Francis Meyrick

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.3-D “Tie-downs and Blade Socks “

Posted on August 2, 2009

PART 3 “Moggy’s Tuna Manual ” “Handling your helicopter “

A good view of the right hand side tie-downs, and the wax I lavished on my baby


Typically,you will have four separate tie-downs to anchor your baby on the deck.
Two at the front, one left, one right.
Two at the back, one left, one right.
What could be more simple?
They are just lengths of strong webbing, with some kind of ratchet mechanism so you can adjust the tension.
When I first saw them, well, no big deal, they’re just… straps. No sweat. You just undo them, like, and then you take off! So what’s the big deal, huh?

The normal -and preferred- view from the helideck, down onto the foredeck

Lemme tell you something, my friend. Those blasted tie-downs have killed more tuna helicopter pilots and their observers than any other single cause! They are worse than:
* a loaded double barreled shotgun with the ‘safety’ OFF,
* a Mohave Green rattlesnake with both types of snake venom coming at you in one bite
* and even worse than the most terrifying experience I have ever had!
(Which was when I said “I do! ” for the second time in my little life)

That…is the issue! You don’t just ‘undo them’ and ‘chuck them somewhere’ and ‘forget about them’!
You treat them with the greatest suspicion. You treat them like rabid snakes. You treat them like a used syringe.
They can easily, easily lead to AIDS. (*)

Believe me, it got to be demoralizing. Every year that I was flying tuna helicopters, out of our little fleet of tuna helicopters based out of Guam or Samoa, never more than 45 or 50 helicopters altogether, every year….
…somebody I knew, or knew of, got killed as a direct result of a tie-down accident.

During a high seas turbine swop; note the ‘killer’ right rear tie-down

To concentrate your mind, check out this YouTube video. It’s a classic. Watch the third crash. Note how the deck helper on the right motions for an unseen helper to go and untie the right rear tie-down. Study the complete communications breakdown between deck crew and pilot. Listen for that dull metallic ‘clunk’ as the tail rotor tries its best to turn through solid steel…

Did we get your attention? I sure hope so!
Were those dudes lucky, or what?? The associated text refers to “pilot skill ” saving the day. The implication seems to be that it was not the pilot’s fault in anyway…
Hm. Would you agree…?
Before you experience an irresistible urge to think “How stupid! “, let me warn you -and myself- how easy it is to do this kind of thing in our exciting, but potentially catastrophic, world of helicopters. . Some very, very experienced Tuna Heads have forgotten one tie-down. Typically, the right rear tie-down, which should be painted day glow orange, with red ‘remove before flight’ banners, and an electronic alarm device that sets off flashing lights, bells, and two sirens, whenever the master switch is selected ‘on’ with that tie-down still in place!
I only half jest!
Just imagine… being in a helicopter that lifts off with the right rear tie-down still attached.
You might not notice it as you lift up to a low hover. If your mechanic or deck helper isn’t really ‘on the ball’, or if you have never mutually agreed on a signal that means:
“STOP !! ”
(Example: arms crossed above your head, fists clenched – with mucho emphasis!)

… then you might just push forward on the cyclic. Now the chances are, you are going to die. Horribly.
It’s been nice knowin’ ya….
The machine will enter a right roll, smoothly at first. As you instinctively apply left cyclic, you will probably not even think about arresting your forward movement. It’s too late, anyway. The right roll continues, accelerates, and an uncontrolled yaw to the right follows. Everything happens in an instant now. A second ago, all was normality. Routine. But now, you are out of control, your brain is reeling, trying to grapple with visual inputs that are terrifying. The horizon rolls crazily, you have a fleeting sight of the winches and heavy machinery on the ship’s foredeck rushing up to meet you…

If you ever get to see this alternate view, please write me! “

You may hear horrendous, screeching, tortured sounds of metal slamming on steel before a rotor blade enters your skull and splatters your brains…
I make no apology for the raw description!

Every year, every year for I don’t know how long, I’ve heard the same story. With minor variations.
Somewhere, some poor soul gets clobbered by this death trap. Once in a blue moon, you will hear the story of a lucky survivor. The observer who gets thrown into the sea. And lives. The pilot who wakes up slowly, pain signals from his smashed body sending searing messages to his befuddled brain. he slowly realizes he has been in a crash, and that he is hanging upside down in the wreck of his helicopter. People are running around, yelling, and trying to help…

I met one such pilot. A lucky, lucky survivor. A young fellow, who had made a full recovery. And was back flying tuna helicopters. Quietly, over a beer, with dignity, he told me his story. Even then, in his eyes, you could see the shadow of terror, as he related the moment of slowly waking up. Hanging upside down.
Here was a young man grown suddenly older, wiser, and vastly more experienced. With a cautionary story to tell.
I’m still grateful to him. It left me with a vivid, leaping, mind scorching mental picture.

Forget about trying to ‘stop’ and ‘hover backwards when you feel the tie-down going tight’., and all that good bar-room stuff. It happens too darn fast. Most of us don’t pussy foot around above the deck. Especially when your ship is moving along at speed. We just want to get going, get away from the ship. Well. If you push forward on the cyclic stick to ‘go’, sunshine, you’re as good as dead.
Simple as that.
Typically, it happens to really experienced guys as well as to newbies, the “anchovy heads “. Somebody like myself is a prime candidate for a tie-down accident. Kind of relaxed about tuna helicopter flying. CFI/CFII. Ten thousand hours plus.
Thinks he knows a bit. Plenty of helo time. Dutifully warns other people about the dangers of tie-downs. Even writes about the dangers of tie-downs…. Like I said, a prime candidate for a tie-down accident!
If you think tie-downs scare me, you’ve completely missed the point, and you’re obviously thick as mince.
You’ll make an excellent Tuna Head.
No, they don’t scare me. Nothing about tie-downs scares me. They merely…
Get my drift?
Damn those things!
Paranoid? You betcha! I have a whole ritual dedicated to dealing with those things. I perform it with religious intensity.
First, no matter what the rush is, I refuse to be pressured and bulldozered into leaping into the sky. I don’t care if the fish are about to escape across the towline. Should have called me sooner to get ready to fly!
Time for the final walk around. Note I will need to complete one un-interrupted walk around. If I adjust anything, like maybe a cowling catch, that nullifies the walk around, and I will have to do another one after this one. Taking the tie-downs off occurs prior to the final walk-around.
If somebody was to start yelling at me to hurry up, I’m bloody-minded to the point that I’ll slow the hell right down.
They soon get the message!

I do a final walk around, and all the tie-downs are already off. I also already made sure the belly hook is taut.
They are laid out alongside the helicopter, running ‘fore to aft’ on the left and right side, and strapped to the same anchor points, and tightened up. I will now be able to see them from the cockpit. I will be able to see ALL the left strap. I will only see the front half of the right strap, but I’ll know that if it’s lying tight and flat on the deck, then there is no way it can possibly be attached to my right rear (invisible) tie down point on my helicopter!
The blade socks have come off, if possible. With one exception, when it’s really, really windy. Note that it’s not a good idea to leave a rotorbrake locked ‘on’ for more than a few minutes (it puts pressure on the seals), but for a minute or two, it’s okay.
Now we climb in. Note the machine should not slide, even in quite a rough sea. That’s why we have the belly cable!
You will see guys routinely start up, and then, at the last minute, the deck helper removes the tie-downs, and away she goes! I’m told some pilots rely completely on the deck helper, and, remember, it is usually impossible to see that right rear tie-down from the cockpit.
All I can say is:
“Brrrrrrrrr…. “
I will NOT put my entire trust in somebody else like that. Not where tie-downs are concerned.
Question for you to ponder: Is that what the pilot in that video above was used to doing??
I’m ah-thinking so…

Okay, so I’m now sitting in the cockpit.
(I point to the tie-downs, which are now securely laid out alongside the helicopter, and strapped tight to the deck, in such a way that I can see them) Here comes a loud yell:
I make sure the blade socks are off. If we left them on due to high winds, then now is the time to untie the rotorblades and remove the blade socks. Note you can do an incredible amount of damage to your bird if you try starting with a blade tied down! More on this later….! Here comes another yell:
(I point to the blades; a 2 bladed system should be parked at nine o’clock and three o’clock).
“Master ON! Start pump ON! Generator OFF! Throttle to cut-off! BLADE SOCKS GONE! “
My helper can hear it all, especially the bladesocks gone! Sometimes -not always- I see his eyes go to the blade tips to check! He has been ordered that if I ever look as if I’m going to start with a blade sock still tying a blade down, he is to stop and BAWL me out! He would!
We fire up, and at about 12% N1, I expect to see the blades starting to turn.
“Blades turning! ” I say out loud. (That’s a North Sea souvenir as well)
I would (and have done so) abort the start if they are not turning.
Go check why!
Just about ready for take-off, I check the tie-downs are off. I can see all of them, stretched out and strapped tightly to the deck. I never accept a situation whereby I can’t see any of them.
Then I tap my observer on the knee, and point a questioning finger out his open door (doors are off) at the tie-downs.
He turns around, hangs out the door, and checks the tie-downs! Then he gives me the thumbs up! He knows exactly what I’m worried about. And he is too! One of his friends was killed in a tuna helicopter (not a tie-down accident) and after several thousand hours of helicopter time… he’s sharp!
Now I’m ready to go! I punch the belly hook release, I usually can feel it go (because you’ve made sure it’s taut), look across at my helper… he runs his eye over everything, gives me a thumbs up, and off I go!

“Overkill! ” you may remark drily.
I don’t know… it’s just so easy to become… complacent. I had this very strict routine going for a long, long time. And then, one day… I just forgot! I simply forgot to tap my observer on the knee to ask him to check his tie-downs.
Sure, they were off. I’d checked myself that they were off. But I departed from a well worn, super safe routine for no good reason. I have no idea why. But in doing so, I was removing one more defensive barrier between us and disaster.
No big deal, there were other defenses in place. But why remove even a single one?
What followed I think was rather neat! As I punched off the belly hook, and i was obviously about to go, my observer tapped ME firmly on the knee! I looked at him surprised, and -without a hint of a smile- he pointed to MY tie-downs!
His gestures basically implied a ‘telling off’. Hey, Mister smart pilot, I know they are off, but you just check as well! Let’s do this stuff seriously!
I thought that was super neat. It gave me a lot of confidence.

As of this day, I have yet to forget a tie-down and kill myself and my observer.
If it happens, I shall let you know, but in the meantime I try every day very hard not to kill myself in a tie-down accident!

Don’t… underestimate the human capability for colossal cock-ups.
A very experienced Tuna Head, over a quiet beer in Wewak, Papua New Guinea, sheepishly told me a really interesting story about what happened to him. He got airborne into a low hover with the left front tie-down still attached!
With the captain sitting beside him, the helper watching… that’s one tie-down, still on, in FULL VIEW of THREE people,and the helicopter STILL got airborne. Then he copped on, and put it back on the deck.
He was about to try a neat trick. It’s called ‘sling loading a 1,200 TON purse seiner fishing boat’
Lucky boy.

Carl, a famous Tuna Head, also pulled a tie-down stunt. I describe this in detail in “Blip on the Radar (Part 6) “.

“Impossible! “, you might say. “How can anybody be so stupid!? “
Well, before you condemn, remember “There but for the grace of God…. “
“…go you and I! “
It’s possible all right. Probable, even, if you don’t understand the danger. It’s usually the right rear tie-down though. That’s the usual culprit.That one is a real silent killer.
You’ve been warned!

In another sphere of flying, I can tell you about a Bell 412 in Africa, with two pilots and a full load of passengers, that did pretty well the exact same thing, over land. It took a passing pilot to dash over, waving furiously, to put an end to that interesting experiment. That one is called ‘sling loading planet Earth’.
I pulled a terrific -highly original- stunt myself, not with the tie-downs, but with another implement, which I shall relate in a later chapter. Yep. Sure did. Despite all my most earnest precautions…
And finally, here in the Gulf, a young pilot was also killed in a tie-down accident, hurrying to get off the deck, out of the way of an approaching helicopter. The accident report includes the eye witness account from the pilot in the second helicopter. And even with the dry, terse language of the NTSB, it sends shivers down your back. You can just imagine yourself, helplessly watching a fellow pilot wrestling with an out-of-control helicopter, and violently smashing into the steel platform. The last death throes of a doomed machine.

I mentioned one exception to the ‘all the blade socks off’ rule. Prior to start. Just occasionally (on the Hughes 500), I’ll take three off and leave one on, until a few seconds before starting. If it’s very windy… there are three problems to watch for, and all three are coming up under the heading of ‘runaway blades’. See the next chapter!

Finally, a dry old ‘Wrench Tuna Head’ handed me back an early draft of this chapter, ruminated a bit, and came up with this odd comment:
“Well, Moggy, you silly Irishman… if you actually get as far as finishing this manual of yours and publishing it…
I reckon that over a couple of years, you’ll save more than a few lives… and the funny thing is…. nobody will ever know! “
And then he bought me a beer.
That statement took a bit of figuring out for me, but he may well have had a point, and that has been as good a reason as any to expend some major time and effort!

(*) AIDS = Aviation Induced Death Syndrome

Francis Meyrick


Further reading on the dangers of tie-downs:

Adam says: “we painted the right rear tie down red and white stripes like a barber bar. Then used a convex mirror on the end of a stick to verify its position before every take off. it worked perfectly and I never had to rely on anyone else. “

Dan Munteanu also commented: “I had a belly hook so I eliminated the 4th strap all together . There was no way that machine was gonna go off the deck with 3 straps and the belly hook holding it down. Before take off the strap by the pilot door would come off second last and than I would release the hook and buzz off. ”

Here’s an amazing photograph of a tie-down left attached. Photo courtesy of Tony Fowler:

Both guys actually SURVIVED this one. Lucky, lucky. That scenario has been FATAL so many times….!!!! Is that spooky, or what? Speaking

Thanks guys, for the feedback. – Moggy Smile


I was today delighted (and amused) to receive this feedback from “Aeroscout ” (who I mischievously nicknamed ‘Aeroscuttle’) (as in ‘scuttlebut’) on the very subject mentioned above. I get really happy when we get feedback, because it’s a chance to improve the manual, and spread the good safety culture. Here you go:

Re: Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.3-D “Tie-downs and Blade Socks


Since I had read your manual thoroughly before departing on my half way around the world adventure, I had an idea about what to expect when I got there.
But somewhere in my halfway around the world adventure to the South Pacific tuna grounds, I may have lost a little of the proper perspective.
When I first met my trust steed, I was overpowered by the floats on the skids.
It looked like a toy with bouncy floats that was no more dangerous than a kid’s party bounce house.
Then I saw a kid’s bounce house get torn off it’s moorings, swept into the air and tossed around like a ballon at a state fair.
I got a little cross threaded with my first mechanic when I told him if I beat him to the helicopter, I would stow the most offensive tiedown.
He reacted like I didn’t trust him, but i didn’t trust myself after reading the tie down chapter.
And I really didn’t.
I would unstrap it, stow it and tighten it into place.
When It was time I would double check it with the 3 others.
And initially I would try to crane my neck to look to the right rear to no avail…initially.
I was so paranoid that through a process of repetition, one day about 2 months later, I was able to catch a glimpse of the offending area.
I came to appreciate the law of inheritance of acquired characteristics, in that somewhere in my evolutionary tree there must have been a giraffe with a short neck.
When I left the tuna grounds, I left my giraffe neck back there with it.
But knock on wooden ships, I didn’t make that fatal mistake, or even come close.
I guess you could say your advice was just in the neck of time.




Last edited by Francis Meyrick on July 30, 2015, 8:12 pm

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6 responses to “Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.3-D “Tie-downs and Blade Socks “”

  1. Oh Moggy man..this gives me new respect for what you do…it’s not easy , is it?

    Jeeshosephat!  One little mistake can get ya cooked!  It’s a wonder ya have any piece of mind having to remember all that stuff.  

    I know you worry about the techno stuff, but this is a good story…adventure, danger, risk taking, trust issues…man even a beer!

    Good one, moggy!

  2. Quote:  "One little mistake can get ya cooked!"

    That’s not quite the way it works. Helicopter flying is fundamentally much, much safer than driving your car down a road.
    No stop signs for people to slam by, no drunks, no crazy speeders,nobody overtaking on the wrong side of the road…

    Where it seems to go wrong in the helicopter world is on the human level. That little mistake that gets you hurt, or worse, doesn’t just arrive out of the blue. It’s almost always the final straw. The final link in the accident chain.
    Many an accident -when examined afterwards- had many precursors.
    Sloppy procedures, sloppy attitudes, over familiarity. Lack of imagination, lack of training, lack of awareness. Etc, etc.

    What I’m hoping to achieve with this chapter, is NOT to portray the game as a death sport, with a million "this will get you killed" anecdotes.
    Because it’s not.

    Provided:  the pilot knows the risks, understands the risks, and identifies procedures that will prevent the accident chain from occurring. And then, adopts those procedures, follows those procedures.

    Basically, helicopter flying is a real fun thing to do. It wouldn’t be, if there were all sorts of lethal traps just waiting for you to make one small wrong move.

    And, I’m surprised -pleasantly- at your interest. I thought this would only interest pilots…! How wrong I am?

  3. Well…just like a man, eh?  Give them some good old undadulterated idol worship…for something they know how to do that you have no idea about..and whata they do?  Make ya feel like a dummy mummy.  Okay, be that way….see if I read all 99 kazillion more of ya stories, ya putz!

    Just kidding…how was a poor girl to know enough that you really are just on a lark up there in the air, eh?

    I’m trying to decide if my desire to sulk and stick out my lip nicely overcomes my urge to read more about it…..Hummmmmmmmmmmmmm

  4. "Dynamic rollover"…..Now in a format read with pleasure and interest by a pilot and also easy on the brain of the lay person.Well,outstanding work!This writing could direct many dreamers to the doors of the flight schools and can also guide them along the driest   patches of aerodynamics and operational flight training.A compilation of this……the "Chicken hawk"of the civilian helicopter enthusiast,pilot,or pilot to be,and an excellent read for any literature lover.I am proud that my profession has in its ranks someone that can describe our trials , tribulations and immense love for flight.And all this while making valuable points….Hats off!Dan    

  5. I read "Chickenhawk" years ago,  and I thought it was very well written indeed.
    Every helicopter pilot should read it.
    And the dude ended up in prison for armed robbery, as far as I remember.
    Such a talent, such an insight, and yet such a…. dark side?
    I was reading on Pilot Prune (Rotorheads) just now, some PC Plod lecturing us about personal integrity (it seems we were all missing the point) and talking about the need for "Stable extrovert pilots".
    Stable extroverts….


  6. Great articles Moggy…

    A couple of things stood out to me as I mulled it over in my head a little.

    I take it the machines are parked at 45 degrees on the decks to minimize roll between aft to stern, port to starboard ???

    Also why is it usually the right rear tie-down  the last to be released ??? Is this so that if it is not released the machine will roll away from the Bridge / equipment ???



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