Life Inside the Dead Man’s Curve – The Chronicles of a Public Safety Helicopter Pilot by Kevin McDonald
Excerpt from the Book – #5:
It was like trying to pick my way through a maze—only I was doing it in a helicopter, flying at 130 knots, barely 50 feet above the rugged Texas Hill Country landscape. The clouds were getting lower and lower, and every canyon into which we flew became a dead end.
We were desperately trying to reach the Lampasas River, where two men had driven their truck onto a flooded bridge and were now trapped in the rising water. The weather was deteriorating rapidly, and I had already considered aborting the mission several times during the flight from our home base in Austin. As I was hugging the deck, trying to find a way to reach our GPS coordinates and stay below the clouds, the surrounding hills were completely obscured.
Central Texas is notorious for flash floods, and over the years, my crew and I had rescued dozens of people from similar situations. I had been a STAR Flight pilot for two decades, and I had long ago learned that lousy weather was just part of the drill on rescue missions. Getting there was often the most difficult challenge.
We were definitely taking a circuitous route. Time after time, I saw an opportunity to turn toward our destination, only to be thwarted by the rising terrain in front of us. What looked like a clear path to the place where the men were trapped was repeatedly terminated in frustration at the end of a box canyon or a wall of dark clouds dipping all the way to the ground. It was looking like we would have to give up and turn around. Twenty minutes into the flight and forty miles from Austin, I wasn’t sure we could even make it back home.
I was almost ready to call it quits and land when—out of nowhere—the river suddenly appeared below us. Although we were still more than twenty miles from the flooded bridge, I knew we might be able to follow the river and stay beneath the base of the black clouds.
Skimming only a few feet above the surface of the river, my biggest concern now was power lines. The visibility was so bad that it would be almost impossible to see them unless I spotted the towers from which they were suspended. Instead of concentrating my search straight ahead, I scanned back and forth to either side of the river, which was about as far as I could see in the poor weather conditions. Several times, my crew and I saw towers on one side of the river, but only once did the wires actually cross our path. I slowed our airspeed and cautiously flew between the towers. We never actually saw the power lines, but we knew they were directly over us, concealed by the low-hanging clouds.
Finally, we rounded a bend in the river and spotted the bridge where the two men were trapped in the middle of the rapidly rising river. There was a crew of emergency personnel at one end of the bridge, but they had no way to reach the men, who had taken refuge in the bed of their pickup.
My crew chief quickly helped our rescuer rig himself to the hoist cable. As I rolled onto my final approach to the truck, he moved the rescuer outside the aircraft. With the help of my crew chief’s verbal commands, I maneuvered the helicopter into position while he lowered the rescuer to the flooded bridge. In only a few minutes, the first of the two men was hoisted from the back of the truck and into the helicopter. Moments later, we successfully hoisted the second man to safety as well. Shortly thereafter, their truck was swept from the bridge and carried downriver in the flood.
The men were fortunate my crew and I hadn’t surrendered to the weather and aborted the flight. Neither of the two knew how to swim—even if they had, their chances of survival would have been slim in the raging river.