Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.2-A “Your job offer: legitimate questions “
Posted on July 17, 2009
Approaching the Calipso by Sven A.Saeboe
PART 2 “Moggy’s Tuna Manual ” “Job offers and job duties “
Chapter 2-A “Your Job Offer: Legitimate questions you SHOULD ask “
(But have some sympathy with the helicopter owner)
So, having read Part 1 of this manual, and seen some interesting articles, in a moment of weakness you decided to apply for a job as a tuna pilot or mechanic. Maybe you’d had a beer or two too many. I know how that goes. Somewhat to your horror, you have had a letter back telling you that they are interested, and suggesting you give them a call.
Oh boy! Decision time.
There are a number of questions that are perfectly legitimate and reasonable for you to ask.
Even if you don’t ask your potential employer all the questions that follow, you should at least ask yourself all of them!
Some are pretty obvious: what’s the pay? How much? Some questions are not so obvious to the tuna newcomer. Those questions that are not obvious at first, have a horrible habit of answering themselves… when it’s all a bit too late. Many a time I have spoken to sadder but wiser chaps who have had a raw deal somewhere along the line.
So what I have tried to do is to list sensible questions. I have also tried to present a fair picture of what you can expect. As in any industry, anywhere in the world, there are good jobs and not-so-good jobs. There are excellent jobs, competed for, even fought over, whose lucky holders (like me!) feel they had won the crown jewels. There are…. also some rough, dangerous, borderline suicidal job openings!
Many employers are really good people. They are eager, borderline desperate for good crews, reliable, honest, skilled…. who can get along comfortably with the captain and the crew. Remember they will be sending you out with a very valuable asset: their helicopter. Many employers will treat you well, in the hope that you will reciprocate. But beware, in any industry, there are always some cowboys.
Back in the nineties’ (it seems like a century ago now) we had a spate in Guam of guys running around owed thirty thousand dollars or more. When ‘the Big Z’ went down, with as many boats as they owned, it crashed the hopes of a lot of guys who had worked long and hard.
I well remember one discussion I had in a late night bar, with a very depressed, borderline suicidal pilot. His plight was that he was divorced (I know how that feels), he needed the money to send home for alimony/child support, and now he had been rooked out of six months of pay. He felt it was six months of life wasted.
“How in hell did you let it run up so much? “, I asked as gently as I could.
“But it was such a good boat, Moggy. Free beer anytime you wanted it. You could go to the freezer and take out anything you wanted, anytime. It was like a luxury cruise ship… “
The answer of course(I didn’t give it!) was that his beer had not been free! By virtue of his forfeited wages, he had in effect ‘paid’ for every bottle and can he drank. And every steak he devoured. Probably at the rate of fifty dollars per can of Budweiser!
I would much rather work on a rough old tub and get paid, than work on the “Queen Mary ” for nothing and drink ‘free beer’…
In this respect, I am going to give the Taiwanese a big positive plug: sure, some of their boats in those days were pretty rough. But they were hard-working people who understood ‘pay’ and the need for dollars! Or else ‘the show can’t go on’.
So rule Number One is: Check your pay!
Confirm beforehand that you may occasionally use the ship’s fax or satellite phone to correspond with your bank.
In the nineties, Satellite fax cost $10. It’s probably way cheaper now, plus most vessels now have email. If anybody grumbles, I’d offer to pay the costs, but you must be given the opportunity to check on bank payments. Never mind ‘assurances’ from your employer, your captain, or the Pope in Rome. You want to see it in your bank, confirmed by your Bank, black-on-white. With a pink ribbon around it! THEN you can be happy.
Again, most employers are excellent when it comes to money. They want you to be happy. If you are good at your job, they will want you to stay forever. Turnover is not good, and fraught with uncertainty and risk. Captains do not like a stream of rookies. If an employer finally…
* has a pilot he likes and trusts…
* has a mechanic who really knows his stuff…
* and the pilot and the mechanic hit it off together well…
* and the captain likes the helicopter crew…
* and the crew like the captain…
Man! He’s in seventh heaven! Such an employer will bend over backwards to keep you!
You can pity your employer in a way. Some pilots and mechanics treat THEM appallingly. I’ve seen some really stupid stuff, and if you go tuna fishing, you will too.
Be on guard, but also do see it from your employer’s point of view. Johnny Walker, the boss at Hansen Helicopters, is not liked by everybody, but he told me some interesting stories about some of the insane, perfectly asinine things he has had his employees do! Giving unauthorized joy rides whilst smoking pot, and then flying into a palm tree?!! Punching a captain over the guard rail into the Ocean… ??
Yes, he’s had more than a few headaches with his pilots and mechanics!
Victor Regis ran ‘Heliguam’ for a few years, until their demise through bankruptcy. They had the Sajo contract. I watched him painstakingly rebuild a Bell 47 helicopter. I thought he did a beautiful job. It looked great, and I can testify to the amount of work and skill that went into that helicopter. I would have flown it in a heart beat. It took some moron pilot only days to fly it (on a nice, sunny day) straight into the water. I heard about it. I never worked for Victor, but I could feel sorry for him.
I happened to be there the day when the sad remains were delivered back to his shop. What was left fit neatly on one single wooden pallet!
It took months, and cost a lot of money in terms of parts and man hours.
So it’s all a two way street. Not all employers are angels. But neither are all employees.
Over the years, there have been numerous cases where pilots, or mechanics, or both together, have stepped (or flown!) off a ship in some foreign port, and faxed their employers: Money NOW into my account, please! When faced with stalling maneuvers, promises later, etc, the next fax or phone call has stated words to the effect of:
“I have with me in my hotel room the tail rotor assembly. If you like, confirm we trade: my outstanding wages for one Hughes 500 tail rotor assembly in full and final settlement! “
It’s amazing then how quickly companies find funds to cover outstanding arrears!
This is all pretty sad though.It should never- ever- have to go that far. The hassle for the crews is no fun, and by the time we start stripping down helicopters…. what kind of job is that?
Everybody stands to lose really. The disgruntled crew may well get their money, but they are getting into real hassles, with potentially severe legal consequences. The helicopter company is going to really lose face in front of their customer.
The captain is going to do his proverbial nut. The image of the tuna helicopter industry as a whole is also going to take a right old knock: what are we? – professionals or fly-by-night con artists?
Crews should check their payments. No matter how anxious you were to get a job, maybe starting out in your helicopter career, with student loans to pay, you still need to get PAID! I have said a few times to my bosses: if you ever have a problem – let me know. Tell me. Say: “Sorry, Moggy, it’s going to be two weeks late. ” Okay, no problem.
“But don’t feed me any blarney! ”
Pay? – One of The Big Questions
I was lucky, and I never had much problems, until the very end, when my employer started getting into more and more severe financial difficulties. Even then, my Taiwanese captain assured me (and I liked him and believed him), that if it came to it, the fishing company would pay me, and deduct that amount from what they owed the helicopter company.
I was being paid $7,000 a month as Hughes 500 pilot/mechanic. Great money for the nineties’. You can imagine though how quickly that can run up. It’s really not too hard to be owed -and loose- $28,000 to $35,000 (or more) in the tuna industry.
You have to stay on top of it.
Pilots in those days made $3,500. Mechanics made the same. Oddly enough, today, 2009, ten years later, it seems those wages have not gone up, despite inflation.
To give you an idea how angry unpaid crews can get.
1) I was in Tarawa when an unpaid, extremely drunk, fighting mad helicopter pilot was chasing his employer around the island. The pilot had a bottle of whiskey in one hand, from which he took frequent -neat- nips, and he was telling everybody (at the top of his voice) about how much he was owed. It really was ugly. I wonder what the locals thought about it.
2) One of the many, many ‘urban legends’ (we call them ‘Ocean Myths’ or ‘Tuna Tales’) concerns an alleged ugly incident that occurred in South America. The story goes that the American pilot and his mechanic both felt they had no choice but to hold the helicopter to ransom. They were owed a lot of money. They had flown it off the ship, and were determined. They finally got most of their money in their home bank accounts, but not before they had been threatened with a gun! Even after they had received their money, they were still so angry and upset, they resolved to fly home at their own expense.
The helicopter operator flew out a replacement crew, who discovered -according to this Tuna Tale- that the departing crew had left a souvenir. They had cold-bloodedly ‘torched’ and incinerated the turbine by means of a deliberate hot start!
You will hear this one feature in many a bar story, and you will hear crews say: “Good for them! “
I don’t agree at all.
Think of the tragedy of it all. If – a big IF- this story is true, this would be an example of the ultimate breakdown in trust between a helicopter operator and crew. Any employer that sends a crew out with a machine as valuable as a helicopter, is taking the first step in trust. Would YOU be happy sending complete strangers off -after a cursory interview and review of their resume- in your $250,000 Porsche? In which you had invested a lot of money, and hundreds of hours of expensive labor? Would you? For months on end? With no real way of checking if they ARE really taking care of it?
I know I wouldn’t…
Sometimes I think we flying dudes have a much better deal than the owner of the helicopter. WE sleep better! For what we were making, certainly in the nineties’, with no commercial risk, no financial investment….we did really well. Our bosses were brave. They would interview us, leaf through our logbooks, fly an hour with us (once!), and turn us loose with their toys! Talk about a sprinkle of Holy Water, an invocation, and…. Good Luck!
If that was me… with what I’ve seen of SOME pilots and ‘mechanics’… I wouldn’t sleep a wink!
Don’t get me wrong: there were -and are- many very fine crews out there, with excellent attitudes. Often people will start out in their helicopter careers on tuna boats, and go on to bigger and better things, with a lot of hard earned experience.
Their sincerity and willingness is unsurpassed.
But people are people. Good people. Not-so-good people. And the odd certifiable head-banger, who should be locked up.
I don’t know if that is still taught, but in the nineties’ it was regarded as paramount that you spray “Triflow ” all over your strap packs and rotor heads. Every night. To protect against corrosion and lubricate.My boss sent me out with cases and cases of the stuff, and I loyally did as I was told. You are talking about fifteen minutes a day, climbing up a ladder, and going round the machine. That would be normally something you would do at the end of the day. I washed my machine every night, I waxed the rotor blades regularly, and I washed the engine. I worried about corrosion. No, I was no saint, but I really tried -to the best of my abilities – to respond to the trust invested in me. And I really liked my boss as well.
Regardless of weather, wind, waves… Spraying Triflow was regarded as an essential item. Well, I didn’t believe the stories I heard about guys who never -ever- bothered. With any of that stuff. Until I heard them laughing about it in a bar! Apparently John Walker had fired some guys when he noticed they were not using any Triflow! So the solution to that problem? You guessed it: Just throw full cans of Triflow over the side into the water, so that the lack of Triflow turnover doesn’t get noticed! It’s hard to believe…
Love your employer. If he is willing to give you a job, pay you regularly, and buy you the odd beer: look after that man! Baby his machine! Treat it like your own, and lavish attention on it. Long may he buy helicopters and employ characters like us! I hope he makes a vast profit! He deserves every last penny of it, taking the risks that he does!
This is probably a good point in the narrative to give some honest ‘plugs’ and say some nice things about some employers. Disclaimer: I have no commercial connection to anybody out there, no commission, no incentive to lie through my teeth. I have been out of the tuna helicopter game for ten years, still flying helicopters, and loving it, but nothing to do with Tuna.
I can’t help you with any personal knowledge of South American operators. Maybe we shall get contributions from pilots and mechanics who do have such experience. Now, GUAM I can tell you something about.
You will read a lot of nasty comments about tuna helicopter operators on various websites. www.justhelicopters.com is always good for the latest gossip and scandal. But let me tell you this for an absolute fact:
In the nineties’, Hansen Helicopters were absolutely SUPERB at paying their pilots and mechanics. They were referred to by some as “The Bank of Hansen “. Payments to accounts were made as regular as clockwork. I have no personal knowledge of what it has been like since, and for that you will need to consult the various websites, or talk with a current Hansen pilot. But I suspect that it will be exactly the same. They took great pride in their payments. If you did a good job with them, they were most anxious to keep you. And keep you happy.
If you are looking for a company to send a resume to, then this will be one.
The ‘Big Z‘ went bust, it was a huge company, and cleaned out a lot of guys for a lot of money. A long, sad saga. Somebody with more knowledge than I needs to write that one up. For the Tuna history books. We can include it later in this manual!
Poor old Heliguam went bust, and owed many long time employees a lot of money. There was a lot of bitterness about it, and many people were furious with Victor Regis. I never worked for him, but he was always charming to me. I could see that there were two sides to that bankruptcy story as well. I told you about the investment of money and time and energy that went into that Bell 47 that was promptly flown into the water. That was just one example. There were others. All of which lost the company a lot of money. Another was problems with collecting payments from a customer. Huge payments. It was a mess.
Many pilots and mechanics lost a lot of money.
Hoffman Helicopters is now defunct, and the owner, Steve Hoffman, an old friend of mine, died some years ago.
Steve would rather have committed ritual hara-kiri than swindle any pilot of his. Great human being, sorely missed. Fabulous helicopters in fantastic shape. I worked for Steve.
Big Eye Helicopters went bust, but everybody got honorably paid out their money. Very fair, very ‘above board’, despite what you will hear! Great helicopters, but troubled by a constant turnover of Managers. Great shame. I flew for them, and loved it.
Tropic Helicopters is still going today.
I want to say more about this company, as you might be considering sending them a resume, if you are looking at getting into tuna helicopter flying. Disclaimer: I worked for Tropic, and I was their Chief Pilot for a while. However, I moved on, and I have no connection with that company now, or any financial incentive from them to say nice things!
My tenure there taught me a lot.
Firstly, the sheer cost of maintaining helicopters. Ask any helicopter operator what it’s like to open a bill from an Allison/Rolls Royce engine shop for a ‘small’ repair. You will be expecting a bill for maybe $5,000 to $7,000. Can you imagine what it’s like staring at the bottom line, when it says: $27,000…..!!!
The sheer cost of maintaining a helicopter is staggering.
Secondly, cashflow gyrations are wild and unpredictable. As part of my job, I got to go collecting checks from customers. Sometimes I was dealing with a large Korean industrial conglomerate, which owned all kinds of industries, of which their tuna fishing fleet was just a small portion. I found the Koreans concerned very honorable, very charming, and pleasant to do business with. But the payments, not surprisingly, went through a central office back up in Seoul. There were inevitable time lags. From a cash flow point of view, it was often either feast or famine. We would be gasping for liquidity, for the dosh to pay suppliers, and our pilots and mechanics. Delays would creep in. We would be behind on paying the guys by a few weeks. I would go down to the offices of certain customers, and play the ‘smiling leaning elephant’ trick. (Be real nice, but real persistent). Then, all of a sudden, I’d be carrying a check back for $450,000!
Feast or famine! The owner, a laid back Australian by the name of Barry Jones, was great to work for. He was so remarkably unflappable! His staff, including myself, would be climbing the walls, and he would always seem to find the funny side! Then we would quickly catch up on the payments. I never -ever- had any doubts about the owner’s integrity.
Barry is as straight an arrow as they make them, but nobody can fully compensate for such wild cash flow gyrations.
And this is where I can see it from both points of view. That of the helicopter operator, and that of the pilots and mechanics.
I once had a bizarre situation , basically a drunk pilot who was flying a helicopter -against direct orders- after a tail boom strike. On a Hughes 500, it is a monococque structure, and repairs are not permissible. This blithering imbecile was telling me he had ‘knocked the dent out with a hammer, and it was okay now’. I flew out to the Marshall islands with a spare tail boom, couplings, and drive shaft. He was most anxious that I did not come. When I got there, I was met at the airport by this -drunk- personage, who tried everything he could to convince me not to go out to the boat. He would have liked very much if I had turned around and flown back to Guam!
Climbing the helideck on his boat, I was absolutely staggered -horrified- to immediately observe that the tail boom was ‘kinked’.
The upper vertical fin was bent over backwards. The lower vertical fin was bent slightly forwards.
And this cretin (a so-called pilot/mechanic) had been flying it like that! Imagine the risk. There is no way the rear coupling was rotating in the same plane. It would have been wobbling on the shaft. Imagine the stresses on the drive shaft! The gearbox input! At those revolutions, there is just no telling how long that party would have kept the music going, but some kind of cataclysmic failure was only a matter of time. I fired him (he was very upset, and went off telling everybody horrible things about me) and changed out the tail boom and couplings.
I then sailed out on the boat.
The point of this anecdote (apart from showing you what idiots are out there) comes next:
I went out there unexpectedly. Nobody knew I was coming. I also went out armed with all the latest payment information, who had been paid what and when. We were actually, once again, beautifully up to date.
Now you should know that the boats are sometimes alone, and sometimes together. It depends on the fishing. At night,some of the captains might get together, for gambling and whatever, and there would be a large gathering. All the pilots then, at night, get on a common radio frequency, and start chatting about everything and anything.
Imagine my surprise as I dialed in, and I found myself listening to a furious anti-Tropic helicopters diatribe. By our own guys! They were busy working themselves into a state, and the rest of the world was listening to all this! What really amazed me was that supposition had become fact. It was obvious that these guys had not checked their bank accounts for a couple of months. Not only were they unaware of payments that had recently been made. They were also unaware of payments that had been made two months earlier! I had all the information in front of me. What really disappointed me was that they would bash their own company so hard in front of everybody else. There were pilots and mechanics there from several other companies, and it was obvious from the conversation we would never get any applications from any of them! I let the whole thing go on for a good while,and then I came up on frequency! Shock and horror! I gave our guys the details of their payments, how much, and what dates. Then I made sure they repeated the amounts and dates back to me. With the whole world listening in! It was amazing, after that, how suddenly all our guys needed to go to bed!
You will see what I mean: people sometimes just want to believe the worst. And talk themselves into believing the worst.
In case you are still shaking your head in disbelief about the character with the hammer and the tail boom.
If you ever meet Johnny Walker or one of the Hansen staff in a bar, buy him a beer, and ask him to tell you about some of their worst experiences with pilots and mechanics. It will be the best value you could ever score for the price of a beer!
Ron Barr, my old buddy, with Tropic Helicopters, is another great candidate for this.
Watch their expressions change as they warm to the theme.
It is absolutely astounding what some pilots and mechanics will do in the name of rotary wing flight!
I have twenty or so anecdotes flitting through my mind as I write this.
Let me pick one, which took place at the old Big Eye base in Guam.
I had arrived back from six months or so out at Sea, and I was in a great mood, going off for a vacation. I was collecting my pay, and getting ready to depart. Another Hughes 500 landed there, off a Korean ship. The Korean pilot, the captain beside him, and the mechanic was lying in the back. There were no seats or seat belts in the back, company policy, to discourage joyriding. A while afterward, my boss came back in.
His tone had changed. I looked up in surprise. Gone was the jocular boss. He seemed stressed.
He wanted me to go down and start up the newly arrived Hughes 500. He didn’t want me to fly it, just start it up.
And he didn’t want me to pre-flight it.
When I queried that instruction (no pre-flight?), he was again very sharp with me. He didn’t want me to do a pre-flight inspection. Just a start up. He seemed displeased with something.
I thought: “Well, what the hell. ” And I walked down, made sure the blades were not tied down, climbed in, strapped myself in, and lit the fire. I did notice the boss was watching me closely, leaning against the hangar door.
Before I had even gotten to 25% N1, I was frantically trying to abort the start and shut everything off. The vibration was so horrible, a weird, wallowing, rocking motion, that I was very much alarmed.
It was well and truly frightening.
I climbed out with a look of amazement on my face, saying:
“What the HELL was that!?? “
Roger, bless him,detached himself from where he had been nonchalantly leaning, and said:
“I feel better now. That was my reaction as well. I wondered if it was just me. Thanks for re-assuring me… “
He then asked me to go find the problem. It took me five seconds.
I walked back to the tail, grabbed the tail ‘stinger’, that little arm that prevents the tail hitting the ground during a botched autorotation. and shook it it. To my absolute horror, the entire tail boom moved, whilst the fuselage did not! I couldn’t believe it.
I still can’t.
Further investigation revealed that where the tail boom was attached to the helicopter, all the rivets were LOOSE.
They were so far past the “smoking ” stage (where you see a trail of small suspicious particles indicating something is moving and fretting) that it wasn’t funny anymore. You could actually have somebody move the tail boom with the stinger and WATCH THE RIVET HEADS MOVING!
These guys had been FLYING it that way. For MONTHS!
It cost the company a lot to repair that. Both in time, and lost earnings. It was by no means an easy repair either.
What had happened was that the ‘mechanic’ had been hired in a hurry (that happens a lot) and in his interview had claimed he knew exactly how to operate a ‘Chadwick’, which is the electronic instrument mechanics use to balance main and tail rotor systems. He not only didn’t know, but didn’t ask to be shown. Now the imbalance in the tail rotor system will progress over a period of time. It will get worse and worse. It seems amazing that any helicopter pilot would not feel this. We can only assume that they got used to it.
I hope you will see where I am going with this:
Trust -between helicopter operator and flight crew- needs to be a two way street.
Note 1 Input from Joseph Smith
All those who have made it this far, take HEED.
You should surely HEED what Moggy has offered about underwater breathing devices.
After being duly warned by Moggy about the lifesaving properties of such a device, I began investigating them.
I already knew from some Helicopter SAR people I knew about a device called HEEDs.
Helicopter Emergency Egress Device.
It is basically what Moggy described as a mini SCUBA tank.
I kept one on my survival vest, because I like breathing, even underwater.
I only like holding my breath when I want to, not when I’m forced to.
And I only recently gave up holding my breath till I turned blue as a means of persuading someone I am upset with.
So I’m a little out of practice.
Which brings me to relating how Moggy’s advice saved my life, and or limb, and or lifestyle.
In his chapter about what questions are a good idea to ask, he goes to great lengths to talk about pay, and both sides of the employer employee relationship.
There are bonuses offered for completing a contract without days lost for maintenance or damage.
There are bonuses for years on the grounds.
Aside from that there’s not a whole lot of negotiation for a new guy coming to the tuna spotting industry.
It’s mostly take it or leave it.
But for guys returning, they do have some leverage.
If I ever accept another contract, I will be asking more of the questions Moggy advises.
And you can take that to the bank.
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on August 8, 2015, 9:28 am