A Blip on the Radar (Part 5) “Near-Miss “

Posted on June 28, 2009



A Blip on the Radar (5)

“Near-Miss “

Some stories are so extraordinary, that there is no need to invent, embellish, ‘dress up’ or exaggerate. The simple truth in itself is so staggering, that no fiction writer could possibly -ever- dream up such an extravagant tale. This snapshot describes an event that actually occurred back in the mid nineties…
Ironically also, the worries many of us felt in those days at the surge in new technology being used to hunt for Skipjack and Yellowfin Tuna, appear to have been prescient. Many of us feared then that Man would eventually overwhelm this beautiful fish. More than a decade later, today, in 2009, the evidence is terrifying. In some parts of the world’s Oceans, unless stringent quotas and controls are speedily enforced, the ecological damage may well prove to be irreversible… The tuna’s best defender and ally may yet prove to be -ironically- the tuna fishing industry, which has far and away the most to lose in terms of livelihood and income. I wish their leaders, their captains and ship owners, wisdom and foresight.

It’s a nice, sunny day in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
A thousand miles offshore.
The tuna fishing grounds, the so-called ‘tuna fields’, stretch out in all directions. Who could ask for more?
Blue sky, warm, great visibility, spectacular cloud formations…. wispy cirrus streaks high above, and a translucent blue ocean below. It’s as if you can see down a hundred feet below the surface. You’ve just passed some dolphins resting lazily amongst the ripples, lolling about with not a care in the world. The water is so amazingly clear, it was as if they were floating in space. Suspended in a blue crystal bowl, surrounded by sparkling light. One of them must have heard you coming, because he suddenly came awake and kicked downwards. You watched him for a long time, as he dove deeper and deeper…
Neat stuff! And that whale you saw before that, swimming along with her calf in close formation. How many people are privileged to see this with their own eyes? This is an extraordinary adventure. And you could have been a bookkeeper! Or a librarian. Or the pale inhabitant of a cardboard cubicle, surrounded by artificial lights and flickering computer screens.
Yet here you are, both admiring nature, and quietly worrying about it. Worrying about pollution, and Man’s seemingly inevitable overfishing. How long can this relentless hunt go on?

Your observer nudges you. In the distance, … that looks like a white smudge just below the horizon! Could it be…? You turn the helicopter, and fly towards the white color. Your observer is getting excited. Straining your eyes against the blinding glare of the midday sun, you start to see why. It looks like a whole area of ‘foamers’! Maybe five, no, six…. seven large foamers. Spectacular!
You arrive overhead the first one, and marvel at the hundreds and hundreds of fish leaping, darting and rocketing across the surface. They tear great white ‘foaming’,frothing white gashes as they go. You can see the shapes, and the sheer vitality, the life force, just never ceases to amaze you. It makes you feel good that there are so many there. It’s not a situation like the whales…yet. There’s an awful lot of tuna in the seas. You fervently hope… it will always stay that way. This unique sight, one of nature’s real spectacles, almost unknown to most people. That ranks right up there with salmon fighting their way upstream, glaciers breaking off into the sea, and the extraordinary migrations of the tiny hummingbird across the Gulf of Mexico.
A spectacle of nature… under threat? From too many fishing boats, too many helicopters, and too much greed?

Ten minutes later you notice another helicopter in the distance. Another Hughes 500. Cool. Maybe a buddy to talk to. Unfortunately you can’t call him on VHF frequency 123.45 just yet, because your observer is using the two meter band to talk to the ship. If you transmit now, you will interfere with his conversation, and it annoys him.
But there is no problem, because the other machine is several miles away…

You circle a big foamer, probably several thousand fish strong, relaxed and enjoying yourself.
The sun is just cascading down, and splintering into millions of tiny light fragments on the surface of the sea. Amongst these random, scattering, miniature explosions of light, the tuna play, leaping and splashing, chasing anchovy, and generally having a ball. Some of those shapes seem really big. They appear and disappear like black bullets, purposeful torpedoes that leave great white flowers where ever they materialize…

You look around for the other helicopter.
Instantly you spot him.
Heading straight for you! One third of a mile away and closing fast!
Instantly you flick on your landing light, and simultaneously transmit:
“Hughes Five-hundred! CONFIRM you have orange Five-hundred in sight! “
The machine continues straight at you, now mere seconds away, as adrenaline leaps and surges through your system. There is no time for evasive action. With a head on profile, you don’t know which way to turn anyway. The closing speed is over two hundred miles per hour…
With that, a furious voice comes over the radio:
There is no misunderstanding the rage and the hate. Gone in an instant is the peace and harmony of observing Mother Nature performing a timeless ritual, eons old. You are now firmly wrenched back into an ugly, brutish world.
The world of Man…
He is not finished yet.
You know now who it is. Oh Lord…. Him. The crazy dude. The one that was flying around the wild country of Papua New Guinea, without permission, while his boat was in port, offloading fish. Without filing a flight plan. Without required H.F. radio equipment. Without permission from his company. Without permission from his captain. But, note this, WITH a gun. And a fistful of dollars. Landing in remote villages in the jungle, trying to buy cheap gold!
Seemingly oblivious to the insane risks he was taking.
Yes, you turned him in, didn’t you? For his own sake. before he crashed in the dense jungle somewhere where he could never be found, especially without a flight plan. Before he got assaulted and skewered by some angry tribesmen. They still have cannibals in the remote areas of Papua New Guinea…
And now, here he is. Pay-back time…
You listen in astonishment to the foul mouthed tirade, which continues even as both machines pass heart stoppingly close, with the other machine passing just to one side above your rotor disc. But another side of your brain has already lost interest in the invective. You are already determining your course of action…
You decide to leave the area immediately, leaving the rich foamers to the other machine, and to return to your ship. You also decided not to get involved in a radio slanging match. Regret nibbles at your mind that the frequency has been quiet until this. You wished there was a witness! Another pilot on frequency who could hear this abuse…
You turn in the direction of your distant ship, but the tirade continues unabated.
You dive for speed, and find yourself listening to threats on your life. You look around, and see that the other machine has turned, and is chasing you! Your mind works quickly. Do you take evasive action, like in some World War One dogfight? You decide not to, but to maintain a steady flight path, avoiding any abrupt maneuvers which could aggravate the situation. You have a passenger sitting beside you, who is utterly astonished.
Very frightened, the Taiwanese asks:
“Moggy! Why he do this? “
You answer quietly: “Because he is crazy! Do not worry – we go home! ”
You lose sight for a second of the other machine, and then you hear a roar and get to take in the interesting view of the underside of a Hughes 500 helicopter, floats, belly hook, rivet lines… even the smears of oil and grease. All in an instant, as the machine crosses over your rotor disc at fifteen feet! Your passenger physically ducks! You see him squirmed down in his seat, his white face staring, jaw open… Your earlier resolve not to get involved in a radio slanging match momentarily crumples under a desire to relieve your feelings… fluently! But something tells you not to add anything that might fan the flames.
If only somebody else was on frequency to hear this!
More than ever you wish for a witness. Your feelings are now running high. You find you are controlling yourself with an effort. You transmit, in a controlled, matter-of-fact voice, that surprises you even, given how you really feel.

“THAT is the most unprofessional behavior I have ever seen! ”

You leave it at that. Abuse comes pouring back as a reply, the other machine comes close a few more times, but not as close, and you decide to say as little as possible. There is just one more thing…
You think you know who the pilot is. You ask him to confirm he is ‘X’, and he does, with more invective. He wants you to know who he is, because the next time he sees you he is going to ‘kick your ass’.
That is all you wanted to have absolutely straight, who the guy was.
Time for one last comment:
“Okay, as far as I am concerned, this conversation is now terminated! “
You refuse to say anything more, and the abuse peters slowly out for lack of riposte.
You arrive safely back at your ship. Your Taiwanese observer is out the door like a missile, and speeds down to the bridge below. After you have cooled your engine for two minutes, shut down and strapped down, you follow down to the bridge. You find the situation now is escalating rapidly. You can almost see the funny side. At least you didn’t get killed.
And your passenger is okay. Well. Sort of….
Your buddy, Akaya, is mad as hell. It’s almost comical now, to see him gabbering away in Chinese, with vast, expansive waves of his arms. The captain, they call them “Fishmasters ” in Taiwan, is shocked and horrified. He is gabbering in Chinese on the phone. Speaking with the Fishmaster in charge of the Winfar 606, the boat from which the rogue helicopter came. Said gentleman apparently is complaining that he hates his pilot, and has been begging his head office in Taiwan to get rid of the guy for months. You lean against the chart table, and enjoy the show. In between heated exchanges, you get regular translations, plus you speak some five hundred words of Chinese yourself. So you get the picture. Everybody is mad as hell. But the good thing is this: it wasn’t your fault. For once, you didn’t screw up. Somebody else went doo-lally.
The satellite phone rings, and it’s for you. You answer, wondering who on earth it could be.
Oh, joy from heaven! It’s your old Taiwanese buddy, Captain Chan!

“Moggy! This is Captain Chan! Fu Kuan Seven-oh-seven! I fly in my helicopter! I hear everything! That pilot crazy! YOU are GENTLEMAN. I say nothing, I just listen! I hear EVERYTHING! I already talk to Winfar company in Taiwan! They say they FIRE his ass! “

And they did…

* * * * * *

This bizarre but factual story, which has all the makings of an urban legend, (or an Ocean Myth) that nobody will -ever- believe, actually had a few further twists. I kid you not…

About an hour later, I was called to the bridge urgently. This time, if that were possible, there was even more uproar. It emerged that the Winfar captain was on the satellite phone, hysterical with fear and rage. Our strange pilot, him of the dogfight tendencies, had been appraised of the fact that he was being terminated, and that the Winfar captain had orders from head office in Taiwan, to sail to the nearest port and drop him off. His reaction had been to go back to his cabin, and emerge with a rifle and a handgun. He had marched up to the bridge, aimed both at the poor unfortunate Winfar captain, and was threatening said sailor with his life!
And what complicated all that drama even more for me, was the fact that the crew of my boat were all looking at me for a suggestion as to how to resolve this hostage crisis. Knowing full well that the rogue pilot’s life was on the line, as the only American on a boat full of Chinese and Indonesian sailors, waving guns around the place, and threatening their captain, I immediately contacted another pilot in the area, who I knew as a ‘wise head’. Aroused from his sleep by my phone call, this worthy thought at first that I was playing a silly practical joke. Once he realized that the whole melodrama was for real, he gasped in amazement:
“He’ll get his throat cut, and dropped overboard! ”
Which was my sentiment entirely.
The wise dude contacted Billy the Kid, and managed to talk some sense into our fellow pilot. He dropped the aggression, and in turn they dropped him off at the nearest port. With his throat intact.

The whole story went around the tuna fleet like wildfire, and for months afterward I was asked to recount my side of the story over and over again. I document it here in the certain knowledge many will not believe me.
I shrug my shoulders helplessly.
Could anybody make all that up?

And get this… Apparently our friend would often wear a gun on his hip when he went flying. If he saw a whale, or a shark, and if he felt like it, he would descend down in autorotation, pull out his gun, blast away at his target, and then climb back into the sky as if all that was perfectly normal… No wonder his observers were scared stiff of him.

It was, undoubtedly, one of my worst near-death moments in my flying career, when our friendly dude decided to skim over my rotor system. It was an unhinged act. The flight of a madman. However, I can see a few funny sides of the story as well. The famous phone call from Captain Chan, in his broken, heavily accented English, for one:

“Moggy! This is Captain Chan! Fu Kuan Seven-oh-seven! I fly in my helicopter! I hear everything! That pilot crazy! YOU are GENTLEMAN. I say nothing, I just listen! I hear EVERYTHING! I already talk to Winfar company in Taiwan! They say they FIRE his ass! “

And the mental picture I have of Billy the Kid standing on the Winfar bridge, toting a rifle and a handgun, threatening the captain. Thousands of miles offshore, surrounded by a crew of twenty eight Chinese and Indonesian sailors, from a very different culture. With really ugly looking fish knives, hatchets, and pick axes littered all over the place.
Where life… can be cheap.
The only white man on a foreign flagged vessel. That takes….

…a daft Irishman to realize the gravity of the situation, and to worry about his safety. My quick phone call may have saved the fellow’s life.

But I’m NOT counting on any thanks, anytime soon…



Francis Meyrick

Note 1: in reviewing this story for the upcoming publication of my book “Blip on the Radar “, I found myself going through reams of faxes and paperwork, engendered by this event. Which I carefully kept. Just in case somebody ever tries to say I made it all up. There really is quite a neat little stack. It jogged my memory of the reaction of the pilot who was flying Captain Chan, and who listened to the whole litany of abuse and ramming threats. He told me afterwards, he was totally shocked. And that it was unreal to listen to. A soft spoken gentleman, good stick, he told me he knew the guy was flying around with a gun on his hip, and he’d heard the stories about him auto-rotating down and taking pot-shots at marine animals. When he heard the threats, he told me he honestly thought the guy was experiencing a psychotic event, had ‘flipped out’ and was going to either shoot at, or ram me. He was impressed at how cool I remained. Not that I had much choice.

He knew I had flown for Captain Chan, and he said Captain Chan liked me. We had gotten along real well. He said the Captain, when it was all over, just shook his head, and snarled:
“Back to ship…! ”
And that’s when my buddy knew, the phone calls to Taiwan, and everywhere, were not going to be pretty…

Karma, sometimes, is a determined Taiwanese gentleman Captain…!

Return to Index? (ChopperStories.COM)?

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on November 19, 2015, 10:01 am

0 votes, average: 0.00 out of 50 votes, average: 0.00 out of 50 votes, average: 0.00 out of 50 votes, average: 0.00 out of 50 votes, average: 0.00 out of 5 (0 votes, average: 0.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this.

1 response to A Blip on the Radar (Part 5) “Near-Miss “

  1. Great story, francis..The description of the ocean and the fish…that was just beautiful..so descriptive I can see it perfectly…almost smell the salt of the water.

    Great and lovely way to set the stage for the high adventure to follow…and that part was thrilling, frightening and telling.
    What kinda fellows are those pilots, anyway?

    The ending was a wonderful wrap to a story that seemed like its own little mini-adventure, but still offers promise of more to come.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Home   Back to Tile Index