Wheatley Writes: Iran, But He Ran Faster

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skg122001-heli landing

Dec. 20, 2001--The exhaust fumes are making me nauseous. The Russian Mil 28 helicopter is shaking and groaning as it tries to nestle onto Dizin Peak in the Iranian Alborz Mountains. At nearly 13,000 feet this bird is at its limit and it is apparent to everyone on board that the landing is going wrong, especially to Dean Cummings.

As an Alaska heli-ski pioneer, Dean has logged more time in helicopters than many licensed pilots. A combination of cat-like reflexes and a highly developed intuition, keep Dean alive in extreme situations. I have come to trust his judgment in the mountains. From the look on his face, he?s going into survival mode.

As I peer out the small porthole window, I see the ground come close and fall away again as the pilots yell in farsi, trying to negotiate a place to put the ship down. They send the copilot out of the cockpit and he clips himself into a safety line so he can dangle out the door and call back instructions. Dean is on the opposite side of the massive helicopter and announces that he just saw the six-foot tail rotor skimming high ground to the rear of the flying bus. I immediately imagine what happens when the tail rotor of a helicopter hits the ground. The ship would begin to spin uncontrollably, roll over and likely hit the main rotor sending blade debris through the fuselage. What?s left of the bird hurtles down the mountainside in flames. Dean is screaming at the pilots pointing to the tail: "High ground! High ground!".

I wish my seatbelt worked. I had tried to put it on only to pull it back through the clamp without any resistance. Instinctively, I yell at the pilot to "land in the Parking lot at Dizin?Parking lot! Parking lot!? Dizin". It seems the pilot has heard me and aborts the landing as he pulls the straining ship off the peak. Instead of turning toward the nearby ski resort of Dizin, he comes back around for another approach at the peak.

Dean stands with his hand on the safety line of the pilot who hangs out the door. He turns to me: "As soon as were close enough, I am going to pull this guy out of the door and we're jumping out!" My mind begins weighing out whether I am more likely to survive inside the fuselage as it tumbles down the mountain or outside when the rotors strike the ground and fly around like angry machetes. The decision is simple. I am going to follow Dean?s lead, and I start to plan my line out the door. When Dean yanks the pilot out of the way and jumps, I want my head on his heels.

Just as Dean shoots me the "on three Wheatley" look, I feel the huge rubber wheels of the airbus make contact with the ground. There is no flying metal or sounds of impact. Just solid ground. I start scrambling to get out. Dean is already out the door and moving to a safe distance. Yes, Iran, but he ran faster.