FTN Columnist Helen Krasner reflects on the lessons from an impromptu flying visit to a public event
Way back when I was a newly qualified helicopter pilot, a month of two after getting my PPL(H), I decided to take a fixed-wing flying friend for a Saturday afternoon ‘jolly’. Where should we go? Well, she was involved with the Girls Venture Corps, and she mentioned that they had an event nearby on that day. Various activities were taking place in a large field, and she thought it might be fun to fly in to it. The young women involved would love to see a helicopter, and my friend assured me that there would be plenty of space to land and park the helicopter. It sounded good, and I agreed to go. After all, what could possibly go wrong? At the time I was too inexperienced to know…
I followed the directions my friend gave me and we soon arrived overhead the Girls Venture Corps event. It was indeed in a very large field. Theoretically there were plenty of places to land. But…there were crowds of people, dogs and children running around, and a general air of disorganised chaos. This got worse when those below spied our helicopter and people started running around, yelling and pointing. To add to the confusion, my friend had briefed someone on the ground to show us where to land. But this young woman really didn’t have a clue what was needed. She began leaping around, waving her arms at me, looking for all the world like some kind of whirling dervish. She pointed at various areas of grass and motioned me to land, and seemed surprised when I didn’t do so.
It took me only a moment to decide that I wasn’t happy with all this. I might have been fairly inexperienced, but I knew enough not to land on fairly steeply sloping ground in close proximity to children and dogs. It clearly wasn’t safe. How could my friend have thought it was? Back then I hadn’t been flying helicopters for long enough to realise that most people, even those involved in other areas of aviation, have no idea at all of what is a suitable landing site for a helicopter. Any flat area will do, they think. But that really isn’t the case.
Not at all sure what to do, I began to orbit the site. This seemed to be the signal for more crowds to appear, and more wild cavorting on the part of various ‘helpful’ people. Looking at the ground and wondering where I should go, I was so preoccupied that I nearly got the helicopter into ‘vortex ring’. This is a rather dangerous situation in which the helicopter descends through its own downwash, and if uncorrected, it eventually crashes. Vortex Ring rarely occurs, but it does so in just the conditions in which I now found myself – flying very slowly, and preoccupied with other things. Luckily I recognised the signs and I could get out of it, which isn’t difficult so long as you understand what is going on. But the fact it happened at all made me realise that I had to do something, and I asked my friend where else I could land. A little surprised, she mentioned the car park, but… “It’s got wires right down it”. I had told her in advance that I didn’t want a field with wires across the landing area. Unfortunately I hadn’t said what else I didn’t want, like people and sloping ground! But anyway, the car park turned out to be fine. The wires were all at one end, and parallel to the direction I would be using to make my approach. There was a flat area that wasn’t being used for parking, and no people around. Very relieved, I landed, and we left the helicopter to go and chat to people.
However, I was also so new to all of this that I didn’t realise that it wasn’t a good idea to just leave a helicopter unattended in a public place. Luckily there was a very experienced pilot at the event, one of the ex-wartime ATA women. She was horrified at my having left the helicopter, so she took over and quickly dispatched a responsible looking young woman to guard it. Now all was well. We had tea, and socialised a bit, and then decided it was time to fly back to our home base.
But that wasn’t going to be so simple either. When we got back to the helicopter, I turned round and then realised that a huge crowd of people had followed us. We were clearly the Big Event of the afternoon, and they weren’t about to allow us to take-off just like that. They wanted to watch!
Belatedly, I realised that I would have to take control of the whole situation. So I announced in a loud voice that being near a moving helicopter was DANGEROUS…you could hear the capital letters in my voice. I told the crowd that they would all have to stand well back and I appointed a couple of people to keep them at one end of the car park. I informed them that I would be doing various checks first, then starting up the engines and rotors before I lifted off and departed. I said that none of them were to come any closer until we were no longer overhead the field. In fact, I more or less delivered an impromptu lecture on helicopter safety. My instructions were probably a little over the top, but I really didn’t want to take any chances.
Luckily, the young women were used to obeying instructions, and everyone did exactly as they were told. I checked over the helicopter, and was quite relieved to find that no-one had removed anything or added something – for I now remembered the tales I’d heard of crisp packets being found tucked into the tail rotor and other horror stories. Finally I was happy and so we climbed aboard and prepared to leave. Hundreds of fascinated eyes watched me lift into the hover, fly low over everyone’s heads, then depart from the area. They seemed to enjoy watching and once it was safe, I was happy to give them that experience. Who knows, maybe later on some of them decided to learn to fly helicopters…
It had been an enjoyable afternoon, though somewhat fraught. It had also been a good learning experience for me. With hindsight, I realised that I should have found out much, much more in advance about the event. It wasn’t enough to simply be told that there would be plenty of areas where I could land – I needed to know that they were flat, and safe, and well away from people, especially children.
Never again would I assume that fixed-wing pilots would know about the requirements of helicopters. Indeed, never again would I assume…anything!
I would definitely check things out and ask a lot more questions if I was landing away from an airfield, particularly if it was at a crowded gathering or event of any type.
Yes, I learned a lot that day, though I don’t think it was something I would care to repeat.