chapter 33

Flight Checks, Log Books, and Helicopter Crashes

    Most winters I flew vegetables wherever I could find the work. I would

work up around Crystal City for a few days, then go back south to fly down

around San Ygnacio. From week to week, I could be flying around Dilley,

or back around Laredo, or almost as far north as Uvalde.

    During the wintertime, I wouldn't hire a crew. I would just show up with

an airplane and the farmer or chemical dealer would supply all the support

men and equipment. I would just show up and fly. I never made much

money during the winter, but I did manage to keep my bills paid and I

used the slow time to work on my airplane and equipment. I also gave

flight instruction when I had the opportunity. I also loafed a lot.

    During these periods, I would be in and out of the Speckled Dog Inn.

Every time I showed up, Bob would drag me home and his wife would cook

up steaks, and winter onions, and all that sort of thing. He would then

soften me up with good whiskey and try to convince me that I should learn

to fly a helicopter.

    Bob and I, and our sort of men, always had an unspoken gentlemen's

agreement between us. No matter what a man said late into the night

after a thick steak and good whiskey, he always retained the option to

reconsider when the sun came up. It was a good agreement. It saved the

civilized world from many a crazy, wild-eyed scheme cooked up late into

the night, but re-evaluated the following day. This agreement saved

everybody a great deal of grief.

    Accordingly, I managed to maintain a consistent position regarding

helicopters and cows. My position never changed: "I ain't gonna learn to

fly no damn helicopter!"

    But Bob never gave up. He was making a pot of money, and he wanted

to push some of it off on me. He was ready to put me on the payroll

anytime I said the word.

    I never did.

    But I wasn't through with helicopters. I thought I was, but I wasn't.

Helicopters jumped back into my life in an unexpected way. It didn't have

anything to do with flying. It had to do with paperwork.

    Most of all, it had to do with the Federal Aviation Administration.

    For years I had been a flight instructor. I was one of the few crop

duster pilots in South Texas who was also a flight instructor. I often

wished I wasn't. My problem with being a flight instructor didn't have

anything to do with teaching people how to fly. My problem was with men

who already knew how to fly. Men who were among the best pilots on

earth. Crop-duster pilots.

    The problem had to do with FAA regulations. The FAA came up with a

brand new rule that all pilots had to take a flight check every two years in

order to keep their pilot's license current. This flight check had to be given

by an FAA Certified Flight Instructor, which was what I was.

    Of course, many an old crop-duster pilot just ignored the new rule and

flew on for years and years and never got a flight check. But this could

lead to complications. If there was an accident, the FAA always wanted to

see all kinds of paperwork. If a crop-duster pilot got himself in an honest

plane crash, and had not had his two year flight check, the Feds could get

all ugly about it.

    And in addition to the federal regulators, there were always the

insurance investigators. And the lawyers. Those of the parasitic

professions just loved to fish around in Federal regulations and discover all

kinds of things a hard-working man was doing wrong.

    In the end, it all had to do with money. Who got fined? Who got sued?

Who got paid? Who got grounded for 90 days right in the middle of a bole

weevil outbreak?

    Of course, the new rules for pilots were only a minor alteration in the

way America changed. At that time in America, new rules were being

introduced into every facet of life.

    Some of the new rules were good. Most of them were bad.

    During those years down in South Texas, the new rules of life were only

slowly being learned. And old crop-duster pilots were slow learners. It

seemed hard to believe, but the new set of rules was sweeping over all the

land.

    The new set of rules stated that those independent men who had

always done the world's work, were now to be ruled by those who had

never done much of anything, but who were clearly a morally superior

class of men. Included in this recognition of a morally superior class of

men was the implicit understanding that this better class of men should be

better rewarded for their better understanding of that which was to make

America a better place. It was all for the better.

    Those who were among this morally superior class of men where

exceedingly wise. They were educated out the kazoo. They knew things

about life that most Americans had never heard of. They had learned

things from wondrously large books that countless generations of

Americans had failed to learn from simply having lead productive lives.

They had the rare ability to see what a vile place America was, and were

blessed with the vision of how it should be changed in order to make it a

far better place. Most of them went to work for the federal government.

    It was all for the better.

    As the significance of these new rules finally began to sink in, old

crop-duster pilots who hadn't kept a log book for a quarter of a century

were coming to me wanting me to give them a flight check. They always

came to me because I was a crop-duster too. We were all in the same

racket. They didn't feel safe around big city flight instructors in slacks and

clean shirts. They didn't' feel comfortable around talk of "airport control

zones," "instrument flight reporting procedures," "flight plans," and lots of

other stuff they weren't familiar with, and never had any use for. Neither

did I.

    So these guys would come to me for their flight check. I would get out

an aeronautical chart and we would talk about it a little bit. I would find a

set of current FAA regulations somewhere and we would study them

together. Then we would find some old airplane somewhere and fly around

and inspect the countryside. Then I would "sign off" their log book.

    I made more than one log book sign off in which the most recent entry

was the flight check I had given that pilot two years previously. I did my

best to keep those guys legal. Most of them had far more flying time than

I ever would have, and I had a lot more to learn from them than they

would ever learn from me. But I was the guy who was the flight instructor,

and I had to sign all those log books in order to keep the enemy at bay.

    I even have a confession to make. I'm not sure what the statute of

limitations is on this sort of thing, and I hope some Fed doesn't read this

story and slap me with a million dollar fine, but the truth is, I didn't just

exactly fly with every crop-duster pilot I ever signed off for a flight check.

There was a time or two when I was flying side by side with another pilot

for every daylight hour of the day, and at the end of the day he would dig

out an old log book and I would sign him off for his "bi-annual flight

check."

    Now, there are those who will insist that I was being dishonest, and

maybe I was by their lights. But it never bothered me. Not one bit. It

didn't bother me then, and it doesn't bother me now. I knew whose side I

was on. I was on their side. I was on the side of the men who had always

done the world's work.

    Bob was a slow learner. In fact, he never did learn most of the new

rules. He just didn't give a damn for the new class of morally superior

men. I realized that it was my responsibility to plug up as many of the

gaps in his education as I possibly could. So every two years, I gave Bob a

flight check.

    The first flight check I ever gave him, the first flight check he had had

since leaving the military, was in his Cessna 195.

    The Cessna 195 had a long fuselage with a tail wheel on one end, and

two stiff-legged main landing gear on the other. The wing was

cantilevered, and bolted on the nose was a 300 H.P., seven-cylinder

Jacobs radial engine. A "Shakin' Jake."

    It was called a "Shakin' Jake" because even when it was running

perfectly it had a bit of a beat to it. A Jacobs would never run as smoothly

as a Pratt & Whitney, or one of the old 240 H.P. Continental radials. But

as far as I was concerned, she ran just fine. I know that that Cessna 195

ran a lot smoother than my 450 Stearman ever did.

    I really liked that old 195, and every time I could find some excuse to

fly it, I did. Bob did a little air charter work with that airplane, and

anytime a trip would come up when I was hanging around with nothing to

do, I took it.

    One afternoon Bob and I had been on a charter flight together, and

when we landed back at Laredo and went into his office, I told him that he

had flown a pretty good check flight.

    "What", he asked?

    "Your check flight. You did okay. You passed," I said.

    "I what", he asked?

    "Damnit, pay attention," I said. "You just passed your bi-annual check

flight! You did pretty good. I'd say about a "B," maybe a "B minus.""

    "What the hell are you talking about", Bob asked, getting a sour look on

his face?

    "I'm talking about the flight check you have to have every two years so

that you won't get grounded, or sued, or fined, or thrown in jail, you

jackass", I said. "Now, find a log book somewhere so that I can sign you

off."

    Bob didn't have a log book. Hadn't owned one in years. He went down

to the other end of the airport and bought a brand new shiny log book

from one of the flying services. I wrote his name on the front page and

filled in all the other blanks. The very first entry in Bob's new log book

stated that on such and such a date I had given him his bi-annual flight

check. I signed my name and listed my certificate number.

    The second entry made in Bob's new log book said just exactly the

same thing. I made that entry two years later.

    When Bob started learning to fly a helicopter, he used that same log

book. The third entry in Bob's log book was made by that ex-army

helicopter pilot who had only recently gotten back from Viet Nam and was

teaching Bob how to fly a helicopter.

    That year I spent little time around Laredo. I had been finding most of

my work up in the Nueces River country, and in Atascosa County. I had

gotten careless about keeping Bob's logbook up to date.

    So I was caught off guard the following spring when Bob gave me a

phone call about 10:00 o'clock one morning. He explained to me that the

helicopter business "wasn't all it was cracked up to be." I soon learned that

they had just wrecked one of the helicopters.

    The ex-army Huey pilot, Bob's old flight instructor and now employee,

had been flying it when one of the engine cam-followers had seized-up

and shattered the crankcase. He had done something called an

"auto-rotation," but for some reason, it hadn't worked out as well as it

should have. Bob explained to me that he had been "too low" to the

ground when the engine had blown. Bob insisted that had the pilot been a

hundred feet higher, "he could have saved it." But he wasn't, and he

didn't

    "Did it hurt the guy?" I wanted to know.

    "Naw. That kid still thinks he's bullet proof."

    I was glad to hear that the pilot wasn't hurt, although I must admit that

as a general rule I seldom had much sympathy for helicopter pilots.

    This business about "not being a hundred feet higher" was just the sort

of nonsense that scared me about helicopters, and helicopter pilots. No

one will ever be able to convince me that when something goes wrong

with one of those noisy machines, it is dangerous to be "too close" to the

ground. I know that if I'm ever in one of the darn things and something

goes wrong, I want to be just as close to the ground as I can get.

    But I still hated to hear that Bob had lost half of his helicopter fleet. I

was sympathetic to his business coming on hard times, and I tried to think

of something reassuring to say.

    "Well, you still got the other chopper," I said.

    "Naw. I crashed it," Bob replied.

    "You what", I asked?

    "I ain't got it either," he explained impatiently. "I just crashed it."

    "You just crashed it", I Said!

    "Yeah, about an hour ago", Bob said matter-of-factly. "I just crashed

that son-of-a-bitch."

    "Bob, are you hurt", I demanded!

    "Damn right I'm hurt", he replied angrily! "Now listen, you remember

that flight check you gave me?"

    "Flight check", I asked incredulously?

    "Yeah, dammit, flight check", he hollered back at me! "You know, flight

check! Like you're always yammering at me about every time I turn

around!"

    "Uh, well, I guess. When did I last give you a flight check anyway," I

wanted to know?

    "Hell, I don't know," Bob said. "You're supposed t' keep up with that sort

of stuff."

    "Well, okay, why," I asked? I was racking my brain to try to remember

when I had last signed Bob's log book.

    "Damn Fed. He was right there on the airport. Got there before that

damn helicopter got through kickin' itself to death. Got there while it was

still burnin'. Started asking me all kinds o' questions."

    "Burning! Did you get burned," I wanted to know?

    "Damn right, I got burned," Bob replied. "Like a piece of steak! Hurts

like hell!"

    "Bob, listen to me," I demanded. "Just how bad hurt are you? How bad

are you burned? Where are you, anyway? Are you in a hospital?"

    "Ah, it ain't all that big a deal," he replied. "Yeah, I'm in the hospital.

Doc says they'll have to keep me a few days. Just sewed me up here and

there. These guys musta' used up half-a-dozen spools of thread. You never

saw so many stitches outside a dress shop. Crawling out through all that

plexiglass was a bitch. The only thing that really bothers me are the

burns. Hurts like hell! Doc says not to worry about it. Says if God had

wanted me to have a pretty face, he would have given me one to start

with. Smart-ass young doctor. My wife's mad as hell."

    "Is your wife there with you now," I asked? "Let me talk to her."

    "Yeah, she's here all right. Mad as hell! Won't stop fussing. She always

gets like this. Anyway, like I was saying, you do remember giving me that

flight check, don't you? Sometime last year, wasn't it? Sometime last

winter?"

    "Listen, Bob," I said. "Just exactly what did that FAA man ask you about

your flight check?"

    "Hell, I don't know. I wasn't paying much attention to him. He wanted

to ask all about our maintenance records, and aircraft inspection logs.

Then he wanted to know about my flying records. Wanted to know if I had

had a bi-annual flight check. Wanted to know who gave it to me. I told

him you gave it to me. Told him you gave it to me last winter. Told him

you gave it to me in that 195," Bob replied.

    "Did he want to see your log book", I wanted to know?

    "Yeah, sure, he wanted to see it. Told him that it was in that helicopter.

You should have been there! That damn chopper burned like a

house-a-fire!"

    "So what did he say.......", I wanted to know?

    "Hell, what could he say", Bob laughed? "Besides, they were loading me

up in an ambulance just about then.

    "An ambulance", I asked? "Bob, you sure you're okay? Is your wife

there? Let me talk to your wife a minute."

    "Yeah, yeah, I'm okay," he insisted. "Some jerk got all excited and

called an ambulance. That'll cost me a good hundred dollar bill. Guess I did

a lot of bleeding. Listen, you haven't heard anything from the Feds about

this, have you?"

    "No," I answered a little bit confused. "Listen, Bob. Tell me just exactly

what you told that Fed."

    "I told him to call you," Bob said impatiently. "Told him you were in

charge of all my flight checks, and log books, and all that kind of stuff.

Told him you would explain the whole thing. He hadden called you yet,

has he?"

    "No, he hasn't called me yet," I reassured him.

    "Has my insurance company wanted to talk to you," he went on?

    "No Bob, no insurance people have wanted to talk to me. You’re the

only guy who has called me this morning. Look, you only crashed an hour

or so ago. No insurance company is going to be checking around this

soon."

    "Well," said Bob. "You never know how quick those sob's are gonna

start asking questions."

    "Well, nobody's called me, so quit worrying about it," I said.

    "You did give me a flight check last winter, didn't you," Bob insisted?

"You do remember, dontcha? It was in that 195. You know, just like those

other times. Only this time it was only this past winter. You remember

that, dontcha?"

    "Yeah, yeah, sure," I said. "I remember it, Bob. Why, I can remember it

like it wasn't no more than two or three years ago. I remember it all right.

Look, don't worry about that flight check. If the FAA calls me about it, I'll

explain the whole thing. If the insurance co. gets hold of me, I'll say the

right things. Just quit worrying about all that stuff. Now let me talk to

your wife."

    His wife took over the phone. She told me that the doc was trying to

stick an I.V. in Bob's arm and he wanted him to lay down and be quiet.

She told me he was going to be all right. She sounded resigned to the

whole thing. She had been through this before.

    I later learned that Bob's helicopter crash had been a freak accident.

When those helicopters were launched from their transport trailers, the

proper way to do it was to make a rapid climb and turn away from the

truck and trailer. By making a quick, positive lift-off, the pilot reduced any

possibility of the rotor blade coming into contact with the transport rig.

They called this "snatching it off."

    Bob's snatch that morning would have worked fine except for one

problem. The previous evening a sudden wind storm had come up, and the

line chief had told one of his newly hired line boys to go out on the ramp

and check all the airplanes to be sure they were tied down securely. When

the new line boy had come walking by Bob's helicopter, still parked on its

trailer, he had noticed that it was not tied down at all. His remedy to this

problem was to take a tie-down chain and stretch it up between the

floorboards of that trailer and hook the end over one of the helicopter

skids. Then he went on about his business.

    The next day, when Bob "snatched off", he got about 15 feet in the air

when that chain suddenly came to an end. The helicopter instantly went to

the full vertical position and crashed. The blades, rotating at full power at

that time, chopped into the trailer, clawed across the asphalt, and while

the fuel and flames were spreading everywhere, continued to dissipate

their kinetic energy while Bob frantically tried to fight his way out of the

cockpit.

    That's how Bob got out of the business of chasing cows with a

helicopter. Bob's insurance co. paid off without so much as a mean look,

and nobody ever said a word to me about it.

    As for the FAA? Well, nobody ever contacted me about it, but I did

happen to run across that inspector a few months later. We had both

walked into the Dairy Queen in Dilley to get something to eat. He asked

me if I knew Bob.

    "Sure. You bet. I know him," I said.

    "You know he crashed a helicopter a few months back?"

    "Yeah, that's what I heard," I replied, shaking my head sadly.

    "You remember anything about giving him a bi-annual flight check", the

inspector wanted to know?

    "Yeah, sure. I remember that. We flew an old Cessna 195. Fine old

airplane. Flew a real good flight check. Fine old pilot," I answered

emphatically.

    That FAA inspector gave me a suspicious look. But he didn't ask me any

more questions.

 

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