Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch.5-2 "A Bit of Theater"

Posted on April 15, 2010

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual

Section 5.    Trying to keep everybody happy

5-2   You and your observer (2)  "A Bit of Theater"

            It’s wise to remember that a lot of observers have spent literally thousands of hours, sitting at one thousand feet altitude in little bubbles, suspended underneath one single nut, wholly at the mercy of yet another nut. A veritable succession of expat, Tuna Foreign Legionnaires. They’ve seen lots of little pilots come and go. Some, a small minority, have stayed for years. Most have come, and departed within less than a year, often within mere months. Even weeks. It’s hardly any wonder that our Asian observer friends don’t always start out too welcoming. You are gonna have to prove yourself first…

         Sometimes a little ‘theater’ doesn’t go amiss.
A bit of blarney, and a bit of humor.  If you can jolly the show along, so much the better. No matter where you go in the world, no matter what nation you visit, there are two words you should always learn immediately. With these two words, you can have a conversation with a willing host, anywhere, anytime. Your limited vocabulary of two words will undoubtedly cause you to have to rely on facial expressions, grimaces, plenty of miming, and maybe even drawing pictures. So what?
If the will is there, you can communicate, and have lots of fun into the bargain.

        The words I refer to are ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
‘Good’ versus ‘bad’.
‘Gut’  versus  ‘Schlim’.
‘Bien’ versus  ‘Pas bien’.
‘Goed’ versus ‘Slecht’….
In Chinese…      ‘good’ = How!   (as in the greeting you would expect from a Hollywood Red Indian)
and ‘bad’ = Pooh How!
With some Japanese influence, there is also another commonly used ‘good’, which is real easy for us to remember:   "Psycho!"  With the emphasis on the last syllable.  
The alternative ‘bad’ is "Sigh-tay!", also with the emphasis on the last syllable. The Chinese have a unique way of spitting this word out to express their displeasure. You’ll hear the crew use it, and quickly learn exactly how to pronounce it.
I learned these words on Day One, I kept notes, and soon I had some 500 words. I couldn’t write them, but I sure could speak them.
So when or why would we wish to communicate, and why would we wish to do so with some theatrical humor?

         Well, let’s start off with your ‘pre take off’ cockpit checks. Using a check list, slowly, religiously, every day, every time, sooner or later will save you a whole lot of grief. Believe me. I have a lot more to say about this elsewhere. If you are starting out in your career in helicopters, and many people in the Tuna helicopter industry are, then the Law of Primacy applies here. If you learn good habits from the get-go, and stick to them, it will pay off handsomely at some stage in your career down the road. I promise. Believe me…
I know I can just look at all the instruments, switches and circuit breakers, and know it’s all okay. But I still, even today, (especially today), use the checklist, run my thumb down the line items, run my fingers over the circuit breakers, all the switches, and often enough slowly past the gauges as I check them!  I can tell you a whole lotta stories on this subject, and I will, one day, elsewhere. I take my time and I use the checklist.
It serves as a backup for me, in case I make a mistake.
It also shows my observer that we are checking the beast very carefully.

          Tie-Down accidents are the number One cause of accidental death in the Tuna Fields.
Everybody that has left one attached, and then tried to take off, and failed to lift one thousand two hundred tons of cold steel, I’m sure thought that it was a really, really stupid thing to do. Moronic.
       Until they did it themselves…

         I have a whole ritual dedicated to those killer things. And a lot of that ritual involves the observer.
1) The tie-downs are either all on, or all off. Nothing in between. You never take one off, fold it, put it away, then take the next one off, fold it, put it away, then the third, then the fourth.
          No. Negative. Nein. Njet. Knickers. Fat chance…
They are either ALL on or they are ALL off.
2)  I stretch them out on the deck, running alongside the helicopter, and fasten them to the tie-down hooks in the deck, in such a way that I can see all of the left tie-down straps (If I crane out of the cockpit), and at least the front of the right hand tie-downs. Flat on the deck.  The fact that I can see the front of the right hand tie-downs flat on the deck, is actually good enough. We are safe. But I do another check. A theatrical check, slightly, but then again, it IS another defense line.
I tap my observer on the knee, just prior to rolling up the throttle, and point out his door. The gesture means:
       "Hey! Check your tie-downs!"
He looks out, and gives me a thumbs up. Off we go….

One day I forgot to do that. I have no idea why. As I started to roll the throttle up, my observer tapped ME on the knee, and pointed out MY open door! He was serious. What he meant by his gesture was this:
         "Hey mister Pilot! Check your tie-downs! Let’s do this properly!"
When he checks the tie-downs carefully, and I see his expression is serious (every time!), I know that deep down, he likes it that way! Safety First!
How many guys would be alive today if they had done that? Dozens…

         I did have a belly cable, of course. These days, it seems more and more operators are cutting corners, using Military Surplus C-18 engines, etc, and are unwilling to invest in the release hook that goes underneath the belly of the aircraft. Simply because it is aviation quality, it is expensive. But how much does a smashed helicopter cost? And two smashed little people?  If you don’t have a belly hook, then it’s going to be sorely tempting to depart from the rule above. And leave, say, just two straps on the right side on, or something like that. I don’t like it at all. In my view, it’s asking for trouble. If they didn’t give me a belly hook installation, I would be a very noisy, very unhappy camper. It almost certainly saved my life one day. I describe that adventure elsewhere.

         Another example of a little ‘theater’ is with regard to fuel or day light considerations.
This ‘scene’ might occur after I’ve given him the ‘five minutes’ sign, (five fingers), and after we’ve turned for home. You always leave a bit of a reserve, but maybe after ten miles or so (with perhaps forty still to go) he sees a foamer off to one side, and wants to go there! Now I might instantly know the foamer is only a few miles, and that the detour is not a problem. But staying there for a long time, or going on to another foamer would be! So now it’s ‘theater-time’!
First, he points to the foamer. He’s all excited!
I don’t turn immediately.  I make a show of thinking, calculating… maybe I’ll demonstratively look at my watch…. and then I’ll go!  Now he’s already got the message: fuel is becoming a consideration!
It makes it easier maybe ten minutes later to shake your head and turn for home!

        "Daylight" is exactly the same thing. If he wants to go heading off somewhere, I might point at the sun going down, and then look demonstratively at my watch, holding it right out in front of my face, in an exaggerated, unmistakable gesture.

         Once in a while, maybe early on in the relationship, you might get the impression that maybe the observer sees ‘shouting at you’ as a good way of getting his way! I had a few rides where it started to get annoying. The older I get, the longer my short fuse seems to be getting, but this time it was beginning to smolder dangerously! I firmly believe I am the Captain of the helicopter, and you can ‘request’, but don’t you start ‘dictating’! (Later, flying EMS back in the USA, I had some head-to-head run-ins with some very…  faEEEEE... ‘posterior anatomically challenged’ nurses over this precise point)
We would be on the way back, and he would want a ‘detour’. He wouldn’t ask very nicely! I’d do my calculations, carefully, taking 150% of the estimated headwind component on the way home, and decide that the detour was in order. Now he would seem to think that he had ‘got one over’ and that the detour was directly the result of shouting at the pilot! Not the result of careful calculations! A while later, he would want another detour, get a refusal because we didn’t have the fuel, and really start shouting!
         Now I certainly didn’t want this to become a pattern!

          The problem is though, you’ve got to work with the guy!
And live with him, on a small tub, I might add. I discussed this problem with other TunaHeads, (after I’d solved it), and from the diverse reactions there was little doubt that the majority of pilots would see it as their solemn duty to squash such shouting-at-the-pilot by shouting back! Vigorously!
Indeed, my predecessor apparently had done a whole lot of yelling…
This is really not so good. Temperatures are now going well and truly up!

        I thought about it, and the next time it happened, I was ready.   With a bit of ‘theater’.
In a similar circumstance, he wanted a second or a third detour on the way back to the ship. I had shaken my head, and he had started shouting. What I did was to make sure the 500 was neatly trimmed out, added a bit of friction, and then I let go of the controls!
I looked at him, quite mildly, and said:
          "You want to FLY home…"
I made a flying gesture with my hand.
         "….or you want to SWIM home!?"
And I proceeded to make huge, expansive swimming strokes with my arms!
I raised my eyebrows quizzically, not offensively, and he sort of stared at me. He couldn’t think of what to say.
Then I quietly turned for home!
I was to use the swimming movements maybe three times on various trips, without raising my voice. Then I would always simply turn for home, not look at him, and turn a deaf ear!
         Problem solved. Without any ‘heat’.

          There is a sequel to this story, and that is that a while later I figured out from various of the observer’s comments at dinner table, that he regarded ‘running out of fuel’ as no big deal!  My predecessor after all, had performed this little trick no less than three times.
When I answered that a water landing in mid-Ocean is always hazardous, and sometimes impossible (in a rough sea), he made a dismissive gesture! Mentioning several famous cases where pilots had run out of fuel, he spoke words to the effect of: "No problem! (Meo Ountie!) Such-and-such pilot, he no more fuel! Land water. No problem! Other ship find him! Bring fuel! No problem! Meo Ountie!"

         I thought that was an interesting psychological insight. Here was an observer who regarded running out of fuel in a helicopter in the same light as running out of fuel in  car. You pull over to the side, get a jerrycan, and wait until somebody comes along and gives you a ride to the gas station! So finding a foamer was paramount, and the silly pilot worrying about fuel was just trivial by comparison. However, once he figured that the ‘silly pilot’ was determined not to land in the sea, and could not be bullied, he more or less gave up.

         I learned from that experience that the ‘swimming strokes’ scene speaks volumes without words. And therefore causes no offense. So if he was yelling, because he’d seen a distant foamer, I’d not say anything, but just ‘swim a bit with arms flailing’, turn for home, and turn a totally deaf ear! I wouldn’t look at his furious face, take any notice, or speak a word!
             It was kind of funny really, because you would be flying along, and all you could hear beside you was this furious noise, that would slowly start subsiding to muttering, then slowly sputter to a stop!
             If you said anything, all you did was to ‘feed the fire’. Then the volume would increase again!
So the trick was to turn for home, say nothing, and think of the money.
            After a while it became positively funny.
My pulse rate wouldn’t even go up a beat, and yet he’d be so cross! Then the mutterings would change from Pigeon English into Chinese, and you knew he was saying basically words to the effect of  ‘damn these pilots!"
I would further amuse myself by quietly timing the process. At the start, he was capable of a five to six minute tirade. Without any contribution from me, that temperature was hard to maintain. Pretty soon, the noise was down to two minutes! After that, it quietly declined, and often it was no more than thirty seconds! Finally, there would come some vigorous head shaking ("what a complete idiot pilot I’m landed with!") and then he would be looking through his binoculars again!
    (Of course, the opportunity for some impish mischief soon came along, and try as I might, I couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge in some wickedness. I had some really great entertainment at my observer’s expense, and I detail those practical jokes I played elsewhere…)

             I met up one day with one of the previous pilots, who had left under a cloud, and this exact subject cropped up in conversation. It turned out that they had almost physically fought in the cockpit over this precise issue!  All I can say is: "Why fight?"   You are the captain and the driver. The observer can’t fly. So the helicopter goes where YOU want it to go, and WHEN you want it to!
If there is a secret, then I would say it’s this:

              "Don’t discuss it!"

       The psychological stance I think one must adopt is that the command decisions are so utterly yours-to-make that the subject does not even lend itself to discussion. The trick is not to ‘feed the fire’.
Yes, the observer does work for the customer. So he’s important. But not to the point that he can usurp command. It’s not a democracy. This is a point I will not yield on, and I’m not alone. Some (not all) of the hospital based EMS programs in the States, with some (not all) very bossy flight nurse personalities, make it very hard for the pilots. It’s seriously distracting, and hence it can be dangerous, and stressful.
Think of a smiling elephant. A big, fat, heavy, lump of smiling elephant. You’re trying to shut the door, and he’s on the other side. Smiling and leaning. Who’s gonna win?
          Stay pleasant. Nice. Exercise your captaincy.
                      Smile, but lean!

          I talked this business over with another TunaHead, and he reckoned that his observer was cut from the same gnarly old tree. Obsessed with finding fish, and not perturbed about a water landing due to lack of fuel!
As he says: "I wish they could see how close the tail rotor gets to the water even on a calm day!"

            On many days, a water landing is hazardous, and if you’re stuck with little or no fuel, what can you do if a front comes through, or even a micro burst? Now you are in danger of tipping over, especially in a Hughes 500. And did somebody mention insurance? Whatever about a water landing due to mechanical problems… what is an underwriter going to say about a water landing due the the pilot running out of gas?
           Somebody could be in for a hefty premium increase!
However, as of 2010, the accident rate over the last few years has been sufficiently appalling, that it is likely that some operators are unable to even get coverage.  The trend is not positive, towards fewer accidents, put it that way.

            Keeping your observer happy involves making him feel you’re a really experienced, safe pilot, and it also involves a degree of subtle cunning. How to keep the emotional cockpit temperature down.
             If a bit of ‘theater’ or dry humor helps… great!

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 5, 2010, 5:07 pm

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