Sentimental Journey

by Steven H. Edwards

Not so long ago I took it upon myself to make a sentimental journey. I found myself standing on what was in 1967, take-off panel number one at the main Army heliport in Ft. Wolters, Texas. The last time I was in Ft. Wolters I had been a WOC, a Warrant Officer Candidate, sitting in a Hiller OH-23 hovering over that very take-off panel.

I stood on panel number one and slowly turned around, looking at the surroundings of 1994. I had forgotten the red rocky soil and the hills surrounding the heliport. What had been my barracks where I lay at night watching night flying activity was now a low-security inmate facility. What had been the control tower was now no more than a rusted skeleton sitting on the nearest hill to the north of the heliport. The building which had been our flight line classroom was now a small business in the middle of Wolters Industrial Park.

I closed my eyes and could imagine the excitement of the first sounds of helicopter blades beating the cool morning air, the smells of avgas and solvents, and the thrill of pressing the transmit button on the cyclic stick for the first time and saying, "Wolters tower, this is Army 54678, one on one," then hearing the tower operator tell me, "678 you are cleared for take-off." My take-offs would have me climb past the Army hospital with it’s ever-present UH-1 Huey Medivac helicopter that always seemed to be sitting on the landing pad in front. I always had an ominous feeling when it was missing immediately imagining it out on a mission to pick up an injured pilot.

My first flight instructor was Mr. Etzwiler, an ex-flying Navy Chief. He always told me a helicopter could do anything a bird could do, including a take-off after landing in a tree. The hours I spent sitting next to Mr. Etzwiler were the most exciting of my life up to that point. His patience was remarkable, and his voice always calm as he talked me though new or difficult maneuvers.

Each flight instructor was assigned three students with whom he would fly in the morning and three more for his afternoons. Today, I can no longer remember who the other two WOCs were who shared Mr. Etzwiler's mornings with me, only that one of them was already rated as a commercial pilot in fixed wing aircraft. The commercial pilot's goal was to get out of rotary wing training and into the Army's fixed wing program. It would take him a long time.

On the first day I flew, Mr. Etzwiler talked with us about the orientation flight we were about to have. I was almost jumping out of my chair with excitement when Mr. Etzwiler pointed at me, his indication that I would be his first student of the day.

Together we walked out across the flight line as Mr. Etzwiler warned me about the many dangers of walking near the moving parts of a helicopter. "Give the tail plenty of room. You may not see the tail rotor, but it's there and can take your head off." "Never try to reach up and stop the main rotor, regardless of how slow it is moving." "That drive shaft can catch loose clothing, be careful."

We climbed into the helicopter and Mr. Etzwiler began flipping switches and punching buttons. Soon the main rotor began to slowly turn and accelerate up to speed. His confident manner immediately put me at ease. Once we had taken off and turned north, each of the controls was demonstrated to me. The collective stick to my left was used to maintain altitude in a hover and the pitch on the blades during normal flight, the throttle was on the end of the collective and operated much like a motorcycle throttle except in the opposite direction. The cyclic between my knees controlled direction and speed when in flight. The pedals under my feet had little reason for existence in flight but would be critical in directional control while hovering. One at a time, Mr. Etzwiler turned over each control to me as we flew along a couple of thousand feet in the air.

"Take the collective in your left hand and use the throttle to keep the engine RPM at the same rate." "Use the cyclic to maintain this attitude. The speed will take care of itself." "Don't worry about the pedals, a turn is controlled by the cyclic." He was a great coach.

We dipped, wallowed and yawed out over central Texas pastures until I heard Mr. Etzwiler's voice though my helmet earphones, "I've got it. Sit back and relax." He immediately began to descend toward a nearby pasture. As we got closer, I noticed there were a number of automobile tires spread around the large pasture, each painted white. He brought the Hiller to a hover over one of the tires and told me to get on the controls with him. I could feel the pedals occasionally moving back and forth, the collective stick in my left hand gradually moving up and down, and the cyclic stick between my knees making very small movements in random directions.

We sat there, very still, as Mr. Etzwiler explained how each of the controls affected a hover. The pedals that I wasn't supposed to worry about in flight were now responsible for maintaining the direction in which we were pointed. The collective stick which had been used for altitude control was still keeping us in the air, but now only three feet off the ground. The cyclic was now used to maintain the helicopter over one particular spot instead of controlling our direction and speed. Seemed easy enough to me.

Mr. Etzwiler's voice popped into my ears again. "Take the collective stick and keep us three feet off the ground." He kept possession of the other controls and watched as I worked to maintain our altitude. After a couple of minutes he said, "You're doing good. All right, put your feet on the pedals and keep us pointed at that farm house." He pointed toward the horizon with his free left hand. I put my feet on the pedals and went to work keeping the white farm house centered in the bubble in front of me. "Don't forget to keep us at three feet," he reminded me. It was beginning to be a little bit of work now. I could feel my legs tensing and my left hand was perspiring in my flight gloves. A couple more minutes passed before I heard him now say, "I don't usually do this, but why don't you take the cyclic stick and see if you can keep us over this white tire?" My right hand took a death grip on the top of the cyclic. "I've got it," I said over the intercom.

I knew I was a genius at flight. All of the horror stories about learning to hover were now a myth. I knew that as long as I didn't move any of the controls I would be in complete control. A couple of seconds into my first hover Mr. Etzwiler came on the intercom and said, "How 'bout moving us back over the tire where you started." I glanced at him and saw him sitting next to me, his feet flat on the floor, his left hand in his lap and his right hand pointing out his door at the white tire that was now about ten feet away. I was in total control. A soft Texas breeze had caught us and was slowly moving us further away from the tire.

I thought over the situation and came to the conclusion that all I had to do was move the cyclic stick toward the tire and gradually move back into place. I moved the cyclic about three inches to the left. Not a big move, but it forever changed my life.

There was nothing gradual about the helicopter's reaction. The Hiller seemed to tip up on its left skid and moved quickly past the tire. "The tire's off to your right," Mr. Etzwiler was now pointing out the right side of the aircraft. I quickly shoved the cyclic back to the right and looked out the open right door. The tire was already racing back under the helicopter. Without being coached I swung the cyclic back to the left. The greater the distance from the tire, the greater my reaction with the cyclic stick. I heard my own voice echoing in my helmet, sounding more than a little rattled, "What do I do?" Mr. Etzwiler soothing voice tried to bring sanity to the insanity of the moment and told me to relax, and to make small movements. "You've got it. Small movements with the cyclic. Take it easy."

All genius of flight had left me. Now I was swinging the cyclic left, right, forward and back. It seemed to have a life of it's own. I was beginning to get frantic because it was all to apparent I was no longer in control of direction, attitude or altitude. We were all over the pasture and the sky. The great State of Texas was not big enough to hold my helicopter and me. I was almost yelling now, "Take it! Take it! We're going to hit the ground." Mr. Etzwiler calmly responded, "No, you've got it. Just relax. Quit making those big movements." Obviously he had gone quite mad to be sitting next to me so calmly, but I had to believe Mr. Etzwiler didn't want to die any more than I.

My final solution was to force his cooperation and I let go of all of the controls and put my feet flat on the floor. Mr. Etzwiler gently put his hands on the cyclic and the collective, put his feet on the anti-torque pedals. The helicopter immediately assumed a rock-solid stationary position, three feet over the white tire that had so far eluded me. Piece of cake!

We flew back to the heliport with Mr. Etzwiler continuing to explain theories of flight in a helicopter. Things were getting confusing to me, he was covering far too much material far too fast. "Retreating blade stall... autorotation... keep the needles married... blah-blah, blah-blah blah-blah..." I was lost and knew I would never learn to fly.

Mr. Etzwiler made a smooth approach to the heliport, hardly coming to a halt over the landing panel, taxied to the parking spot nearest our flight-line class building, hovered for a few seconds, then planted us on the ground and shut down the engine. He kept chattering senseless words through my earphones as we waited for the main rotor to slow to a stop. Occasionally through the babble of aviation terms I would hear words spoken in English, "Don't worry! You'll get it real fast. Like riding a bike. Once you learn how it always comes back." What comes back?

As we were hiking across the flight line toward the class, Mr. Etzwiler said, "You didn't do too bad today. I usually don't let Candidates try to hover until they've had a couple more hours, but with your fixed-wing experience I thought it was worth a try." It was my turn to add fear and uncertainty to the situation. I calmly kept walking as I said, "I'm not the one with a commercial license. Hell! Today was the first time I've ever tried flying anything more than a kite." I had taken five or six more steps before I realized Mr. Etzwiler was no longer beside me. I looked over my shoulder. There he stood, his flight helmet in his hand and his mouth wide open. It was my turn to smile.

Mr. Etzwiler went on to become a friend and mentor in a brief period of time. A few years later, when I found myself the flight instructor, I took great pride in trying to use the same calm voice to encourage students to work their way out of unusual situations. To me, he will be forever unforgettable.