No, this is not a movie. It happened for real on the Kettle Complex of fires in Washington August 27, 2015.
Below is the Rapid Lesson Sharing report from the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. It is told from the perspective of the Helicopter Manager.
About five minutes after taking off, I look down and there’s a snake looking up at me. He’s by my right foot pedal, crawling out just inches from my foot. Right before the flight, I’d been talking to a local landowner about rattlesnakes—so that’s my first thought.
I pull my foot back from the snake and it crawls into the helicopter’s clear “chin bubble”. It looked to be about 12-18 inches long with diamonds on its back—like a rattlesnake. But I couldn’t see its tail.
I say to the pilot: “I don’t want to freak you out.”
“I got a snake by my feet.”
“Yeah, it’s for real.”
Can’t Do Mission Due to Snake in Helicopter
I radio Operations and Helibase to inform that I can’t do the mission due to a snake in my helicopter.
As we return to Helibase, there is a suggestion. Apparently, the fuel truck driver likes snakes, so maybe he could get it out and we could take off.
I decide, no. Let’s not try to do that with rotors running.
So we land and shut down. The snake now slides into a hole in the cowling under my seat. While we are looking for it, he pokes his head out a few times—and retreats back inside the cowling.
Not a Rattlesnake
One of the guys gets a look at the snake’s face. He says it’s not a rattlesnake. He says it could be a bull snake; they also have diamonds on their backs. We’re informed that most of the rattlesnakes in this area are timber rattlers. So we figure this one is probably a bull snake.
Can’t Find Snake—Decide to Put Helicopter Back in Service
We pull the helicopter apart trying to find the darned snake—but we never do locate it. We make the decision to put the aircraft back in service—even though the snake could be anywhere.
So, how did the snake get into the helicopter? We think it either crawled up the long line into the belly, or was hiding in someone’s line gear or in the bucket bag when we loaded it. (A SAFECOM was filed on this incident, #15-073).
Eight Days Later, Snake Crawls Out Again
Eight days later, while the relief pilot is in flight, the snake crawls out again.
The pilot lands and the fuel truck driver grabs it. It is confirmed to be a bull snake. It is released unharmed.
Submitted by: Brad Mayhew, Damen Therkildsen, and Patrick Romportl with support from the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group.