Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (41) “Dropping a Missile “

Posted on July 26, 2014

“I always do a good pre-flight. Always. Yep. I’m good…”

A Blip on the Radar

Part 41: Dropping a Missile

I soloed some forty four years ago. If there is one thing I (might) have learned by now, it’s that we always seem to do stupid sheeee stuff. No matter how hard we try, no matter how long you make the checklist, (which is often COUNTER-productive), no matter how many bells, whistles, caution lights, sirens, and bull whips you apply… somewhere, some pilot, is going to find a real neat and unique way of circumventing your handiwork, and f@#king it up.
Occasionally, YOU do it yourself. You kind of pull a stunt, and you look back at what you did, and you kind of scratch your head.
On both sides. Like…
How in hell? Did I manage THAT neat trick…?

* * * * *

I was changing out a turbine on a Hughes 500, mid Ocean.
On my little ownsome.
Not a small job. For me, being an inexperienced A&P mechanic, a BIG job. But I was getting there. Slow-ly but stead-ily. The old one came OUT. The new one was going IN… and I was busy hooking up all the peripheral crap that goes with it.
Fuel Control. Governor. Starter-Generator. It took me a while.
I must have walked around and around the helicopter a couple of hundred times. Then I got to ground run it. It fired up immediately. All the gauges were in the green. After a few minutes, I shut down. Walked back, leak check. Looking over everything. Very carefully. Good. It was time for lunch. After tsuh-wann, I would be going for a test flight.
Here’s two photos of my bird, one above and one here, and you can see the radio buoy in its cradle. Notice the “ring ” just ahead of Sunshine’s knee, through which the whip antenna goes.

My good buddy, Sunshine. Always a smile…

In full view, as they say. In the other photos you can also see the ropes used to attach it at the front. Those are the ropes that the observer would pull, to drop the radio buoy, bottom first, across a promising log. The long aerial itself would then slide neatly out of the rear retaining loop. All under control. Voila. Job done.
After lunch, I climbed up to the helideck for a thorough preflight. Thorough. You know, looking for trouble. It all looked great. I fired up, ran her up, and pulled pitch. Beautiful. Nice take-off, all well. I flew around the place for a while, all pleased with myself. To be a pilot-mechanic gives you an even closer bond with your machine I think. I noticed a net boat being launched, and vaguely wondered why they were doing that.

I landed, big grin, thumbs up from the Fishing Master and the crew. Damn, I did good. Perfect job. What a feller.
It was the radio Operator who took me aside. And explained to me that I had dropped a bomb. A missile. What? What are you on about?
I had dropped the radio buoy… really dropped it… Big Splash… After take-off.
Slowly, my satisfaction, indeed exhilaration, faded.
And was replaced. With a quiet horror.

I climbed back up to the helideck, alone. And pondered the event.
The radio buoy, in flight, was always mounted with the heavy base (bottom) suspended beneath the front starboard undercarriage leg. Hanging as it were in mid air. The long (12 to 14 feet) whip of the aerial ran backwards, through a small locating ring. (This was different from my old Bell 47, where there the buoy was laid out along the top of the float)
Now this is where it gets tricky for me to describe to you the next step in this potentially lethal fiasco.
The observers were in the habit of always untying the front (heavy end), and resting the heavy bottom end of the radio buoy on the steel deck. This was to relieve the bending pressure on the whip aerial, from being suspended all night long from only two supporting points. I knew that. It was plain to see. The ropes would just be slackened off, immediately after landing, and the radio buoy would rest, in full view, top of the whip still through the narrow ring at the rear of the helicopter, and heavy front base on the deck, ropes loose. Get the picture? Standard procedure. In plain sight. Easy to see.
Now during the turbine change out, I had spent HOURS walking around the helicopter. Passing by the plain-as-daylight-to-see radio buoy in its resting position. Half in its flying position, half not.
You get the picture maybe? Test flight coming up. All excited. Careful pre-flight. Blade tie-downs removed. Aircraft tie-downs removed, and strapped horizontally to the deck, where I can see them. And avoid the terrible dangers described elsewhere of the short-lived attempted take-off with the right rear tie-down still attached.

Good boy, Moggy. Take a bow. Damn, you are good.

Hum-hum. Fire it up. Gauges all green. Sounds good. Pull in power slowly and steadily. She picks up on her gear, the way the Hughes 500 does. All frisky and ready to fly. Another collective nudge…
Way-hay! Here we go…!
Over the edge, and off into the sky. Wholly unaware of the missile departing the helicopter, and bombing from some height neatly into the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Wheeeee…. Splash!

Hence the net boat sent to retrieve it.
Now work out the cold, hard geometry of this…

tall enough to go through the rotor disc??

1) There is a six inch lip on the edge of the helideck. How did the heavy base, being pushed forward across the deck like a wheel barrow, clear that lip? I have no idea. What would have happened if it had not done so?

2) What angle did the whole whip antenna go to, relative to the horizontal? How close did the upward pivoting tip come to the main rotor disc? Before gravity caused it to start slipping down and out of the ring? Hell, I have no idea.

3) In how many different ways could this have been simply catastrophic? The radio buoy catching off something, somewhere, somehow, and causing me to imitate a short-lived take-off with the right rear tiedown still attached? Pirouetting around maybe, and going through the tail rotor? I have no idea.

The more I pondered the different ugly possibilities, the more I saw how I had been fastidious on my pre-flight inspections, always, and had fallen into a tight and disciplined (inflexible) routine. Good and bad.
Bad, because normally I was responsible for everything, EXCEPT securing the radio buoy before flight. The observers always did that. Ah, wrong, I was actually RESPONSIBLE, but I abdicated the physical action to another.
What had happened to my oft repeated self admonishment:
“It’s either ALL ON, or ALL OFF “.
I had mixed up the two. Routinely.

In this way it was possible to fall victim to a tiny change in routine. This time, I was going alone, without my usual observer, and I was pre-occupied with the new turbine installation I had just performed.
I therefore failed to see the obvious, that I had walked and stepped around a million times.
Now stop there. All of a sudden, think of all the judgmental helicopter forum types, who make snooty and condescending comments about “dumb-asses” who do stupid shit? Firing up with blades tied down, straps on, cowlings unlatched, engine plugs still inserted? That awful sucking sound? Rolling over, crashing, spoiling careers and hurting egos? That awful (Oh, F#@K!) moment…? There’s always some self appointed blithering Sky God on hand to pooh-pooh the fallibility of humanity. Because after all, HE is so F#@K’n perfect.

The REAL old pro’s do NOT make those nasty comments. Unless they are total retards. Or in so-called Management. They are -mostly- a whole lot more sympathetic. Because they know damn well that you can rack up twenty years of accident free flying, and then BLOT IT in a terrible three seconds of “Oops”…

So, I had F%#ked up again. Older, uglier, perhaps a tad wiser. Maybe.
I had a quiet beer by myself.

Resolving, like I often resolved, to be more humble in the future.

Francis Meyrick

Notice the Radio Buoy in this picture…

(lying on the deck, ropes slack, not secured for flight)

(whip antenna still going through the ring, stretched out rearwards along the wall of the float) (yep, it’s a long sucker)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on July 27, 2014, 10:49 am

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