MY WORST NIGHTMARE
(A flight I do not care to repeat)
By B. J. Schramm
It was in late fall of 1976, if I remember correctly. We were finally in production on our Rotorway scratch built four-stroke engine, but our sales were sagging and something had to be done if the company were to stay in business. We already had a healthy ad program running, so the decision was made to put together a show we could take on the road. We envisioned renting a hotel meeting room which would seat 200-300 people. Once a month we would travel to a prearranged location near a major city where we could hold what we would come to call our Sight & Sound shows. We needed something new and different to attract as many folks as possible, so we hit on the idea of a cinerama movie presentation. We would build an 8' x 24' movie screen in three collapsible sections and set it up in the meeting room with the seating arranged in a semi-circle. We would create the film by using three super-8 mm movie cameras precisely positioned. This camera assembly would be mounted on the helicopter just behind the rotor shaft and low enough to show the top and side of the cabin with the whirling rotor still in view. All of this was eventually accomplished, however that’s another story. We needed to provide this information so the significance of this particular flight can be better understood.
We wanted this movie to be dramatic so we needed some dramatic locations to film. Some years earlier I had been north of Flagstaff, Arizona to a place on the Navaho Indian Reservation called the Grand Canyon of the Little Colorado. We decided this would be an excellent spot for some truly exciting video.
Just looking at the site made my stomach churn, but I figured if we could film it, it would come across just that way to the viewers. There were several reasons why this was a very scary place.
It was remote. By the time someone could hike in you could be dead from starvation.
It was high. In those days our equipment was marginal at sea level.
It was very narrow, very twisty and very deep. The rock walls looked like a giant earthquake had split them into a crevasse that was bottomless until your eyes focused enough so you could make it out. What was at the bottom was a boulder strewn, narrow stream bed, which at the time of our flight was frozen solid. A pretty poor place to autorotate down to, much less to walk out of. The scary part of this for me is that I’m claustrophobic and narrow deep dark places just make my skin crawl.
When I say this canyon was narrow, I mean that at several places there was only a few feet of rotor clearance. When I say it was deep, I mean it was 1000 ft. deep with the jagged rock walls straight up and down for several miles. Unless the sun was straight overhead the bottom of the canyon was eerily dark.
In the good old days of youth and foolishness we never thought about permits, so my assistant and I arrived at the site early on a very cold November morning, figuring no one would care since no one would see. There were almost no tourists at this time of year anyway. Did we have a backup plan in case worse came to worst? Didn’t I just say we didn’t have a permit.
We found a fairly wide spot along the rim of the canyon where we thought we would begin the film. The plan was to fly low over the sage brush and come over the lip of the southern side of the gorge, before pulling a hard 90N turn downward into it.
We planned to do a reconnaissance flight about 300 feet above the route of the canyon so we could determine whether there was room for the ship to fly between the walls for a significant distance. I also needed to find a spot which was convenient for me to climb out of this abyss.
As usual, we were towing the helicopter on a trailer. In those days we didn’t fly the ship off the trailer, so we had to find a big enough open spot in the sage brush and scrub oak from which to unload and fly out. We found a suitable spot and unloaded the ship and mounted the rotor blades. I distinctly remember that my hands were nearly frozen by the time we were ready for the recon run. Oddly enough, I was glad it was so cold, because it lowered the density altitude, and I knew I’d need all the power I could get.
It took a while to get the oil temperature to come up and while waiting I said a much longer prayer than normal. Soon there was nothing to do but swallow hard and pull pitch. Flying out over the top of that 1,000 ft. deep slit in solid rock just about unnerved me. The spot where we had chosen to enter the crevasse looked good, but it just got narrower and narrower and deeper the farther I followed it. I had to lose some altitude and fly almost at the top of the abyss in order to see if it was wide enough 500 ft. further down for me to fly through. It looked okay except in one spot where it made a sharp left turn, but I reasoned that the bank angle I would be in during the turn would effectively shorten the rotor diameter and as soon as I rolled out the canyon widened a bit for adequate clearance. I still needed to find a spot to climb out. My idea was to descend all the way to the bottom and then climb back up 1000 ft. out over the north face. My hope was that the cameras would be filming a granite wall getting ever closer and suddenly we would zip up and over the lip of the wall into bright sunlight. The problem was that I had only enough power to climb if I held the ship on a steady course. Maneuvering left and right robbed horsepower and I had absolutely none to spare, so I put this idea out of my mind.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, the canyon turned sharply to the right and opened to the widest I had seen so far. Not only was it wide but it was straight, for as I remember, almost a half mile and at the end was the rock wall I had hoped for. The canyon looked like it ended at that face. I knew it turned and went on, but when I got to that point I could see it was too narrow for me to fly further into anyway. I pulled up to 150 ft. or so and did a 180N turn and flew back to my take off point. I didn’t bother to look down into that black hole as I made my return. After I landed, I realized I was shivering uncontrollably and on the verge of losing my breakfast. My assistant and I got into our vehicle and I sort of got my courage back as I warmed up. The more we talked about the flight the more convinced we became that this film sequence would really get folks up on the edge of their seats.
The flight was doable and we had prayed for protection so we decided to go ahead. We loaded the cameras and fastened the camera mount to the ship and I proceeded to again warm up the engine. The sun was higher now and so were my spirits. I turned on the cameras and flew as low and fast as I could over the scrub oak to the drop off. It came so quickly it almost took my breath away and I lowered the collective and banked hard. The walls seemed to close in on me as I descended lower and lower and it got darker as well. Suddenly the canyon seemed to end and I almost panicked until I realized that coming up was my hard left turn. I was going too fast to do anything but continue, I was too far down and too close to the walls to do anything but follow my game plan. I banked hard left as the face got close and in a flash I was clear.
The walls got a little further apart so I descended almost to the bottom. When I reached the bottom I immediately began to climb back up and as I did so I came to the point where I needed to make a turn to the right. As I completed the turn I recognized the vertical wall about a half mile ahead. I was now at about 500 ft. and I decided to forget about the zipping out part and just continued my present climb up and over the wall. My heart was racing as I switched off the cameras. I was pretty sure I had gotten some great looking footage and couldn’t wait to preview it. Unfortunately these were the days before video, so all we could do was check the cameras to be sure that each one had filmed properly. To our dismay we found that one of the cameras did not turn on and we would have to re-run the flight.
My courage had been kind of based on doing this one time only. The knowledge that it had to be done a second time was tough to swallow. The good news was that the ship was performing better than I had expected and I had managed to survive the first run, so it probably wouldn’t be as scary the second time. Before taking off, we cycled the cameras several times to make sure they were all functioning properly. I took off with slightly more confidence and threaded my way down the canyon again. Since I had a little extra power, I’d decided to do the zip up over the ledge bit, so I stayed down at the bottom of the canyon longer than before. However, the closer I got to that 1,000 ft. high rock face, the more concerned I became. Had I begun my climb in time to clear the lip before I came to it, or not? I made sure I had full throttle and I slowed slightly to my best rate of climb speed. There was nothing to do but wait. Seconds seemed like minutes as I closed on the precipice, there was no room to turn around and of course I couldn’t slow up. I hadn’t realized how committed I would be to this maneuver when I began it. I decided this was pretty foolish, just to get a spectacular shot. The closer I got, the more concerned I became, but in the last 100 ft. I saw I was going to make it and I did. The ship cleared the lip with about 30 ft. to spare. As I cleared the ledge and came into the bright sunlight it seemed like I was zooming upwards like a homesick angel. I’ll never forget the feeling of relief that I had as I flew back to the trailer for the third and final time.
This time the cameras worked perfectly and this piece of film would turn out to be the most spectacular we ever took from then until now. When our audiences saw this on our cinerama wrap around screen, they couldn’t believe their eyes and we sold lots of machines we never would have otherwise.
Ahh...the good old days......! But we believe the best days are still to come, because Gods promises are true, He has said that “He will never leave us nor forsake us.” Hebrews 13:5