I don’t like flying at night. I mean I really don’t like flying at night. Let me explain.
I fly a single-engine helicopter over some fairly inhospitable, densely wooded, sparsely populated terrain (central Alabama). If I had my druthers, I’d always fly up high, day or night, up around four or five-thousand feet. Up there, I’d be in radar contact and could talk to an ATC facility. That way, if anything went wrong I could at least alert someone and get help coming my way. Aviation radios rely on line-of-sight communication. Thus, when I'm down low I'm out of range of any air traffic control facilities. They'd probably not be able to "see" me on radar either.
But my boss doesn’t like to fly high in helicopters. I fully understand this; with no wings and not much structure around you, many people feel very naked and vulnerable at high altitude in a helicopter. The boss likes to fly down around 1,000 feet above the ground. It’s where he’s comfortable. And since it is his helicopter, and since he pays my salary, I comply with his wishes. I may not like it, but unless there is some compelling safety reason for flying up high, I stay down low.
Flying low is risky but not dangerous. (If it were dangerous I would not do it.) The risk comes from the possibility of having to make an emergency landing. A single-engine aircraft is always subject to a failure of the one-and-only powerplant. In a helicopter, when the engine quits you can make a perfectly controlled landing (it’s called “autorotation” and we practice these often). But the descent angle is steep. You don’t glide around, casually looking for a nice, open, level, unobstructed place to land. You land on whatever is immediately underneath you. You better hope it’s something suitable. During the day, we helicopter pilots always keep a sharp eye open for potential emergency landing sites. It's ingrained into us from our very first flight lesson. At night, it's a little more difficult.
An airplane pilot friend and I were talking about this. I mentioned my discomfort about flying a single-engine aircraft at night. He agreed. He told of a recent trip in his airplane in which he was coming back from Tennessee at night and was worried about the engine quitting. I asked how high he was flying? “Nine-thousand feet,” he replied. I said, “What?! From 9,000 feet you can glide fifteen miles in that airplane!!” He'd be in the air for over 10 minutes. That’s enough time to call for help, select a suitable nearby airport, and then eat a sandwich on the way down.
Truth be told, modern turbine engines like the one in my helicopter seldom quit. Keep ‘em supplied with fuel and oil, and they just keep on running. So while the possibility is always there, I'm not super-paranoid about the engine quitting.
However, in a helicopter there are a couple of other things that can cause you to want to be on the ground right now! There are driveshafts and couplings and gearboxes, that dang tail rotor, and various other mechanical bits…all of which must work perfectly in order to continue flight. Do such things fail often? Thankfully, no. But a helicopter is a complex piece of machinery that is designed, manufactured, assembled and maintained by humans. There’s plenty that can go wrong- we’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law. I’ve already had two complete tail rotor failures in helicopters. Both were when I was flying on offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were during the day, and both were caused by human error (mechanics leaving hardware loose).
So as they say, shit does happen.
As challenging as a mechanical failure would be during the day, it would be immeasurably more difficult at night. Despite the boss’s discomfort, I do fly higher at night – up around 2,500 feet. All this does is give me slightly more time to analyze and deal with whatever failure might occur. Seconds count. It doesn’t help in choosing a landing site; you cannot see anything on the ground at night. All I would do is head for a road (we follow well-traveled roads) and hope to find an open area at the last minute. I am under no delusion that it would be a nice, safe, pretty landing. It will most likely be a crash-landing. I’ve told this to the boss as plainly as I can. He’s okay with that risk, which he feels is not all that great.
Me, I’m not so sure anymore. I’m no kid. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t like taking unnecessary risks. I know, I know, you could say, “But Bob, you still ride motorcycles, and occasionally crash them!” which is true. Riding motorcycles is risky, I admit that. But so are a lot of things in life.
I’ve been flying long enough now that the risks of doing it at night in a single-engine helicopter are getting to me. I’m starting to feel that I just don’t want to be doing it anymore. We are done with football season, in which we do most of our night flying. With the upcoming hunting season, we’ll probably do very little flying at night. Then, as the days begin to get longer we won’t do any night flying at all again until summertime, and even then only sporadically.
So I’ve got a decision to make before we get into football season next year.