Got a Flight Plan?
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
I flew a Bell 206B III from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Midland-Odessa, Texas, to deliver it to a civilian customer who met me when I landed. We were not scheduled to fly until the next day, but they couldn’t wait to get into the air. I did a quick post-flight inspection, refueled and unloaded my personal equipment while discussing where they wanted to recon. They wanted to fly to a natural gas production plant about five miles south of the airport. After discussing our planned route, I made the decision to not file a flight plan since I would stay in touch with approach control during the entire flight. That was nearly a big mistake.
After reaching the natural gas pumping station, we located the pipeline and used the forward-looking infrared radar system to track terrain features. We had flown more than 20 miles from the original recon site when I heard the familiar call from departure control: “Radar contact lost, frequency change approved, squawk VFR.” I told the passengers that if we were going much farther, I needed to climb and file a flight plan, but they assured me that we were almost done. By then, we were another 20 miles farther down the right of way when the customers saw an uncovered section of pipe they wanted me to hover over so they could photograph it. When they finished, they told me to return to the airport.
As I pulled in collective and began my climb up to about 200 feet above ground level, I heard a short grinding whine, which I quickly assessed as an engine bearing seizing. I checked the engine instruments, but there were no signs of problems. It was getting dark and I knew I had no flight plan, so I began to think I might have imagined the noise. I decided I would keep a close eye on the instrument panel. Just as I started to relax a little, though, I saw the engine oil pressure go from 100% down to about 50%, back to 100% and then to zero.
I immediately entered an autorotational descent with power to a field beside a gravel road intersection. The helicopter was immediately engulfed in smoke from the remaining engine oil burning as I shut down and the customers departed the aircraft. I’d attempted to make a mayday call but had no idea if it was heard. I departed the aircraft after shutdown and quickly realized how lucky we were that no one was hurt, considering nobody knew where we were. We wouldn’t have been missed for at least another day.
Over the next several hours, I tried to reach anyone on the radio. At about 10 p.m., I saw a plane that appeared to be on descent to Midland-Odessa and attempted to contact it or anyone on the approach control frequency. After making contact and telling the pilot our location from the airport, I heard him relay the message. But he reported us as being in the opposite direction from the airport. I tried to contact the pilot, but it was too late. I knew that someone would be looking for us, only about 40 miles in the wrong direction.
After several hours of calling, I was ready to give up for the night when a pilot replied and asked our condition. After telling him our position in latitude-longitude so there would be no mistake, I continued to talk with the Army C-12 pilot until they began their descent into Fort Hood. At about 3 a.m., we heard a helicopter approaching. It was the Texas State Police in an OH-58A.
When I talked to the engine rebuilder later, I discovered the engine did in fact seize on a bearing. But more important was the fact that the engine was several hundred hours over time between overhaul, which is another story.
Although all’s well that ends well, I realize how lucky we were. I also realize how blatantly wrong I was not to file a flight plan before we departed. I hate to think how long it would have been before help arrived had the aircraft been damaged and/or we had become incapacitated. The road we landed beside was in the middle of a large hunting reservation, and who knows how long before someone would have driven by. Be assured that now, on every flight I am on, a flight plan is filed and opened.