A Blip on the Radar (Part 7) “Routine and Sudden Terror “

Posted on October 1, 2009

A Blip on the Radar

Part (7) Routine and Sudden Terror: How to crash a Helicopter

In the Introduction to “Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual ” I wrote this:

“But if I had never had any help, never had any advice, never had mentors…
I would be stone dead by now.
I have waltzed -innocently- into many situations where…
a small amber caution light…
…flickered on inside my retarded brain. Where a little voice said to me:
“Hang on! Jimmy was telling me about this! This is where I have gotta watch it! Hold on here now! “
And it is only in hindsight I fully realize how important those informal bar flying sessions actually were. “

I think those words are simple, but true. A good friend of mine, Peter, is an experienced helicopter pilot. He never flew the Tuna Fields, but he did tell me lots of helicopter stories, against himself. With a quiet shrug, with a wry smile, he told me -hilarious- stories that made me laugh, wince, and feel for him. He told me stories from which I learned. And it’s pilots like that who I hugely admire. Teachers like that, who openly admit to their own humanity, their own fallibility, and are willing to share their knowledge. For no other reward, than the satisfaction of a good laugh, and the expansion of awareness in friends and fellow pilots. I have two anecdotes to relate below from Peter, and I hope you too will get a chuckle out of them.
But before I do that, I ask you to contrast Peter’s unselfish attitude, with a great many Sky Gods out there. The ones who are exalted, and who sit in judgment of us ordinary ‘working class’ pilots. They never make mistakes. Never have, and never will. They are that good. Sadly, for some bizarre reason, they often get promoted. Then they become superior officers, lead pilots, instructors, and examiners. The next step comes when they become ‘shouters’. They shout and scream, are the very devil to fly with, and if -in their estimation- you don’t cut it, well, then you just don’t cut it. There is no appeal.
I have watched the process so many times, I find it tragic but funny. I have seen people in the role of instructors and examiners, who, prior to their appointment, had zero flight time as instructors. Because of that, they had never learned to shut the f..k up, and let the student or candidate fly the aircraft. They would yell and shout, until the poor student was trying to fly the instructor’s mouth, and not the aircraft. That won’t work. And so I’ve seen perfectly good pilots humiliated, and either run off, or their lives made miserable up to the point where they quit.
Now let’s focus in on these aloof, haughty ‘shouters’. Those who sit in merciless judgment. Those who occupy the great throne in the sky, from whence they dispense their lightning bolts of judgment.
I’ve seen it so many times… one of two things happen. Firstly, stories start circulating about our Great Leader, from before he was the Anointed One. Funny stories. Crazy stories. And we, the unwashed, ragged masses, listening to the tongue lashing he gives us, are in fact quietly snickering at the memory of a story we have heard where HE screwed up in the past. He doesn’t know we know. But we do, and it makes the vicious beating he is meting out, somewhat hypocritical. He has done the same, or a lot worse, himself. If only… he would chill out, relax, and admit it! And tell us about his own faux pas, his own peccadillos, his own class bloorox bloopers…. If only he would USE those incidents as learning tools, and tell us how EASY it is to make these mistakes, because after all, EVEN HE has done it…
If only…
But no, he sends a different message, which he expects us to believe: that he is perfect. And that he is entitled to shout at us, because he is so perfect. And if we are very good, (very, very good), there is a chance, that ONE DAY, maybe, we might just be that good ourselves. And maybe (just, maybe) they will promote us. And then WE will be entitled to yell and shout at everybody, because WE will then be so perfect….
The second thing that happens, and I’ve seen this happen many times, is that suddenly, out of the blue, our Perfect leader, the Stern Faced one, he who upholds the greatest values ever known to pilots, he who is without Sin….
And now he’s embarrassed. Egg all over his face. (Plus the feathers and the chicken poop)… Now what? I’ve seen them resign and run… Bluster and lie…. Angrily pretend it never happened… Try hard to forget it ever happened…
If only he’d been human. If only he had preached a different message:

“Look guys, it’s easy to screw up here. Don’t do it. Many people have done it. I can tell you a funny story where I did it. Heck, I was embarrassed! (laughter) But I learned from it! Now this is what you can do, to avoid making the same mistake I did….etc, etc ”

Had he preached to us like that, first we would have learned so much more, and secondly, we would have loved him for it, and thirdly, even if he did mess up later, there would be such a reservoir of good will towards him, he could still hold his head up high, and even turn it into a teaching prop. “See guys? There’s me lecturing you dudes, and look what I just did. (laughter) All right, so what have we all just learned today…? “
Some teachers teach like that, some (many) don’t. A great Pity, and a great missed opportunity to impart knowledge.
My friend Peter…. was great. Ace.

(Peter’s “Story # 1 “)
He was doing sling loading from an A-Star up in the mountains in Switzerland. It was a remote location, steep slopes, and the only available place flat enough to work from was unfortunately slap bang under a gaggle of high tension cables. They looked for alternatives. There weren’t any. In the end, Peter decided they could use the site under the cables, and he would just have to slide under them very carefully. The first few times, he reckons he was pretty nervous. He soon discovered however, that there was way more vertical clearance than he had at first thought. By the time he had done it five or six times, creeping in carefully with a slingload, he had gotten pretty used to it. They got into a routine.
Creep in carefully with a sling load…
Drop the load…
Creep out carefully…

Hmmmm…. well, that wasn’t so bad.
Creep in carefully with a sling load…
Drop the load…
Creep out carefully…

Hmmmmmm…. getting pretty good at this!

After three days of this, and several hundred successful slings…. the job was finishing.
On the second last drop,the foreman came over, with a big smile:
“That’s it! We’re done! We are leaving now! Thank you very much! Great job! You can go home after that last drop! Auf Wiedersehen…! “
Peter smiled, shook hands, and the image of a cool beer, with froth dripping down the side of a cold glass, served by that blond, buxom wench at the local Beer Garden, floated through his tired mind.
“Auf Wiedersehen! Thank you! Bye-bye! ”
The crew departed, and soon Peter was back with the very last drop. He slid in expertly, dropped the load, and felt relief surge through his tired body.
A job well done. A pat on the back. Homeward bound. Hey-ho…And our hero took off.
Straight up into the power cables…

He knew what he’d done, the moment the helicopter lurched sickeningly. He didn’t need the bright flash, and the horrible banging and clattering to alert him. His mind reeling in shock, he was now trying to control a beast that was seriously damaged, and not responding properly to the controls. His life flashed before him, and with great difficulty, he contrived to -somehow- wrestle his crippled ship back down.to earth. Panic stricken, he slammed the throttle shut, and the machine wallowed and shook as the out-of-balance rotor system slowed down.
At last, there was peace.
He sank back, frantic thoughts rushing through his mind.
F…k!!! F…K!!!
I could have been killed!
What’s the boss going to say?
How much damage have I done to the helicopter?
What’s the utility company going to say?
Now what???

He closed his eyes, and tried to regain a pulse rate below two thousand. At least he had saved the helicopter…
The men had all gone. There was nobody there. He would just have to walk down the mountain…
At least he had saved the helicopter….

What’s that smell!!!?
He could smell smoke. Opening his eyes, he saw to his consternation that the severed high voltage power cables had set the mountain side on fire. A large fire was now rolling down the hill coming straight at his helicopter….
F…k!!! F…K!!!
And that is why this true story must be forever associated with the graphic image of our hero Peter, helicopter pilot extraordinaire, running as fast as his little legs would carry him, in a cloud of dust, like a demented madman, down a picturesque Swiss mountain, shouting at the top of his lungs at some cattle farmers down below:
” Hilfe! Gott! Help! Help! Come and help! The mountain’s on fire and it’s going to burn up my helicopter! Help! Scheisze! Hilfe!! Helllllllllpppppppp!!!!…. ”

Poor Peter. It took some explaining, but his boss forgave him. He was now, after all, a wiser helicopter pilot.
Life slowly returned to normality.
That is, until the day arrived, when story number two would carve itself, indelibly, into the Helicopter history books…

(Peter’s “Story # 2 “)
If you’ve never been to Switzerland, you need to visualize lots of mountains with pretty little villages. The houses are often like fairy tale houses, chocolate gingerbread houses, invariably neat and tidy. Around these tidy little villages go the Swiss village folk, invariably industrious and polite. Across these pretty villages, these quiet guardians of the ancient ways, would fly busy little helicopters. Including Peter. On his many errands.
All went well. Until one day he landed back at his base. His boss was standing there, waiting, arms folded.
He didn’t look quite his normal self. A trifle pale, perhaps.
Peter landed, and got out.
“Peter “, spoke his employer. “You carry a full five gallon drum of aviation fuel with you, don’t you? “
“Yes, boss…? “
“Peter, show me that drum, would you, please? “
“Sure, boss. Just a second… “.
Peter walked around to the baggage compartment, where the spare fuel was stored.
It was missing.
“Errrr…. sorry, Boss, I must have left it somewhere…. “
His boss almost snarled when he asked:
“And where do you think you might have left it…? “
“Duh… sorry, Boss, it was here this morning I think…. I have no idea…?? “
“Peter, you left it…… “
There was a pause.
“….in Mrs Muehller’s front living room. It got there via her roof, two ceilings, a ceiling fan, and the television. Your five gallons of aviation fuel is now adorning her carpets, walls, furniture, and….. the Sunday roast… “
Peter went pale.
“Moreover… “
“Moreover, I have just had Mrs Muehller on the phone. For about…. twenty five minutes. During which time… I never got a word in. It appears amongst other things that her cat will never be the same again. My head is still ringing. If you think I’m going around there, you’re wrong. I value my life. I’m going home. YOU are going around there, YOU are going to apologize, and YOU are going down on your bended knees….. what-ever it takes… to clean the mess up….. is that understood? “
“Yes, boss… ”

There are many morals to this story, (including the need to firmly secure all cargo!) but what I want to focus on is this:

routine normality, in the exciting, dynamic, fluid world of helicopters, must never be taken for granted.

Just because a task has been successfully performed many hundreds or thousands of times, does not mean that it will never hurt or kill us…. In my book, a good helicopter pilot is a defensive helicopter pilot. He is also alert to:

tiny changes in routine…

Tiny additional factors, which individually, mean nothing. But arranged together…. they can bite.
And bite hard.

Coming back to the Tuna Fields, and the whole point of this preamble, on a “Human factors ” level, I had already dropped hundreds of radio buoys successfully. I had dropped them on logs, pallets, barrels, rafts…
Nearly all these targets I could see, as I hovered alongside them. The waves are moving, and they will give you no help in figuring out where you are in relationship to an object floating under the helicopter. You can’t think:
“Okay, it’s floating between the seventh and eight wave… “
So to orientate yourself, you need to see the log or other floating object. Now it’s easy. Just watch for rogue waves, trying to snag your tail rotor.
Occasionally, you cannot see the object, because it’s so small. Your observer can. He will guide you in with hand signals, and drop the radio buoy at the right time. Even if the release rope gets hung up, and does not instantly sever the connection between the helicopter and the floating object (via the radio buoy), it’s not such a big deal, because you can drag the small object without tipping the helicopter over. No, you don’t want to drag anything intentionally, you don’t ever want the rope to go tight, but if it does, and the object is small, then you will get away with it.

But what if the object you cannot see below the helicopter weights several tons??

It was the last radio buoy drop of a long day. I was flying with a good captain, who I got on with really well.
We found a large foamer, and he was studying it intently. There was alot of large yellowfin there. All of a sudden, he pointed out a vertical floater. He did well to spot it. It was a large tree, maybe forty or fifty foot tall, but only the very tip was occasionally bobbing up above the surface. The rest was submerged. I’d never quite seen anything like that before.
(note: tiny departure from well-worn routine…)
It has to do with the species of tree, and the specific density of that wood. Some timbers float like crazy, e.g. balsa wood.
Some timbers sink like a rock. Straight to the bottom.
But some timbers…. just about dangle there…
The captains really like the ‘vertical floaters’. And I can see why. The fish really like them, and I’ve seen five hundred and six hundred ton of fish milling around such a vertical dude.
So down we went. Two old pros, just to drop another radio buoy. No big deal.
No big deal…

Needless to say, I was quite unsighted. There was no way I could see it. Only the very tip was intermittently bobbing above the surface. He guided me in with hand signals. Then he threw the rope with the hook, and missed. He pulled it back in, and tried again. This time he got it, and, for what was meant to be mere seconds (until he pulled the release rope) we were now firmly anchored to an underwater object, which I could not possibly see, which weighed many tons.
No big deal…
I was mostly quite relaxed. Anxious to get going, because it was late. It was blustery, wind twenty to twenty five knots.
The waves were eight to ten foot. The ship was fifty miles away. Daylight was slowly becoming an issue, but we had time if we just dropped this thing and got going.
No big deal…
The knot stuck. It failed to release. I could see him jerk at the rope. Jerk again. Jerk a third time…
And then something happened that I had not allowed for. Something, a possibility, that I had completely failed to factor in.
In a flash…
he took his headsets off…
undid his seatbelt….
and stepped out the door onto the float.
He was intent on untying the knot! He should have used the knife, and cut the rope! What’s a two dollar rope??
But no, with supreme confidence in my flying, and my ability to hover steadily in a gusting 25 knot wind, he was climbing out on the slippery, wet float of the hovering helicopter.
We always flew without doors on, and the noise level with no headsets was phenomenal. Even as he started out of his seat, I was already yelling at him, screaming at him, frantic, desperate, but he couldn’t hear me.
NO! NO! NO….!
It was too late. Routine normality had exploded into sudden terror.
All I had around me was waves. No reference…
There was no way I could maintain my position over that small a target without his hand signals to guide me.
There was no way I could prevent that short rope, stretched vertically below the helicopter, from going suddenly tight.
There was no way such a heavy object was going to budge. Too much weight and inertia.

I immediately knew we were about to roll over in a classic dynamic rollover, crash, and die horribly…

(to be continued – CLICK HERE)

Francis Meyrick

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Last edited by Francis Meyrick on July 1, 2015, 10:22 am

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