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INVISIBLE DEATH TRAPS



Treasures From The Pioneer Era, reported by Ernie Tanner:


Helicopters are basically very safe aircraft. I can affirm that from my vast personal experience. In bad weather, I can “set down” and wait till the storm is past. Or I can “set down” and check on my position. If fuel runs low, I can make an emergency landing without having to find a large airfield. None of that is possible with an ordinary fixed wing airplane.


Experienced helicopter pilots will confirm that high-voltage power lines, unmarked cables on mountain cable cars, and thick or thin wires in the air are the most dreaded death traps and can cost the lives of even the most experienced pilots.


I encountered these thin, sly obstacles several times in Africa, and only thanks to my ever-present guardian angels were my passengers and I saved from certain death. Once I was flying an expectant mother from Bamenda in Cameroon to the Mbingo hospital for a medical checkup. This was a routine flight for me, as I often landed there with patients. The hospital is located on a small plateau with a small sports ground that we used as a landing strip.


I took off from there at five in the evening with my passengers for the half-hour return flight. I had barely started to move, just about 30 feet (10 m) above the ground, when I was startled by a tremendous bang. Splinters from the shattered windscreen flew through the cabin. The helicopter veered to the left. At that moment there was another bang, and the helicopter was torn to the right. Then came a third bang and the helicopter shot to the left again. Scared to death, I wondered whether the helicopter was still airborne or had already crashed. No, it was still flying. Ahead of me was one of the hospital buildings. Could I fly over it, or would we hit it? I gained height and hesitantly attempted to turn right. I continued the curve and tried to land again. I was almost too scared to breathe. Not knowing what had caused these three thunderclaps and the glass splinters, I was afraid that something else might get out of control. It was several very long seconds before I was close to the ground again. “Can I still hover and land?” I asked myself. Carefully, gently, I finally touched down.


In the helicopter it was as silent as the grave. Then the passenger beside me said he had been hit in the face by some of the glass splinters. What on earth had happened? A very careful examination revealed a copper wire, 0.3 inches (8 mm) thick, wrapped around the left skid of the landing gear, and a broken base disk. A little way in front, on the grass, lay another long copper wire.


The hospital staff came dashing out to see why we had landed again. With their help we solved the mystery. I now learned that the head doctor was on vacation and his deputy, who needed electricity in the annex building, had run two wires across the field without knowing that this was used as a landing pad. In the evening light I couldn’t possibly have seen the brownish green corroded wires against the backdrop of the mountain. Although I had only just taken off, I was too high for the wires to penetrate the front windscreen into the controls, but instead they struck the helicopter just below the nose. If the wires had caught in the controls, we would surely have crashed.




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