The size and remoteness of Alaska’s North Slope remind you that you are at their mercy. That environment can humble the strongest.
When I stepped from the helicopter at our remote camp, all that had been familiar to me was replaced by the realization that, were it not for modern machinery, everything would be just as our ancestors found it a thousand years before. The environment had not changed, only the means of moving about had.
It was the late 1970s, and I found myself spending another summer looking for gravel deposits for pad construction and exploratory well drilling. We were only able to work in this mosquito-, caribou- and bear-infested landscape because of the helicopter — a Bell UH-1, or Huey, the same helicopter used as a gunship in Vietnam. We were totally dependent on the Huey for transportation, supplies and moving machinery.
Our pilot had served in Vietnam. This was both good and bad, because at times he would fly close to the ground as if on a strafing mission, and at other times maneuver about like we were avoiding enemy fire. Our pilot could do things that I’m sure not even Bell Helicopter thought was possible.
One morning at a site 15 minutes by air from camp, four of us (a drill operator, helper, pilot and myself) began our day as usual, drilling shallow test holes into the tundra. Each site took no more then an hour, and we would move to the next location. The Huey could safely lift 4,500 pounds. It was near capacity.
I was standing with the driller at the next site, as the drill was brought over, lowered and released. Then I was surprised to see the chopper do a hard drop of about 20 feet to the ground, 20 feet in front of me. Fortunately the tundra and underlying soft ground cushioned the landing.
The pilot had cut the engine. He opened the door to inform me that bells and red lights on the instrument panel indicated an immediate problem. We were done for the day.
It was noon and time for lunch, but because of mosquitoes it was best to hop in the chopper. But here was one problem: the driller’s helper was still nearly three football fields away, waiting for the chopper to pick him up. We had no way of letting him know what had happened. He was not able to hear me yelling to him. He naturally assumed that we decided it was lunchtime and left him there.
Finally he started our way — first walking, then running across the tundra as best he could while swatting at mosquitoes and getting angrier by the minute. After what may have been a record sprint across the tussocks, he arrived at the helicopter ready to tear the door off, while the three of us were all speaking at once to explain what had happened.
The mosquitoes were all about and they’d get worse as you walked across the tundra. They’d come up from the moist ground and surround you in a black cloud that I am sure could literally drive a person crazy without some type of protection.
We were able to radio our camp and they called for another helicopter. We were picked up and a mechanic was left behind to determine what had gone wrong. The next day, he told me that it was only a few stripped threads on some bolts and a lost nut. It just so happened that those bolts and nuts were used to fasten the rotor blades.
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