I hope I didn’t chase any of you big, strong mechanic types away with my headline. This isn’t going to be a Disney-themed fairy tale with sorcerers and princesses and princes. OK, there might be a prince or two in this true story.
Once upon a time (a few years ago), Helicopter Specialties president Jim Freeman and I were at a restaurant with a customer (Greg Judd, DOM of Classic Helicopters at the time) and Richard Fullmer (Greg’s Turbomeca tech rep). We were sitting around tipping a few beers and telling stories of our daring deeds (because that’s what old mechanics do), when the subject of how we got started in the helicopter business came around. Jim and I told our stories as best we could remember.
Then it came to Greg’s turn. I’ve been in this business for 45 years now and when I heard his story, it moved me like I’ve never been moved before. I wanted to share his story, especially after the twist it took. The names have not been changed to protect the guilty. The world needs to know who they are.
Greg told us that when he was about nine years old in the mid-1970s, growing up in the mountain country of northern Utah, his grandmother had a ranch up in the hills outside of the small town of Coalville. Greg lived in town with his mother who ran the local motel in the town. In those days there was a lot of seismic work going on around the country. Everybody was looking for oil. There were many companies using helicopters for oil research. There were also plenty of helicopter pilots and mechanics getting out of the military at that time, and a lot of them started working in that industry. Quite a few of my good friends started their civilian careers doing this.
One particular company (I don’t know which one) was doing some seismic work up in the Coalville area and it had some day landing zones (LZs) set up on Greg’s grandmother’s property. This oil company also required housing for their pilots and mechanics who were away from home. There was only one motel in this little town so it was pretty much taken over by “rotorheads.” The company needed an LZ and an area that it could do maintenance, refueling and storage for the night. Sometimes it would have workers in these areas for months.
Greg told us there was a patch of land across the highway from the motel that was used by the company, and it came to be called the goat patch. I can just about imagine how exciting this must have been for a nine-year-old boy. Greg told us that he used to watch the helicopters take off and land and he used to see the pilots and mechanics around the motel when they weren’t working.
There was one particular mechanic with whom Greg got along. He was a former Marine — a Vietnam veteran who was probably in his late twenties. Greg said that he was a pretty nice guy who he used to take him out to the helicopters when he was doing pre-flight inspections. He let Greg help him grease the rotors and prep the aircraft for operations. Greg said that he was “hooked.” He knew that someday he was going to be a helicopter mechanic, just like his hero was. This mechanic had a huge influence on this young boy without even trying. I don’t think the mechanic even gave it a thought as to how much he was influencing Greg. I don’t think he meant to be a role model for future mechanics but that is sometimes what happens. This mechanic even gave Greg a bunch of his helicopter magazines to read. Greg said that he still has these magazines and he always wondered what ever happened to his friend “the helicopter mechanic.” Greg finished his story with the statement, “I’ll never forget his name: Steve Miller!”
Jim and were immediately jerked back to the present, to the table in the restaurant, and I nearly choked on my beer. Could this be the same Steve Miller who Jim and I knew? What were the odds? It’s a common name. The Steve Miller who we knew was the director of maintenance at West Michigan Air Care in Kalamazoo, MI. It operated a couple of AS365 Dauphins for HEMS. We had recently done some work for the company at our facility, and Steve had made a few trips out to visit us and to pick up the aircraft.
I’d like to tell you about the Steve Miller that I know. I consider Steve a good friend and a biker bro. Like me, he rides Harleys and enjoys a beer or two now and then. He is an avid mountain hunter and has even brought down a buffalo with his bow. Steve, I would have to say, on the outside, is one of the crustiest old farts I know. He’s an old Vietnam vet, Marine helicopter mechanic who isn’t really concerned with what people think about him. He had just recently retired from West Michigan Air Care, and I heard he bought a fishing boat on Lake Michigan.
Anyone reading this article and who knows him will attest to this. How could this be the same guy? Could this hardened helicopter mechanic really have a heart? He would be about the right age as the Steve Miller that had a big influence on a young Greg Judd.
I looked across the table at Jim and he said, “I’ve got Steve’s number on speed dial.” All this time that Jim and I were talking, Greg was sitting there wondering what was going on. Jim pulled out his phone and made a call. Jim got a voice mail and he recorded this message: “Steve, Jim Freeman. Did you do seismic work up in Utah in the 1970s working out of the goat patch? If you did, I have someone here that wants to talk to you. Call me back.”
By now, Greg’s jaw had dropped, his mouth was gaping open and his eyes were bugging out. Was this really happening? We all started laughing, just thinking about the possibilities. What if it were true? What if this really was the same guy? Greg hadn’t talked to him in more than 35 years and he was just a kid then. Then the phone rang!
Jim answered, then was listening to someone talk on the other end and we couldn’t hear what was being said. After a minute or so, Jim looked at Greg and handed him the phone, saying, “Here, someone wants to talk to you.”
That was about two years ago and since then, Greg has moved on to work as a Bell Helicopter tech rep. Steve is enjoying retirement. What happened when Greg got on the phone with Steve? We’ll, that’s a 30-minute phone call that you’re going to have to ask them about if you see them. You can just about imagine though, can’t you? We all started in this business somewhere and we probably had a “Steve Miller” of our own to influence our lives and our careers. Do you remember who yours was? The funny thing to think about is how many of us are “Steve Millers” ourselves and just never thought about who we were influencing. We have to ask ourselves, “Are we a good influence or a bad influence?” What would you do if someday someone called you out of the blue and told you that you were the reason they became a helicopter mechanic? I know Steve pretty well. I can tell you, that phone call probably meant more to him than anything in his life. I know Steve wasn’t trying to be a mentor. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He wasn’t doing it for a reward. It was just Steve being Steve. This industry could use a few more mentors like Steve and who would help influence future mechanics/DOMs and factory tech reps like Greg. This industry needs them desperately.
There actually was a prince in my story, and I hope my headline makes more sense now. It’s true — the helicopter world is a small world after all!
Terry L. Peed has been in Aviation for 43 years and is a licensed A&P and IA. He is the chief inspector for Helicopter Specialties Inc., a certificated FAA repair station that performs heavy helicopter maintenance, completions with painting capabilities and avionics installations.