Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual "GPS 4-1"

Posted on April 12, 2010

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual

Section 4.    GPS Systems and Offshore Navigation issues

4-1  The long, dark tunnel

        Before we delve into tuna helicopter specific GPS systems, first a general warning about GPS and the over reliance many pilots place on it. In two short sentences:

"Don’t be one of those GPS slaves who always meekly fly down the long, dark tunnel"

"You can’t just fly little numbers – you have GOT to develop a mental picture and a situational awareness"

Duh. So what do I mean by that?
I mean the failure of many guys, who stare intently at that little screen, flying with child like innocence and trust,  where ever the indication takes them, without question, and without suspicion. Who, frankly, don’t have the foggiest clue what lies on either side of their track. They are in effect, flying down a long, dark tunnel. Their situational awareness is limited at best, maybe even non-existent. They just hope to reach that little, distant light at the end of that tunnel, their destination. Whether they admit it or not, (and most will not), they are vulnerable. Yes, they may get away with it hundreds of times. But as sure as eggs can become real noisy baby chicks, sooner or later, that light at the end of the tunnel will go out, or mislead you, and now you start running fuel critical. Oops…
On at least two occasions, when I was flying off tuna boats, a lack of suspicion on my part would have caused embarrassment. On one of those occasions, I would, for sure, have landed in the drink.
I describe that story later.

       A few examples maybe to illustrate.
I was instructing helicopters for a while at a little airfield in the UK, and the Chief Instructor, who had an unexpected engagement,  asked me to fill in and take one of his students. The gentleman, who owned his own helicopter,  was about to do his General Flight test for his Private Helicopter License.
All I had to do was ride with him, and give him any fine tuning pointers.  I was introduced to the gentleman, and he frowned his instant dislike. He was not pleased to be flying with me, and he didn’t care if it showed. I formed the impression of a bit of a ‘Hooray Henry’, somewhat over dressed, blue blazer, breast pocket hankerchief, pressed slacks, polished suede shoes, and a superior, upper class colonial British Empire accent. And the bearing to go with it. The gentleman was obviously wealthy,  with his own spanky new helicopter. I never could figure out if he really talked like that, or if he had secretly gone to upper class elocution lessons. I for my part, Irish, grubby jeans, beard, devil-may-care attitude towards the British Empire, was not the best match. But he was the customer, and I resolved to be nice. No rude jokes about Colonial Brits. So instead I just quietly hummed the old music hall song about "who goes out walking in the blazing hot, midday, Indian sun?"
(Mad dogs and Englishmen…).
We were flying along on our cross country, and it soon became obvious he was not looking out the window.
Instead, he was fiddling with a TigerShark GPS. Constantly.
Well…. I’m ah-thinking you are about to have a GPS failure, Hooray my boy…
And I reached across and switched it off. Then I sat back, with a smug instructor smile, as he threw a look of withering disgust at me. What I meant was: "Hey Hooray, how about some old fashioned time-distance-heading basic navigation skills?"
I think many instructors would have done the same. Part of the perks of the job, I reckon. Tormenting students.
Well, guess what… Old Hooray reached across and switched it back on!
       What!?
And then bade me -sternly- to keep my mitts off it. He told me in no uncertain circumstances that it was HIS helicopter, and he would use whatever equipment HE deemed fit.
That, admittedly, was a new one on me. I had never, ever, had a student pull that little stunt. I pondered my options. I could switch it off again. Pull the circuit breaker. Throw the bloody thing out the window. Or…
I watched our destination airfield appear over the horizon. Hooray was fiddling with his GPS again. He obviously had no clue where he was, and was determined not to waste time looking out the window.
Okay, Sahib, you want to play it that way…
So I sat there, quietly, pretending I was fully cowed into obedience. Yes, Master. I won’t touch anything, Master. Whatever you say, Mister Hooray…
I watched the destination get closer and closer. Run-ways…. Lots of little aero-plane thingies parked outside hangar thingies. But Hooray was too busy to look out. He was busy paging through different pages of the TigerShark. Our destination grew closer and closer. I never said a word, or moved a muscle. This was getting to be fun. He flew right over the top of it. And kept right on going. I figured, surely, after a few minutes, he’d start copping on something was amiss.
Hell, no. Just fiddling with his damn GPS again…
Five minutes went by. Ten minutes. Still we flew on the same heading. Now we were going away from our destination. Occasionally he would glance out the window. Just for form, I think. The rest of the time, he was either fiddling with, or studying his GPS intently. My silent entertainment level was now growing higher with the second. The beauty of it was that we were heading straight for the Gatwick Control Zone. London’s other Big International Airport.  Another ten minutes, he would be marching straight into it, with never such a pesky thing as an ATC clearance. This was getting really good.
Onwards we marched, and I was still playing the role of the subjugated peon. Not allowed to touch nothing. Just sit there and be quiet.
      Yes, Massa…
It got even better. Now in the distance, I could see the unmistakable shape of Concorde taking off.
Wonderful, and Old Hooray here is just about to violate their airspace…
I knew even then, that Air Traffic Controllers would be watching our rapidly approaching transponder blip closely. I let it go as long as I possibly could.
"I HAVE CONTROL!"
And the worm turned…
Paddy committed mutiny, and took the controls away from the British Empire! Despite the steep one-eighty about turn, he still had the composure to yell at me as to what in hell I thought I was doing. I told him. In no uncertain circumstances.
"Saving your ugly butt from violating Gatwick Control Zone! And what do you think THAT is…?"
I said, pointing to a now very large Concorde not too far away, climbing though our altitude.
He looked, saw, and quaked.
"Oh… that’s Concorde!", he squeaked, very alarmed.
Having been very patient, under some provocation, I indulged in a rare (for me) instructor to student sarcasm.
I felt I had earned it.
Oh, wow… Isn’t it frickin’ am-mazing what you can see when you look out the WINDOW….!!!!

Lest you think that this does not happen to Commercial Pilots, here in the Gulf of Mexico, I have had plenty of experiences that are smudged on the same messy blotter.
You’re flying along, with passengers, and you see, slowly converging from your left, miles away, another helicopter. Same altitude. You keep an eye on him. You remark to your front seat passenger:
"See that helicopter? Don’t worry, I’ve seen him. I do have the right of way, but I’m not sure he’s seen me."
A few minutes go by. Visibility twenty miles. Sunny. Beautiful day.
We converge.
I let it go for a while.
"Hm. I don’t think he’s seen us. I’m going to do a slight climb here…"
I climb 300 feet or so. The other machine just keeps right on going, passes right under us, and continues on his way. No rock, no bank, no deviation. Usually, when a pilot in another machine is watching you, you can tell. Slight banking, as he maneuvers to keep you in sight. Past his windscreen pillars, etc.
But no. Zero. Nada. Zip. Just sailing quietly on…
Head inside cockpit…

One day I was in Africa, and I had a green deck to land on a platform. Suddenly I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Looked to my right. There was another machine, overtaking me to my right. He had come up behind me, and a few hundred yards to my right. Slowly we started to converge. As I was descending towards the platform where I had received a green deck, he was descending with me. I could see his head, staring straight ahead. It never turned. I broke off the approach, and watched in amazement as this machine continued its approach, and landed right on the platform on which I had received clearance to land!
That was embarrassing, as I had some VIP’s on board. All our passengers are VIP’s really, because that’s what pays our mortgages. But these were VIP VIP’s. Double whammy Vips…
What it turned out to be was one of my buddies having a really off day. He had landed on my platform, talking to another platform! And fiddling with his GPS, loading it for the next leg. Wrong platform, and he admitted he had never seen me! Despite coming up behind me.
Head inside cockpit…

On another occasion, I was watching a higher helicopter converge with me in a descending turn, and I wondered if he had seen me. Then he turned steeper, so his belly was towards me! That was a dead give away. No pilot, who has seen another helicopter close by, is going to deliberately turn his belly to the other machine, and leave himself unsighted.  Another buddy, as it turned out, fiddling with his GPS…
Head inside cockpit, to the detriment of awareness.
Of course, I don’t doubt for a second I’ve done the exact same thing myself. And some other professional fellow pilot, in making allowances for MY blundering, has gotten out of MY way, muttering murderously under his breath:
"Dozy bastard…! Get your eyes out of the window!"

Final two examples. And two important ones. I once got a phone call from an old customer foreman, who I had flown with on a contract for a year. Nice old boy. He said he had a problem, and could I help. Apparently, he had a new pilot, and this is what had transpired.
Firstly, once they were all strapped in the bird, the pilot had been unable to program the Trimble GPS. He was not used to that model. So everybody had to disembark, whilst the pilot fetched a mechanic to come and explain the GPS to him. Then, after that delay, everybody got back in again.
Now the track for the destination was about 210 degrees magnetic. Which would take the machine pretty quickly offshore, and then over a whole lotta water. After ten minutes or so, the foreman was concerned, because they were firmly established on a westerly heading, traveling over land. There was no way they were going to get to the platform on this heading. According to the foreman, he pointed this out to the pilot, and waved his arm in a generally southerly direction.
Pilot: "Well, no, this is the way the GPS is telling us to go…"
        (A classic, eh?)
Foreman-customer: "Son, I’ve been flying this route for thirty five years. You are not going to get there on this heading. Look, we’re still flying overland. You’re gonna take us to Galveston at this rate…"

The pilot made some adjustments, fiddled some more. Ten minutes after that, they were heading on a due EASTERLY heading. Again, the foreman waved a hand in the direction of south.
The pilot argued…
To cut a long story short, the flight that I routinely used to perform in about 1 hour and 5 minutes, took 2 hours and 10.  That’s not good. But it gets worse.
"Did he stop for fuel on the way?" I asked, alarmed.
No, he didn’t.  
That was really scary. There was no fuel at the destination. Apart from the fact that the pilot would have flown past four to five refueling platforms on the way there, here was where the rub came in ‘hard and scratchy’:
I knew the nearest fuel platform from where he landed was a minimum of 7 minutes flying time away. A full tank holds 835 pounds of fuel, and a burn of 360 pounds an hour, you can do the mathematics.
Yep, running on vapor…
I make that 828 pounds used. Factor in the company requirement that a machine must always land with a minimum of 30 minutes fuel (45 minutes of winds greater than 20 knots), and it is clear there were some real issues going on here…

You see where the ‘long, dark tunnel’ came in here? Our hero flew past 4 to 5 possible refueling stops on the way, all within easy reach. That’s what I call a long, dark, stressful ride, with likely very poor situational awareness. I doubt if he had any clue he was passing up fuel on the way. It was just a case of fixating on the ‘light’ (destination) at the end of that dark tunnel. After that… oh, yes, I guess I need some fuel. Hmmm…..

Last example. I was at a company that did some hand outs. On one of those hand outs, a simple clerical typing error meant that the lat/long coordinates for a coastal base were incorrect. The base was maybe half a mile inland, no more. Our hero plugged the wrong coordinates into his GPS. And flew on. And on. And on.  Eventually, he got himself into trouble with low fuel, way inland. Like seventy miles inland.
He was so far away from the coast, looking for a known coastal base, that he was later asked the obvious question. Why did he fly inland, on and on, until he was running low on fuel? How about basic map reading skills, situational awareness?
And here comes the really interesting rub of that story: Our hero abdicated any and all responsibility! Indignantly, I might add. As far as he was concerned, it was all the fault of that stupid handout.
This is where you start feeling sorry for Helicopter Companies, Chief Pilots, and Owners. Remember, these are very, very nice people (a trifle delusional, often enough) who have the childish idea that they can make lots of money out of owning helicopters, and employing pilots like you and me. I’m glad they suffer from this delusion, because it means you and I get to play with these nice shiny toys. They fix ’em when they are broken, wash ’em, wax and put fuel in them. We don’t have to pay a cent, and we get to have all the fun, while they suffer all the worry and stress. Heck, they even give us pocket money to fly the things. What’s wrong with that deal, eh?  It follows that you really have to help them delude themselves that it’s a really good business idea.
Last thing you want to do is give them a hard time, or make them hate pilots anymore than most of them do soon enough anyway…
This guy… well, what can you say.
Head inside cockpit. Or maybe, in this case, UP another long dark tunnel…

Alright, so being top of the class, now you’re gonna ask me:

"Do tuna helicopter pilots ever mess up with their GPS? Run out of gas? Get lost? Land ‘silently’ in the water?…"

Good question. Take a bow. Now you’re thinking ahead.
Answers?
How about:  Yes. Yes. Yes. And, OH YEAH.

Which brings me neatly to my next Tuna Tales story…

Francis Meyrick
     (c)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on April 12, 2010, 6:38 pm


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1 response to Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual "GPS 4-1"

  1. Moggy

    You mention in your stories that some pilots use a cardboard compass rose to kep track of the boat but I couldn’t find this info. Could you elaborate for me on this ?

    Rgards

    Loachy

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