on Not Dying

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Wires and helicopters do not get along. Wires tend to tear rotors off, and lacking a rotor, helicopters tend to do impressions of falling rocks. As a pilot, you have the shit scared out of you regularly by instructor pilots about the myriad ways you can perish in your chosen profession. Flying from El Paso to Houston to drop helicopters off at a port to be shipped to the Middle East, my helicopter had a snafu. As we began to lift off to fly as part of a formation to our final destination, an Engine Chip Detector light came on. Our Pilot-In-Command, Mr. Tim Tarleton, laid out a string of vulgarities through my headset and set the helicopter back down on the ground. You see, an Engine Chip light required the pilot to land As Soon As Practicable, and being a good PIC that he was, Tim set it back down right where we were.

Our IP, Wild Bill Oates, landed his helicopter as well when he saw us put down and the rest of the formation departed. As a former crew chief, I did the maintenance and Bill, as a former Test Pilot, signed off on my repairs (which consisted of removing the detector and wiping it clean). By the time all of this transpired, dusk had moved in to humid Houston Town and we set off, just the two of us, into the sunset to find the port of Houston.

I was not expecting to fly into the port on this evening, but for some reason, Tim handed off the controls to me to fly the Army OH-58 into the port. I followed our IP’s helicopter into the quickly darkening night sky and watched as he took a 45 degree angle from our flying altitude down into the large parking lot where our formation had already landed. I turned left and began my own 45 degree descent with my eye on an imaginary X on the ground where I’d put down. What I didn’t see were the power lines draped across my path. I saw them as I did my visual scan, which we were trained to do during night time flight because we are legally blind at night and suffer immediate loss of peripheral vision and depth perception. I did a double take as I saw my skid tubes clear the wires by mere inches as I descended into the night. Had I been just a tad lower on my descent, I would have caught the power lines with the skid tubes of the Army version of the Bell Jet Ranger and we would have likely flipped over nose first, which makes for all kinds of messy aerodynamic issues that end up in smashed bits and pieces on the ground.

So I didn’t die that night, but I would find out on the bus ride home that Stevie Ray Vaughn had died, in a helicopter crash. It was hard not to feel one’s place in the interconnected Universe that night, and wonder why I was alive sitting on a bus, when I had been literally inches from a death of my own making, and Stevie was dead when all his pilot had to do was say No; the weather is too bad for us to take off.

Every time I listen to SRV, as I am right now, I think about that night and how I looked out the window of my OH-58 and saw the cause of my demise that didn’t come to pass. I think about all of the nights since that night that I got to live and Stevie Ray didn’t, and I wonder why. It took me over two decades to figure out why: no reason at all.

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