How Steve Killed the Helicopter

Helo target

My older brother, Steve, flew helicopters throughout a 30-year career in the Navy and Navy Reserve. He made carrier landings. Flew hundreds of missions. Logged thousands of flight hours. Through all of that, he managed to lose just one helicopter.

It was shot down.

On Christmas Day, 1977.

By Steve.

Fortunately for taxpayers, the helicopter in question was a gas-powered Cox version that his in-laws, the Porters, had given him for Christmas. It wasn’t remote-controlled and didn’t even have the string controls that Cox airplanes usually did in those days. Instead, it had a tiny gas tank that wouldn’t allow it to fly too high or far away before using up its fuel and gently auto-rotating back to earth.

I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the instructions there was a line that said, “Don’t operate around tall trees, in the house or around power lines.” Of course back then companies still assumed people most people weren’t stupid, so maybe there wasn’t.

Steve flew helicopters like these for many years without incident.

Steve flew helicopters like these for many years without incident.

On Christmas morning, all my brothers, my father and I went into the backyard to see Steve’s new toy take flight — and it was awesome. (But this was a low-tech, ‘70s world, where watching a toy helicopter rise and fall was considered high-quality entertainment.)

All went well until the last flight. The liftoff and flight were fine, but the descent ended abruptly when the helicopter got stuck about 100 feet up in the bough of a pine tree.

The old tree was so big you couldn’t get your arms around it, much less climb it. We took turns throwing a football, baseballs, rocks and everything else we could find, but nothing worked and no one we knew had an extension ladder or a bucket truck.

What we did have was a brand-new .410 shotgun Santa left for me under the tree that morning. (‘Cause Santa was the man back then.) Naturally, this being a McClellan family adventure, it didn’t take long before someone suggested shooting the limb to dislodge the helicopter.

I think I remember Daddy saying, “Just back off a ways and that .410 probably won’t hurt anything.”

As it turns out, he was horribly, horribly wrong.

It was a helicopter like this that put the only blemish on his flight safety record.

It was a helicopter like this that put the only blemish on his flight safety record.

Steve took the shot and what came down out of that tree was about a hundred pieces of metal and plastic, most no bigger than a quarter. If there had been a funeral for the helicopter, it definitely would have been a closed casket.

We all stood there for a minute in stunned silence, which was followed immediately by riotous laughter – from everyone but Steve.

At that point he realized he was going back over to the Porters’ house that afternoon. His choices were to a) not mention the disaster and hope no one asked him to fly it or b) admit that blasting it out of the tree with a shotgun was the best plan our entire family could come up with.

He chose option c: Drive 30 miles to Marianna, buy a new toy helicopter and pretend like the whole thing never happened.

I don’t know if Steve ever told this story to the Porters. However, I’m real sure he never got as much entertainment out of flying the second helicopter as the rest of us did in remembering how he killed the first one.

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