Fire on board
For a short period of time after the introduction of the Bell 47 into the army, the helicopter was prone to rotor brake fires. Although the brake was small it was situated below and between the fuel tanks so prompt action was very necessary if a fire was to break out.
I was tasked to pick up a general and take him to a parade in Northern Germany. He was immaculate and clearly was very aware of his appearance. You could have shaved from the reflection of his shoes and Sam Brown leather belts. He preened himself in front of the perspex bubble of the helicopter before boarding. On take-off we climbed to about 2,500 feet above the ground and levelled out for the hour’s flight. When we reached a region close to Hohne which was used for army exercises, I smelt burning. I immediately landed on a deserted and flat area with not a house in sight.
If in doubt, improvise
Here was my chance to show my expertise. I told the general to stand clear of the helicopter as I dramatically grabbed the fire extinguisher. With great élan I pushed the handle. To my horror only a dribble of liquid appeared.
So there we were in the middle of nowhere with a helicopter burning in front of us.
The flames were only small but clearly were not going to extinguish and the fuel tanks were horribly close. I was desperate and the only thing I could think of was to climb up and urinate onto the flames. I almost succeeded but there was still the odd flicker of flame. I turned to the general and said to him that he had to finish it off. Initially he was outraged but I helped him up and he achieved the necessary.
I couldn’t wait for the accident report to be published. I expected it to praise me for lateral thinking and using my initiative to avoid a disaster in losing a helicopter. Might there even be an official commendation?
Finally it was published – and I was criticised for using corrosive liquid on a helicopter.
A real mystery
My last flight before leaving the Army was a short trip to deliver by hand a document to the commanding officer of a unit in Northern Germany. It was a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky and I planned to be back within the hour. It would be a nice easy flight and I decided to take my time and savour every moment.
I arrived overhead the barracks and looked for the helipad with no success. Not only that but there was a profusion of wires and aerials throughout the entire complex. The only possible place to land safely was a large open space surrounded by a high wire fence.
An idle threat
I flew low over the area and saw that there was a gate which would allow egress. I reasoned that even if it was locked the noise of the helicopter landing would be enough to alert the gate to be opened. The only alternative open to me was to land well outside the complex and leave the helicopter unattended while I found and delivered the package to the correct person.
My helicopter required that, immediately prior to closing the engine after a flight, the procedure was to bring the throttle back to idle for a full minute. While the engine was at idle I looked down to put away my map and tidy the cockpit. When the time came to shut down the engine I looked outside the helicopter to see myself surrounded by five huge soldiers in military police uniform each holding a straining Alsatian. I could see that all the dogs were barking frantically and, if freed, would certainly attack.
As soon as the rotors had stopped, my door was opened and, as my legs swung out to exit, I was grabbed under each arm and, with my feet hardly touching the ground, was almost carried towards a building which was clearly the headquarters.
It is the only time in my life that, as I approached doors, they were opened for me.
On a need-to-know basis
Behind a large desk sat a moustached brigadier. After a long pause he looked up and said,
“We have safeguarded the area in every possible way and at enormous expense but never dreamt that we would have to cope for a complete imbecile as yourself. Now get out!”
I handed him the letter and was escorted almost at the run back to my helicopter.
Clearly in deep trouble, I expected a report was winging its way to my boss and that, on arrival back at base, I would face punishment. I never heard anything more about the incident and, since that day, have no idea what was very so special about that fenced area.