Friday, September 10, 2010

Southland Helicopters Part 1

Southland Helicopters is located on the Long Beach, CA airport.  This is where I began the training for the Kansas City police department pilots a few years earlier.  So I have come full circle.   I am back in familiar territory.  It was only about a four mile drive from my home in Cypress, CA and a commute with no freeways involved.  If you live in California, this is a real plus.       

Southland Helicopters click to enlarge

My duties here would primarily be flight instructing.  Not my first choice of what I would rather be doing, but this is what brought me back to California and I would do the best I could.  Southland was doing a lot of helicopter pilot training for pilots with VA benefits and also for pilots from several foreign countries.  The FAA office in Santa Monica, CA allowed me to transfer my FAA pilot examiner designation to the Long Beach, CA office.
This would enable me to do more helicopter pilot flight test for a much larger area of Southern California.  Southland Helicopters was also doing charter flights under FAR Part 135(Flying passengers and cargo for hire).  I had hoped to be the chief pilot for that part of their operation, but internal politics nixed that idea.  Most of our training was being done in the Hughes 269B helicopters and the charter aircraft we used was a Hughes 500.  Later on we merged with a company that had two Bell BH-206 Jet Rangers.  So on occasion, I would be back flying my favorite helicopters again.  I was getting a little closer to getting my foot through the door to becoming a member of the Screen Actors Guild.  Like anything else, their is always a catch 22 issue involved before you can get something accomplished.  First of all, the movie industry only recognizes a few pilots.  When a director for a movie has a need for a helicopter to be used in a movie, those people would always be called first.  You could not go to a director to get his endorsement to use you in a movie.  I was once used to transport several movie stars from the Universal hotel in Hollywood to a movie location several miles north of Los Angeles.  Each day I would try to get the attention of Howard Hawks who was directing the movie.  When I did ask, he just smiled and ignored my question.  Hollywood folks can be very different.  Some are personable and others are distant.  Each day I would return some of the people back to the hotel in Hollywood.  Several times I flew Leslie Nielson and we talked about families and everyday things.  Really a nice person and I enjoyed our conversations.  Gene Kelly was in this movie cast and was very friendly too. 

Later on, I was assigned to fly the camera ship for a television series called Love Boat.  This involved flying a highly experienced cameraman with a Tyler mount in the helicopter.  Normally when this was done, the pilot could expect to get an extra bonus because these flights often required additional skills with some risks.  The plan was to rendezvous with the cruise ship (Pacific Princess/Love Boat) as it left the San Pedro, CA port and follow the ship as it sailed north up the coast of California.  The flight was scheduled for evening just before sunset.  Then to continue until about an hour after sunset.  Often this would be called the magic hour. Even though the sun has set, their is still daylight for a while longer. I did not foresee any problems with the timeline and it should not take more than a couple hours to do the shoot.  As we followed the ship, the cameraman would direct me to fly in different areas to get the required shots.  When we were near the coast of Santa Monica, CA, it was decided we would land there to pickup more film for the cameraman.  This  delayed us, so while I was there, I refueled the helicopter.  We were not in radio contact with the cruise ship, and I was on my own to find the ships location. We departed Santa Monica and headed north out to sea.  In a short time I spotted the wake of the cruise ship and we joined up with the ship to continue are filming.  Our flight delay did cause me  concern because it was much later now and the available light was fading fast.  Still we had a few shots left to do.  One of the shots, was with all the ships lights turned on.

The Love Boat (Pacific Princess) click to enlarge

I must admit this was a lovely sight, but as we continued filming, it was getting much darker outside as I circled the ship at the cameraman's request.  It was now two hours after sunset and it was totally black with no visible horizon.  We were several miles out to sea off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. When I turned the helicopter towards land, I could  just barely see a few lights of the city.  When I turned away from land, I could not see anything, not even the ship, because they had turned everything off with the exception of their navigation lights.  This situation makes it impossible to determine which way is up or down.  The helicopter did not have attitude flight instruments and I was beginning to suffer from the first stages of what is known as Spatial Disorientation. This is a condition where the pilot now is relying on what he senses and feels trying to determine the attitude of the aircraft.  This is really impossible. You may feel like you are in a banked or diving attitude, when actually you are in level flight. It's imperative that the pilot now rely solely on his flight instruments if the aircraft is so equipped and he is trained on how to intrepid them.  As I said earlier, this aircraft did not have these instruments.  Most basic helicopters of that time would not.  Unlike an airplane, helicopters are totally unstable.  If you release the flight controls, it will not sustain level flight.  Navy pilots often experienced  Spatial Disorientation  while attempting to land on an aircraft carrier at night.  Also this happened to John F. Kennedy Jr. when his plane crashed off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.  Now I am pleading with the cameraman to finish up so  we could make our way back to the coast safely.  The cameraman is pretty much in charge of the flight as far as the filming part goes, but ultimately the bottom line is,  the pilot in command has the last word. Sometimes you can't always satisfy the demands of others when safety is an issue.  I agreed to continue for a while longer, then we would be out of there.  We headed back using the lights along the coastline for a visible reference to the horizon and then on to Long Beach, CA.  I will have more in the next post about my work at Southland.........................

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