Collier releases third book about experiences flying helicopters

After Vietnam and Air America, Collier’s next book focuses on ‘the rest of the story’

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

If it involves a helicopter, Bill Collier has probably done it. 

In his first book, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps, Capt. Collier USMCR shares firsthand accounts of his experiences flying combat helicopter missions in Vietnam. In his second installment, Air America: A CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans, Collier covers the next stage of his career with stories about piloting helicopters in Laos for Air America during the CIA’s secret war waged into the 1970s. 

Both memoirs captured the gritty details of Collier’s combat experiences in the air, while also adding just the right amount of self-deprecating wit. With his newly released third book in the series, The Worldwide Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot… The Rest of the Story, Collier details the wayward civilian life he lived after his service, flying for every outfit imaginable to satisfy his yearning for adrenalin.

“After my military and quasi-military career, I continued to fly for many more years,” Collier told the Reader.

All told, Collier flew 40 different kinds of helicopters in 13 countries and 27 states. He flew for 22 different companies or government entities, experiencing his fair share of whisker-thin close calls. 

“I was suffering from a pretty big case of post-traumatic stress and had trouble focusing in one place, so I took a lot of seasonal work,” Collier said. “There were a couple of experiences in Vietnam and Air America that just scared the ever living beans out of me, so I would often find myself in the fight-or-flight syndrome. I’ve never really been a fighter, so I would always flee. In a helicopter, that’s pretty easy to do — you just fly away.”

With his characteristic style of writing — dispensing unvarnished truth laced heavily with raw, often humorous details — Collier hits his stride with this third book. He takes readers along while he bounces around like a ping pong ball from gig to gig, as only a combat veteran helicopter pilot could.

“My first civilian job was in the north of Alaska in 1969, doing oil surveys,” Collier said.

The state of Alaska had huge tracts of land leased out to oil companies to drill, but since the tundra was too soft to accommodate land vehicles, helicopters were the preferred method of transportation.

“Think of trying to walk around on 18 inches of sponge,” Collier said. “To drive a vehicle on it would bog it down or tear up the tundra, so helicopters were everywhere up there.”

From there, Collier moved to the very western edge of the Aleutian Islands, almost into Russia, where he shuttled environmentalists around to survey what potential damage underground atomic bomb testing had on flora and fauna.

“We flew around with this big Hasselblad camera and took pictures of the ocean around the island,” Collier said. “I think only one sea otter died — of natural causes. The underground blasts never broke the surface.”

From there, Collier traveled back to Southeast Asia to fly for Air America, which he outlined at length in his second book, before returning to civilian life again. He dusted crops, lifted construction equipment to the top of tall buildings and shuttled executives from place to place. He flew for utility companies, for the U.S. Forest Service and even for an orange juice commercial with Bing Crosby.

Still unable to remain settled down, Collier then took a job in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, supporting the “Star Wars” ICBM testing program. He describes in entertaining detail how odd it was to live on an island in the middle of the South Pacific that was essentially just a small town transplanted from Alabama, where all the personnel were from.

As the years piled up, and Collier transitioned from one flying gig to another, he began questioning his wanderlust.

“I think at times, I was always looking for a way out, because the way I was doing it was so unstable,” he said. “I wasn’t getting anything put away for retirement. I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t just an addition — this flying. Part of it is the adrenalin rush addition. It’s like acid or speed or heroin — you just gotta have it again.”

At one point, Collier did break away from flying, obtaining a chiropractor’s license, but the pull of the rotors was too strong and he returned to the cockpit.

“I came back to California, then went back to Alaska for helicopter logging,” Collier said. “Long-lining is probably the most dangerous job in the whole world, for any occupation anywhere. We lost three helicopters and three pilots just the summer I was there.”

Collier’s last job turned out to be one he held the longest.

“I was a senior pilot for the Orange County Fire Department, flying the Super Huey for rangeland fires,” Collier said. 

Filling and dropping buckets with 3,000 gallons of water at a time gave him the adrenalin rush he was still seeking, while also protecting homes from out-of-control rangeland fires.

“I think my story is complete with this third book,” Collier said. “I may do an offshoot about flying in Alaska, and I’ve got a silly Indiana Jones-kind of slapstick novel in the works, which I may or may never finish.”

A longtime resident of Sandpoint, Collier was recently forced to move over to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington because persistent wildfire smoke each summer was wreaking havoc on his wife’s respiratory system. Nonetheless, Collier plans to return to Sandpoint often, especially to parade with a military surplus H-34 helicopter he and a group of veterans purchased in 2011.

Collier will return to read from and sign his new book at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 2 at Vanderford’s Books and Office Products, 210 Cedar St. in Sandpoint. He will also parade with the salvaged H-34 during the Sandpoint Lions Club Grand Parade on July 4 in Sandpoint.

After many years engaged in combat, Collier said his mission now is peace. 

“After my experiences in Vietnam, Air America, the Star Wars missile program — all these experiences have made me extremely anti-war,” Collier said. “We waste so much money preparing for war. I used to be a warrior, but now I’m the anti-warrior. That’s my mission now.”

Purchase The Worldwide Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot at Vanderford’s in Sandpoint, or online at Amazon or similar book sellers.

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