Well, it is called "Helicopter Pilot"...
One "feature" of the Bell 206 helicopter is that it’s got this huge “bubble” windshield and no way to get heated air to it. This can be a problem. There are two little fans up in the nose that take fresh air from the outside and direct it onto the inside of the bubble, but they are ineffective at defogging. There are aftermarket kits you can install that divert air from the main heater ducts and route it to a tube along the base of the windscreen. The air arrives as a little puff from a series of microscopic holes. Trouble is, by the time it gets there most of the heat has been lost. And the volume is not great in any event.
Bottom line: Bell 206’s have sucky defoggers. Hey, what can you do; it’s been a problem with this particular helicopter for over forty years.
A coincidentally unfortunate characteristic of the 206 is its propensity to fog the inside of said huge bubble windscreen. If the ship is left outdoors and there is any amount of humidity in the air, the outside of the bubble will become opaque with moisture. If you make the newbie mistake of wiping or hosing it off, the inside of the bubble will fog instantly and solidly for reasons I do not understand. You can wipe it off before starting up, but condensation from the breath of the pilot and passengers will ensure that it is completely fogged-over again before you can say, “Dammit to hell...”
Experienced 206 pilots keep big towels with them on rainy/wet/high-humidity days. It’s fun to try to keep the windscreen clear, especially on takeoff.
We were up at the hunting camp this past week. The Boss had guests, as he does every week during the season. I was doing what I do best: hanging around, twiddling my thumbs and doing nothing...well, actually I was performing “medevac standby.” Our ship does not have the ability to carry a stretcher. Nevertheless, if one of the hunters should – God forbid – get hurt, I could airlift him out to a trauma center in Montgomery, Alabama and be there inside of a half-hour. The alternative is a long ride up a dirt road to the main road, then a twenty minute ride up to whatever general hospital they have in Selma.
On Wednesday, one of the Boss’s major clients decided to stop by for supper. They landed their corporate King Air 350 at the Selma airport. I flew over and picked up Jim the CEO and his pilot Jeremy, both of whom I knew. They could not stay overnight, so the plan was for me to fly them back to their plane after their short visit.
Around nine p.m. we went to the helicopter. Sure enough, the bubble was covered with dew. I checked and thankfully the moisture was all on the outside. However, I resisted the urge to hose it off. Jeremy and I left our doors open as I fired up, just to help keep the inside from fogging. We could not see anything out of the windshield as I began my liftoff to a hover. Jeremy was looking at me kind of funny, but didn’t say anything.
Taking off from our little hole-in-the-woods at night is tricky. Aside from our settlement at the end of the road, there are few lights, and it’s very easy to get spatial disorientation…vertigo, if you’re not extremely careful. The helicopter has no inherent stability or sense of up/down/left/right. It relies solely on me being able to determine those things. And buddy, while you might think it’s an easy thing to do, it is not. Not when you have no discernable horizon and the motions of flight mess with the feeling of gravity.
So what I do is, I stack the deck in my favor. Our inviolate policy is that we will not takeoff from or land at the camp if the night is overcast, period. Also, I’ve developed some techniques that work and keep me safe.
I position the helicopter so that all of the houses (there are about 20 plus our big, well-lit open-air barn) and various other lights in the camp are on my side. Then I circle over those available lights, keeping them in sight and using them as a reference as I gain altitude. The alternative, taking off and just blasting straight ahead would put me out over the darkest of dark places. I’d be struggling to see something and find some visual references as I wrestled with the helicopter, trying to keep it upright. It would not be fun. (No, we do not have an autopilot, although I sometimes wish we did. Or night-vision goggles.)
Once I circle up to 500 feet or so, I can usually pick out the glow of lights from other nearby towns. When I’m confident that I have enough visual references to safely continue, I do. (If not, I would merely spiral back down and land. Hasn’t happened yet because we simply do not try this on “bad-weather nights.”)
The current thinking about the start of an “off-airport” takeoff is to go up vertically until you are sure that you are above all of the surrounding obstacles – in my case, trees. Only then do you transition to forward flight. And that’s exactly what I did.
We were way under our maximum allowable weight, so the helicopter climbed smartly straight up in the cool night air with power to spare. I couldn’t see anything out the windshield, but there was nothing to see out there anyway. There was plenty to see out my side window though. I could tell that Jeremy was apprehensive; there wasn’t anything to see out of his window, so he thought this idiot helicopter pilot was just taking off in the blind with foggy windows.
Once I knew I was above the trees I gently eased into forward flight, still climbing as I circled around the settlement, which was very well lit up at that hour. Almost immediately, the moisture streaked off the bubble. And voilà! we could see again. And it was a beautiful, clear, smooth night with nearly a full moon and visibility that was awesome. Flying at night really is magical. It’s amazing how bright things are when the moon is out – almost like daytime. (But my takeoff technique is the same whether it is or isn’t.)
I had explained to Jeremy what we were doing as it was happening. Even so, as we homed in on Selma he shook his head in disbelief or amazement, one or the other. It must have seemed horribly unsafe to him, and he probably thinks I’m a humongous lunatic. They sure don’t fly their big twin-engine turboprop that way.
I know that what I do in the helicopter might appear to be risky. And it is. But it is not intrinsically unsafe – if it was I wouldn’t do it. Still, I’m not sure Jeremy would willingly trade jobs with me. And you know, I honestly wouldn’t want to trade jobs with him. Such is the difference between flying helicopters out in the bush (which is really what I do) and the rest of conventional corporate aviation.
Each of our little corners of the industry has its attractions. Along with cropdusting...excuse me, "aerial application," bopping around in a basic, unsophisticated helicopter from site to site is about the last of the out-on-your-own, middle-of-nowhere, seat-of-the-pants flying jobs left down here in the "Lower 48." Hell, most days I get to fly in jeans and a leather jacket.
And I like it.
...I just wish the Bell 206 had a better defogger.