Francis Meyrick

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.3-H “Attaching a Radio Buoy “

Posted on September 30, 2009

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual


Having safely descended to your log, your observer may now want to attach a radio buoy. Also referred to as a ‘pipper’, this will guide the ship to the log later that day, or maybe several days later. The first time you approach a log for this purpose, you may be nervous. Heck, I was! With practice, it’s no big deal. You start getting comfortable with it. By the time you’ve done it a few hundred times, you are very relaxed about. You think it’s easy. Then comes that fateful day, the day you will never forget…. The day you learn a whole new respect for the seemingly routine procedure of attaching radio buoys to logs. I plan to write that day up in the ‘Blip on the Radar’ series.
It will probably be called “Another Day I nearly died… “
Or maybe “How to make a big hole in a passing wave… “
(Oh, hell. How ’bout this: “Eyes of Dead Man “)

The first time you see a radio buoy, and the first time you realize that they are going to attach it to your helicopter, and that they fully expect you to go fly with it….. that’s a strange experience. Here’s a photo that will give you an idea.

Yep! Radio buoys!

Radio buoys come in different sizes. Some may be eighteen feet tall. These are more likely to be attached by means of the ship drawing alongside a log. They are impracticable to carry on a helicopter. So you will carry shorter versions. They make them all the way down to only three or four foot tall. How-ever… the problem is ‘limited range’. The chances are your ship is searching a huge area. The shorter the aerial, the smaller the range. The log is going to be drifting. A little ‘super shortie’ with a ten to fifteen mile range is nowhere near as good as a tall antenna with maybe a forty mile range. Radio buoys are not cheap, and the ship doesn’t want to lose any. In practice, what this means is that they will try and mount the absolute longest possible antenna on the helicopter. Mounted horizontally, attached to the undercarriage (occasionally on top of the floats) they pretty well always extend way past the end of the floats, well on the way towards your favorite tail rotor. Indeed, I have come up to the deck and seen them where the tip was so close to my H.500 tail rotor, that I made them take it off. The problem was that we had already used up all our shorter antennas on really good logs. So they decided to see if I could carry the really long ones. Answer: no!
Before we go any further, let me tell you what great fun it is when you’re strapped in, helpless, turning and burning, and somebody who has no business on the helideck, decides all of a sudden to ‘help’. Here he comes, meaning so well, waddling towards the helicopter with a spare radio buoy, holding the blessed thing vertically!
Oh, such a good sport!
Rotorstrikes – parked on the helideck!
On my ship, before my time, a mechanic poked one up into the rotor disc, and wrote off a brand new (ouch!) Bell 47 rotor blade. It wasn’t his first whoop-dee-doggy-doo, and he got fired. I’ve heard of this novel method of testing rotor blades happening to any number of Hughes 500’s. Very expensive!
Having erupted out of my cockpit like a guided missile one day (turnin’ and burnin’ – believe you me), just in time to prevent Armageddon, I changed my whole approach to the issue.
I make it an absolute rule: absolutely no replacing radio buoys when the rotors are turning! I don’t have a mechanic to look after me, so it’s all up to me. Antenna versus rotor blade is a guaranteed one round knock-out. Such a gargantuan blooper is potentially not only loss making to your company (like $6,000 a blade on a Hughes 500, in the mid nineties), but it can cause huge political embarrassment. Basically, who foots the bill? If it’s a crew member who ignores the pilot, you might think the fishing company pays, but I’ve been told that in practice this involves a very awkward exchange between the helicopter company and the customer. This is one area where I have been known to become very excited, very quickly. Believe me, it’s awesome when you’re cooling down, relaxing, you look around, and suddenly, here’s this bloody big thing approaching! My ship -my baby- had brand new blades at the time, and I yelled! An Exocet missile could not have come out of that cockpit faster than I did. And I was a whole lot more explosive. Not… a happy bunny.
What will typically happen is this: you’ve already placed one radio buoy, and then the observer will see another really nioe log with a lot of fish. He also sees other helicopters on the prowl nearby. Placing a radio buoy on a good log conveys ownership rights (sort of, unless you’re a Korean on Taiwanese, or vice versa) and now your observer is all excited.
He can’t wait to get back to the ship, load up with another radio buoy and go! He radios the ship. The ship gets all excited. But everybody’s busy. So the cook’s brand new assistant dish washer, in between peeling potatoes, gets handed down the job of carrying the next radio buoy up to the helideck. He knows nothing, because it’s not his regular job…..

(Oops….!) (Sorry….?)

In this situation, when they are all gung-ho to go, I say as we are landing: “I stop engine! Waiting! NO radio buoy until rotor stop! ” All this in my best Red Indian accent. After weeks of this, as a special privilege, I tell them I might relax the policy, but if they even DARE to abuse my trust…
They will get the message – eventually.

view from the bridge during a set; note the list to port is mild here

When you arrive down at the log, into wind, you might consider taking a leaf out of my book. I wait, twenty feet away, until I’m sure the observer is ready. That means hook in hand, rope ready. They always fiddle about for a minute or two, and you’ll find it way more relaxing in an easy hover 20 feet away, than over the top or right beside the damn thing.
When the observer signals he’s ready, I creep forward, and very often he gets it with the first shot. Basically he has to chuck the hook over the log, and then release the radio buoy so that it falls into the water on the opposite side to the hook.
Occasionally, I’ve flow with dudes who used two hooks. They were pretty damn good with them. They would often manage to throw it so there was one hook on each side of the log.
If this confuses you a little, imagine a clock face. Let’s see the log stretches from three o’clock to nine o’clock. The wind is coming from twelve o’clock. (The wind is nearly always perpendicular to the log… jolly convenient for you).
You start your run-in from six o’clock. He drops the hook just above the center of the dial. On the twelve o’clock side. Now he motions you backwards. You lift up a few feet (to protect your tail rotor, and to communicate to him that you are backing up) and back away. He now pulls the the rope that releases the radio buoy, and it falls neatly clear (hopefully) just below the center of the clock dial, on the six o’clock side. Finish.

You may wonder why you just don’t hover above the log and be done with it.
Very often the log (or the barrel, raft, pallet, or any other flotsam) is so small you lose sight of it. Your observer can see it, bending forwards and looking down, or squirming around and looking out sideways, but you can’t. I tend to sit back and relax, and I’m half watching the horizon. Hovering over waves is not like hovering over a field. You don’t want to look down vertically, or you could frighten yourself. The advantage of making a bit of a slow ‘run-in’ is that you can position yourself pretty accurately to start with at least. If the log has a big root system, the observer will like to get close to the root, as opposed to the other end, where there is a danger of the rope slipping off. That will happen occasionally anyway, and don’t be disappointed when the ship turns up there a few days later, and the log is gone. There’s your buoy you dropped, the rope, the hooks…. but no log and no fish.
You can hover easily enough if it’s a big log. It will give you plenty of references. A small log, or a floating pallet, or a barrel…. that’s different. You will be surprised how fish will temporarily adopt even a small two foot log as their “home “.
And you will be surprised how many fish there will be milling around such a tiny log. Such a small target, on a blustery day, is a real pain. For sure, you will lose sight of it. That’s when team work comes into play. By the time you’ve dropped loads and loads of radio buoys with your observer, it all starts running real smooth. If I creep forward, and the position isn’t quite to my observer’s liking, he may signal me to ‘back up’ or ‘move sideways’. He uses simple, intuitive hand gestures.
If I can see the log, I’ll obey those instructions. If I can’t see the log, or get disorientated, I’ll pull in some collective fairly abruptly, and rise up four to six feet. The reason for the abruptness is that it signals to him that I’m backing up for another go. He relaxes, and doesn’t try and drop the hook. Now I back up, maybe twenty feet, aim, and creep forwards again.
The moment he drops the hook, I know, I can see him do it. He will motion me to ‘back up’ but I usually already am on the way up in the hover. Up first, a safety margin, and then we back up.
The reason I back up and away of course is to protect the tail rotor (imagine if you moved forwards and clouted the antenna with your tail rotor!), and I’m also guarding against a rogue wave. However,I’m also being super cautious at this stage, just in case there is a first class screw up in the make. If the radio buoy has not been fully released, and is in fact still attached to the helicopter… the last thing I want to do is to try and fly away dragging an eight to ten foot radio buoy behind the helicopter. But that assumes the previously mentioned hooks let go of the log! Very unlikely. So if you become careless, and try and fly away, but the buoy is not fully released, then you may be trying to drag not just the radio buoy, but also whatever the radio buoy is attached to. You’re setting yourself up for a fatal roll-over accident in a heartbeat.
I’m convinced this is another cause of mysterious and unexplained tuna helicopter crashes.

My good friend Jimmy, a good observer, a good shipmate

Where it goes wrong sometimes is when you get stuck with an inexperienced observer.
There is a special way they need to tie the knots in the ropes so that the observer can pull a rope in the cockpit and release the radio buoy. You absolutely need to be mentally prepared for the scenario where muggins beside you drops the hook, starts tugging away on the rope, and the radio buoy will NOT fall clear. A snag up like that always occurs when it’s blustery like hell, and you can’t see the log, the sea is rough, and it’s hard to maintain your position. You’re hungry, you’re tired, and you want to go home. You’re fifty or sixty miles from the ship, and nobody quite knows where you really are…
I’ve been there.

The second worst experience I ever had, dropping radio buoys, was exactly that: a raw observer, who was a very nervous type. The thing hung up, and he went to pieces. I couldn’t see the log, and he wasn’t fit to give me any help. He was just busy ‘panicking’ and tugging on the release rope! Remember, be prepared for this, it can be next to impossible to maintain your position above a small log you can’t see, when your references (the waves) are moving and it’s blowing a gale! You’ll see…
Next thing of course, I could ‘feel’ the rope had gone tight! Now we were beginning to ‘tow’ the blessed log! Lucky it was a small one! The big ones can weigh many tons. You will NOT tow a big one. Dangerous-dangerous-dangerous. You can roll over that way. It’s a bit like a tie-down accident…
He’s red-faced and falling apart. Oh, yes!, now I’m really enchanted with my new observer! As luck would have it, I’d followed the advice of an Old Tuna Head. Some session we had, sometime, in some old flea ridden bar, somewhere.
(Thanks, Bud, whoever you are. I owe you a beer)
I had taped a sharp knife right above the observer’s head. And -you bet- I had pointed it out to him on his very first trip.
Now it was just a case of yelling, as loud as I could:
And that is when my “insurance policy ” was used for the first and only time.
Strongly recommended!
He didn’t last, I think that just freaked him out, he didn’t like the purse seiner life, and he quit. I wonder how much that experience had to do with it!

With practice, and a clued up observer, dropping radio buoys is downright lots of fun. I’ve dropped hundreds and hundreds of radio buoys without the slightest problem. But I still have that sharp blade taped up above my observer’s head.
And if we crash, I can always use it to slit the little devil’s throat…

As helicopter pilots, we get used to routine. We do potentially dangerous things over and over, and over again. We get good at it. The particular task, at first regarded with newbie trepidation, quickly becomes ‘no big deal’.
That applies to helicopters the world over, doing all kinds of bizarre things. Longline, utility high voltage power line work, EMS, pinnacle work, cattle herding, logging, etc, etc… you name it. We get used to it. We relax a bit. It’s no big deal, eh?
Then, one day… Oh-la-la…
Heck, I’m still shuddering here, all these years later. Let me say that again….

I have two great (and truly terrifying) stories churning around in my tiny mind, and I need to go and write the blessed things.
Both tales involved a seemingly routine,normal, borderline hum-drum, everyday tuna helicopter operation.
Which all of a sudden… became…. everything BUT routine.
One of these great Tuna Helicopter experiences involved…. dropping a radio buoy. I’m still amazed I survived that first class, unmitigated, regurgitated, outstanding cluster f..k up.

One tale is now written up as Blip (8) “Eyes of Dead Man “ in the “Blip on the Radar ” series, the human side of tuna helicopter flying, and it’s all about routine, almost tedious normality, turning into instant TERROR. How to be come an older, wiser helicopter pilot, a whole lot more humble, and a whole lot less cocky.
The second near disaster is written up as “Pilot not-in-Command “.

I’ll leave it there for now, but I hope I’ve sowed a seed of awareness in you. Yes, you will drop hundreds of radio buoys without a problem. The trick after that is to continue to stay alert, and not perform the interesting stunt I describe later…

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 13, 2010, 3:22 pm

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