What's The Best Kind Of Mistake To Make In Helicopter Aviation?
I was asked by someone recently what one of my worst decisions, or worst mistakes was during flight school. Well it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision but there was this thing with the oil dipstick one day. It went something like this.
When it’s time for a member of our unit to start helicopter flight training they usually get a little bit of in house training from our own CFI’s, then they are then sent out to Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad Ca. for full time flight training up until they are a commercial VFR helicopter pilot. Their training will take place exclusively in the Schweizer 300 piston powered helicopter since it is the closest training helicopter to what we fly, the MD500 series, (both previously Hughes Helicopter products). It is sort of an unwritten right of passage for the helicopter pilot in training to at some point stop in at the base in his piston powered trainer, along with his CFI during training. Just a fun way to check back in with the guys and humble yourself in your little reciprocating flying machine.
I was at a point in my training where I was close to my private check ride so I had completed several solo flights, but neither my title nor experience even rose to the level of “private pilot.” Even though I had already made one appearance at my unit base, I actually needed to stop in and grab a couple of items for my upcoming check ride. Plus this would also give me another hour or so of solo time toward completing that portion of required flight time. It was a Friday, and it was going to be an evening flight since that was when the helicopter was available. It would be a quick flight to ASTREA base, grab what I needed, and a quick flight back to Palomar Airport before the sun was down. If there were any significant delays getting off the ground, it would throw my whole schedule out of whack. As a solo student pilot I absolutely had to be back on the ground before dark.
Just as I feared things started falling a little behind schedule. The previous student was a little late coming back from his flight, the fuel truck driver was a little slow getting the helicopter re-fueled for me, etc. I commenced my pre-flight knowing that I was definitely on a time schedule, but not wanting to rush. I actually reminded myself several times not to rush, because that is when things get missed, and when things can go wrong. I had read all of the stories about people rushing their pre-flight inspections or the actual flight, and bad things happening. I was very aware of the pitfalls of speeding through a pre-flight.
As expected the helicopter needed some oil. It would have been extremely rare if it did not need oil. That’s just the nature of piston engine helicopters. Here is where things started to go down the wrong track.
Now Civic had three different Schweizer 300 helicopters in their fleet but normally only one or two would be flown at any given time while the third one waited in reserve. It was not uncommon to fly the exact helicopter for several weeks before you made a switch. Two of their 300s had the extra long oil dipstick so that the handle could be positioned in a location easy access. The third Schweizer did not have the extension, so it was a very short dipstick and you had to kneel down and reach back in to the engine to remove it. The helicopter I was flying today was the one with the short dipstick, but I was coming off of several weeks of flying a helicopter with the long dipstick. My habit had always been to lay the long dipstick on the pilot’s step while I added oil. This way, It was almost impossible for me to forget the dipstick as I would have to either step on it, or step over it in order to enter the pilot seat. So far it had been a fool proof method.
On this pre-flight when I removed the short dipstick and confirmed that the helicopter needed oil I did something slightly different. Attached to the inside of the pilot’s step on this helicopter was a small tray or shelf. It was flush with the pilot‘s step but shorter. For whatever reason my mind must have thought that the shorter dipstick fit better on this shorter tray, than it did on the pilot’s step. With hardly a conscious thought I placed the dipstick on the tray next to the pilot’s step.
To place oil in this particular helicopter one had to utilize a funnel with a long tube. The oil itself was pumped out of a 50 gal drum into a reusable metal oil can which had a flexible spout and a trigger to release the oil. Slightly more involved than putting oil in the old Toyota. The big question here is why would you not replace the dipstick immediately after filling the crankcase? Well one hand was holding the oil can, and the other hand the funnel and an oil rag. If was easier and cleaner to store the funnel and can back in the oil shed, then return to replace the dipstick and tidy up any oil drops on the helicopter airframe. This system had worked perfect up until today.
Pre-check complete, engine run up, got ATIS, tower clearance for a south departure and I was soon clearing the trees and power lines as I climbed out and pointed toward Gillespie Field. Actual flight time between the two airports was barely going to be 20 minutes. The helicopter’s instruments were normal as I called up Gillespie Tower and received landing clearance to ASTREA base. And all appeared well as I focused on making that perfect landing on pad #1, just in case any of my co-workers were watching. After a minute or so of cool down I cut the engine and prepared to exit the helicopter. I was still feeling confident in my solo abilities, when I noticed one of our maintenance technicians- head cocked to the side with a funny look on his face, staring at my helicopter. Oh this can’t be good……
I stepped out of the helicopter and viewed what might as well have been the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill as far as I was concerned. Oil everywhere! Every imaginable part of the left rear airframe was covered with oil and it was now dripping down onto the concrete landing pad from about 100 different points. As I sank deeper into student pilot depression, co-workers, and mechanics began to stream out of the building to see what the side show was all about.
Now this is the point where you must convince everyone present that you (me) fully understand and take responsibility for the stupidity of your mistake. I find that a long string of inappropriate language directed at myself usually does the trick. Seriously though, all one can do is say “yup I screwed that one up big time!” And then set about figuring out how and why it occurred and what changes need to be made to ensure that it never happens again.
I remember making that phone call to my flight instructor back at Civic to appraise him of the blunder. A thorough check of the flight line and the adjacent dirt lot (which was also under the departing flight path) failed to produce the missing dipstick. My training helicopter would have to remain on the ramp overnight at the base, fully advertising my screw up to anyone who was not already 10-4 on it. I caught a ride back up to Civic Helicopters in the back seat of the duty patrol helicopter , feeling much like a cowboy without a horse or perhaps a sailor without a ship. The following day the Civic maintenance department dug out a back up dipstick from storage and flew it down with an extra pilot and some extra oil to retrieve the helicopter.
Nothing damaged, no one injured, and one more lesson learned. The best kind of mistake to make in aviation. Somewhere between KCRQ and KSEE there is an expensive Lycoming HIO-360-D1A
dipstick waiting to be found.