• Saved By A Leatherman Pocket Tool

This is the first-person account of a U.S. Forest Service employee who was a passenger in a Hiller 12E helicopter when the collective control linkage became disconnected at the rotor hub and the aircraft started an uncontrollable climb. The passenger climbed out of the airborne helo, managed to reconnect the linkage using the awl of a Leatherman Tool, and held the makeshift repair in place until the chopper could land safety.

Aviation Safety Communique

Reported by: USFS, Ochoco NF, P.O. Box 490, Prineville, OR 97754

Event: Date: 02/13/97, Local time: 1545, Injuries: no, Damage: no

Location: North Fork Crooked River, Oregon, along Forest boundary T15S R21E

Mission: Type: elk census (recon), Procurement: OR Dep't. of Fish and Wildlife, Persons onboard: 3

Aircraft: Hiller 12E


I was asked to assist the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) conduct a census count on elk using a Sightability Model developed by Idaho Fish and Game. The model was designed to use a reciprocating engine helicopter with two observers and the pilot. ODFW had run into a pinch using their own personnel and on Thursday afternoon (2/13) they could not get two of their employees to fly. I had cooperated all along with ODFW in this process to try and procure accurate population estimates of elk occurring on the Ochoco National Forest. I was being asked to fly in an "un-carded" aircraft and I knew it before departing.

I was asked to meet the fuel truck 4 miles up Teter's Road at approximately 1200. When I arrived at the meeting place, the helicopter was finishing the morning's census areas. I talked to the fuel truck driver (Ellen, the pilot's wife) about the helicopter and the pilot (Philip) to satisfy my own safety concerns. I found out he was FAA part 135 certified and had contracts with APHIS for conducting aerial coyote control. I also established the fact that we would be flight following with Ellen during the afternoon survey.

We started the elk survey at approximately 1400. We surveyed one census unit of about 4,000 acres and then started a second unit. We had been in the air approximately 1 1/2 hours when Philip suddenly said, "We have a problem." I was not initially concerned and said, "You will have to land it, right?" He then replied we had lost the collective and could not land and the problem was a serious one. The collective control linkage rod had come disconnected at the end where it connects to the collective arm at the main rotor shaft.

Losing the collective will cause the helicopter to gain altitude since the blades were at full pitch. I was sitting on the left side of the bubble (the side where the linkage rod is located on the helicopter) and Philip said our only chance of survival was if I got out and tried to push up on the collective arm to adjust the blade pitch, reducing lift from the rotor blades. I unbuckled from the seat, opened the door and carefully stepped out onto the skid. I wrapped the shoulder harness of the seat belt several times around my left wrist. I kept a hold of the seat belt with my left hand. I found that I could not reach the collective linkage unless I let go of the seat beld and climbed up from the skid onto the cargo basket.

I had some communication with Philip since I kept the headset on. It was very difficult to communicate, though, because of the rotor, engine and wind noise. I heard him tell me to push the collective arm up slowly. I tried to do this and the helicopter fell violently (Philip estimated more than 100 feet). Philip and the passenger (Meg, ODFW employee) yelled to pull the other way so I pulled back down on the collective arm and the helicopter stopped falling. I have no idea why I did not fall off the helicopter at that point.

I said if they (people in the helicopter) could find some sort of pin, I may be able to reconnect the linkage arm. They said they had nothing. Philip then said to pull down on the collective arm. We found that if I pulled down VERY hard, we would shed elevation very slowly. But I couldn't pull down hard enough for a long enough time to significantly lower the helicopter's altitude.

Philip had the helicopter in full forward speed to slow our ascent. He later told me he had the rotor RPM's 100 lower than red line and we had a forward speed of 100 knots, 10 over maximum I guess. I rapidly started to get VERY cold, since the outside air temperature was about 20 degrees. The wind force had blown a contact out of my eye and my hat and sunglasses off. I also lost both gloves, because I used them over the collective arm to try and pull harder. I asked if there was something I could use to pry down on the collective lever and Meg handed the fire extinguisher out. I tried that a little and felt unstable pulling on it. I thought the fire extinguisher could go through the tail rotor, so I threw it down with force to get rid of it. The whole time the pilot communicated the urgency of the situation by calmly saying, "You've got to do it buddy or we are going to die."

We had been into the problem about 15 minutes when Philip contacted Ellen and advised her of the problem. Ellen then phoned the Prineville airport and asked that the Oregon State Police be advised.

I was rapidly losing strength and mobility in my hands. Philip remembered he had a "Leatherman Tool" in his first aid kit. Meg rummaged around and found it and handed it out to me with the file part opened. The collective linkage rod had a bearing-like ball in the end of it with a hole in the ball. Because of the vibration of the rotor, engine and wind, the ball was moving around in circles, making it difficult to start any sort of makeshift pin unless it was pointed. I handed the Leatherman back in and asked Meg to open the leather awl part, which had a pointed tip.

I noticed we had gained enough altitude that we were getting into the clouds. Philip said we had gotten to an altitude of 9,500 feet . . . about 5,000 feet AGL. He also said the carb temp had dropped dangerously low, as had the fuel quantity.

When I got the Leatherman tool back with the leather awl opened, I first tried to get it started with my right hand since I am right handed. The forward air speed must have been too great, because I tried many times to get it started and I could not bring my arm forward accurately. I switched the tool to my left hand to attempt aligning the leather awl and have the wind from our forward air speed help push my hand toward where I was working. I could not really feel the Leatherman Tool, since I had lost feeling in my hands from the cold. I was getting VERY frustrated and angry, because I could not get the awl started into the linkage rod. Philip and Meg helped me focus and keep trying by constantly saying "You almost got it" and You can do it."

After several tries, I got the leather awl started. I wiggled it in as much as I could and at the same time I heard Philip say, "We are going to live!" I knew I barely had the point of the leather awl started into the linkage rod. I held as much inward force onto the Leatherman Tool as I could muster so it did not slip out. Philip descended now that he had collective control and we quickly landed on a scab flat near the Forest Boundary. I had to stay outside the helicopter to hold the tool in place through the entire descent to landing. He made a VERY soft and normal landing. Philip notified Ellen by radio that we had landed OK. Meg had glanced at her watch when the incident started and when we landed. The time from the start of the problem to landing was approximately 25 minutes.

After we collected our wits and assessed our location, we started figuring how we were going to get out. I had gotten my hands warmed up and quenched a great thirst by eating snow. We decided it was a long walk out and there was no road access due to snow depth. Philip had discovered the linkage bolt when we was inspecting the aircraft after we landed. It had fallen into the engine pan. He could not find the nut that went into the bolt. Philip put the bold back through the linkage (which he said was difficult to insert on the ground with the engine off). The bold had a hole in it for a safety wire. Meg mentioned that she had seen a safety pin in the first aid box. We thought that if we put the safety pin through the hole in the bolt, it should hold it in place, enabling us to fly the helicopter back to the fuel truck. Philip put the safety pin into the end of the bolt and instructed Meg to keep her eye on the pin. If the safety pin came out, Philip thought he could land the helicopter before the bolt came out. Philip started the helicopter again and we flew it back to the fuel truck without any further events. After Philip installed the proper lock nuts on the bolt, he and Meg flew the helicopter back to Prineville and I rode back in the fuel truck with Ellen.

I have some personal observations about this incident. First, it may seem easy to say I had a cavalier attitude toward the aviation policies in place with the Forest Service. To an extent, I did have some question about the need and legitimacy of several of our aviation policies. Also, there were other reasons why I did not follow our policies that day. I believe that many employees face the same situation I did regarding choices in flying in aircraft not approved for our use. I know I have faced making this choice many times during my career and most times I have not participated in the flights. I was faced with a choice of getting the job done, a real need by ODFW for me to help them and with fostering a cooperative attitude with another agency. I made the wrong choice, but at the time it seemed the correct one to me. Second, a team effort determined the outcome of this situation. All people involved retained a cool head and a positive attitude toward the eventual outcome. It would have been very difficult to accomplish my task if people inside the helicopter would not have been so cool and supportive. I also think that Philip must be an excellent pilot to maintain a stable aircraft through several difficult moments. The main reason I was able to stay on the aircraft for nearly 1/2 hour was because of the in-flight stability of the helicopter. There are no "heros" in this story, just people doing what was necessary to get the job of survival done given the circumstances. Lastly, I would like to comment on feelings in a situation like this. I can only offer my own feelings. I never felt the feeling of fear during the incident. I had some frustration and anger at not getting "the job done" quicker. I would like to think most people faced with a similar situation could react similarly. Mabye the adrenaline rush is what keeps fear from creeping in. Anyway, I hope no one faces something like this, but it is reassuring to know that the body can still function in a difficult situation like this.

1 comment:

  1. Wow... incredible story. Way to keep a level head.