with wide, disbelieving eyes. "What the fuck happened?"

"Engine quit, that's what happened. I think I know why it quit. Put your hand on the hydraulic switch again."

He reached over taking the switch between gloved thumb and forefinger. "Look there. Look at the cuff of your flight glove. "

"Well I'll be fucked," he said.

We almost were. Behind 'the hydraulic switch sat the fuel switch. It was an "up and over" type of switch like the hydraulic switch in front of it. When he turned off the hydraulic switch the cuff of his flight glove had caught the fuel switch and turned it off also.

Two helicopter gunships landed next to us in a boil of dust, "Blackwidow Three-Three. You OK?"

"Roger," Decker radioed on guard frequency. "Wait one." He turned on the fuel switch and said to me on intercom, "Try to start her up. "

I did. The fuel ignited and the turbine engine whined to life again.

"We'll be fine. Thanks for coming."

"Roger. Glad to be of assistance," and they lifted off. I twisted on the throttle to bring the RPM up to flight range. "Want to continue?” I asked.

"Are you nuts? He said.  “Like I said earlier, I'm too short for this. Take us back to the Widow Web." It was the first time that-day the man smiled. “Congratulations, Mains. You passed. I have to admit that was some check ride. Yes siree, “He chuckled to himself shaking his head, “That was one hell of a check ride. "

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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