Living to Fly

Sometimes, falling off a roof prompts earnest reflection about life, service and helicopters.

I recently fell off my barn roof. I fell 13 feet, missing a wheelbarrow by four feet. I compression-fractured two vertebrae and broke two ribs.

The truth is, it could have been much worse; I could have been killed or paralyzed. The only reason I didn’t suffer brain damage was because my head was so far up my tailpipe that it was well-cushioned when I landed. Several of my helicopter buddies have reminded me that autorotation from 13 feet is difficult, especially without a rotor system.

Many years ago, when I was flying for Los Angeles County Fire Department, we were summoned to the scene of a motorcycle accident. It seemed this 17-year-old dirt bike rider – as 17-year-olds are inclined to do – ignored all the “stop” and “danger” signs and continued up a slight hill until he came to a 186-foot cliff. He was unable to stop before going over the edge. The hill was made from loose sandstone and as the rider fell, he was funneled into two separate hour-glass shaped formations. At the bottom hour-glass funnel, his motorcycle was jammed into place and he landed on top of the bike.

When we first arrived overhead, my senior paramedic, Frank Morsec, looked out and announced that the appropriate action was to call Doctor Noguchi, a famous coroner in Los Angeles. But since we were here, we might as well land and confirm that the kid was no longer among the breathing. (Also to check out the bike and see if it was worth salvaging. We did have our priorities, after all.)

After we landed, to our shock and amazement, the other paramedic on board informed us that the kid was still alive. Since we couldn’t get him down from on top of the bike, we elected to perform a hoist mission. While the aircraft was level with where he had left the ground above, the hoist’s cable payout meter told us exactly how far the rider had fallen: 186 feet.

Once we had the patient on board, we departed for Henry Mayo Hospital, about 15 minutes away. En route, Morsec made the call to the hospital, informed them of our ETA and got orders for medical attention for our patient. After a few moments of reflection, Morsec asked me if I knew what the most disturbing part of this run was. I thought of a few, but let him continue. Morsec then informed me that as the kid fell, his whole life flashed in front of him – but he was only 17 years old, so halfway down he had to watch reruns.

Thank God I’m old enough that a 13-foot fall doesn’t cover my whole life, but as I fell, I did have time to consider what a blessed life that I have led. Very near the top of my list of blessings was my choice to become a helicopter pilot. I thought I wanted to be a fighter pilot for the Navy. The threat of the draft and a lack of a four-year degree saw me enter the Army instead. Surely my whopping 80 hours of fixed-wing training would put me in the Army’s fixed-wing program!

Not so fast, grasshopper. Once I was in helicopter flight training, any thoughts of fixed-wing were as gone as sunlight at midnight. My life became filled with the joys of learning to hover and to do a 90-degree hovering turn correctly. A year in Vietnam and entry into the commercial market saw my fulfillment become more mission-oriented. Now, in addition to still taking great joy in being able to properly sit a helicopter on the ground in a landing not an arrival, I had mission goals that brought satisfaction when attained and self-reflection when they weren’t. My ER nurse wife worked every New Year’s Eve for many years, facilitating my personal tradition of sitting by myself that day and reflecting on what good my flying had done for others during the year.

I just read an article about helicopter pilots leaving the armed services and being recruited to fly for the airlines. What can I say? I can’t think of anything that I would have rather done with my life besides fly helicopters for a living. By the way, the 17-year-old on the bike recovered to live a normal, heathy life. How does that compare to: “On behalf of the crew, I would like to be the first to welcome you to Los Angeles. Thank you for flying United!”

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