Photo: Logan Schuck standing in front of a helicopter.

'There’s no way out of this’: WAPA pilot recognized as top U.S. government flier for surviving in-flight emergency

It was a clear, crisp autumn day over Newman Peak in Arizona’s Picacho Mountains. The heat of the summer had given way to cool, tolerable breezes along the desert basin. A perfect day for a flight.

Just a few minutes’ flight from the Western Area Power Administration’s Desert Southwest office, WAPA Helicopter Pilot Logan Schuck embarked on a mission he’d done time and time before: ferrying communication technicians from the helipad on the desert floor to the top of the peak. There, the technicians perform routine inspections and maintenance on the organization’s radio repeaters and microwave relays. While WAPA serves a number of these sites across the West, this particular location is only accessible by helicopter, making it one of many missions WAPA pilots perform to ensure grid reliability.

Nov. 10, 2021, would be anything but normal for the 12-plus-year pilot. It would be the day Schuck cheated death.

“It’s a 40-minute flight, generally, from Phoenix,” Schuck recalled. “You meet the communications guy at the bottom of the mountain, two minutes up, land, shut down, wait for them to finish, then bring them back. Pretty routine stuff.”

Just three minutes after dropping off Communications Technician Joe Gruenwald on the helipad below, Schuck’s skills of a pinpoint flier would be put to the test. Flying at 500 feet off the ground, a typical altitude for WAPA helicopters, and traveling at 150 miles per hour, Schuck’s helicopter began to react abnormally.

“Flying along, the helicopter began to yaw to the left,” Schuck said. “Then it moved back to center. When a helicopter does that, you’re trained to see that as a sign your aircraft is losing power. At the time, I’m thinking I’m losing torque in the main rotor, which is a symptom of a left yaw. That’s when I slowed the aircraft down.”

For aviators, a yaw is a change in the aircraft’s direction along a horizontal axis. In the case of Schuck’s aircraft, it was jerking to the left – without his direction. As he processed the sudden movement, he powered the aircraft back to just over 100 mph. This gave Schuck the chance to check gauges, where he determined the helicopter’s systems were operating correctly.

“Everything seemed normal at that point,” he said.

‘This is how it happens.’

With the horizon out in front, and miles of desert and rock below, for a split second, a nervous Schuck believed the aircraft had stabilized. Then, as if being grabbed from the air like a child with their model airplane in hand, the Bell 407 helicopter plummeted from the sky, its nose aiming for the sandy ground below. Schuck was thrust forward, jerked toward the windshield and then back again. The helicopter began to violently pull to the left, tucking downward.

“I felt like I had run into something, but nothing was out there. And then I had this feeling in my gut – this is how it happens,” Schuck said. “I’ve been in the [aviation] industry for 12 years now, and I remember thinking of a friend of mine I had lost earlier in 2021, and that this was the feeling he had before he died.”

Schuck, a soon-to-be-father, frantically worked to regain control of the aircraft.

“It just wasn’t giving me the control I needed,” he said.

With seconds until impact, screaming toward the ground, Schuck maneuvered the control stick in a last-ditch effort.

“I was preparing to pancake into the ground. In my mind, there was no way out. It was a crazy feeling to know there’s no possible way to live through this,” he explained.

Less than 100 feet to the desert floor below, he thrust the control stick into his gut. Then, as if being released from an unseen force, the aircraft slowed, providing Schuck a chance to save himself, and possibly, the helicopter. Still processing everything, his first instinct was to land the helicopter, shut down its systems and evacuate. He identified a small clearing among the desert brush ahead as the aircraft came in for a hard landing. With a hurt back, adrenaline coursing through his veins and dust enveloping him and his aircraft, Schuck gained focus, immediately shutting down the helicopter’s fuel valve.

“At that point, I just wanted out of the helicopter,” he bluntly recalled.

Wiggling out of his harness, he swiftly exited the aircraft.

“I got a few feet from the aircraft as I composed myself. I looked back at the aircraft, and beyond disbelief, I couldn’t believe the helicopter was completely fine. At this point, I still don’t know what is going on,” he said. “I get halfway around the aircraft, and that’s when I called dispatch to let them know I had made an emergency landing.”

WAPA’s helicopters include GPS trackers on board, which alert dispatch crews when an aircraft has landed. Remaining calm, Schuck informed dispatch of the issue, even as frantic concern came through on the other end of the radio. He relayed to WAPA’s dispatchers that he would radio Gruenwald, whom he had just dropped off minutes before, to pick him up.

Is this a movie?

Now in radio contact with Gruenwald, Schuck began to analyze his aircraft more closely. He noticed paint was missing from a section of the crosstube portion of the landing gear. The tube, which cuts across the bottom of the helicopter, connects the skids that contact the ground when the helicopter lands.

That’s when Gruenwald provided a clue as to what caused the emergency landing.

“The communications guy called, telling me he ran into this guy with his pickup truck who said I hit their winch line. At that moment, I said to myself … ‘I just flew through a winch line towing a paraglider,’” he said. “That’s when I thought – oh my God, I just killed someone and had no idea what was going on.”

At the same time, Schuck could hear sirens approaching.

“I learned later the guy with the pickup truck and winch had called 911,” he said. “Apparently, he watched as my helicopter went downward. He thought I crashed into the desert.”

Standing in the open desert, Schuck started to hear “weird noises” from above. Looking up, he watched as a paraglider corkscrewed downward toward him.

“With everything happening, at this point, I’m thinking I’m in a movie and this is just crazy,” he said.

The paraglider landed, asking Schuck if he was alright. Schuck, processing the incident through the lens of his numerous years of flying, was quickly piecing together how this incident happened. The paraglider revealed he had been at 6,000 feet, connected to a static line on the ground – in this case, a moving pickup truck. The valley below was already around 1,500 feet above sea level. It quickly became apparent the paraglider was 4,000 feet higher, or nearly three-quarters of a mile, above Schuck.

“Now I’ve gone from being confused to being upset because of what these guys were doing,” he remembered. “I almost died because of these guys. For a helicopter to be flying at my speed and altitude, imagine driving on the road through a spiderweb at 150 miles an hour. There’s just no way for you to see a static line the thickness of a shoelace.”

The paraglider’s line, later identified as one-eighth-inch, Kevlar-based paracord, had wrangled his helicopter’s underside along the landing skids. At the same time, the winch on the pickup truck below rapidly pulled both the cord and the helicopter down. But somehow, the helicopter had freed itself from the cord.

Now en route to a local hospital to get checked out, and with police reports filed and his supervisor, Aviation Manager Richard Westra, informed, Schuck contacted his wife to let her know he was fine and getting checked out by doctors, and most importantly, that he would be coming home.

Turning terror into action

With the dust settled from Schuck’s incident, it was time to fully understand what happened. He and other Aviation staff began to research Federal Aviation Administration guidelines surrounding tethered flight, as well as the internet for more clues on the paraglider team.

Schuck found that, according to FAA regulations, aircraft or flying objects are approved for tethered flight up to 500 feet, above which the towed aircraft must be released. Their research showed the regulations had some gray area, but it was undeniable that tethered aircraft cannot cause a hazard to others.

“When something like this happens, you feel a duty to spread the word to ensure others are safe,” Schuck said.

At the same time, the helicopter had been transported to WAPA’s aircraft maintenance facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. There, even more evidence presented itself from the incident. The tow cable had damaged and dinged other parts of the aircraft, including slicing through the plexiglass windows and sheet metal along the spine of the rotor. Along the skids, paint had been completely removed, and the Kevlar-based cord had slashed visible cuts into the crosstube metal.

“We found out these types of [paraglider] activities were happening all over the place,” Schuck said. “This isn’t something that just affects helicopters. When you think how far up they are going, they’re affecting a ton of aircraft, including business jets that take off and land around 6,000 feet going into nearby Tucson.”

Because of the incident, WAPA’s Aviation team advocated to the FAA to update its regulations governing tethered paragliders and unpowered aircraft flights. Those regulation changes are pending consideration.

For his actions of airmanship under intense pressure, Schuck received “Best Pilot” awards from both the Department of Energy and the General Services Administration’s Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy. The latter award secured the title “Best Pilot” throughout U.S. government agencies for 2022.

Reacting to the award, Westra commended Schuck’s determination and pilot skills, which saved Schuck’s life and one of WAPA’s aircraft.

“Instead of giving up, Logan continued to fly the helicopter. He had no idea what was causing this other than he was literally falling out of the sky,” Westra said. “WAPA provides us the tools and opportunities to be trained at the highest levels, which have led our Aviation department to be seen as the DOE’s benchmark program. Knowing my aviators can perform to the extent they do every day is a direct reflection on having the tools and funds to get the job done. I have nothing but praise for them.”

As for Schuck, his love for flying helicopters endures. He explained that several things helped him walk away from that flight, including his training.

“While this particular situation didn’t correlate to any training I’ve received, having that experience of knowing your aircraft, having time in the seat and knowing what’s it supposed to feel like was essential,” he said. “And to be honest, it felt like someone was looking over me. There were so many scenarios where this aircraft could have crashed.”

Note: The author is a public affairs specialist.

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Last modified on March 12th, 2024