Helicopter hard landing #1

All pilots know the saying, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” I had my first hard landing soon after our helicopter program started in 1999.

Our new helicopter program flew a Bell 430 with twin 600 horsepower turbine engines. The hospital wanted to show it off. A flight that’s goal was to show off the program instead of transporting a patient was called a PR Flight, PR standing for Public Relations. Frequently, we would be called away from a PR Flight for a Scene Run (car crash) or an interhospital transport. The administrators always loved when this would happen because the helicopter crew would leave the fair or the car show in a rush to save lives. This impressed the crowd.

The helicopter carries just enough fuel to complete its mission. Fuel is heavy and heavy causes more fuel consumption. We would take enough to get there and back. Sometimes we had to stop at an outside airport to pick up more fuel if our plans changed. Our new helicopter was having some issue with the fuel gage. The pilot was concerned that it was not accurate and did not trust it.

We took off on a bright, sunny afternoon with “four souls on board”, that is helicopter talk. Normally, we would fly with the pilot, the nurse/paramedic, and the physician. The physician would fly up from with the pilot on the way out and in the back with the patient and the nurse/paramedic on the way back. On this PR Flight, we also had a hospital administrator. She sat up front. Our seats in the back faced the back of the helicopter. We could see out the side windows and out the front if we looked over our shoulder. We were in four-point restraints (seat belts). Back then, we did not wear helmets. We communicated through our headsets.

For some reason, the plans changed while we were in the air. The pilot did a quick calculation and thought we had enough fuel to get to our new destination. We were flying to an airport and would pick up more fuel there. It became apparent that we were burning fuel faster than predicted when the pilot asked the administrator to let him know when the fuel gage showed twenty pounds of fuel. I later learned that twenty pounds is the cutoff where the pilot is supposed to land - wherever he is.

The administrator said, “We are at twenty.” The pilot answered, “I can see the airport. We can make it.” I looked over my shoulder and saw farm fields with the airport a few miles in the distance. Between us and the airport was a row of trees that crossed perpendicular to our path.

I felt a rush like one feels on the Power Tower at Cedar Point when the helicopter suddenly lost altitude. The turbines were starved for fuel and unable to give full power. I strained to look over my shoulder. My knowledge of geometry quickly convinced me that our angle of descent would not carry us over the row of trees to our front. As the ground approached, the pilot shouted, “Brace for impact!” We assumed the practiced brace position. The impact was more of a slide than I expected. We slid about fifty yards.

After the helicopter was safely on the ground, we exited. The administrator looked at me and exclaimed, “All I could see were red lights!” I guess the display panel lit up with warning lights.

There we were, out in the middle of a farm field, out of fuel. The pilot radioed the airport and they sent someone over in a pick-up truck with a five-gallon container of jet fuel. This story was too bizarre to make up. He had a funnel, but the fuel hatch was on the side of the helicopter and we had no way to get the fuel in. The nurse/paramedic and I Macgyvered it with the tubing from a nonrebreather face mask and a lot of tape. We fueled up the helicopter. By then, an ambulance arrived. The ambulance took all the crew over to the airport and the pilot flew the helicopter over.

The helicopter was not damaged. The FAA was notified. The pilot lost his job. The story never made the evening news or the newspaper.