It is not every boy growing up in a small Mpumalanga town who can eventually share anecdotes about having dropped a space capsule for Space X to test its parachute systems, or flying a Dreamchaser spaceplane under your helicopter for Sierra Nevada Corporation. For Gary Arthur, however, this has become the norm.
And yet, he still dreams about his childhood years in Peebles. “It is a beautiful area and fantastic for a young boy, with many dams to go fishing, lots of trails to ride bikes and the free place you need to explore.”
Gary attended White River Primary and then Lowveld High, matriculating in 1986. “My parents were Johnny and Celeste Arthur. My dad passed away in 2005, but my mother is still in White River,” he says, expressing the hope to visit South Africa in the next few months.
He fondly remembers their early mornings in the Kruger Park, the anticipation of trying to see something new, and of course the challenge to spot it before anyone else did. “The bush is still therapeutic for me. There is nowhere else I can relax the way I can there.”
After school Gary joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) for national service, but managed to get onto the pupil pilots course. He qualified for SAAF wings in 1990 on the Harvard. Eventually he flew helicopters until leaving in 1995.
With few opportunities in South Africa he ended up flying for Executive Outcomes, mainly flying Russian helicopters in Sierra Leone. At that stage Nico Heyns had brought some into SA for firefighting, so it was a natural progression for him to come back and fly them for Heyns Helicopters for a few years on and off. At the time, he was based at the old Nelspruit airport for a couple of fire seasons. “I loved it, had great people to work with and I have to say the Lowvelders are fantastic, just a little different to anyone else, in my opinion,” Gary chuckles.
Brad Warren and Gary Arthur
In 2001 he started flying for Eskom doing power line maintenance with helicopters, as well as other contracts, including in Madagascar where they flew for former president, Marc Ravalomanana. “Madagascar is very poor and has no infrastructure worth mentioning, so helicopters are the only way to get to many parts of the island. I was fortunate to fly to most of the towns in the country.”
It was one of the most challenging environments Gary has flown in. Available fuel is scarce and depots far apart, the weather can be treacherous, and they were always flying heavy and landing in places that were often hazardous. “Fortunately Ravalomanana liked me so I ended up working with him the most and he eventually asked me to move to Madagascar to be his personal pilot after he purchased his own helicopter.”
That scenario did not last for very long, however. The individuals who sold him the helicopter wanted their own people there, so worked Gary out of the job. Shortly thereafter he moved to the USA, but then got work from another South African company flying in Indonesia after the devastating tsunami of 2004. “That was an eye-opener and the individual tragedies we heard of were heartbreaking, besides the estimated quarter of a million lives lost!” he remembers.
From there he moved to Spain, again doing firefighting for a few years, before going back to the USA. During another couple of fire seasons with a Huey around the western US, Gary had two engine failures, but escaped unscathed. “The fire industry in the USA is of a scale that was simply mind-boggling to this South African farm boy. The resources available are staggering!” he laughs. “On my first major fire I was in California, just east of San Francisco and there were 4 500 firefighters on the ground alone! At the airport where I was based there were about 10 to 12 helicopters, and that was just for one fire.”
Gary also did some more power line maintenance flying and had a bad crash in 2009, in which one of the linemen standing on the side of the helicopter broke his leg and the other one broke his arm badly. “I probably got the worst of it with a couple of broken vertebrae, a punctured lung and sundry other bumps and scrapes, but remarkably, we all survived.”
In 2010 he started flying for a company called Evergreen that had him train other pilots. He ended up going to Norway for the first week of every month to teach in a flight simulator. Gary also went to Afghanistan a couple of times. When he got a job offer from Erickson in 2011, he jumped at the opportunity. “I had always wanted to fly a SkyCrane and I finally had my chance.”
The SkyCrane, also known as the Sikorsky S-64, or CH-54 when the military flew them, is a huge helicopter specifically designed for lifting things. It has a cockpit with three seats, two normal ones in the front and one at the back facing the tail of the helicopter, and no cabin.
The SkyCrane, also known as the Sikorsky S-64, in action
It has two extremely powerful engines on the top deck, 4 800 horsepower each, and a correspondingly heavy fuel consumption. “Interestingly, the aft seat has flight controls and when we are doing construction, we have a third pilot who sits in this seat, and with the great view it provides, it allows us to place heavy loads with amazing precision.”
Once again Gary did firefighting. “We could carry up to 10 tons of water in a tank bolted onto the belly and it is hands down the most effective aerial fire-fighting tool.”
After six months, he joined the construction department, thanks to his background and he has been there ever since. “I spent a while in Peru flying parts of oil rigs into the Amazon jungle and managed to make it to the Nazca Plains and Machu Picchu in my off time,” he remarks, showing his love of travelling and seeing new places, with the accompanying chance to try new foods and experience different cultures.
The construction department is a tight-knit group. One of the most valued traits is the ability to work well with others. It has been a very rewarding time for Gary, with some of the most challenging and frightening flying he has ever done.
“I have been flying in the aft seat for a few years now and it is one of the more unique pilot jobs there is. There are five of us doing it in Erickson and there are perhaps another five pilots doing a similar job in other companies. We lift anything from large air conditioning units onto factory roofs or skyscrapers, to building power line towers or replacing radio antennas on top of tall masts.”
Gary was also very fortunate to have done a couple of jobs for Boeing, and one for Space X where they dropped space capsules to test the parachute systems. “It was very interesting, but stressful flying when you have so many people who have invested their lives and careers in the capsule and you don’t want to make a mistake.” He also flew the Sierra Nevada Corporation’s spaceplane under his helicopter and also did their first drop test at Edwards Air Force Base.
Gary recently flew in Chicago, where they removed and replaced nine-ton transformers on the roof of an 83-storey building, demolished a couple of power line towers in New Jersey and put up the replacements, flew to Pittsburgh for more transformer work downtown and then put up one large power line tower. From there it was on to Atlanta where they installed the framing for a large LED sign on the side of a 33-storey building for the upcoming Super Bowl.
Currently, Gary and his partner Jean live in Tampa. “She puts up with my frequent absences with good grace and patience,” he smiles. “We have been here for a few years now, but will probably move to Tennessee next year,” he muses, “just to have a change of scenery and seasons. Florida tends to be wonderful for four months and then has eight months of summer.”
Gary admits that he does not like to be bored, so in his spare time he flies Harvards, or T-6s as they are known there, for a company near Orlando. They do formation flying, aerobatics and teach pilots who have never flown these aircraft before.
In his spare time he flies Harvards for a company near Orlando
As a result of that flying, he bought a small plane for himself and had it sprayed in colours similar to the Harvards he flew in the SAAF, complete with the castle on the side!