Cause of Death: Rank Stupidity

78

The OH58 was such a cool little aircraft. Nimble and light on the controls,
you more wore the machine than flew it.

What sort of legacy might we leave once we’re gone? Some folks become unduly fixated on that subject. Not meaning to seem ghoulish, but some of that is dependent upon the circumstances surrounding one’s demise. For me, I just hope it isn’t anything terribly stupid.

As a soldier, gun writer and professional adventurer, I have invested a lifetime exploring the diaphanous frontier that demarcates normal life from that Really Bright Light. But were it not for the intervention of one epically overworked guardian angel, I might have inadvertently tipped over the edge. One of the more compelling episodes occurred back in the nineties in the skies over Oklahoma.

I have been rightfully described as the luckiest man alive. I cannot take issue with that. God has indeed blessed me well beyond my deserving. One handy example was a certain remarkable period in my Army aviation career.

It was scout pilot nirvana. We had four OH58 aeroscout helicopters and but two rated 58 drivers. We were therefore tasked to fly off our flying hour program lest we lose it for the next fiscal year. That meant my buddy and I got keys and a gas card several days a week with the directive to go forth and transform JP8 jet fuel into noise. If you were paying taxes during that time, sincerely and from my heart, thank you.

Flying an OH58 single-pilot with the doors off is much like driving a high-performance three-dimensional motorcycle. To unleash a 24-year-old American male on such a machine is the chemical formula for mischief. Don’t tell anybody, but I once flew from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, without climbing above 100 feet.

I became a connoisseur of all the greasy spoons across Oklahoma. My perennial favorite was Big Bob’s Bar-B-Q in Ada. I could land at the local airport and grab lunch while my airplane was being refueled. An extra fifteen cents at checkout landed me a Blow Pop for the trip home. Once I got to altitude I’d start sucking on that rascal.

Charms Blow Pops are a great way to wash down a greasy lunch. One of them once nearly killed me in a helicopter.

Eventually I’d get sufficiently far along in the process to free the cardboard stick. This I discarded into the slipstream. It was biodegradable, so there was minimal guilt. The value-added portion of the timeless Charms Blow Pop is the chewing gum center. On this fateful day I was in the zone and living large.

I pulled my mike boom away from my lips far enough to accommodate and, without conscious thought, began to blow bubbles. As fate would have it perhaps ten minutes out from the Fort Sill restricted area the unthinkable happened. An unexpected gust of wind zipped in the open door and burst my bubble…all over my microphone.

Now understand this was a big deal. The OH58 won’t fly without two hands on the controls. Additionally, before I could get to the airfield I had to obtain clearance through range control. Fort Sill is the home of the Field Artillery. At all hours of the day and night the airspace above Fort Sill is simply alive with stuff that explodes. I only had so much gas remaining. This was not cool.

I tightened the friction lock down on the collective and pinched the cyclic stick between my knees. From an initial altitude of about three thousand feet I then started scraping madly at my mike boom in a frenetic effort to remove enough chewing gum to make the cursed thing work. As I did so, the aircraft would gradually attempt to roll inverted. When the attitude grew alarming I would seize the controls once again, stabilize the helicopter, and repeat my performance. Each time I subsequently called out to the range control guys I got no answer. I feared I was doomed.

Sometime after the first, “Unidentified aircraft approaching the restricted area, say intentions” radio call I finally got enough of the gooey stuff off to talk back. I then landed the aircraft uneventfully. However, I had gum in my hair, all over my Nomex gloves, plastered across the front of my flight helmet, and mashed into my eyebrows. When I went to the Central Issue Facility to swap out my gloves the following day I pre-emptively stated, “I really don’t want to talk about it.” The supply guys had mercy on me and didn’t press.

“Died in a fiery crash while scraping chewing gum off of his mike boom” would have looked pretty darn stupid engraved on a tombstone.

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Cause of Death: Rank Stupidity

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