Our Chopper's On Fire... What Again?

       4 min read

The first time it happened, I didn’t even know there was a problem. But why should I? I was a TV producer, not a helicopter pilot. There were no flames or anything like that to induce hair-on-fire panic. But something tipped the pilot off – maybe one of his gauges or perhaps he sniffed the smell of burning chopper. Whatever – one moment we were getting beauty shots, the next we were diving for the river bank. Being a little slow, my only thought was, “What the… he ruined our shot!” 

Chopper   chopper very low over river.jpg

We took a hard landing. The pilot yelled for us to get out and it was then we exploded in a tangle of arms, legs, seatbelts, feet, cameras, curses - rolling out the door to the safe, wet, ground below. But the pilot stayed with his ship until it was powered down. Fire be damned.

The day had started out routine… if your idea of routine is making a travel documentary with the Prime Minister of Jamaica. Ours was, and we had expected to shoot the PM taking a relaxed rafting trip down the Rio Grande.

starting shoot

This gently flowing river is the largest in Jamaica and takes river-goers through the parish of Portland past lush rainforest and waterfalls, delivering them to the appropriately named Rafter’s Rest at St. Margaret’s Bay.

Rio Grand River

The Rio Grande got its “Big River” name from the Spanish conquistadors who swaggered around these parts in the 15th century. But it was movie star Errol Flynn who really stirred things up on the river.

Errol Flynn

Inspired by the farmers from the Blue Mountains transporting their bananas on bamboo rafts, Flynn set up moonlit raft races to entertain his 1950’s Hollywood guests. From then on, river rafting the Rio Grande was a thing.

Touring Tips

Travel Hint: If you really want to get to see a place, tell that government you’re producing a travel documentary. They’ll provide all sorts of transportation for you. (Of course, you may need to show up with a 30-person crew to prove you’re legit). The good people of Jamaica gave us boats, vans, helicopters and even rafts. We sailed Montego Bay with the Prime Minister, flew to Negril for the sunsets and visited the Marley Family’s One Love Studio in Kingston.

a flotilla

On this day, our production was going down the big river with the Prime Minister. We were a flotilla of bamboo - cameras spread out on several of these floating platforms. To make things more fun we threw a camera into a helicopter, courtesy of our friends at the Jamaican Defense Force Air Wing.

The JDF

The pilots and airmen of the JDF were a well-trained and gutsy squadron. They had flown us through mountain passes and skimmed the ocean, “Miami Vice” style, so we could get our shots. They had shown us uncommon generosity. Here’s an obvious, but not always easy transportation hack: If you want to really get around fast on an island that doesn’t have a lot of roads - take a helicopter!

So there we were, skimming over the Prime Minister’s flotilla on the Rio Grande one beautiful morning… doing our video runs up and down that sparkling river. Our pilot knew his Bell 407 intimately. We weren’t just hugging the landscape; this guy was flying under high power lines that crisscrossed the river.

Chopper near wires

As we approached those wires, I fixated on their 24,000 volts, willing us to clear… as if I had any say. But our pilot was the “Tommy” of the JDF, pinballing his way through this jungle corridor – he didn’t need no buzzers or bells.

Lift

Can we take a quick moment to talk about the brilliance of helicopters? It’s been said that if God wanted man to fly he would have given him wings. I suppose he would have done the same for bricks. Because that’s essentially what helicopters are – flying bricks. There really isn’t much about them that’s aerodynamically sane.

But every day, 50,000 helicopters go to work all over the world, adding to our adventure, our economies and our protection. Not to mention traffic reports. But there are a lot of delicate parts to these whirlybirds. Your chopper can hover in place and even fly sideways, but take your eye off the situation and it can suddenly crumple like a wounded bird. 

up in the clouds

For instance, a few days before, the squadron had taken us over a big mountain pass. We hovered a thousand feet up, suspended over a giant bowl of a canyon. We opened the doors to shoot. As we hung there, an unexpected gust rushed up from the valley below, knocking us about. The pilot tried to hold the ship steady so we could get our shots.  

Then a massive updraft walloped us, rocking the craft, ripping up the seat cushions and sending them flying out the doors. To the inexperienced this was an almost comic surprise. But to our aircrew, it was a lethal situation.

Crewman looking out

One of the crew jumped to a doorway to make sure the airborne cushions didn’t hit or get hung up on the chopper’s rear rotor – something that could have sent us spinning out of control. Fortunately, they sailed clear of the rotor. In just moments, some lucky canyon dweller below would be receiving a matching set of cushions courtesy of the JDF.
You’re welcome.

Back to the Jungle

Shooting the river

So we were doing our job, skimming the river, photographing the Prime Minister on his raft - successfully avoiding lethal transmission lines. We completed a few passes and all was well. My body was telling me it must be close to lunchtime.

chopper over head.jpg

There isn’t much that can make me forget about lunch… but that next instant did. The pilot suddenly threw us into a dive and pushed his stick hard. The G-forces twisted us and the ground rushed up.

We were heading for a fast landing. At least I hoped it was a landing.

Chopper on Fire

We hit hard on the riverbank. 

“Everybody out! Fire!”, he commanded. Well that settled it.

I fumbled with my harness. I could hear everyone around fighting with their hardware. And then it was an explosion of bodies leaping to the relative safety of the river bank. We ducked the still spinning rotor blades to get some distance… like they do in the movies. 

choppers in field

It was then I looked back to see the pilot still in his seat, yanking on the overhead rotor brake, shutting down the aircraft. This was his responsibility, fire or no.

Only after it was powered down did the pilot jump from his craft. Well, that took guts.

I didn’t see smoke so whatever burned might have extinguished. But the pilot flipped open the engine compartment and looked for… I don’t know - charred helicopter engine stuff? Whatever - these machines are a deep mystery.

All I was certain of… we were done getting aerial shots today.

The crew pulled up

The fleet of rafts now caught up, floating to meet us at the shore. Upon learning about our emergency fall from the sky, the crew and Prime Minster were relieved we were safe. And so we made an executive decision… lunch. 

Apres Lunch

Thus “grounded”… on a river no less, I got to experience the easy, floating life that entranced Errol Flynn and his guests. Our pole man guided the bamboo raft past loud waterfalls and over the river’s steady current.

Our poleman

I love gliding down rivers. Perhaps because there is nothing to do but glide down the river. You are captive and must stow all your nonsense away, ceding your time and awareness to the big river and its big attitude. I mean, next to an ancient river, what are your plans?

See, that’s the kind of stuff you think about floating down the river. It always relaxes me.

I could have done this for a long while but we soon ended our trip in Margaret’s Bay. Just another death defying day in Jamaica’s heartland.

Our chopper flew off

Overhead, I watched our chopper fly back to base. Maybe it was a false alarm. Helicopters… can’t live with them – especially if they explode. 

 

The “Again” Part

Ready to go up again

A few days later, we were wrapping up our Jamaica shoot. Waiting for us on the side of a road, like a van for hire, was another JDF chopper. It would take us back to Kingston, and from there, flights home. No shooting or fancy stuff – we were just pushing the ball forward at journey’s end. So we jumped in and took off.

But dang, just 30 feet up, the pilot (a different pilot) noticed something amiss. And now we were quickly descending once again. He yelled, “Fire! Out and away!”

Was this lightening striking twice? And how much luck did I have left? Enough to get me to the ground?

The cameraman was ready to book even before we touched down and was helpfully unhooking me. Once again, the two of us flew out the door and away from the craft. And again, the pilot stayed with his craft.

I really admired these guys. I’m not sure I would die for my job.

“Yes, he stayed with his travel documentary… and then he burst into flames…”.

Again, the craft was successfully powered down. Everyone was safe. No explosions or anything like that. Nothing to be done until help arrived.

But then I did see some flames… coming from a bar-b-que pit at a nice little jerk chicken shack across the road.

Jerk chicken shack

Another executive decision. I wasn’t gonna mess anymore with the gods of fire, fate, choppers or roadkill. I stopped and looked carefully both ways before crossing that highway.

Then I hopped across and grabbed a perfect lunch of seared chicken and rice. See, I do like fire… in the right time and place. And especially when it’s someone else that’s been charbroiled.

Bon Appetit! 

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