A Blip on the Radar (part 2) “Running the Gauntlet “
Posted on February 29, 2008
A Blip on the radar
Part 2: Running the gauntlet
It’s hard to fathom how immense the Pacific Ocean is.
Even looking at a globe, and studying how much of the world is in fact covered by said megga puddle, does not convey the breathtaking vastness of a world of waves. From horizon to horizon. Take that globe, and look up the islands of Hawaii. From Hawaii, go to Guam, which is another…. whole lotta miles east…. Found it? Now, with your finger, trace a line down to Papua New Guinea. How many thousand miles is that? Then, roughly half way along that line, imagine me, floating in all that water, all on my lonesome, with only my life jacket and thoughts for company. And a bunch of hungry sharks of course. Now factor in gale force winds, producing twelve foot waves.
No, it’s not pretty, is it?
Put it this way, you’re a thousand plus miles offshore.
There’s no ‘search and rescue’ friendly US Coastguard out there.
When you run into trouble, big trouble, like I did, you know full well, deep down, that you’re in some serious sh…..! I ask you to imagine this, because, believe me, I was staring at it. For real…
If you fly in a relatively friendly place such as the Gulf of Mexico, there are weather stations everywhere. Some with trained weather observers. Via telephone or Internet, you have a blaze of weather information available. Current, forecast, winds aloft, radar summary charts, satellite pictures… anything you want.
In the early nineties, flying off Taiwanese tuna boats in the middle of the Big Puddle… we didn’t have all that good stuff. You could always moisten your thumb, and hold it up in the wind… The ship’s radar, set to the furthest range, would give you a rough idea…
But in the final analysis, you were on your own. On the exploratory rides, hunting for the elusive tuna, we had to keep a wary eye out for fast moving storm fronts. On the day in question, I had flown east from the Hsieh Feng 707. With a pleasant following wind.
It had been cloudy for a few days, light rain, but nothing too bad. We knew there was bad weather out further west, but we didn’t realise how fast moving a storm front it actually was. Little did I surmise, as I departed eastbound over the horizon, losing sight of my only landing platform within one thousand plus miles, that the front was already about to surge over the western horizon towards the Hsieh Feng 707. What compounded the problem was that the captain, exhausted from an early rise and ‘set’, had gone to bed for a quick nap after my departure. And promptly ‘conked out’. Nobody of course thought to wake him up, as dark and evil storm clouds raced for the ship.
What brought him back into the action was the ship rocking and rolling, and spray cascading over the decks. By the time he, breathless, called me on the radio, I, sixty miles away, had already turned back, observing for myself ominous dark towers on the distant horizon. His voice betrayed his anxiety within seconds.
Moggy-Moggy!…Weather BAD…come back!..come back!..come back to sheeeiip!!
I acknowledged his call, and wondered what I was getting into.
I ran the numbers, and from what I could see I should be able to arrive back at the ship with a healthy thirty-five to forty minutes of fuel reserve. That should give me quite a bit of time for poking and prodding my way cautiously around the bad weather. It seemed not too bad, although I noticed the waves were building rapidly in size. The areas of foam,sliding off the back of the swells, were getting noticeably larger. Still, I had a pretty good feeling about it. I pulled in a bit of power, and settled down to a fast cruise. I was running on a westerly course now, into a stiff headwind. Stiff, but nothing I hadn’t allowed for.
Then… the wind started to howl. It had been blowing all day at a respectable twenty to twenty five knots. With five to six foot waves. Enough to be downright windy, but eminently within the range of what we coped with all the time. But now, studying my groundspeed, I was dismayed to watch my progress over the waves starting to decay rapidly. The wind was fighting me now, getting stronger by the minute. I maintained my heading, and the feeling of being in a stage of “alert ” intensified.
Boy! Those clouds on the horizon… they sure look dark. Wind is coming up. Damn. Look at those horses…
The waves, getting angrier, were building in size, and throwing up angry white foamed crests, like horses on a mad gallop, their manes streaming behind them.
Ten minutes had gone by, and the aviator’s instinct within me had upgraded the “alert ” status to “alert status: stage two “. I had flown over this kind of scene many a time.
I wasn’t “alarmed ” yet. But I wasn’t happy either…
Then… the wind, maturing beyond the howling stage, started to shriek. Soon, I was staring in disbelief at the GPS. If it was telling me the truth, my gound speed had decayed to the point that I measured the headwind at a cool 40 knots.
Uh-oh… This is getting bad. I wonder what the Hsieh Feng’s roll rate is…
In the Gulf of Mexico, a typical company limit would be a vessel ‘roll rate’ of 2.5 degrees either side, and a ‘heave’ of ten feet. Beyond that, you can’t land. Safety first. And second. And third. Commendable. Things were a little different on tuna boats. It wasn’t that we didn’t care about safety, believe me, a lot of us did – with a passion, it was more that sometimes… there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of choice of landing pads.
“Hsieh Feng 707, Two-Mike-Delta! “
“Moggy! Go ahead! “
“What’s your roll rate, captain? “
The answer, when it came, with a strange background noise, didn’t please me at all.
“Moggy!…. Bad! Very bad!…. fifteen to eighteen degrees! We climb over…. very big waves! …. this is STORM… my helideck… big waves over helideck!… I come to your position!…. “
“Oh, fffffff….uck! “
Now I was alarmed.
Oh, dear… The helideck was twenty five feet above the waterline, above the bridge. If he was getting waves over the helideck… things were bad.
Another crew member came on the radio. In the background, I could hear the unmistakeable noises of a ship being tossed around like a cork in a commode.
Things crashing and clattering, and a demon in the background, screaming like a joyful banshee certain of its catch… interrupted by an occasional slamming noise.
“Moggy-Moggy! Fong tai-tah! Bad! Bad! Pooh-how! We have… very bad weather. Fong tai-tah! “
Oh, boy. He was trying to warn me. “Fong tai-tah! ”
I’ll say. I was staring nervously at my groundspeed. Son of a gun…
It was “pooh-how ” all right. Very bloody pooh-how…
Mentally I berated myself for not seeing this coming. I should have… been more vigilant. I should have… not gotten into this mess.
I shook my head. This was not the time to be introspective. This was the time to… concentrate. The ship was showing only twenty three miles away. Ordinarily, a mere twelve to fifteen minutes flight time. But I didn’t have a hope of getting there on my present track. A massive, ugly gray and black cloud stood firmly across my route, positively barring my direct track home. What was worse, there was heavy rain deluging out the bottom. The silver sheening iron curtains of the torrential downpour hung all the way down to the ocean. There was no way I could possibly continue that way…
“Hsieh Feng 707, Two-Mike-Delta! “
The reply was instantaneous, without the usual slight pause.
“Captain, I can’t make it on this track. Weather too bad! I try go North! “
“Moggy! I have you on radar! I just see you! My radar full! You try north! Okay! “
The ship’s radar was not designed for the purpose, but I knew he would be able to see me as a ‘small blip’. Surrounded by powerful echoes coming off the storm cells. He would be able to give me only limited guidance information around the worst of it.
“My radar full…! “
It might be ‘pigeon English’, but I knew exactly what he meant. His radar scope was chock full of angry echoes, with me, a small blip, vainly struggling to find a way around it all.
A few minutes passed by.
During which time I was burning up precious fuel. This… wasn’t working.
And I knew it. My path was being cut off by more violent black clouds, and cascading tons of water crashing out of the heavens. The visibility underneath there would be zero. It was borderline suicide to even try.
I turned around, and now I was heading south… Looking hard at my fuel gauge.
Twenty five minutes left…
I looked nervously at the waves. They were up to nine, ten feet. There was no way I could land on the sea. I’d flip over almost immediately. I’d probably go over backwards, as the helicopter would want to weather vane into wind, putting me perpendicular across the waves. You’d ride one wave, become unstable on the second one, rocking fore-and-aft, and number three would complete the process and….over backwards you go.
No fun at all.
Twenty minutes left…
Now I had traveled four or five miles southwards, but the approaching weather was pushing me back, on a south-easterly track, away from the Hsieh Feng 707… I could tell from the GPS. The rain, if anything, had intensified. It was one of the worst downpours I had seen in a long time. It had turned really dark. Spray was blowing around in a hazy gloom. Lightning was flashing in the distance as well, leaving me in no doubt as to the power of this monster…
I couldn’t find a way around this stuff. Hopeless.
I was looking at the waves now. Wondering… if I was going to end up in them. This was…. not going to be pretty. The helicopter was going to tip over immediately. Despite the floats. Too rough to remain upright. Assuming I got out okay, and that was always an “if “, then I would float away from the helicopter. The upturned machine, with only the white floats on the surface, would be hard to impossible to find in this weather and sea state. As for the pilot, with just his head and shoulders bobbing around in this swell, with this current, and with the possibility, no, probability, of sharks around…
“Go ahead, captain! “
“Moggy, I try to come to your position, but bad weather come with me… “
He sounded choked, almost tearful. I’d never heard him like that before…
“I can see it, captain, weather push me back away from you… “
I spoke in the same peculiar, clipped, short phrased English. He had difficulty understanding long sentences. But neither of us had any difficulty understanding the enormity of this mess.
“Moggy, I call Fong Sheng 727 and Fu Kuan 606! They turn around, start to come to your position! “
Two of the captain’s friends. But neither boat had a helideck. And they were still far away. I knew what it meant. The captain was preparing for a search and rescue mission. He was assuming I was going to run out of fuel and go in…
Many of us developed a relationship with our helicopter. She was our girl. My girl.My baby. I washed her, and waxed her, and polished her. I was proud of her. Although I covered her in salt spray during our many fish herding rodeo sessions, I nevertheless afterwards, solicitously hosed her down with fresh water. I would clean and inspect her. At night, I might stick another coat of wax on her, but I would certainly cover the exposed metal parts with a protective covering of WD-40 or Teflon. I actively looked for incipient corrosion, and treated it where possible. I changed her oil and fluids. On occasions, I carried out major surgery. I had changed out engines and transmissions, rotor blades and radios.
Now, faced with the prospect of an imminent ditching, I was looking around the cockpit as if I was saying goodbye to an old friend. An old friend, who I had spent countless hours with darting around the waves, chasing clouds, and sliding down rainbows…
“Moggy! How much fuel you have? “
“Not a lot, captain, maybe ten minutes or so… “
“Gott!….Oh, Gott!….. I try to come to your position….very hard! “
I said nothing. I knew he was trying. Very hard. So was I…
So was I…
I looked up at the towering black cloud bearing down on me. It had been steadily pushing me back. Somewhere, under that dark monster, lay the Hsieh Feng 707, and the only landing site within a thousand miles. How, I wondered, had I ever gotten here? What strange quirks of fate and happenstance had conspired to park me in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, within only minutes of fuel remaining, and borderline zero options?
What had I done, to deserve this? Yes, I had known the risks. The image of Barry, a friend of mine, another pilot, floated through my mind. He was talking, leaning against a bar somewhere, Honiara perhaps, or Tarawa, maybe Rabaul, somewhere, putting into words what we all knew, but preferred not to dwell on.
“You know, in the first two years I was flying tuna helicopters, I counted fourteen people killed in helicopters out of Samoa and Guam. And I heard more than that, out of South America. After that… you know, I just quit counting… “
I seemed to remember I’d drunk a beer to that. In a silent acknowledgement of the guys that didn’t make it. It wasn’t… that we didn’t think it couldn’t happen to us. It was more that most of us were super cautious. We knew the risks, and we measured them carefully. We put a lot of thought into what we were doing. But some guys… we had guys with two hundred hours flight time masquerading as two thousand hour pilots. So that they could get a job. They would just whip out a pencil and their logbooks became a form of creative fiction…. Then we had the wild ones… guys with high motor skills, but no imagination. No fear. No…respect. We had the odd Vietnam vet. Still fighting wars in his mind. And we had a gaol bird or two, who had been stripped of all their licenses. Flying on forged paperwork, brooding and dark. Drug runners and weapon smugglers.
The half crazy ones.
When you heard one of them had piled in… sometimes you just were not surprised.
I’d been on a search or two. Long, lonely, futile rides. Trying to find a head and shoulders bobbing about in the Pacific ocean. Worrying yourself sick that he can see you, frantically, but you can’t see him... Like looking for half a needle in ten thousand haystacks… Deep down, you know he’s a goner… but you try. You try….
I shook my head.
It was as if a voice was shouting at me in my head:
“Enough of this introspective brooding shit! Okay, you’ve got a problem… what are you going to DO about it…?? ”
It was decision time.
Probably the wisest course of action… was to fly away from that big black brute of a cloud, pick a spot, pass back the coordinates, and ditch. Roll over, swallow sea, spit it out, and swim. And hope that the raging current didn’t sweep you away so far they’d never find you….The only other choice was unthinkable.
Ten minutes left…
The only other choice was a bad one.
Punch right on in to that ugly grey-and-black Mother, and go for it..
I had a fair few thousand hours over water under my belt, and I knew that you should never try and fly under a torrential downpour that reaches down to the sea. Everybody knows that. Basically, you can’t. There’s no visibility, severe turbulence, and water coming down by the ton. You’re going to get what’s known amongst pilots as spatial disorientation, roll over and crash. And die. And what’s worse, you’ll wreck your beautiful helicopter. The only sensible choice was to retreat, fly off somewhere and ditch, with at least a modicum of control. Better that than crash. Out of control.
So ran the deliberations though my mind, as, sadly, I prepared to say goodbye. She, my pride and joy, hummed reliably on, like a patient, good-natured dog, trusting her master to do what is best. I felt like a traitor. A damn traitor…
I was in…, underneath the pounding Niagara waterfalls, before I knew it.
Water hit the windscreen so hard, with such sledgehammer brutal force, I thought it would splinter and cave in. It felt like I was submerged already. The shock hit me like a body blow. One second I had been in a gloomy external twilight, and the next second, somebody had switched the lights out, and I was in an internal, dark, unearthly cavern. With walls of angry water, a floor of waiting water, and a ceiling of imminent water…
I was moving slowly forward at about seven knots or so, and hovering maybe ten feet above the sea. I was now in a place I had never been before.
And a place I knew I should not be…
Rain beat with an insane fury on me. Visibility through the windscreen was zero. It was impossible to see. With the doors off, the only visibility I had was out sideways.
I was hover taxying along, looking sideways out the doors.
Tremendous turbulence shook the helicopter with demented fury, and I wondered if she could hold on. The rain was so intense that it had actually beaten the waves down.
I had been flying over nine, ten, and twelve foot waves. Now, astonished, I could see, through the swirling currents of air and water, and the spray that lashed into my face through both doors, pock marked waves of only two to four feet high, turned a strange foaming gray and green color. It seemed as if I observed these events with detachment, like some other-worldly event to which I was a mere casual spectator, whereas in fact I was working like a devil. Slowly, slowly, I inched my way forwards, alternating rapid glances out of either door to stay level, with a quick glance inside at the GPS. The Global Positioning System. The “get me home box “. I needed that navigational information desperately, for it was the only way to find my mother ship. Without it, in fifteen to twenty foot visibility in this hail of fury, I was lost in every sense. It was therefore a nasty shock, compounding itself to my many worries, when I realized salt water was now pouring off my instruments and my radio stack.
Dammit! If that lot decides to short-circuit, and trip off-line…
I checked the course and range to the ship.Eight point six miles, bearing three one zero…
The noise was deafening. Even with my helmet on, padding my ears, I was acutely aware, over and above the sound of my turbine, and the beat of my rotor blades, of the rain beating on me. Pummeling me. Determined to drive me forcibly into the swirling gray and green waiting waters below. And the fuel gauge… was heading purposefully towards the large ‘E’. Empty...
Was I praying? Hell, no! I was far too goddam busy!
But I know I felt… that peculiar combination of emotions, where you know on the one hand, that you are peddling like a monkey in a circus to solve the problem. On the other hand, deep down, on another level, you know that this… is beyond serious. This…
…could bloody well kill me…!
For now another worry was nibbling at my mind. Even if the GPS and the radios held up in all the salt water, even if…. I actually found the blessed boat…. how was I going to avoid running into it? My forward visibility through the windscreen was exactly zero.
Whilst I jockeyed and swayed and hover taxied unsteadily along, I contemplated the supreme irony of being run over by twelve hundred tons of well meaning Taiwanese steel. I could kick on a little tail right-left yaw, enabling me to peer forwards through the door on my left. Problem was, I instantly received a face full. I had salt crystals embedded all over my glasses. I could lick my lips and taste the sea.
I resolved to navigate as close as I could, and then I would just have to fishtail left-right-left in the final stage.
With the GPS showing four point three miles, bearing three two five, I had another heart stopping moment as the lights illuminating my radios flickered…
…OFF…on again…. OFF… on again…
At the same time as my heart rate was fluttering wildly, I heard the captain’s voice.
“Moggy!…where are you?…I lose your position….? ”
I knew he’d lost me on radar, which was no surprise. No more blip… With the risk of tripping a circuit breaker with all the moisture, I didn’t dare transmit.
All I wanted was the GPS to keep working…
Ignoring his repeated and increasingly frantic calls, I busied myself on closing the distance.
Two point two miles…
I sneaked a quick look at the fuel gauge. It was pegged on empty.
Grrrreat…! Now I’m running on fumes…. this can’t possibly get any worse…
The flash of lightning and the tremendous thunderclap were instantaneous.
It felt like a detonation, an explosion, and I would have jumped clean out of my skin… but I was too busypedaling like a monkey out of a circus on fire… For a brief instant, it illuminated my surroundings, and the beaten down waves below me. Their color changed, for the brief few seconds of the lightning flash, from a gray-green tint to a much brighter gray-white. I could see further, but still only the silhouettes of yet more waves.
I was getting tired. The concentration was intense. I couldn’t afford to lose focus for even a second. Now I also had to allow for the risk of an engine flame-out. With its attendant immediate descent into the sea. I would have perhaps a second to react correctly.
Half a mile…
The lights on the radio stack were flickering again. Somewhere, moisture was getting in to vital electrics. I was surprised they had held up this long…
Quarter of a mile…
Trying to push the risk of a flame-out-at-any-second… to the back of my mind, I was now needing to deal with my next concern: not getting run over… I absolutely needed to see the Hsieh Feng coming. The only way I could do that was to fish-tail like crazy, snatching a quick look out the open door each time I kicked sideways. Now I was soaked through, and so was the inside of the cockpit. My beard felt strangely saturated and seemed to be flattened against my lower face like a washcloth. I needed…
There…! There she is……!!!
Looming up above me, towering up into the sky, the bow of a ship split the rain curtain. It rose up, and then plunged down, slamming into the sea. White foaming bow waves, cleaved by her passage, stretched weirdly towards me, even as I banked hard right. I passed by her port side, along the deserted rear working deck, and hauled myself around in a screaming seventy degree bank over the stern. One glance as I passed by had been enough to see how much the ship was struggling. The bow was rearing up, and then slamming down, to where the heave was probably twenty-five to thirty feet. Spray was everywhere, and water was pouring off her decks.
Sunshine! Where’s Sunshine…?
I positively, desperately needed my deck helper, my assistant, whom I had nicknamed “Sunshine “, to be ready and waiting to instantly, the moment I touched down, secure the belly hook and quickly wind in the arrester cable. In that way, I would be secured to the deck, regardless of the roll rate. Otherwise, with fifteen to eighteen degrees of roll, I would land, and be hurtled clear off the ship again. I couldn’t see him…
With grim determination I swung around onto finals. I had to climb up to reach the helideck, and as I did so, ominous white tentacles started to engulf me. If I went into cloud at that critical moment, I was a goner. All I could do was concentrate on the helideck, still fish-tailing crazily, and try and ignore those white, ghostly talons appearing in the corner of my eye.
Sunshine…! I need you bad…. where the fuckkkk are you…???
I had been allowing for an engine flame-out whilst hover taxying towards the boat, but now I was flying again. I had speed and altitude, and now would be a real bad time for those fuel vapors to run out…
I hit the helideck firmly, instantly caught in the bow spray. I could feel myself sliding sideways off the deck…
A small, oilskin clad figure erupted like a missile from behind the dubious shelter of the radome, and sprinted towards the helicopter. A brown, rain lashed face, showing nothing but the grimmest determination, concentration etched in every line, hurled himself bravely underneath the sideways sliding helicopter, and latched on the cable. Then he slithered and clawed his way out, and bolted back to the winch.. Operating the winding lever as if his own life depended upon it, in seconds he had the cable tight and locked. Now, whatever happened, we were at least secured by one line… he shot back to the helicopter with the four tie-down cables, and quickly, expertly, secured those. Then… wind lashed, rain soaked, cold, he looked up at me, and grinned. Grinned. That huge big, “welcome home “ typical ‘Sunshine grin’ I had learned to appreciate more than he could ever know…
As I walked down to the bridge below the helideck, holding onto the rails for dear life, I marveled at the weather I had just come through. The spray over the decks didn’t worry me now. It was almost a pleasure to be able to feel it. I was already soaked beyond mere saturation anyway. I actually felt borderline jocular. It was coming up to lunch time, what the Taiwanese call “Tsuh-wann “ and for some reason I felt deliriously hungry…
The captain, gripping the helm firmly, and peering through rain lashed windows, past wipers going at maximum revolutions, looked over at me as I stepped in. His face, white, strained, and his eyes hollow, said it all. He had screwed up, by going to sleep while his helicopter was on a long range search, and damn near lost his pilot in the process.
Our eyes met, and I just grinned.
Hey! I’m here…!
In answer, his eyes just rolled up, with an expressive up and backwards jerk of his head. It was as if he was saying:
“I’m glad you’re back. I was worried sick… “
He never did apologize. That wasn’t his style. But after that, he took extra care. And showed, in his own way, that he was concerned about my safety. And my welfare.
In that respect, he was one of the best captains I ever flew for.
I enjoyed my tsuh-wann. Despite the burns. From the hot coffee, which I spilt, half an hour later, when I started shaking. I covered it up with a laugh, and a joke.
But I knew, full well… that fiasco should never have happened…
I knew, but for a little bit of skill and a lot of luck, that the captain’s radar scope might have recorded the permanent loss… of my little blip.
And that would have been pooh-how. Definitely. Very bloody pooh-how…
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 19, 2014, 10:48 pm