Helicopters. It is about time I discussed them. I cracked my helicopter virginity in the Kimberley. There is something quite exhilarating about these fragile-looking machines. When the side doors are removed and you are skimming along some twenty metres above the tree line, the breeze blows across your face and you are king of the landscape. Even in the cooler dry season, the air is warm and pleasant as it funnels past. As you are hurtling back to your campsite for a well-earned meal and the sun is dropping, casting a soft liquid light across the faded green trees and giving the outcropping of the Drysdale River escarpment an orange and purple glow, it is difficult to think of a better place to be.
This is all very well, but when I grabbed a lift back to Kununurra to catch a bus to Alice Springs I found at what it’s like to be in a small helicopter being buffeted by powerful winds at 9000 feet. This is an altogether different experience. Thankfully, my pilot (I’ll call him Dave) had re-attached the doors for this flight.
As I clutched the seat and tried take in the magnificence of the Cockburn Ranges and Pentecost River, Dave motioned for me to put on my headphones. My nervousness was undoubtedly obvious; I presumed he was going to put me at my ease. And look, I’m sure that’s what he intended. Our conversation went something like this.
‘Hey Pete, you’re looking a bit nervous’
‘You can tell can you?’ I would probably have grimaced at him.
‘Not half, but you should know that we’re safer up here than we would be flying just above the trees.’
‘Is that right?’ I know I did not sound convinced.
‘I’m serious. If anything goes wrong down there we’d be crashing into trees in a second. Up here, we might drop like a stone for a while, but we’d auto-rotate and probably land safely.’
‘Well, there are no certainties, but I’m pretty sure we would.’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’
‘I could demonstrate if you like. I’ve had to do it a number of times.’
‘Exactly how many?’
‘Oh, a few.’
‘Well don’t feel you have show me…I’ll take your word for it. No really, I will!’
He laughed at my last response. Bastard! Anyhow, we made it to Kununurra and I stayed overnight before catching a bus south.
It proved to be an eventful evening. I met Byrne, the owner of Ellenbrae Station. We had a few beers, and a few more, and a few more after that. I got to know the locals quite well in a short time. I crawled back to the motel. The next morning I was up at 5:30am and on the bus by 6:30. I didn’t feel at all well, but at least the bus was air-conditioned! It was another fifteen hours to Alice Springs.
Now, back to helicopters. There are two types of helicopter pilot. The first one, lets say his name is Simon, is a trained professional. He maintains his machine with care and flies conservatively. When you point out your next sample site to him, he does a few circles, decides the where the best landing site is, and puts you down within a hundred metres. You know he has radioed back to base and people know where you are.
The second type of pilot is also a trained professional but probably has post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in combat. We’ll call him Wierdo (these pilots all have disturbing one-word nicknames like Mental, Gorilla, or my favourite, Psycho!). He has a slightly different approach. Once you point out the sample site, he will yell, ‘Geronimo!’ fling the tail rotor out quickly in both directions to lose speed, and then drop like a stone into a clearing that he’s fairly sure is big enough for his helicopter.
He may take a few small branches with him on the way down. Wierdo is also occasionally forgetful, and when you point out the flashing red light on his control panel, is liable to say, ‘Fuck! Looks like we’re out of fuel mate. Don’t worry, we’ll auto-rotate down if we run out before we get home. I’m pretty sure I told the office where I was going today.’ He is easily spotted at the mining camp by his constant nervousness, borderline alcoholism and propensity to talk about
I was blessed with both types of pilot.
Oh how I looked forward to another Wierdo or Psycho when it was time to go out stream sediment sampling once again. Surprisingly enough, it was the ‘Simon’ style of pilot that produced most of my dramas.
One day I was out sampling with Geoff, and we had just been dropped off for our first sample of the day. It was about 8:00am and when watched the chopper leave. It took us half an hour to locate a suitable trap site for heavy minerals where picro-ilmenites (indicator minerals for diamonds), or even diamonds, may drop out of the river during times of flow. The half hour was usually because after we had identified the site, the endless circling of the pilot had severely disorientated us and we were no longer sure which way the now dry stream would flow. You can’t easily find trap sites if you don’t know this.
About forty-five minutes after we had been dropped off we had sieved a forty-kilogram sample and were waiting in the shade to be picked up and taken to our next site. At nine-thirty we made jokes about being forgotten. At mid-day we began to get seriously worried about whether the helicopter had crashed and we would be left out here for days. We had maps, but it would be a long walk back to camp, a very long walk (we’re talking a couple of days or so) over extremely tough terrain. After visiting a nearby gorge to escape the heat for a while, where we dipped our toes in some soothingly cool water, re-filled our water-bottles, and startled some freshwater crocodiles, we went back to our improvised landing site (clearly marked with pink flagging tape) and thought seriously about getting ready to stay here overnight. In the bright side, it was a very beautiful and peaceful place.
Thankfully, a helicopter did come to pick us up. It was a Wierdo behind the controls. How exciting! We went off to pick up Tony and Joe, via a plummet and grab stop, and made it back to camp before dark.
Now, seriously, despite my somewhat flippant description of the pilots, not one of them ever put me in any danger. They did leave my stomach behind a few times and make remember my slight fear of flying, but the feeling that comes with travelling in a helicopter is addictive and I would do it again without hesitation. In fact I already have in my current job.