The Allure of ICBMs: Chasing Birds and Dancing with Skirts

Scintrex Helicopter  Geophysics Crew  1969In early March 1969, I was hired by Siegel Associates, a small Canadian geophysical exploration instrument manufacturer. The firm was soon to become Scintrex, one of the world’s leading geophysical exploration consultancies (in spite of my total ignorance of geophysics.) Dr. Harry Siegel and his Senior Geophysicist, Mike L~, had hired me because they liked my spirit.

I suppose too, I must have been cheap at $400 per month, but as little as the money was, the work seemed odd, yet fun. My first task was to sort through thousands of 35 mm transparencies. The sole instruction: “Sort the slides”. The slides showed photographs of instruments, people with instruments, people without instruments, and so on. Using a geologist’s hand lens to peer at model numbers on labels, and observing the instruments around the office, I soon had the slides sorted out by models, faces, apparent weather/environment (snow, desert, forest, etc) and so on. It was the sort of job one would give an intern nowadays, to see how the innocent thinks and works.

Apparently this innocent did OK at that job because I was told I was leaving Toronto until the Fall with some more “new guys”. I was to be a “dataman” with a geophysics crew. We were to break in a brand new helicopter geophysics system on small jobs in Northern Ontario and Manitoba before spending the summer in Northern Saskatchewan. The new guys were two MSc. graduates in Geophysics from the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College, London: Mike Y~ and Robin G~. We were led by John S~, an experienced electronics technician. Adding grace to the crew was “Smithy” P~, then the oldest, likely the most experienced, helicopter pilot in Canada, and Barry D~, his fun-loving mechanic.

Ed Medley playing chopper pilot, Marathon, Ontarion 1969The helicopter was a brand new Bell Jet Ranger 206B leased from Pegasus Helicopters. I fell in love with the helicopter. I was the only crew member who did not fly in regularly the aircraft as a part of the job, so Smithy took me often on test flights and when we were ferrying to the next job. There was nothing as cool as whirring into the car park of a service station/restaurant on Trans-Canada Highway, and stepping nonchalantly out of the chopper. Only a few weeks before in the UK,  I had been whizzing around on a fork-lift truck, which was comparatively minor-cool and did not have much appeal to women…

The new geophysics system included new airborne geophysics instruments, a Vinson 16 mm aerial camera, a Bonzer electronic altimeter and an intervalometer to add time marks to the paper charts and film. The helicopter system was designed to locate prospective ore bodies by identifying buried metal mineralized rock masses from the air, that could later be surveyed on the ground and possibly drilled. The geophysics system contained an electromagnetic (EM) system, to characterize electrically conducting bodies by measuring amplitude changes and phase shifts; a magnetometer to identify anomalies of the earth’s magnetic field; and a scintillometer to measure the radium, thorium and potassium signatures of radiometric minerals containing uranium.

The EM system included a “bird”, a 20 foot tube with a radio transmitter at one end and a receiver at the other. The bird had a nose cone at one end, and at the other both a cone and an attached skirt (a parachute-like drogue) which steadied the bird’s flight as it was towed beneath and behind the helicopter. We carried two birds  on our crew cab truck. They looked for all the world like ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles). “ICBMs” they indeed became when curious high school girls and waitresses at rest stops asked us what they were.  We were also “secret government agents” –  and the cool guys who stepped out of the chopper in service station/restaurant parking lots really could look the part. I used to envy them: they won all the attention!

Mike Young dancing with the skirtThe vitally important birds were made of fragile fiberglass and had to be handled carefully, especially at landing and take-off. Whenever a survey mission was completed, we who stayed in camp, would hear the distinctive whine of the chopper returning, drop what we were doing and head for the landing area. The bird, which was on a cable tether probably more than 100 feet long, would slowly lower as the the helicopter descended, twisting and swinging with the skirt end down. The ground crew chased the bird hither and thither, looking upward; arms outstretched in pirouettes, dancing to catch the skirt. I had many a clumsy tumble while looking up and not down. No matter: it was way better fun than fork lift trucks.

EM Bird through the window, Northern Sask. 1969I learned to drive the powerful International-Harvester crew cab truck that summer: it was not an easy vehicle to master, even for someone with fork-lift truck experience! The birds overhung the front of the truck by several feet and my careless parking once resulted in a motel window being broken. They really were puny, innocent ICBMs.

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 50 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his decades of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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2 Responses to The Allure of ICBMs: Chasing Birds and Dancing with Skirts

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