Francis Meyrick

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch. 5-1 “Observer Happiness Basics “

Posted on April 15, 2010

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual

Section 5. Trying to keep everybody happy

5-1 You and your observer (1) “The Basics “

Observers vary in character and outlook so greatly, it’s funny.
One man, very serious, you could annoy by simply talking. He would peer and peer through his binoculars, never relaxing, always frowning. Him you would please by utter silence!
“Two-seven-zero! “, he would say.
The helicopter would turn.
“Go down! “
The helicopter would go down.
“Log! Radio buoy! “
You’d go down and pop a radio buoy on a log.
“Five minutes! “, I would say.
And we’d go home!
Any unnecessary conversation visibly annoyed him!
Very occasionally, he would be chatty. Okay, I’d chat!
I learned that “Speak, when you are spoken to! ” seemed to work very well with this gentleman.
He was fine, excellent observer, sharp… Just didn’t say a lot!

At the other extreme, there was the chap who you’d please by not waking him up! I’m serious!
He’d close his eyes, and he liked a little snooze. He’d get all grumpy if you elbowed him in the ribs.
We were flying along one day, and I heard this funny noise.
What the heck…?
It was kind of like a flat, level, droning noise. A bit like a busy bee. Next thing the tone went up and down, more or less melodic. I looked across, and there was his Lordship, eyes closed, face relaxed, humming a happy little tune to himself. Relieved to get away from his captain for a while, I guess.

An interesting assessment is: what position does your observer occupy on the ship?
Junior or senior? If you’re lucky, you’ve got the captain. Although this may be intimidating at first, it’s actually really good news. The captains that fly, occasionally or all the time, are the easiest to work with. They understand the helicopter. They understand about landing into wind,or landing with the ship running downwind. Your reasonable requests are always instantly complied with. The Boss is on board!
A lot of American skippers fly in the helicopter, and will ‘make the set’ (judging when to drop the skiff boat) from the helicopter. Some of these captains are truly awesome when it comes to experience. Some are very much the pioneers, and have twenty or thirty years fishing experience behind them. They will suss out you, the newbie pilot, in minutes flat. By the time he’s flown one take-off with you, he’s going to know if you’re going to be any good or not. It may be a little intimidating at first -it was for me- but I think pilots who fly the captain are lucky. A lot of possible problems will simply not occur.

Unfortunately, on some ships, the captain will not fly – ever!
In fact he won’t set foot on the helideck. Now you may end up with a ship’s junior. You may wonder why such an important task as finding fish on that rather expensive helicopter gets delegated to a deckhand. Sometimes the deckhand has built a reputation for really sharp eyesight. Other times, it’s because of fear. F-E-A-R. One captain had promised his wife that he would never fly in the helicopter. Before you laugh too loudly, remember that there have been many really nasty fatal accidents involving ship’s captains over the years. In one of them, which reverberated around the Asiatic fleet, a captain was killed when he got so frightened that he jumped out of the helicopter at one hundred feet. The pilot is a friend of mine, and I got that whole story firsthand. They had a tail rotor failure, and they were established in autorotation. One moment the captain was there, the next he was gone! The pilot performed a superb auto, and put the machine gently down on the sea. But… no captain! Poor chap was killed instantly in the fall. Click here for the whole story.

There was also a crash in South America, which killed a very popular and well known purse seiner captain down there. That kind of tragedy is really, really bad for the tuna helicopter industry. Which is struggling with a poor image. Add to this several really ugly tie-down accidents, involving fatalities; and one mysterious crash which must have been so hard it defies description: all they found was one float and part of a human spine!
You can’t… blame people for being very wary of these helicopters!

So another way of really annoying your observer is by adopting a cavalier attitude to safety. And hence, his survival. They know helicopters can be deadly. Some of them have lost friends in crashes. They’d much rather you do a careful walk around, do a careful fuel check, and not indulge in any aerobatics!

I have heard some great stories, and one of them is a first hand account, straight from the captain involved! I served some time with Captain Chan, a terrific Taiwanese captain to have if you are a tuna pilot, and he told me how he was getting worried about his pilot, and the violent stunts he was performing. Whistling past the crow’s nest, hammerheads, etc. One day the pilot was up alone, herding. The pilot was getting a bit carried away. It was becoming more of an “air show ” than a typical herding operation.
The captain called him on the radio. Words to the effect of:
“Steady on, lad! “
Back came,literally, word-for-word, the following -classic- reply:
Ten seconds later, there came a spectacular:
“SPLASH!!!!!!! ”
The whole ship saw it happen. Shock, horror…

Cause: inadvertent tail rotor contact with a wave, followed by a roll over.
Exit stage left: one Hughes 500.
All eyes were glued on the surface of the water. Where’s the pilot?
Thankfully, our young friend was seen a few seconds later, surfacing, and blowing out a stream of water…
Issue: One ‘Submarine TunaHead Certificate’!
‘No problem’, eh?

Well, it was a problem for his company, because they fired him.
Our friend was lucky. A few years later, he was still fishing, still a TunaHead, but older and wiser. And so are quite a few holders of the ‘Submarine TunaHead Certificate’. Still fishing! But not everybody gets away with it. I have a story to tell later about somebody who did not. And I also have some serious recommendations of what you can do to vastly enhance your survival chances in the event of a scenic underwater detour. Get yourself a “Spare Air ” bottle, and learn how to use it. Take an ‘Open Water’ basic scuba diving class.
It might just save your life.

Sometimes I ask myself if ‘splashing out’ in a Tuna chopper is just a little bit too much like nosing over (or ground looping) a tail dragger fixed wing aircraft. With the difference that coming to grief in such a landing accident in a tail dragger is hardly ever fatal, whereas going on a submarine tour in a helicopter very often IS…!
Sometimes guys have been recovered still strapped in their seat belts after a seemingly gentle enough ‘roll-over’. Meaning that they were probably not knocked unconscious. Poor guys just panicked and didn’t even get their seat belts undone. However, if there are doors on the aircraft, you had better open them first, and grab the outside of the aircraft first, before you undo the seatbelt. Otherwise you will have great difficulty exercising the leverage on the door handle – your body may twist the other way under water. Also, a friend of mine tried to escape, and ‘something’ was holding him back. He wasted precious seconds trying to undo the seatbelts which were already undone… until he realized it was his headsets that were holding him in.
(not even a helmet, just ordinary David Clarke’s).
Maybe in your thinking, all of a sudden, that “Spare Air ” bottle seems cheap at the price, eh?

Somebody once said about tail draggers: “There are tail dragger pilots who have ground looped, and there are tail dragger pilots who have yet to ground loop! ”
Those who have never tend to sneer, and look down on those who have. Forgetting how easy it is to do!
Until they do it!

It’s the same with Helicopters in the Tuna Fields.
Those who have never taken the submarine tour tend to sneer, and look down on those who have.
Caution: like a ground loop, it’s easily done!!
I’ve never played at a dive-dive-dive submarine game – yet! It scares me! Lots!
I’m humble!
My observer knows it scares me, which is why I don’t belt around as fast as I can low-level, squarely and utterly in the hatched area of the ‘height velocity diagram’. Why I don’t show off – much! Why I plan my descents with due regard to the height velocity diagram optimum profile – every time!
And he likes that!
If you indulge in stunts, sure, just every male passenger with any cajones will indeed laugh and giggle while they are up with you. It’s not ‘manly’ to plead: “I’m scared! Please stop! ”
But that doesn’t mean he ISN’T…

I had an observer, my very first one, who was downright aggressive and sullen for the first few weeks.
I was a bit mystified. I wasn’t sure if it was personal, or what. Well, I discovered that I was his fourth pilot in as many months. His captain had fired the previous three.
One trip – fired.
Three pilots. Three times.
In addition to that disquieting fact, his best friend had been killed in a helicopter crash off another boat.
He was nervous, and had asked the captain to be released from flying duties. The captain had refused.
The observer had argued that he didn’t want to fly. The captain had ordered him, and threatened to drop him off at the nearest port if he didn’t!
Enter: (Roll of the drums…) Yet another new Tuna Pilot, wide eyed, and green as Ireland!
You can’t blame poor Akaya for being suspicious. Little did he know he was going to be stuck with me continuously for over a year. After a while, he can’t have been too terrified, because he was as angry as the captain was when my employer wanted to transfer me to another ship!
We were already ‘blood brothers’ by then…

I’ve frequently heard of observers being reluctant to fly, or point blank refusing to fly, with certain pilots.
You won’t get asked back! On the other hand, when your employer tries to transfer you, and your observer goes nuts at the captain, saying that he doesn’t want to fly with anybody else…
Now that’s good for job security!

It’s kind of interesting meeting up, and chatting, with the manager (or the owner) of the fishing company that owns the boat. One thing I learned is how much they value a good observer. The crew man who finds the good logs and the prize foamers is worth his weight in gold. If the helicopter pilot can get along with the number one ‘fishfinder’, then that is truly great. So another way of looking at it is this:
what counts is hitting it off with the ‘number one observer’…

Sure, there are often two or three observers, who take it in turns to fly in the helicopter. Or you will have a main observer, with one or two ‘reserves’, if Number One wants a break. But the relationship that really matters -apart from that with the captain – is that with the acknowledged ‘number one fish finder’. Because fish finding is serious and tiring business (imagine concentrating and holding binoculars up to your eyes for two hours), these ‘ace’ guys tend to be serious about their business. That’s okay!

Other ways of upsetting your observer are technical rather than psychological.
Different tuna pilots have all been guilty of one, more, or all of the following sins:

* ‘losing sight of floating logs’ whilst orbiting.
* ‘insisting on huge amounts of fuel reserves’, and therefore cutting
a promising flight short
* ‘running scarily low on fuel’
* ‘turning beautiful noise into a sudden loud silence’ (running outta gas)
* ‘being rough on the controls’
* ‘setting unreasonably strict wind and weather limits’
* ‘unfamiliarity with GPS systems’ (being a SINR)
* ‘turning left rather than right (his side), so he can’t see’
* ‘waffling all over the shop when trying to drop a radio buoy’
* ‘scaring him to death on take-off and landing’

And, finally, what’s really going to upset him:

*** ‘crashing’…..!!!

The best way to keep your observer happy is to be a real SAFETY orientated guy.
If you are – it shows!

Francis Meyrick

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