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Thursday, 9 August, 2001, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Crash landing with Harold
Liam Reese
While working in Madagascar, surveyor Liam Reese was involved in a helicopter crash landing. Fortunately, as he recounts in our weekly Real Time series, the story did not have a tragic ending.

I went to Madagascar in 1998 with a survey crew looking for oil. It was the best job in the world.

View from the helicopter
Liam's job involved a daily commute by helicopter
The crew was a throwback to the old days, before safety interfered with the good times that could be had working in remote areas. The days of loading the pick-up with crates of beer and heading off were gone - or so I'd thought.

Each morning, I was flown out to a fresh location. At the end of the day, a helicopter would be despatched to collect us.

We had two helicopters - a Squirrel, used mostly for personnel, and another more powerful machine, used for lifting drill equipment and moving camps.

Survey crew
Fellow members of the survey crew
Both helicopters were busy most of the day and our pilots worked long hours.

Harold, a French Armenian, flew the Squirrel with great skill at treetop-skimming level. I think he yearned for a war zone. On many occasions we flew with the light on... the fuel light that is.

Brian, the party chief, constantly harangued the pilots to get more out of them. He was particularly anxious that they should refuel in the evenings, so that our 6am starts weren't delayed.

This was a source of friction as the pilots were tired in the evening.

Need a break?

And so it came to be that four men escaped with their lives, one career blighted and one helicopter damaged beyond repair.

Sunrise - a time to think about fuel?
The day started like any other. Up on the helipad, Brian and Harold were arguing.

Harold: 'I have been here six weeks, I am flying every day, it's too much, I want to rest. I want some holiday.'

Brian: 'Get this chopper fuelled up and out in the field, we'll talk holidays tonight.'

Harold: 'I am serious, I am tired, I need this holiday.'

I timed our trip out that morning - it took 15 minutes to reach the fly camp where we collected my team, before heading off to the work area.

Base camp
The main camp, where Liam spent his nights
That evening, after Harold had dropped my team off at fly camp, the fuel gauge appeared to be on the wrong side of empty.

Above the racket of the engine, he explained that due to the fuel situation, we wouldn't be stopping at another camp to collect empty water barrels and instead would return directly to main camp. Fifteen minutes. And the fuel light came on.

Shaken and shaking

I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that we were never going to make it. But rather than being scared, I was excited. Harold didn't fly high above the trees, ever.

The helicopter, pre-crash
Harold typically flew fast and low over rough terrain
I had a passing dread of fire starting if we hit the ground heavily. Then I realised if we hit the ground, it was because we had no fuel. No fuel, no fire.

My fireman brother has since assured me that residual gases present a far greater threat of fire. Ignorance was bliss.

Harold looked anxious, the rest of us worried but finding peace of mind in his skill and judgement. Then Harold's judgement failed him. The ground was too rough and we were too low.

But rather than put down and call the other chopper to bring fuel, he left our direct route home and began to climb, looking for better ground to fly over.

Airlifting the downed chopper to base camp
Airlifting the downed chopper to base camp
Then it happened.

When your car runs out of fuel, it judders and falters and you pull over. In a helicopter, the engine splutters and pops, the tail swings wildly from side to side.

It was not the fun I'd imagined it to be. It was too noisy, too fast, too wild and altogether too bloody scary.

Right we swung and down, then up came the nose, and with a crash we hit the ground. We hit a small tree and came to rest beyond it.

Harold was devastated, a picture of woe and wounded pride. He clambered out, walked slowly around his battered former flying machine. Then he kicked the life he'd loved so much and said, 'Well, I am on holiday now.'

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