(Written in March, 2016)
It was my first corporate job. I’d been hired to be a pilot for a company which built gyro-stabilized sensors for mounting on helicopters and airplanes. I pretty much divided my time between a Cessna 182 and a Diamond HK36 motor glider.
I’d been sent to Houston, Texas to provide news and traffic service to a Fox-affiliated television station there. I guess they’d lost their helicopter in a tragic accident. Our sales department was working hard to convince them that a fixed wing platform would be much safer than a helicopter. They were working with Diamond Aircraft and I’ll never forget the relatively simple diagram that Diamond president Peter Maurer had whipped up which dramatically illustrated the difference between a helicopter, a Cessna 182 and a Diamond motor glider in terms of each aircraft’s ability to glide to the surface from its usual operating altitude. The Diamond motor glider dramatically out-performed all others.
That information was a comfort to me as I patrolled the highways
surrounding Houston to report on traffic. And in that metropolis, there was plenty of news that we covered as well. I remember almost crying while flying over a bridge at night. A van with a family had just careened into the San Jacinto River from that bridge, killing three kids and two adults.
On July 13, 2001, two days before that tragedy, my camera operator and I had gone to the coast in order to cover another story. We were refueling at an airport on the Texas coast when the call came into my cell phone. A gas well had exploded some twenty-six miles off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. I had to hand it to my bosses. They never pressured any of us to perform a hazardous operation. We were the ones to make the final decision and it was never more firmly put to me than it was that day. None of the local helicopter guys wanted to fly that far out over water. My boss told me it was up to me. Did I feel comfortable flying the Diamond out into the gulf in order to cover the story? I talked to my camera operator. He said he’d go anywhere I would go. I guess that this is as good a place as any to comment on the operators I flew with. They could disassemble that complicated piece of gear and reassemble it when needed. They could operate it smoothly with a consummate ability to compose a shot perfectly. And the guy flying with me that day was one of the best. All I had to do was fly the plane and keep its landing gear out of the shot with the help of a little monitor occupying my instrument panel.
I knew the wind would be in my face on the way out to the rig. In the event of an engine failure, that would be a great help to get back to the beach. The gliding performance of the HK36 would be another huge help. A little thinking and head-scratching assured me that if I climbed all the way out so as to arrive at ten thousand feet over the scene, I could lose an engine, turn downwind and land on the coast without getting my feet wet. I said “yes”.
A few minutes later, with full tanks of fuel, we were off to the scene of the explosion. Soon, all I could see was water. We climbed over a scattered layer and eventually could see a plume of smoke, marking the scene of the explosion. My operator was able to get a lovely shot before we were even on scene. With a couple of miles to go, he was transmitting video to the station. Lifeboats were bobbing in the water and the Coast Guard was already on the scene, visible through large gaps in a beautiful scattered layer of clouds. We were level at ten thousand and over the scene when it hit me. “Coast Guard?” I thought to myself! “What the hell am I doing up here in nosebleed city, when there are Coasties scooting round down there????” If I lost an engine I could simply ditch the Diamond next to one of those cutters in that nice, relatively warm water. And besides, that Rotax was pretty dependable. Down I went. For the next couple of hours, television stations all over the country were treated to a live feed from our camera, relayed through the station in Houston.
Forty people from the rig went into the water that day. Thirty nine came out. The one fatality was never found.
With all survivors safe on Coast Guard cutters and the fire under control, we turned for home. We landed in Houston with fuel to spare, but exhausted and stressed from the mission.
Sometimes I miss the work I’ve done in the past. Air show flying was a hoot and I occasionally treat myself to a flat turn to final just to see if I can still do it. The videos I produce with pilot/videographer Bert Garrison bring all the skill I have to bear on the job of shooting and flying that’s similar to the work I did in the HK36 and Cessna. And, as a teacher, I get to share my hard-won knowledge with people just starting to pursue a career in aviation. It’s not as exciting (except when the students try to kill me), but it has its reward.
Yup, sometimes I think of my pal, Kirby, who was standing at a urinal in the men’s room at an airport where he’d been performing in an Airshow after a long absence. He looked over at me with a lopsided grin and declared, “This is the life for me!” And indeed it is.