The Missing Helicopter

Time: Mid 1980’s

Place: The American Trans Air ramp and taxi area

Players: Some unknown (but very lucky) helicopter pilot and my trainee.

It was a quite evening shift in the Equipment Room at the TRACON. The weather was fog down to about 500 feet, then clear under the fog on the airport, very poor flying weather until breaking out of the pea soup fog at about 500 feet or less above the ground. This is below landing minimums for all but the most skilled IFR rated pilots. There were two of us on duty that evening, myself and a trainee named Brian Leuters.

Brian came to work for the FAA from the military where he had worked around military aircraft. I was helping through an OJT training program on RADAR. That evening he wanted to locate equipment on the airport called MTI reflectors. They are devices mounted on short poles that look like satellite TV antenna dishes pointing at the RADAR site on an airport. What they do is mimic a moving RADAR target from a known fixed location. They use switching diodes and are used to check alignment of the RADAR displays for azimuth and range. I suggested rather than fool with a map of the airport we go out and locate them on site. At that time of the evening air traffic would be almost nil. With a radio equipped government car we could go anywhere on the airport.

We went out the fire truck access road and across a runway under supervision of Ground Control in the tower. It was a short drive on a gravel road up to the approach light lane and one MTI reflector. It was located there, on the runway center line, for alignment checks. It was fun, while we were there a huge aircraft passed overhead and landed on runway 22 after breaking out of the low ceiling with all the landing lights on. As we went back out of the light lane on the gravel road I noticed the ATA hanger door was open and there was a group of about 10 people standing around on the ATA ramp. Also the Lear Jet that is used to deliver emergency parts and for some special charter work was parked on the ramp.

The pilot staff for the Lear 35 in those days was almost all Ham operators and I knew most of them. I explained to Brian that something was going on and it might be interesting to check it out. As I drove on a taxiway over to the ramp area a bright landing light came on and was aimed directly at us, then turned to our right in the direction of the helicopter ramp area. I didn’t know what it was at first and Brian remarked it was a helicopter. My first response was OH NO ! If we had crossed in front of his flight path it was called a runway incursion and is a very serious offense.

The helicopter passed by us and landed on the ramp near the customs building. I was curious just exactly what was going on so I drove over to the group of mechanics and others on the ATA ramp to ask them and get some information in case there was a runway incursion issue later that evening.

The spokesman for the group filled us in on what was going on. The helicopter had been lost in the fog near the airport above 500 feet and panicked. He was trying to find the airport and after getting lost he had landed in a muddy corn field west of the airport. Keep in mind this was near an active jet airport and in a populated area in extreme IFR conditions that required a flight plan and active air traffic control. There was mud caked all over the helicopter landing skids.

The pilot had done a slow decent until he could see the ground and set the chopper down in the mud somewhere to the west. After sitting there for a while in a muddy field. He decided he would get in considerable trouble if he remained there so he took off again and worked his way toward the airport. Apparently he spotted the parking lot lights for ATA in the fog and set the helicopter down there, IN the parking lot. The ATA guys went out to see what the noise was all about in the parking lot and directed the guy to take off again and come around the building and land on their ramp area that was actually ON the airport. At that point that the mud on the landing skids became apparent and the discussion about where he came from ensued with the ground crew for ATA.

As we came on the scene they had just advised him where the helicopter landing area was and he had successfully made it back into the air for the third time and flown across the north end of the airport and landed on the ramp where other helicopters were parked and tied down near the US Customs Building. Not bad so far. A nice save, every one got home ok. We departed the ATA ramp area and went back to the Tower Equipment Room. About an hour later an air traffic supervisor named Dave Firth came back into the equipment room with a minor complaint about a flight strip printer.

I had earlier assumed the helicopter incident was what they call a “save” where air traffic directs a lost pilot to the airport under active RADAR control and get them safely on the ground. My comment was: “did you get that guy lost in the helicopter straightened out ok?”. Dave commented: “WHAT HELICOPTER ??”. I turned to Brian and remarked here is another very important part of your OJT, repeat after me: “I don’t recall”. Dave aggressively pressed the issue. Like one of my heroes (Oliver North) I repeated: “I don’t EXACTLY recall”. Brian backed away and said nothing. Dave pressed the issue. Looking for a way out I suggested he call over to ATA and ask for the maintenance department, they have all the facts and my memory of the incident has gone totally blank.

I never did find out what the final outcome was. If you know much about aviation and read over this story what you can visualize what the very lucky but not very smart helicopter pilot did. He took off in very poor weather. He got lost. He came down in a muddy field in a populated area close to a jet airport where he could see nothing. He took off again, landing in a parking lot.

He followed that feat of flying on a controlled airport by landing on a controlled ramp area. Air traffic never was aware of his presence. Then to further tempt fate and try to kill himself he flew the helicopter right across the airport in extreme IFR conditions across an active runway with jets approaching at about 140 knots in poor visibility. During the entire event air traffic control was not aware of his presence in the airspace or on the airport.

You have got to land the aircraft and it is so much nicer to land on an airport. It is also a very good idea to let air traffic know you are landing on THEIR airport.

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