November 2nd, 2020
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner
Almost forty years ago, I went to the U.S. Army Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Good old Mother Rucker. I think about it now because a neighbor of mine is going through Marine basic training, and he has been writing to me. Dylan’s reports remind me of things long past, but these are things that somehow don’t seem to be part of the past at all.
I was almost twenty-three years old when I started flight school. I was a second lieutenant, and I knew next to nothing about the world. I still don’t know much, but at that time I was profoundly ignorant. Perhaps it was better that way. If I had known then how crazy my path was going to be, I never would have followed it.
The first type of helicopter I ever flew was a Hughes TH-55 Osage. It was basically a tricycle for new aviators. The aircraft was a bare-bones type of machine. It looked like an orange with a pencil stuck into the back of it. The cockpit was little more than plexiglass bubble. We generally flew without any doors. The helicopter was powered by a reciprocating engine with a throttle, like on a motorcycle. The instruments in the cockpit consisted of an altimeter, an air speed indicator, a compass, and a fuel gauge. There was also a communication radio.
My first flight instructor was Mr. Fred Vernon. As a retired Marine. Mr. Vernon had flown missions as a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II. He must have been in his sixties when I met him in 1981. He wore his white hair in a crewcut, and he had an ugly scar on the bridge of his nose where a surgeon had removed some skin cancer. Mr. Vernon worked for some government contractor that provided aviation instructors for the Army. As far as I could tell, Mr. Vernon lived on coffee, cigarettes, and bourbon. Being as he was former military, that made complete sense to me. That kind of unhealthy lifestyle was standard back then, and it really hasn’t changed much since.
There were three students assigned to Mr. Vernon: Padraic O’Brien, Joe Miller, and me. We were all fresh-faced lieutenants, eager to learn, but not quite quick enough for our instructor. Mr. Vernon was in a hurry to get us all flying solo, and he could sign us off after a minimum of ten hours in the air. The instructor pilot had the responsibility of deciding when to send each of his students up alone. The I.P. had to determine when the new guy was capable of flying solo for two hours, without killing himself or rolling the helicopter up into a ball. Mr. Vernon was not the kind of man to hold somebody’s hand. We were pushed.
I remember when I flew with him to a training field to practice hovering. Mr. Vernon took the controls and brought the helicopter to a perfect three-foot hover above the tarmac. The aircraft didn’t move at all. It was as steady as it would have been sitting on the ground. He handed the controls over to me and said in his raspy, smoke-hardened voice,
“Here. You have the controls. Try to keep it in Alabama.”
I took that as a challenge. The hardest part of hovering in a helicopter is over-controlling. Hovering requires a delicate touch, with only the slightest of movements on the cyclic control stick. I found out what happened if you get too involved in the process.
Initially, I held the helicopter steady. Then it drifted a bit to the right. I adjusted the cyclic to move it to the left. I adjusted too much. The helicopter slid left and turned a bit. I tried to turn it back. Once again, I made a movement that was excessive. Then we went up too far. I tried to come down. We turned again. We shifted right again. We went up and down and left and right and back and forth. This all took place within a minute or two.
Mr. Vernon snarled, “Give me the goddamn controls!”
I let him fly. Instantly, the aircraft was rock steady again.
He looked at me severely and said, “Pathetic. Try again.”
I did. It was a long training session.
Prior to me going solo, we mostly worked on emergency procedures. The main exercise was how to react in an engine failure. This was a big deal. If the engine quits, a pilot has one, and only one chance, to land the helicopter safely. Even that one chance is kind of iffy. In an engine failure, the pilot has maybe a minute or two to find a landing space, keep the rotor rpm’s up by taking all the pitch out of the blades, and then, at exactly the right second, bring the pitch back into the rotor system to provide a momentary cushion of air to prevent a fatal crash.
I went one morning with Mr. Vernon for a training flight. The sky was full of other student pilots. Fort Rucker resembled a beehive. Mr. Vernon wanted me to fly at a thousand feet and go to a nearby stage field to practice maneuvers. Remember that the TH-55 has a throttle to control the engine. There is a failsafe mechanism that prevents a pilot from turning the engine off in flight. However, a pilot can turn the engine down to idle, which has the same practical effect. By that I mean the helicopter falls out of the sky when the engine is operating at idle. Helicopters have the glide path of a refrigerator: straight down.
I was flying toward the stage field, fat, dumb, and happy. Mr. Vernon was chain smoking Lucky Strikes, lighting one off the other, and tossing the butts out of the aircraft. Then he shouted at me over the headset,
“Don’t you see that aircraft at 2:00?!”
I looked to my right to find the mystery helicopter. At that moment Mr. Vernon cranked the throttle down to idle.
A lot of things happened at once. The engine suddenly got very, very quiet. A number of red lights flashed in the cockpit. A loud beeping sound from the headset pounded my eardrums. The helicopter started to drop, and I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. The rotors turned ever more slowly.
Mr. Vernon yelled, “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! Do something!”
I pushed the cyclic forward to get more airspeed. I slammed the collective stick down to take the pitch out of the blades and get the rotor rpm back up. I looked frantically for a landing space as the ground rushed up. I could distinctly make out the individual leaves on the trees closing in on us.
Mr. Vernon, “Give me the controls!”
I did so gladly.
He cranked up the throttle, got power to the rotor system, and pulled us up and out of the tree line. His motions were smooth and assured.
Once we got back up to altitude, he said,
“You have the controls.”
I replied, “I have the controls.”
There was a momentary silence. He lit up. He took a long drag. Then he said,
“We all would have fucking died. What am I going to do with you?’
I had no answer.
A few days later, when I walked into the briefing room, Mr. Vernon looked up from his coffee.
He tossed me the aircraft keys.
“Here. Bring it back in one piece.”