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Helicopters and Wires

Posted 7 years 107 days ago ago by Francis Meyrick


I look back fondly on many years of being a dual rated Flying Instructor, and teaching Airplane and Helicopter. I dream sometimes of somebody, one day, asking me to join a US flight school as a CFI, ,but these days, the CFI jobs go to the school’s graduates. I can understand why.  Oh, and part of the dream is that the owner wants gallons of funny-quirky stories written up, to widely publicize his excellent school, where everybody has lots of FUN. And become truly GREAT pilots. That everybody wants to HIRE. And of course, he owns some really interesting World War One replicas, which he wants flown in World War One dogfights. He also owns an amphibian, and a P-51 Mustang. Uh-huh. And he is based overseas. Thailand maybe. Or Peru.  Hence the need for the stories & the publicity.

I know. Helluva dream.  Anybody?  Might work for Pizza?

What I don’t enjoy looking back on, is the times we were left shocked. Pondering some truly awful accidents. There are times I have put the phone down, totally stunned. Lost for words.  If you search the UK accident fixed wing database, under the call sign G-BCTV, Cessna 150, you will read of a fatal accident, that killed a father and his son. During a Precision Flying Competition. (arrive over such-and-such a spot at EXACTLY this-and-this pre-notified time) I know, this was a fixed wing, and this story is written for the world’s best value helicopter magazine, Rotorcraft Pro. (we move on to helicopters and wires further below) But here’s the rub: the conundrum/challenge for Flight Instructors is the same.  

How do you prepare your students for Real Life flying?

How do you devise a methodology to arm your students to survive? The accident I refer to above, is especially poignant to me. I had hundreds of instructional hours logged in that aircraft, as a CFI.  I had sold that aircraft. The father was a graduate of our flight school. Not my student, but even so, it hit home painfully hard. I lay awake about that one.

So what, dear fellow CFI, are we going to do about it?

Let’s first define the problem. Imagine a student who is real close to going First Solo. His landings are really good. You are still flying with him. What do you look for? Forget the landings for a second. Watch him on Base Leg, as he slides down the flaps, does his checks, watches for traffic maybe barreling in on a ‘straight in’ Finals. A fixed wing student on Base Leg. That is usually a great place where a certain type of pilot demonstrates a certain type of… carelessness. Overconfidence. And what’s odd is this: these guys are very often your better students. Intelligent, quick, making rapid progress. Keen, hungry, that sparkle in their eyes. Happy to be flying.

Here’s the carelessness: airspeed. No matter how many times you say (Cessna 150 & 172) the same thing, after a while, it ceases to fully register.

“Blogs, old boy, keep your speed between 65 and 70 knots coming down final approach. A little higher, no big deal. You can adjust back with Pitch easily enough. But DON’T – repeat “DO NOT” – EVER, go below 60 knots. Okay?”

“Sure”, says Blogs. Who has completed all sorts of slow flight exercises. And who knows full well and fine that the aircraft will still fly WELL below 60 knots. “Sure”.

Watch him on Base Leg. Like a hawk. Especially that turn on to Finals. He is good. Excellent in everything. Ready to go solo. Except…

Airspeed. Here we go again. Flaps went down, and I’m looking at 59, 58, 57,…..

Oh, he is doing a terrific job on the radio. His lookout is A-okay. His checklist use is exemplary. He’ll spot that 57 knots here in just a second, and he’ll adjust back up. When he’s finished doing more important stuff.  Uh-huh.

THAT makes me nervous. It’s called a “slippery slope”. In three hundred hours from now, as a weekend flier, with maybe your son on board, are you still going to be safe?

59… 58...57...56...55…

I would wait until he did it again. 57 knots. With “coffin corner” coming up. That famous turn from base leg on to Finals. That has killed hundreds of pilots. Over the years. Thousands?

“I have control!”   Mystified, not expecting it, he hands over.

“What’s your airspeed, Blogsy?”

Blogsy looks. Oh, he says. “57 knots. Sorry”.

You know what he’s thinking.  (no big deal) (why is he always harping on about that airspeed?)

Yes, I know it will fly at less than that. But it will also stall at a lot more than that.

We climb to 2,800 feet. Or higher, if you wish. I tell him the ground is at 2,000 feet, and we are on an imaginary Base Leg to Vaudeville, Wackyland. I point out some distinctive fields, as representing Vaudeville, Wackyland. He laughs. He knows I’m up to something. He is right. Now I have to distract him. Just a little bit.

“See that pink Jumbo Jet?”

He laughs, he’s looking in at what I’m doing.

“No”, I say, pointing out his window.

“Seriously, do you see that Pink Jumbo?”

“Sure!”, he says, laughing. He is a paying customer, and he is having FUN. He humors me by looking out his window. When he looks back in, I have furtively added in some bank, simulating the turn onto coffin corner. I have also lost some airspeed. And I’m pulling back just a little harder on the control column. It’s called “loading up the wings”.  To further distract him, I have him point out the previously mentioned distinctive fields. I ask him where the imaginary runway of Vaudeville is. He searches on the ground, finds Vaudeville, and points at it. We are still turning around coffin corner. He has no clue about what is about to happen. Luckily, I do.

A deft tap of top rudder, coupled with another smidgeon of back pressure on the control column…


The aircraft, previously so docile, so predictable, snaps viciously over onto its back, and enters a snarling, buffeting spin. I have purposefully left power on, so we are going around merrily. I make sure we drop below the previously agreed fictitious “ground” mark (i.e. 2.000 feet). And we are recovered, straight and level, at exactly 1,900 feet.

I smile at Blogsy. Blogsy is stunned. Written across his face is the stereotypical WHATDAFU-FU-FU… happened THERE?

I ask him: “Blogsy, what height are we now at?”  Blogsy looks at the altimeter. He gets it immediately.

“One hundred feet below ground level!”

Yep. If this was for real, we would be a smokin’ wreck…

*                     *                    *                       *                            *

In the debrief, always, a very interested student. The light of a HUGE Understanding.  So THAT is how stuff happens at “Coffin Corner”.  (uh-huh) So THAT is why my instructor is such a demon about my airspeed.  (uh-huh)

Ohhhhh…..    (uh-huh, uh-huh,  uh-huh…)

And afterwards, a MUCH more airspeed attentive student. A Great respect for that final turn.

And a great First Solo.


Now there are several problems here.

1)  Deliberately spinning a Cessna 150 is now illegal. It wasn’t at the time. But it is now.  Too many fatalities, during spin training, with Instructors on board.  (I have a theory about that: once in a while, you will have put in all the correct control inputs, and the aircraft goes right on spinning… you have to WAIT… and out she comes. THAT is the worst possible moment to panic, assume you did something wrong as the CFI, and hit the OTHER rudder…)

2) There is a whole ethos involved with the concept of, to put it mildly, “scaring the steaming (what’s its) out of your student”. There are those, I’m sure, who would frown on that aspect.

But does it WORK? Hell, yes. No more problem with Airspeed, after THAT demo.  What’s worse, some alleged ethics problem, or a smoldering wreck crumpled on the ground?

*                     *                    *                       *                            *

One last Fixed Wing anecdote, a short one, before we move on to “Helicopters & Wires”

I taught aerobatics in a variety of aircraft, and I ran into a similar problem during the famous “Slow Roll”.  It is a basic building block, and probably the single most important learning we want our students to go away with is this:

“If you are inverted, and it all starts going wrong, HALF ROLL OUT.  Do NOT, repeat NOT, “PANIC PULL BACK ON THE STICK”.  Because you will pull yourself straight towards the ground. And because you WILL lose a TON of height, and that little trick has killed scores of wannabe aerobatic pilots.”

Well, I was teaching in a Pitts S2  biplane. And my student was kinda arrogant. Too much yeah-yeah-yeah in the briefing. Kind of annoyed me. We went up, I demonstrated a few, slow roll, super slow roll, four point hesitation roll, and then handed him the controls for his very first slow roll.   Normally, as they 
arrived at the inverted, if they hesitated, I would place my hand just behind the stick, in order to prevent the dreaded “Panic Pull”. I placed my hand there. Then… I took it away. (Yeah-yeah-yeah…)


A mere ONE thousand FIVE hundred feet LOWER, Mister Yeah-yeah-yeah had recovered to straight and level. The only thing I did, was to roll the throttle off, or we would have whistled through the 210 mph VNE.  I let him freak out.  Can an inexperienced aerobatic pilot commit the famous “panic pull” from the inverted and needlessly lose one-thousand-five-hundred-feet in the subsequent screaming WAAAAAHHH panic pull out? Yes. Think about it. And you are practicing those slow rolls at… what height?

Amazing what an attentive, polite, humble student I had during the debrief…

No more yeah-yeah-yeah.


*                     *                    *                       *                            *

So, armed with the foregoing, and having probably riled up some “he did WHAT!?” horrified nay-sayers, let’s tackle helicopters-and-wires.  Same mindset on my part. HOW to VIVIDLY implant into Blogsy’s virginal helicopter mind that wires are beyond lethal. They are super lethal.  They are fourth dimension, extrapolated, exponential  DEADLY.  I’ve seen hundreds of photos of mangled post-wire-impact helicopter crash photos, and I have taken several myself. See some other stories. (1*)


I once leafed through a whole book somebody had put together, of nothing but post wire-strike mangled helicopters. Some were simply totally  unrecognizable. That was once a flying machines?  Just a bunch of scrap metal and plastic and dirt. Lying in a random scatter

Most untidy. Explain that to the boss.  Think of the paper work. Some “occurrence report”. Not good.

That’s if you survive the coupling entering your cranium. And your left leg going one way, and your right elbow mating with the compass.
How-do-we-teach-that-these-events are SHRILL, FLASHING NEON LIGHTS, ALARM-ALARM, super massive Black Holes that we do NOT want to ever, remotely, get sucked into?

Well, me being me, warped mind and mischief and all that, I exercised my last remaining brain cell for a while. Then I asked around some local high time chopper jockeys, if they knew any really mean, hidden, dirty-rotten-low-down helicopter-trap wires.  Most just mentioned the usual high tension pylons, but this ONE guy… his face lit up. When I mentioned I wanted some hidden, sneaky wires to trap my students with, he instantly described EXACTLY what I wanted.

Off I tootled, located the death trap, and it was tailor made. Cast in heaven.   

It looked like it had been an old mine cable, for pushing a trolley across this river. It was located just around a very scenic bend, in the middle of nowhere.  A few rolling hills. No buildings. Last place you would expect ONE single cable. Or, if you are becoming a cynic already, yep… the FIRST place you would suspect a cable! Bravo!

I worked out the best direction to approach this cable from, the best time of the day, and where I could swing around and land, and give Blogsy the best view of SUSPENDED DEATH.

Now for the FUN bit. Commercial student, nearly ready for his finals, nice day, right time of day. End of lesson on something else, flying back to base…. Happy-happy…

“Hey!”, I says, all-innocent-and-casual like. “See that river down there?”

Blogsy sees the river.

“Let’s fly down it!”  (Big Smile from me)

Blogsy likes that idea. No further encouragement needed.

“Go on down!” I say. (big smile)

Blogsy likes that idea. (Big smile from Blogsy)

Pretty soon, ho-hum, there we are, belting down this nice river, following the curves, having the time of our lives. Happy-happy. Crank a bit one way. Crank over the other way… FUN!


Very, very few students said anything at all about wires. The odd, cautious one, might ask:

“How about wires?”

And I would smile, beatifically, and say:

“Well, we would be able to see ‘em, right?”

And cautious Blogsy would look ahead, and nod. (“Yeah, you can see ‘em. No sweat”)



(just around that famous bend) (Just right time of day, for sun to blind you) (just perrrrrrfect)


And then… in a carefully practiced manoeuver, I would take the controls,  lift us dramatically up and over that beautiful cable, carry out a split S doo-hickey stunt, park us beautifully on a hill overlooking the scene, say nothing, raise my eyebrows questioningly, and enjoy Blogsy’s….STUNNED COUNTENANCE.


In “Zen, and the Art of Helicopter Flying” (2*) I mention that very often, the CFI is best advised to say nothing. Silence is golden. Less words are better.  Let the student work it out for himself. Here is one such occasion. I would just park the helicopter, and wait for the student self-debrief. Invariably, these self debriefings were calm, soft-spoken, totally rational Blogsy meditations.



For the CFI, sitting quietly, with that faint smiling GOTCHA smirk, intensely pleasing.  

Lesson learned, Blogsy baby?

(look of horror)  (Oh, yes! Lesson learned!!!)

 I would then swear them to the “Moggy Sacred Blood Oath”, total secrecy, so as not to tip off the next student, and a few days later…

Yummy-yummy.  Chuckle in my tummy.  Got another one.

I got real good at it. And here’s a thought: I caught EVERY SINGLE ONE of my students.



Now I know, here come the purists, scaring students, tisk-tisk-tisk, very bad-bad-bad, and how about the five hundred feet rule, and what-about-the-local-landowner, and…. Etc, etc.

You know, that’s the way I taught it. And that was AFTER showing photos, talking about wires, lecturing about wires, invoking the nth degree of political correctness about wires…

Dammit, THAT worked.

Real well.

At the right time of the day, with the sun light just so, and distractions just like this, and this going on and that going off, radio here and GPS there….
It is HELLISH easy to do.  The results… a constant, constant, re-play of the same old scrap metal, plastic parts and dirt. Left leg going one way, and your right elbow mating with the compass. And HERE comes that coupling, aimed right at your cranium, that’s really gonna spoil your whole day. Think of the paper work. Those poor old trees getting chopped down in the Amazonian rain forest.

Gentlemen! And ladies! And newts!   And Caitlynn!   

Watch the wires…

Francis Meyrick

Note 1*)      See:    Cops & Robbers (10) “Bad Decisions”
Note 2*)      See:    Zen and the Art of Flight Instruction

A Little About Moggy  - Francis ‘Moggy’ Meyrick (www.chopperstories.com) admits to not being terribly bright, but he did first grace the skies (more or less) totally on his own some forty-five years ago. He is rumored to have solemnly intoned these memorable words on the downwind leg. “Holy Molly McBride!  NOW what have I done…?” He is working dutifully on his eighty-sixth incarnation (he does, admittedly, get sent back a lot – for another try) , and he describes himself as a ‘chopper jockey’. He says it’s basically a case of a nut, hanging under a nut. (BIG nut, though).  Compared to trying to attain Wisdom (he was a Buddhist monk once) (before he got demoted to galley hand), he reckons it beats working for a living.  It ranks right up there with being a happy penguin, and spending all day sliding down icy slopes. Moggy loves spinning a good yarn, and his greatest reward is simply your enjoyment. His many friends caution you he does tend to tell his bar stories with verve and gusto, and much arm waving, so you are advised to move your pints and other drinks safely out of his way. Peace. Got a pickle sandwich? -