Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Thrills, close calls in flight
Vail, CO, Colorado
Long before commercial airlines had jet airplanes, I had logged about a million miles or so sitting midway between four propellers that got me from A to B through storms back then, instead of above them.
Often the ride was rough. On some flights they would even run out of those paper bags in the seat pocket in front of you.
Aside from some pretty bumpy rides, there were some pretty scary ones, too.
Tail-dragging Piper Cubs had experimental skis with a slot in them so the wheels stuck down one inch in case they landed at an airport instead of on a glacier.
One night, halfway across the Atlantic, the pilot notified us that even though two of the four engines had quit working, there was no danger of fire and we had more than enough fuel to get to England, but not much
I was lucky enough to take a $10 ride with Herman Geiger when he was experimenting with glacial flying on the Gornergrat Glacier in Zermatt.
With my eye stuck to the viewfinder and looking out of the windshield, the film I shot really woke up my audiences that year because we flew off of a massive cliff, and way down below us suddenly was the village of Zermatt instead of a snow-covered glacier. While I flew with Herman, I managed to expose four minutes of never-before-seen footage because no one had ever flown off of a glacier before with a cameraman sitting beside him.
I can honestly say I have only been really frightened twice while in flight, and one of the times the helicopter had already landed.
The pilot was slowing down the RPMs on the blades and we were given the go ahead to climb out when the cornice that we had landed on settled about six feet. As it did, it leaned to the left and I could look down a very long slope that would have been too steep to ski down, and I had sudden visions of us rolling down it while still in the helicopter.
One day in route to Hartford, Conn., the small commuter plane did a 180 degree turn and headed back to JFK Airport. When the plane settled on its new course, the stewardess came through the cabin and talked with each passenger quietly with the following information: “Take any sharp objects out of your shirt pockets. When we tell you to, lean forward and grab your elbows with your forearms under your legs. We will be landing on a foamed runway, so there is no need to worry about fire when we land.”
As it turned out, a landing-gear light had malfunctioned and there was no real danger. It was kind of exciting, though, as the plane slowed down in the 60 or 70 mph range to see a string of fire engines racing right alongside of the plane and slowing down as it did.
They put in a new light bulb, and we were on our way an hour and a half late to Hartford. Half of the passengers took a bus instead.
On the way to Japan in a Pan Am plane, we ran into violent, clear air turbulence and were slammed down 10,000 vertical feet. Half of the passengers did not have their seat belts on and were instantly pinned against the ceiling. We dropped long enough and far enough for me to tell my wife, “I hope someone raises our kids right.”
We did not fly together on the same airplane ever again. I would catch an earlier one and rent the car and be ready when she got there. The 10,000-foot instant drop caused enough trouble so that we landed in Kwajalein and had a three-hour airframe inspection. They even took the access hatch off of the vertical stabilizer and crawled up into the tail with flashlights looking for aluminum stress fractures.
When Laurie and I lived in Vail, I spent a lot of days skiing with Frank Wells. He was the co-president of The Walt Disney Company at the time. Laurie and I had spent four days packing up for our spring migration to the northwest when Frank called and invited me to come skiing with him at Elko, Nev., the coming weekend.
I told him that I already have a commitment and couldn’t make it. We joked around a bit and then he called me again on Wednesday and said, “Come on, Miller. Change your plans. This weekend is on me – food, housing and helicopter rides.”
I apologized and said I just couldn’t do it this time. There was one final call on Thursday, but I just did not want to change my plans with my wife.
While driving the two days from Vail to Orcas Island, I kept thinking about what I was missing by not skiing in Elko with Frank Wells, Clint Eastwood and half a dozen or so of his good friends.
On Tuesday afternoon, the phone rang on Orcas Island, and it was Frank Wells’ son. He said, “My mother would like you to speak at my father’s funeral.”
On the last helicopter out on the weekend, the helicopter engine had flamed out, and the pilot with Frank sitting directly behind him had hit a big pine tree at over 100 miles an hour. The pilot and Frank died instantly. The guide and Mike Hoover somehow survived because they were sitting on the other side of the helicopter.
I really miss Frank and know that I would still be skiing with him today if his helicopter had not hit that tree in Elk, Nev., without me on board.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.
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