(Illustration by Lynn Johnston)

(Illustration by Lynn Johnston)

Guitarist in the North: Helicopters, Perspective, and Tales of Derring Do

Paul Lucas

Special to the News

Editor’s Note: This column is an excerpt from Paul Lucas’ new book, A Guitar Player on the Yukon Border. Lucas has lived in Atlin since 1979 and his book focuses on the people and the adventures of the North. This chapter is part of a 10-part series to run in the Yukon News every Wednesday this summer.

“Yep. I think this was the spot.”

“What spot Howie?” I shouted into the mic.

“The place I had to put her down,” he replied in my headset.

“Put down what, an old dog, a lame horse, a cheating wife … what?”

“The aircraft Luke, the aircraft.”

Howard was my only pal who had settled on that nickname from my early band days. He was from the prairies. Maybe it’s a prairie thing.

“What happened?” I replied.

“Well, my engine alarm went off, and when that happens you just have to shut ‘er down.”

“Shut the engine down?”

“Yep.”

“Then what?”

“Well, the helicopter becomes a glider, the main rotor still rotates and it gives you lift. You don’t have the luxury of too much time though, so you need to start looking for a landing spot pretty quick.”

“And how, pray tell, do you land?”

“Oh, you just flare ’er up and dump it like a duck landing on the water.”

“Yow!”

“It’s not a big deal. You practice it when you are getting your helicopter rating … boy, this is a nasty altitude! Our airspeed is 110 miles an hour and our groundspeed is minus something or other … we’re actually flying backwards. I am going to try to find us some better air.”

*

We had been out much of the day, delivering drilling pipe and supplies to drill platforms in and around Tombstones — one of the more breath-taking ranges in the Yukon. While I had done plenty of flying since arriving in the North, this was the headiest of all.

I was playing in Dawson City – home of the gold rush of 1898. The place hums with history. It’s Atlin on steroids. I’d played here several times at the Dawson City Music Festival, based in the early days at Gertie’s, the famous gambling saloon. This time around, I was playing a gig at the Downtown Hotel and, fortunately for me, my pal Howard Damron was down the road flying a Hughes 500 for a mineral exploration company. The upshot was, I got to play at night and fly with Howard during the day.

It was not for the faint of heart, though. This was balls to the wall flying – flying with slings loaded with drilling pipe and supplies destined for platforms perched high on mountainsides.

There is nothing quite like sitting beside a helicopter pilot at work — watching him plant a skid on a steep slope, in a high wind, while he maneuvers a sling over a drilling platform, is like watching ballet. Every limb is working – on the cyclic, collective and rudders — a juggler, keeping all the balls in the air. Then, when you think he can’t handle one more thing, he reaches for the sling release, lets the payload go and you shoot straight up. Great stuff!

There is a well known saying: ‘Flying is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.’ Well, I can’t say I have ever been bored in a small aircraft, but there are long periods of straight and level flight where it’s easy to just gaze at the landscape and let your mind wander. It also seems to be the time when the flying stories surface.

The Tombstone range is a rugged mountain range in the Yukon that features a series of spectacular peaks separated by sweeping valleys. Flying down these valleys is like flying in heaven. On one of these trips, I found myself looking closely at a patch of what I knew to be tiny spruces growing on the valley floor. Turning to Howard, I said:

“Take a look at those trees Howie. They are absolutely perfect miniatures of full size spruces. How can you get any sense of perspective from the air when you are looking at something like that?”

“Without aids you can’t,” he replied. “There are lots of ways to sort it out though, one of which, believe it or not, is to drop something out of the window and watch it fall. But if you want to hear a hair-raising tale about perspective, I’ve got a good one for ya …

“Last year we had a camp in a valley that serviced several drilling platforms way up on either side.”

A typical setup for an exploration camp is to have the base, with wall tents, cook shack, geology shack and so on, in a central location, and the various other activities, such as prospecting, mapping and drilling taking place in the hundreds of square miles surrounding it. The drilling locations are often up on the sides of mountains and are serviced from camps on the valley floor. At least one building, often the cook shack, is covered with an orange tarp, serving as a beacon for aircraft.

Howard continued ….

“I had just delivered a sling to a drilling platform way up on B mountain, and it had socked in by the time I was done. It happens all the time, so you’d better have an alternate route for your return. In this case, I knew there was a deep gulley a quarter mile to the north that I could use to guide me down to the valley floor. All you need to do in a situation like that is hover, and gradually sink down the incline, keeping an eye on the bottom and sides.”

“That sounds pretty hairy,” I said.

“Well you have to pay attention, but it’s no big deal.

“Anyway, this particular afternoon I was doing just that – gradually dropping through this gulley when, about half way down, I noticed a camp of some sort – a few tents, a stack of lumber and an orange tarped cook shack. I had no idea there was something going on half way up the mountain, but there it was.

“Back at home base, I asked around, but nobody seemed to know anything about a worksite half way up the gulley. I was puzzled, so the next day I figured I would come back down the same way and check it out.

“There was no wind and the visibility was great as I retraced my route from the day before. I kept my eyes skinned for the tell-tale orange tarp. Right about half way, I stopped and scanned for any sign of life. There was nothing. The whole thing was mighty peculiar.

“I decided to drop down to get a closer look, and I took the helicopter as close to the ground as I considered safe, and scanned again. Nothing. Was I going mad?

“I was just about to pack it in, when I suddenly caught a glint of orange. I carefully descended until I felt as if my main rotor was about to brush the sides of the gulley. Then I saw what had caught my eye minutes before, and the adrenaline made my hair on my neck stand straight up.

“There just below the skid was an orange lunch pail – a stupid orange lunch pail. I had somehow mistaken an orange lunch pail for a full size, tarp-covered cookshack; sandwich wrappings for a row of tents and bundle of twigs for a stack of lumber. It turns out that, as I was casually floating down the gulley the day before, I was brushing the canyon wall the whole time. That, my son, is what perspective can do to you if you are not careful.”

Howard and I got to spend a lot of time together. We flew, drove in blizzards down the Alaska Highway, sang and played music, and spent many a long winter night beating the tar out of the best score on the Pac-Man machine at the Atlin Inn.

Howard Damron died in his helicopter in Dawson City. He left a wife and son. A son called Luke. Goodbye my friend.