INTO BLACK – THE ANATOMY OF A CRASH:
From a talk I gave last year. The crash happened in November 2002.
Photos by Brent Finley and me
The cable was about 100 feet directly ahead of us, and I was the first one to see a glimmer of it coming at 70mph. I yelled “Look out, look out, look out!” and the pilot instantly dropped the collective. In less than a second we were in a steep dive. The next second was timeless and quiet while the wire passed overhead and out of view. Then the cable ripped into the rotors and yanked us to a stop while it tore the entire tail of the helicopter away and dropped us toward the ground. If you’ve ever totaled a car you can imagine the raw volume and violence a fragile human being experiences inside of a metal container that’s being twisted and torn apart. Its so incredibly loud and powerful. And just one of a thousand flying pieces could cut you in half as if you were made of warm butter. The pilot, camera operator and I were just three small parts of a machine that was being ripped apart in mid air. When nothing was left to keep us airborne, we dropped. And I clearly remember my front seat view of the dirt coming up at us like a fly swatter. Again it was timeless, and the moment is deeply carved into my mind. I remember the feeling in my stomach as we dropped, and the pieces and parts that floated in and around our wrecked cabin. Keep in mind that we’re only two or three seconds into the crash and other than the very present violent moment, there was nothing, no fear, no apprehension, nothing but the moment, and a question in my mind. “What’s it going to be like when everything goes black?”.
We were flying over the Arizona desert in an A-Star helicopter to scout a location for a TV show. Production had a large RV decked out with the their logo, and our pilot descended to film the RV as it rolled down the highway. As we flew alongside, the pilot was literally looking back at the camera monitor to check the shot. That was when the sun reflected a quick blink of light, and I saw the cable.
A second before I saw it, our pilot was flying like a complete bonehead. Flying low through an unknown area is risky, and doing it without even looking forward was flat out reckless. But the second I said look out, his reaction was instant and perfect. Instinctively, a pilot would pull up or try to stop. Had he pulled up, the skids would have caught the cable, flipped the helicopter, and killed us all. If he tried to stop, the cable would have ripped through the cabin and cut us in half. I’m alive because the pilot put the helicopter into a dive.
So here’s what black was like. Black was a deafening thud as the cabin broke and compressed around us. The dust was so thick I couldn’t see anything and again the moment became timeless. We crashed into the dirt and rolled and then everything stopped. There was only the sound of dirt raining down on the cabin and the whining of the engine as it spun down.
I felt no pain, no real sensation at all. I was just there, and I thought, this is what black is. I’m dead, or I must be dead, and this is what death feels like. Like you’re an observer and you continue to experience what’s around you, but you feel nothing, you’re just there.
The first thing I recall feeling was the dirt in my eyes and crunching in my teeth. Then I felt myself gasping and choking on the thick dust because the wind had been knocked out of me. Then, like a computer that was booting up, I felt all systems coming online.
There was blood on my pants and sleeves, and I was hanging in my seatbelt with my nose bleeding and ears ringing. The pain was real, and I was alive! And I could hear the other guys stirring in the cabin. Somehow we’d all survived.
The door to my left had blown off and I could see the opening above me through the brown light of the sun filtering into the cabin. I released my seat belt and began to climb, up and into the next chapter of my life.
What a busy weekend. 11/09/02
By Brent Finley
Left Sat 9am for Kingman for a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” shoot.
We were going to throw the World Largest Rubber band ball from a plane. My friend Joe Jennings got me a 2nd camera gig for the shoot. This ball is about 5 feet in diameter and 2600 pounds. My job was to step off of the tailgate a split second behind Joe. He was going to try to grab the ball on the way out and stay with it for a few seconds. Without a “grip” this thing would immediately be “gone” as its terminal velocity would be close to 400 mph.
We left Eloy in a nasty headwind and only made 115 mph ground speed. It made for a slow, boring, loud ride in the skyvan. Lucky I brought earplugs. 10 minutes into the flight, I noticed Wayne Snyder, our rigger, messing around in the back of the plane. He had brought an ice chest for “victory” beers after the impact. He was standing oddly in front of it andthen dropped his pants and squatted on it. So much for that ice chest…. I did manage enough time for a digital Picture. Blackmail…you know. Although… he does pack my reserve. They don’t call him Weird Wayne for nothing. But I digress..
We flew between cloud layers into Kingman and got bumped around a bit. It was supposed too be a windy rainy day, but clearing up.
The Ripleys folks were set up along side of a group of hangars with the “Ripley’s Road Trip RV”, a couple of Jeeps, and a big red carpet and camera boom for the cool “sweeping” shots. Big studio lights and all. It was a very cool scene. I stepped off the plane with my camera kit and they were rolling tape. I get plenty of face time in this show which is very nice for a change.
The hostess for the show was Kelly Packard, well known for her role as “Summer” on Baywatch. What a cutie pie. She was about 100 lbs and 5’4″ with 3 inch heels on. She was very nice and smiled a lot off camera as well as on.
They shot segments on and off between rain and wind Saturday, but wound up reshooting all of it starting at 5am Sunday since it cleared up. Poor Kelly. She had on a short sleeve shirt and was freezing between takes.
The jump plan was to throw a 55 gallon barrel of water for a test drop to dial in the plane, the spotter, the ground cameras and test the “educated guess” trajectory of what the Ball might do. Bryan Burke from Skydive Arizona is always the ground coordinator for “drops”. He’s very good at it. He’s great. He also has a wonderful (albeit morbid) sense of humor. Someone asked a producer when this would air. The guy said “February”. Bryan turned and said “Or tonight on the six o’clock news, depending on how things go.” You gotta love him.
The helicopter pilot showed up Sunday morning with a beautiful A-Star bird with a million dollar “Gyron” camera system.
We were sitting around when the production crew left for the landing area at around noon. The RV, jeeps, Hostess, Rubber band ball maker, etc. Took off and the helicopter spooled up to go get some ground shots of them on the highway.
Joe Jennings just got up and walked out to the helicopter while were sitting there and we all wondered what he was doing. He popped his head in and spoke to the pilot for a minute and then unzipped and started peeing next to the helicopter (which was pretty funny). He turned to us (100 yards away) raised his hands and then hopped into the helicopter.
We all thought… “that bastard is getting a cool ride on the helicopter… Why didn’t I think of that first!” Heck, we weren’t doing anything for 2 hours, why not. Now I knew why he took a leak.. they’d be back in an hour or so before the test drop. They took off and headed north after the convoy.
At that point, Wayne Snyder, the rigger in charge of restraints for the ball in the plane, was going to town with one of the producers to stock up an ice chest with beer for the post impact festivities. He Promised to buy a new ice chest for the beers. He said he cleaned it Out with clorox, but we just couldn’t bear the thought of ingesting Anything that had come from the ice chest turned port-o-potty. They got to the gate of the airport, turned around and came back. Wayne hopped out of the Suburban and the producer took off again. Wayne walked up to us and said something I’ll never forget…
“The helicopter just crashed.”
I heard him perfectly, but looked at him with disbelief and asked “what?”
That was all he knew. The producer got a cell phone call that said the helicopter crashed. We had no other details. Within a minute, we heard emergency vehicles driving up the highway near the airport. We looked north and saw no smoke. That was good.
Now we speculated. As a skydiver, I’m used to non-trained personnel saying things completely out of proportion when describing an “incident”, so I wasn’t jumping to any conclusions. A helicopter that loses an engine will “glide” as well as an airplane and set down without incident. Someone might describe that as a crash.
Well before I describe what really happened, let me first say that everyone walked away with bumps and bruises. Pilot, Cameraman, and Joe. OK? OK.
Here’s what happened…
The helicopter crashed.
The pilot was following the RV from the side as it went down the highway. Flying sideways at 40mph, 40 feet off the ground. Joe said he saw a glint out of the side of his eye and looked up. He yelled to the pilot “look out”. The pilot looked over, started to dive down, and hooked a suspension cable. They immediatly spun around, slammed into the ground, flipped over (which sheared all 3 rotor blades), broke the tail boom off, smashed the Gyron Camera ball off, broke the landing skids off, and broke windows. Two million dollars worth of crashed up junk. They’ll probably salvage plenty, but all I can say is “Ouch!”
The producers were about to call it off when Bryan Burke said “Why? We just used all our bad luck, and Brent’s got all the same equipment as Joe, let’s go do this thing while were all here and the money’s spent.” Bryan is great. Did I mention that before?
Meanwhile at the hospital, Joe was pleading with Jack (one of the Ripley’s higher ups) to not cancel the drop. That his crew was solid and what could possibly go wrong. The helicopter crash was unrelated to the operation. He was doing this while pacing around his gurney with an IV plugged into his arm. The staffers looked at him like he was a lunatic.
Although Joe’s neck x-ray showed nothing and he was ready to jump, the producers wouldn’t let him go. They asked me how I felt about doing the shot. I said “let’s go.”
Jason Peters was promoted from Ball pusher to 2nd cameraman and now I was the only one rolling high speed film (16mm) out the door with this baby.
We were supposed to circle twice for a dry run and then the real shot. We circled 6 or 7 times. I was getting concerned that the light would be gone soon and the camera settings I metered on the ground at 4pm would be a little underexposed if we pushed the sunset into the shot. We finally got the ball off at 10 minutes before sunset.
Stepping off with a 2600 lb ball rolling at you is not any different than with a car (I’ve done 4 of them) or a living room set (done that twice), except that when I got off the plane and my forward throw was slowing down in the wind, the ball did not slow down with the wind. We fell at the same rate, but the ball was racing away from me, level with the horizon, at an amazing rate. I got the exit shot I wanted. Jason never hung on, but he got a cool shot too. The ball made an impact crater 4 feet deep in the soft dirt, bounced another 75 feet, and sluffed off about 1 foot of it’s diameter that lay in a heap about 10 feet from the remaining ball. The heap was warm… And smelled like burned rubber. What glorious carnage.
The ball guy had everyone sign this 1/2 inch wide, large rubber band, that he attached around the entire ball before we loaded it. He did find it in there. It was broken in one spot… Right on Joe Jenning’s signature. Very eerie.
Bryan burke drove up with the Rental truck for our gear. First thing’s first… Where’s the Beer? “I got you covered he said” as he reached into the bed and popped open a Pale Ale for me.
Next… Why did we circle for so long? Turns out the producer wanted Bryan to drive Kelly and the ball guy out to the impact as soon as it went. They pointed to the red jeep and Bryan said “You’re in luck… I can drive a stick…”, but when he got in, the keys were missing and they spent 15 minutes looking for the stupid keys.
We took impact photos with the crew, gathered our stuff and drove back to the airport.
We had a nice tailwind on the way back and made 219 mph ground speed back to Eloy… We got in at 9pm. After another 45 minutes on the road, I was back home….
Now I’m back at work… And finally get to shift back into a lower gear for a bit.
“There but by the grace of God go I”
Basically, I jumped in the helicopter for the ride, and also to see a test drop from the air before my scheduled jump to film. on the way to the drop zone the helicopter cameraman was filming the convoy of production vehicles also headed there for the test drop. the pilot took us down low for a cool shot. out of the corner of my eye i saw a glint of sun from a cable strung across the field. i said “look out look out look out!” and the pilot immediately dropped the chopper down attempting to fly under the wires. for a second i thought we might have cleared them. We didn’t.
The cable must have grabbed a rotor
We shouldn’t have been flying that low without having first scouted the area. i believe the pilot should have known that. he feels horrible about the incident. i must add though that when i saw the cable, his reaction was fast and correct. a natural reaction would have been to pull back or fly up. he nosed down and when we took the hit we were closer to the ground. Had the middle of the chopper or bottom skids of the chopper taken the hit, the accident could have been far worse.
i can’t really describe the experience. it was really timeless and i remember so much about it. It was so loud and violent and sudden. the cable was ripping at the helicopter and all control was lost. i remember throwing my upper body toward the center of the helicopter and holding tight wondering how a bone crunching hit would feel, wondering if all would go black and end. we spun around, dirt sky dirt sky crunch into the desert.
i think we rolled a bit before coming to a stop on the right side of the helicopter, dust everywhere, doors blown off, windows cracked. It felt like a dream where you fall to the ground from a mile up and walk away wiping away the dirt, it was just like that.
Few people survive such a wreck, we’d beat great odds. we beat the odds because that’s how the world happened to be turning that day. at the moment we hit the wire, we were a non-factor, nothing more than along for the ride to whatever fate had in store. I am so grateful.