During my career as a forester, I had the good fortune to worked with countless characters. One individual set the bar so high that to this day when I hear the word character, I immediately think of a pilot I called “Captain Jack”. Captain Jack once told me that he fell in love with the helicopter at an early age; he once joked that he began flying the year after the Wright Brothers landed at Kitty Hawk.
There is an old saying in the flying community: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old, bold pilots.” If you have ever visited the mountains of the west where Jack flew, you would immediately understand why he was methodical in his approach to flying. On the other hand, Jack could be a bit volatile, especially when stressed. I always felt that this added to his charm! If memory serves me, he was still flying helicopters well into his sixties!
Helicopters are the aircraft of choice for most operations in the forest because of their ability to maneuver while lifting heavy loads. The one pictured in the image above is a Hiller UH-12E and for years was the standard used by the forest industry. As you can see, the Hillers are neither beautiful or comfortable during long flights; they were designed to be simple and dependable.
I have many fond memories of Captain Jack, but two speak volumes about the man.
Early one spring morning we were preparing to begin a reconnaissance flight when I noticed Jack tapping on the engine warning light. Despite being only a forester, I knew full well the significance of this light; it provided a visual indication that the engine had shut down. When seated in the Hiller, your head was less than six feet from the business end of a jet engine, so if the engine quite, it got real quiet very fast! So as Jack continued to tap on the light, I ask him if it might not be a good time to stop and evaluate the problem. He just looked at me and growled the following: “I don’t need a damn light to tell me that the engine is out!” Lesson number one, never try to tell the pilot how to operate his aircraft.
The last time I flew with Jack was nearly as memorable. The day began at 5 AM in the gravel parking area behind our office that we used as a landing zone. With the helicopter sitting atop of a utility trailer, Jack and I sat quietly waiting for sufficient daylight before lifting off. I noticed that Jack kept staring at a large pole that was about fifty feet away from where we sat. My gut instinct told me that he suddenly have reservations about his choice for a landing zone. I turned to Jack and asked if he wanted me to get a truck and move the helicopter and trailer before lifting off. Without missing a beat, Jack smiled and uttered the following: “If we hit that pole, we were never going to make it in the first place.” Seconds later, the we lifted off and away we flew as the sun rose in the east. Two days later we finished the project and I never saw or heard from Captain Jack again. Every time I see a small helicopter it causes me to wonder about Jack.