Part 2: Army Helicopter Flight School 1969

Huey helicopter

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This is guest post from professional pilot and author, Byron Edgington. 

He is the author of The Sky Behind Me and you are sure to enjoy this piece. 


Part 2: Ft. Wolters Texas, Army Helicopter Flight School 1969.




I’d been in Army helicopter flight school for two months. The schedule, the heat, the harassment and the pressure to learn to fly had reached a climax. My instructor, Wayne Alexander, went back and forth with me between bare tolerance, to exasperation at my ham-handed efforts to learn to fly. The little Hughes 269 helicopter seemed to be consorting with him to block my every effort to master it; one session I’d take the littlebastard, (the helicopter, not Wayne,) into the Texas sky with only moderate difficulty; next day, next session, my takeoff scared Wayne so bad he screamed epithets I’d not heard before in my twenty plus years, scalding phrases that I worried might melt the instruments.

On Thursday June 26th my flight training session went reasonably well. I took off without scaring either myself, Wayne, or the flock of goats that watched every day from a nearby fence line. The animals’ serene attitude was not always the case. Who knew goats could outrun a Ford pickup? But that day my procedures looked less like a follow-the-bouncing-ball routine, more like, well, actual flight. Takeoffs nominal; level-off, meh;landings such that I could actually use the aircraft again. All in all a good day of flight training.

June 27th 1969, a Friday, at a stage field outside Mineral Wells Texas. Ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit at 2 P.M. My habit by then had evolved to the point where a tolerable flight training period was always followed the next day by a carnival ride of barely controlled aerobatics. So, though my Thursday had been pretty good, Friday loomed as a potential reversal. Instead, as I took the controls that steamy Friday afternoon, planted my feet on the pedals and wrapped my sweaty fingers around the throttle, the machine responded as I hoped it might. I cranked up the little Lycoming four-banger. Then I engaged the clutch, ran the blades up to full rpm and brought the radios on line. Next, I called the tower, received clearance and made my first takeoff of the day. The little Hughes rose from the pavement, bobbled only a little and stayed reasonably steady at a four-foot hover. From there, I eased the nose forward, added a touch of pedal and a snib of engine rpm and took off, climbing into the achy-blue, oven hot sky over central Texas.

​“Not bad, Edgington,” Wayne said, his voice gravelling through the headset. “Gimme a normal traffic pattern and straight-in landing on lane three.”

​I banked right into a crosswind, right again onto downwind, leveled at five hundred feet and called the tower. Clearance received, I dropped power, angled onto the base leg and set up for landing. Easing the little helicopter onto the pad on lane three, I stopped at a steady hover, awaiting Wayne’s instructions.

​Arms crossed, chewing a toothpick, Wayne seemed to be conjuring some diabolical maneuver for me to do next. “Max power takeoff and steep approach,” he snarled.

​I called tower, got clearance and went through my mental checklist for a maximum performance takeoff. Easing the nose forward again, I pulled in enough collective to make the rpm sag, then adjusted that, and climbed out at twice the normal rate of ascent. Another crosswind, onto downwind, tower clearance, then onto lane three and an approach at ten degrees rather than the normal four. I stopped at a hover, steadied the aircraft and again waited for Wayne to tell me what came next.

​“Not bad,” he said. “Show me a standard autorotation.”

​A smidgen of bile rose in my throat. “Roger,” I said. “Standard auto.” Autorotation in a helicopter isn’t difficult. It’s simply a matter of coordinating all theaerodynamic forces at once: rotor rpm, forward speed, angle of attack, alignment with the landing site and whatever adjustments are needed on the descent. The descent happens rather quickly; vertical speeds in excess of 3,000 feet per minute are not unheard of in autorotation. The maneuver is used in the event of engine failure in a single-engine helicopter. Done correctly and well, an autorotational landing is hard to distinguish from a normal landing, especially at my stage of flight training. That said, it’s pretty easy to screw up an autorotation, especially during the critical bottom part of the maneuver, the last ten feet or so. Autorotation separates pilots from wannabes in a flat hurry. I took adeep breath, scanned the panel, radioed the tower and received my clearance. Then I took off and entered the traffic pattern to the autorotation lane.

​Established at five hundred feet AGL, lined up with the lane, fifty knots airspeed,gauges in the green I entered autorotation. Flipping the throttle back to idle with a flick of my wrist, I simultaneously dropped the collective to the floor, eased the nose back and pushed right pedal for trim. The little Hughes fell like a full diaper. The VSI needle sagged to the bottom of the gauge, and my stomach drifted up around my eyebrows. I kept the rpm in check with a touch of collective, stayed in trim with pedal and watched the ground rush up to greet me. At fifty feet I flared the nose back further, almost stopping forward flight. The helicopter fell straight down, or nearly so. At ten feet, I snapped the collective up, slowing the descent, then leveled the rotor system as the helicopter’s skid gear slammed onto the ground. Wayne and I skidded down the lane about two aircraft lengths.

​With the rpm at idle, blades whipping by slow enough to count, I put the collective all the way down and waited for Wayne’s assessment.

​“Okay, not too bad,” he said. “Now, take off again and give me a normal approach.”

​I looked across the tiny cockpit at Wayne. He’d already seen that maneuver today, so his instruction confused me a bit. But he was the boss, so I configured the machine, called for clearance and entered the pattern for a normal approach. As I turned base andlowered the collective to land, Wayne opened his intercom. Pointing, he said, “Land me right by the tower.”

​I blinked, even more confused. But I figured he knew what he was doing, so I angled across the field to the tower and landed beside it.

​“Idle it down,” Wayne said.

​I inched the throttle down, rpm falling to 1,800. Wayne scanned the gauges, pulverizing his toothpick as he did so. I waited, clueless, the new twist in flight training completely unfamiliar. Then the oddest thing happened. Wayne unbuckled his seat belt and climbed out of the helicopter. What in the Sam Hill? He kept his helmet plugged in, stood on the left skid, snapped his seat belt together again and cinched the belts up tight. Ihad no earthly idea what the man was up to, no premonition about his plan. But I was about to find out.

​He keyed his mike. “Okay, Edgington,” he said, wind whistling in his mouthpiece. “Give me three trips around the pattern and then land back here.”

​My arms sprouted a mass of goose flesh. The most frightening and most exciting word in aviation lingo floated into my rookie brain: Solo. I gulped—a big one—and considered what I was about to do. It had taken me almost two full months to get where I was at that point. I had fifteen flight training sessions under my belt, each one unique, each one a study in the laws and necessities of defying gravity. Some sessions, as I said, were scenes from a flying horror show; some were reasonable facsimiles of aviation. My logbook showed an astounding 11 hours of flight time. I swallowed hard again, as Wayne snapped loose his helmet cord and walked away. Then he stopped, turned and meandered back like he’d forgotten something. My brain raced with possibilities: Wayne hadchanged his mind; he forgot to teach me how to put it in reverse; he hasn’t seen a flaming, twisting crash in a while and he misses that; he wants to pray with me. The last item made a lot of sense; I didn’t feel ready to solo, but it was sink or swim time. In my mental checklist I went over last minute details: rotor and engine rpm—check; radio call to the tower—check; last will and testament—check.

His return was not what I’d expected. Wayne plugged his helmet in again and keyed the mike. “Remember, Edgington,” he snarled. “It’ll fly different without my fat ass in it.” Then he unplugged again and walked off.

I blinked the sweat out of my eyes and ran the rpm up. Then I called for clearance. “Army 5643 solo on lane one.” The tower responded right away, cleared me to solo, and I was on my way. Lifting the collective, I took off and flew. And I didn’t stop for the next forty years.


Excerpt from The Sky Behind Me, a Memoir of Flying and Life

©2012 Byron Edgington, Biblio Publishing Columbus Ohio

ISBN-10: 1622490371

ISBN-13: 978-1622490370

Available at Amazon in paperback and digital editions. 305 pages


Byron Edgington

The Sky Writer

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