“Did you ever have any close calls?” is almost always the first question I get whenever I tell people I flew helicopters for 32 years. My immediate response is, “Yes, of course.” I read recently a report by an old-time WW2 fighter pilot. When asked that same question, his response was, “Every time I take one of these sumbitches off the ground it’s a close call!” I can honestly say I came up with the same phrase before I read it in that WW2 pilot’s book.
And … I can beat his story.
One day I had a close call before I even started my engine.
I got my aircraft assignment from operations at Udorn. I walked out to my H-34 on the ramp, did my pre-flight inspection, and climbed into the H-34 to prepare for a normal six-day trip up country. I began the pre-start check-off checklist:
First item: Battery switch ON I pushed it down.
Second item: Electrical driven fuel pump ON I toggled it up.
I checked the fuel pressure gauge: fuel pressure within normal limits.
What wasn't within normal limits was the spray of raw fuel jetting from behind the instrument panel. The gage was known as a “direct reading” gage which means that a small fuel line from the fuel pump was connected directly to the back of the gauge. That line had broken off at the back of the gage. Raw fuel of the highest octane began to spray all over me and the cockpit. It quickly filled the cockpit with a mist of highly volatile fuel-air mixture. Raw fuel in the proper fuel-air mixture is more explosive than dynamite! The smell of raw fuel filled my nostrils.
Fuel was running down the back of the instrument panel, past several switches and dripping onto the radio console below. None of the radios was yet turned on, but the relays and busses to them might now be hot with electricity. The smallest spark would ignite that fuel vapor. I knew I would not survive the explosion. I also knew that even if it did not explode, as soon as the raw fuel reached any ignition source there would be fire.
I had to make an instantaneous decision. Quicker than you can snap your fingers, I had to choose between abandoning the helicopter or trying to correct the situation by switching the battery switch to the OFF position. I knew that if I jumped out of the helicopter, the fuel would continue to flow. If (when!) the helicopter caught on fire, the magnesium alloy would soon ignite and in 15 seconds the entire helicopter would be violently consumed. Jumping out would have also put my Flight Mechanic (FM) at risk. He stood beside the helicopter with a fire extinguisher at the ready, as he always did, in case of an engine fire on start. What we were facing here was much more dangerous that an engine fire on start.
Did I want to leave my FM with an explosive situation while I ran away? Did I want to risk being some of the ashes? Should I bail or stay? I might escape with nothing more than fuel-soaked clothing, but the helicopter might very well burn up, and we both might be badly hurt or killed trying to extinguish the fire or by the exploding helicopter.
No, I could not bail out and put my FM at risk. I never had an FM I did not like and respect. I did not wish to put him at risk.
I quickly snapped the battery switch up to the OFF position. There was no spark. It seems I made the right decision.