Courtesy Elsa Knowlton
He flew 31,000 hours in a career without an accident or incident.
Robert Burns, 88, of Charlotte, North Carolina, accomplished something no other pilot has achieved: over his career, he flew 31,000 hours without an accident or incident. The military and, later, power-line utility pilot certainly had his share of emergencies, yet he handled each one without mishap. He was recognized for this unequaled accomplishment with an HAI Pilot Safety Award at HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia, in March.
ROTOR caught up with Burns to learn about his experiences as a pilot and the secret to his astounding achievement.
ROTOR: What sparked your interest in flying?
Burns: I’m an Iowa farm boy, raised on a farm with cows and machinery. We used to take summer vacations in Minnesota on Kabetogama Lake. They had amphibious-plane concessions there, and as I recall, when I was 10 years old, my dad said, “Well, I’m not going up in that thing, but you kids can.”
My sister and I took a ride in one. The pilot let me sit next to him. He had to kind of sway the airplane to eventually leap out of the water. He just kind of pulled the yoke back and forth. He said it really took some finesse to get it off the ground. I thought, well, that looks like that would be a challenge. So that was my first exposure to flying, and I thought that could be something to look into for a career option.
After high school, I did two years of college, then joined the [US] army. Back then, there was compulsory military service for two years. The military recruiter saw I was mechanically inclined, having worked on a farm with all the machinery. He started telling me about the helicopter, and he said that might be a way of the future for me. He said he couldn’t guarantee I’d get into flight school but he could guarantee I could be a mechanic and then I could apply for pilot training once I was in. Had I known two out of three guys don’t make it, I’d probably not have jumped at the chance.
As it turned out, after I completed my maintenance training two years in, I was finally able to start flight training. In basic training, we flew the H-23, a little piston Hiller. I went straight through training without any hang-ups or anything. I just really picked up flying very quickly. I went on to the advanced course for the Piasecki H-21, a helicopter for troop transport, resupply, assault missions—that sort of thing. We did external-load sling work with it too.
After nine months of training, I was sent back to Fort Bragg [North Carolina] and put on a strategic air command unit that was supposed to be ready to ship out in 24 hours to go to war. We and another unit were deployed to Vietnam, and we were the first units to turn rotor blades in Vietnam, in 1958.
How did you turn your military flying experience into a civilian career?
I flew four and a half years in the army and got out in 1961. When I got home, I sold insurance for three years as I waited for a helicopter job opening. When I applied for my civilian license, I had more hours than the civilian instructor pilot who flew with me for that rating.
After getting my civilian rating, I applied for different jobs, and I found one in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at Inland Airlines. They had piston Bell 47 helicopters. Their primary contract was with utility companies. We did transmission-line inspections and anything else people wanted with a helicopter, including photo flights, Santa Claus deliveries, and helicopter rides.
Most of the time, though, I was flying power-line patrol. That consists of flying as close as you comfortably and safely can to the power line for visual inspections. They were long hours. I could log 1,000 hours a year just doing power lines. We worked for two power companies, one in North Carolina and one in South Carolina. I’d fly one month in North Carolina and then in South Carolina the next month. I worked for Inland for 20 years; then, the power companies decided they wanted to upgrade to a Bell JetRanger. My boss didn’t have one of those, so I lost my job.
Thing was, I knew the power companies like no one else, so I got a Bell checkout in the 206 JetRanger. I had to bootleg some time around to get the minimum hours to qualify for the job for commercial applications. Then I started applying to and working for whichever contractor had the utility contract. Of course, I still flew all the other jobs the contractor needed—putting air conditioners on roofs and replacing objects that were too difficult for other machines to lift. We even set telephone poles that were rigged up the slopes. They’d dig the hole and I’d take the pole up, drop it in the hole, and go back for another one. Anything you could do with a helicopter, we did. My last flight was in 2001.
Which flight stands out most in your mind?
We had one rescue that was very interesting. We were patrolling the power line. The metal support structures holding the 44,000-volt, three-phase line had crossarms. On that day, I saw two little heads above the crossarm. We flew up there, and we found two little boys sitting on the crossarm. One of them had been on a high-voltage line and had burned himself. He was flailing around. Emergency crews were there, but they didn’t have anybody trained to do this type of rescue.
I happened to have an experienced lineman with me who had just undergone the training for removing a man from a tower by climbing up the tower, securing the man in a proper way, and bringing him down. We landed and talked to the rescue crew. We radioed the power company and had the power turned off. The lineman climbed up there in his regular shoes—he didn’t even have his line shoes—and brought the boy down. The boy lived, and he’s fine to this day.
Thirty-one thousand hours without an accident or incident is impressive. Surely you had mishaps along the way?
I describe helicopter flying as hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror. I’ve had several partial- and full-engine failures. If the engine sputters or quits altogether, you have just a second or three to react. An engine failure is where your pay grade is really earned.
I always had someplace where I could put the helicopter when the engine failed. I landed in a garden one time, in a farmer’s field one time, and, in the military, when we had an engine failure after passing over a ravine, we landed in a paddy.
I have a habit of always checking my gauges every minute or so. I looked down one time and saw there was zero oil pressure. About that time, it started to get rough and I thought, well, I’m gonna find a place. I started to head for a place, and before I got to it, the cylinder seized and blew the jug completely off. This was a six-cylinder Bell 47 engine. I kind of just smiled and thought, here’s my chance to prove I can handle an emergency. I was able to autorotate and land it just as smoothly as a practice autorotation.
What advice would you offer for a pilot who would like to achieve their own accident- or incident-free career?
Don’t ever give up on it. You know you can’t sit there and freeze and hope that something will happen. You have to take action. It happens just so fast. You have to do the right thing, and that’s where the skill comes in. You can get into situations in a helicopter where your job exceeds your skill and you just can’t recover. It’s good to practice those skills. That’s what you get in 31,000 hours—a lot of practice.
It isn’t just a matter of training, though. You have to focus. It was different then. The Bell 47 had no GPS, governor, or other system to help. You had to fly every minute, navigate, maintain rotor rpm, all of it, every minute of the flight. When I went to HAI HELI-EXPO 2023, I saw the helicopters of today, which are just so amazing. Nowadays, helicopters have this controller stabilization augmentation, or autopilot, and other systems where you can just set it up and it’ll fly itself.
When I was in the military, I had an accident with a saw and lost my last three fingers on my right hand above the first joint. I was able to recover and prove I could still fly and climb up that H-21 for preflight, which was no easy thing to do with a weak hand. But 80% of the use of your hand is in your thumb and first finger, so I was able to prove I could fly just as well, and that’s how I flew my entire career.
I would say that if you’re determined to do something, if you can find a way to compensate for whatever is the issue, you can succeed.